An Unholy Alliance
Overall – a really interesting book and something a bit different from my usual crime fiction reads. The sideshow with Emma’s involvement in her friend’s troubles helped fleshed the story out and give it more meat on the bones and added to my overall enjoyment. I’m looking forward to Nedry’s second book – The Difficult Sister (I could say that’s something I know all about, but that would be mean, so I won’t……oops, already have)
The first of what is now a trilogy that follows a recovering alcoholic writer, Emma Golden, who is working on a book about the wine industry in Oregon (where the author was also an early vintner). Nedry's main character is an accidental detective chasing down the murderer of a showy new winery owner, who isn't a nice person. Emma is funny, pushy and not afraid to step on toes. Light and entertaining.
“It’ll be easy,” Melody said, but I knew it would not, because nothing with Melody is ever easy. The woman leads a very complicated life.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I’m not really comfortable taking this on while I’m researching a book.”
“But you’ll be living in your research lab. You’ll be right here for six weeks.” Melody sounded a bit like a teenager trying to convince a parent she really needed to go away for a week with that guy covered in tattoos and pierced in places one could only imagine. “Think of the time you’ll save—at least three hours a day just by not having to drive back and forth from Portland. I doubt you’ll put in three hours a day for me the whole time you’re here.”
“How many hours a day do you work?” I asked her. “A whole lot more than three. What about your sister? Why can’t she do it?”
“The Bolter? No, that wouldn’t do.” Just like “The Bolter” in the Nancy Mitford novels, Melody’s sister Aurora was not very stable. She had run off with so many men throughout her life that Melody claimed to have lost count. It wouldn’t do at all.
“Of course I work more than three hours a day,” she admitted, “but I’m the owner. I’ve also got employees to do all the big stuff. You just need to be charming, take the money, and make sure my staff gets the work done. Please, please, oh please! You’re my last and only hope.”
I didn’t reply, just sat there with the telephone receiver at my ear and waited. I had learned in sales many years ago that the one who talks first loses. And as she usually does, Melody talked first. But when she did, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“I’m a money whore,” I later told my friend Cat. “But what can I say? At this point in life, one must focus on survival.” A week later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late September, I closed up my small house in southwest Portland, Oregon, and began the drive south on I-5 toward Newberg and the wine country. Within a very short time I’d be involved in survival of a more serious nature, but on that bright day, my mind was clear of everything save my own immediate concerns.
My name is Emma Golden. It’s my maiden name. I was married once, and then I was called Emma McCourt. Were you someone who noticed such things, you may have seen my byline in the food and wine magazines back then. I wrote for all of them at one time or another—mostly about Northwest wine and food. It was my passion and I gave my life to it.
Then it was over. The life-building and learning, growing, living and writing the story of Northwest wines and the people who made them was over. When that era ended for me, I found myself overboard and floating alone in a great sea, while the ship on which I’d traveled for so many years, along with its passengers, sailed into the distance without me.
On that lovely autumn day, I followed I-5 south from Portland past the Tigard exit to one further south that connected me via less-traveled back roads to Highway 99W, and from there southwest into Yamhill County where Melody and I had met twenty years ago. When we McCourts moved to Newberg from Portland all those years ago, we had moved to the country. Then, it was but a thirty-minute drive.
Now, the farmland and homes that once dotted Highway 99W have morphed into strip malls—one after another after another. From Tigard almost to Newberg, the valley floor and hillsides are covered with apartments, condos, and ugly, pop-up houses, many of them quite large, and most poorly designed. To this day, the building continues unabated—a church here, a gas station there, a school—paving over farmland far beyond what once was called the Urban Growth Boundary. In some parts of this region, wineries have been surrounded by subdivisions. There are traffic lights, and traffic—lots of traffic—all the way to Newberg, which itself is little more than another series of strip malls.
As I drove down the hill toward Newberg, the valley opened before me with its floor of green and golden squares. On the hillsides, Douglas fir forests were dotted with enormous, multi-tiered houses. Where forests once stood were many young vineyards, still green in the waning September days. The Willamette River glinted through trees to the south of town, and the paper mill belched steam. Forty miles to the west, the Coast Range and its foothills loomed in layers of deep greens, blues, and lavenders.
Even before I got to Newberg a heavy feeling hit me—heavy and sad both in heart and gut. I had avoided the place for years, even taking a different route to the coast, seeing my valley friends only if they came to Portland. All of the reasons I had left were still there. Thinking about them was not often comfortable, but it was time to get past all that.
My immediate plan was to suck up and get on with it. I was under contract to write a book about the Oregon wine industry from its beginnings through the present time. The advance was already spent to clear up what remained of my debts, and I had not yet interviewed a single person. My copy deadline was mid-February.
I passed into the valley. I passed where our children attended middle school. I drove through downtown Newberg where 99W divides into three lanes of traffic running west and three lanes running east right through the city center. On weekdays, commuters and logging trucks pour through the center of town, some going east, some going west. Save a smattering of vintage brick buildings, downtown Newberg was, and is, almost completely without charm.
The highway narrows west of Newberg, and by the time I reached the small burg of Dundee, it was down to one lane in either direction. Vehicles full of people returning from a weekend at the coast were backed up nearly a mile on the highway west of Dundee. Driving against the returning stream of cars and minivans, I watched the oncoming traffic—couples and families, mostly. Only a few people traveled alone. I imagined the families in these vehicles, their tummies filled with good food and their moods buoyed by the weekend’s bright sunshine. They were relaxed, conversing, planning another trip, perhaps, before the rains set in.
This was not entirely true, my story about all those “happy” families. My brain, as it often does, was sending me erroneous information. I reminded myself that these were not television families, because real families are not like the ones we see on television. Some were happy much of the time, but just as many of them were miserable beyond endurance, dysfunctional, cruel, or sad. They all were out just trying to make it better by taking a little air.
Inside my car, the air reeked of regret and remorse that even the bright September day couldn’t dispel. I could not turn around because I had signed on for six weeks to help one of my dearest friends. I would get through it and possibly even thrive. It could and would be a useful, productive, and certainly lucrative time. I would be of service, and I would complete research for the book.
The Wyatts—Melody and her husband, Dan—own the Westerly Inn, a stunningly beautiful bed and breakfast inn located four miles outside Dundee, in the epicenter of Oregon’s now-renowned wine country. Once a thriving farm with fruit and nut orchards, tucked into a little southwest-facing swale in the Dundee Hills, it is now a forty-acre parcel serving wine country visitors. Much of the land was sold decades ago, and the orchards are no longer with us. In fact, they departed in the Columbus Day storm of 1962, years before Dan and Melody purchased the Westerly. They bought the property the same year we moved to the area. Dan kept his day job in Portland, and Melody used the returns from some of his more successful investments to convert the 1910 vintage farmhouse and its outbuildings into the Westerly Inn, one of the better tourist accommodations in the valley.
A couple miles west of Dundee I turned off the highway and onto a narrow two-lane asphalt road that gently curved uphill and northward into the Dundee Hills. A new vineyard—little sticks closely spaced, each surrounded by a white plastic tube—had been planted on the left side of the road. An old hazelnut orchard sporting a “For Sale” sign stood majestically to the right, forming a canopy over the bare ground underneath. Stacks of wooden totes at the edge of the orchard announced that harvest was about to begin.
I knew that the vineyards covering the hills in front of me were almost ready as well. As I drove past a mature vineyard, I recognized the black pinot noir clusters hanging from the vines. A man and his border collie walked in the red dirt along one of the rows, the man tasting grapes for ripeness and flavor. His dog bounded ahead and back, ahead and back. The man spit out skins and grape seeds. Stacks of yellow plastic totes stood at the ends of the long rows of grapevines. To me, it was a familiar scene, rich and deep and real.
Despite the disconnection resulting from past years and present circumstances, I began to feel a part of it all over again, and it felt warm and right. But while my gut continued to tell me I still belonged, the facts told a different story altogether. I reminded myself that I must remember to stick with the facts and present reality. My role would be one of a visiting journalist.
Turning into the drive at the Westerly Inn, I noticed many changes. For starters, the once-gravel driveway had been paved and was lined with sumptuous plantings of summer and fall perennials—clumps of lavender, Shasta daisies, Echinacea, and gladiolus spiked with bunches of ornamental grasses. Tall stands of dahlias bounced in a riot of joyful color. They were backed by a hedge of rhododendron bushes. A half-acre of lush lawn set off the huge Prairie four-square house with its covered porch that spanned the front of the dwelling. Ancient oak trees flanked the back of the house, forming a dramatic backdrop. Guests lounged on a porch swing, while in the flowerbed in front of it, Melody leaned on a garden rake and chatted with them, her back to the driveway. At her feet rested her standard Schnauzer, Winston, who began barking frantically when he heard my car approaching. The scene brought a smile to my face.
“Oh, my God! You’re finally here!” Melody shouted over the barking. She dropped the rake and ran toward the car. I pulled my aging Toyota into the visitors’ parking area beside the house and switched off the engine. Then Melody was upon me, pulling open the door and grabbing my arms as I tried to get out of the car. “I was afraid you’d change your mind. I would have died!” She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me soundly on both cheeks. I kissed her back, one old sage hen greeting another.
Winston jumped and barked as we hugged each other. “When I say I’m going to do something, I generally do it,” I remarked. “The place looks wonderful! And so do you.”
“Oh, I’m so excited you’re here. We’ll get you all unpacked and I’ll show you the new stuff,” Melody bubbled. “Come and meet the Webbers. You’ll be taking care of them while we’re gone.” Then under her breath, she muttered, “They are a complete pain in the ass!” I laughed out loud. Some things don’t change; Melody, for one. She is almost always hilarious. Plus, she loves her work, and she loves to complain about it.
The Webbers were lodged in the Carriage House, she told me as she introduced us. I met the gay couple staying in the Chicken House. Melody introduced them as “The Boys”. And yes, nearly a hundred years ago their lodging really had been a chicken house conveniently located behind the old farmhouse. Melody had revamped it into a sumptuous little one-bedroom cottage.
We walked up the porch and through the front door, into the cool inside of the house, across thick Oriental rugs, past the open staircase, and down a hall toward the kitchen. “This all looks the same,” I said. “Where’s that new stuff?”
“Just you wait,” she told me.
Four guest rooms were located upstairs, each with its own bath. There was a sitting room where lodgers could gather to watch television, play cards, or borrow a book from the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It was well-equipped with a coffee maker, microwave, and a small refrigerator stocked with snacks.
Downstairs were the living room, dining room, parlor, and master suite. A powder room was tucked under the open staircase and, a solarium on the west side of the house offered a view of flower gardens, plus glimpses of the valley below and the distant Coast Range. The huge dining room was outfitted with an antique table that could sit up to twenty people, and a European sideboard adorned with sterling silver serving pieces. The Arts and Crafts built-ins of dark stained wood with glass fronts showed off the formal china and additional silver service ware.
Melody chattered nonstop as she led me into the kitchen. The original had been so inadequate for modern times that the Wyatts immediately had built a kitchen addition and deck after they purchased the Westerly property. Since I’d moved to Portland, it had been updated and expanded again and was approximately the size of my entire living quarters. For all the quaintness of the painted wood, glass-fronted cabinets, and an old wood butcher block, this room was anything but quaint when it came to equipment.
“This is some of the new stuff,” Melody gushed. “What do you think?” It was impressive—a six-burner commercial range with two ovens, next to it a separate built-in convection oven. There were large stainless steel sinks, plus a separate wet bar and salad prep area. I walked to the baking station and laid my hand on a polished concrete slab. “When did you do this?”
“It took most of last winter,” she said. “We had to do it when the B&B wasn’t open, so Dan and I moved a few things into the dining room, and demolition started after Christmas. We’d been planning it for some time, but you wouldn’t know that since you weren’t talking to us.”
“It’s not that I wasn’t talking to you,” I said. “I just couldn’t make myself drive out here.”
“I will try to understand that,” she said, indicating that would take great effort, then resumed her role as tour guide.
I examined pots hung from ceiling hooks and admired the oversized cooking vessels. Ceramic serving platters and bowls were stacked neatly on baker’s racks against one wall. The place was outfitted better than many restaurants. At the far end of the large kitchen were doors that led to a laundry room and a mud room, and a pantry that housed a glass-door refrigerator. Sliding doors opened onto a deck with an umbrella table and huge planters. From there, a graveled path led to the Chicken House.
“You could feed an army here, Melody.”
“We’re talking about doing weddings as early as next season, but I don’t know. It would be like the Webbers to the tenth power, and I may be too old. Or not hungry enough.” She laughed. “It’s part of the new wave, though. Nobody could make any money out here twenty years ago, and now everyone wants to drink our wines and half the West Coast wants to get married in our backyards.”
I was happy to find the old butler’s pantry still intact after the remodel, its cabinets filled with more dinnerware, wine glasses, and drawers of silver and linens. The alcove to its side still accommodated a chalkboard listing the telephone numbers of local food and wine vendors, a phone, and answering machine, and Melody’s large and messy oak desk.
It was a magnificent old house, and surprisingly comfortable. Melody had managed to seamlessly blend the best of its vintage charm with every convenience imaginable. Beneath it all was a large basement with a wine cellar, more storage, and access to the outside.
“I had forgotten,” I began, as I scanned the kitchen again.
“Forgotten what?” Melody asked.
“I had forgotten the scale of things here, how massive it all is.”
Melody looked perplexed. “Well, I never think of it that way,” she said after a minute. “I guess I’m just used to it. With so many people around, every space is used eight months of the year. And then we go away for a while. And when we come back it is holiday time and we’re full up with people again.”
She grinned and then pointed to a door at the end of the kitchen nearest the old part of the house. “Now for your surprise,” she said and opened the door.
From the kitchen, the wooden door looked as if it led to another, old-fashioned closet. Behind the door, however, was a stairway that ascended to a beautiful bedroom suite.
“Ta-Da! What do you think?”
“Incredible!” I gasped taking in the bright upstairs suite, complete with a queen- size bedroom set, a sitting area and desk, and a large cherry armoire. The bathroom held an oval soaking tub, walk-in shower, and linen closet. It was all striking colors, polished wood, marble tiles, and chrome fixtures. The towels were thick and fluffy. I felt I’d walked into a luxury spa.
“This is yours when you deign to stay with us,” said Melody. “I designed it for you—for exactly this purpose. You have everything you need to write or relax, and you’re near the kitchen—the most important room in the house!”
“I never could have imagined this. It is glorious!” I assured her, suddenly excited about my temporary job.
The three of us dined quietly that evening on the deck and lingered at the table long after dark. Melody chattered a bit about my chores, which were regular but not difficult. Basically, I was the front person for the operation, greeting and checking in guests, joining them at breakfast, helping with dinner reservations, or setting up visits at some of the wineries that were open by appointment only. Angel Lopez, her full-time kitchen help, knew everything there was to know about getting out breakfasts each morning. She also was in charge of making certain the non-English speaking staff performed their duties. Her proper name was Angelina, but Melody called her Angel, “because she is an angel.”
My other primary hostess role was to set out wine and light snacks at five each afternoon. It allowed guests to mingle and relax before going to dinner. This time of year, tourists usually stayed out until the tasting rooms closed, and dinner reservations tended to be at seven or later. “They’re usually ready to gobble up everything in sight,” Melody warned me.
Dan, who is less a social being than his wife, was more worried about his vegetable garden. “I have the crew weeding and watering,” he told me. “But things need to be picked every day,” I promised to keep after the veggies, and wondered what Angel could do to work them into the breakfast menu for the Westerly guests. Vegetable frittatas perhaps.
That night I climbed the stairway with a cup of chamomile tea and my book and slid between the cool sheets. When I turned out the light, I sat in bed for a few moments and listened to the night rustlings, the absolute absence of motor vehicle sounds. Even when I’d lived in the valley, our house was in town and the ambient sounds were different. “It’s like a dream,” I told myself as I crawled under the down comforter and drifted into sleep.