Book 3 in the Donna Leigh Mysteries series:
I Don’t Know Why They Killed Him; He Wasn’t Really That Annoying

The alarm went off early this morning. 6:15 could be painful, and today it was. Then I remembered my 9:30 meeting with Ed and it made me smile. For about a year now, Ed has been a client of Marcel, the Omaha ad agency that I, Donna Leigh, have owned with my business partner, Liv, for over a decade.

Ed Von Hapsburg was a friend turned client. His back-ground was in the food and beverage industry. Ed was unique in that he had equal experience in both. He started out as a restaurant and catering chef with a specialty in desserts that could make a grown woman cry. After years on his feet, those sturdy but flawed tootsies gave him an ultimatum and he was forced to choose a profession with more butt time than foot time. So he went to work for a wine distributor.

Ed made it a point to learn everything there was to know about growing grapes, blending wine and distributing a top-quality end product. When the inevitable moment came that he outgrew his employer, Ed raised enough capital to become a winemaker himself. These days he spent time between his Sonoma winery on the west coast and his Omaha based distribution facility. It worked out well since Ed and his wife, Eva, had been Omaha residents for their entire 30-year marriage and his daughter, Abby, lived on the coast with her husband and new baby. Abby ran the winery while Ed ran distribution. Eva had recently left her lucrative corporate IT position to manage the website and Social Media for the family business.

In the little over a year that Ed and his family had taken control of a small vineyard, whose family-owned management team had dwindled to an old and infirm single member, so much had happened. With his keen instincts regarding all things wine related, Ed and his investors (of which my husband Jon and I were a very modest part) and the marketing expertise of Marcel, Ed’s brand, Bohóc, named for the small Hungarian village where his mother was born, had become more renowned than we could have expected. Discerning wine aficionados were lining up to buy cases.

After a quick breakfast and a luke-warm shower – I love a steamy shower but the massive menopausal post-shower hot flash that always follows forces a cooler head and temperature to prevail – I left for the office and my meeting with Ed. Besides, arriving with the tell-tale menopausal sweat mustache would give Ed way too much ammo to turn our meeting into a three-ring circus with me as the featured clown. He never missed a chance to take a shot.

Since moving to the MidWest, Ed was one of the few true smart-asses I got to hang out with regularly. MidWesterners are so perky and friendly; nothing like the dark, brooding and moody narcissists so typical of the east coast. Finding that charming and upbeat individual in the northeast was like finding a needle in a haystack. Problem was, you got used to the snarky smart-asses that surrounded you, and then when you moved out to big sky country, it was an adjustment. Hanging out with Ed was like taking a trip back home to the fast paced world where there was always someone jumping on every little thing that came out of your mouth.

The meeting was set up in our medium-sized conference room, Captain Jack. There was coffee and tea, water and soda, fruit and pastries. Today, Ed wanted to talk about a new sparkling wine he’d had in the planning for a while now. We would have to conduct research to confirm the target audience interest and he’d need a logo and label design as well as all of the accompanying promotional materials. It was another big assignment. At this rate, Bohóc was shaping up to be one of our larger clients.

Ed’s appearance invigorated the entire staff. He walked in to a cacophony of sounds from catcalls to whistles. Not only was he a growing client on the Marcel roster, he was also a huge favorite of the crew. Ed was fun in a way only a true smart-ass can be. He made everyone laugh, but he also knew when to allow himself the vulnerability of admitting when he wasn’t always an expert on everything. In other words, he left the marketing to the marketers and he stuck to the wine business, which is what he knew.

Today Ed had dressed his 6 foot 2 frame in his typical light colored oxford shirt, tan Dockers and his sockless feet were clad in light brown moccasins. His head had sported bowl-cut brown hair and a 70’s porn star mustache for as long as I’d known him. Startlingly blue eyes were framed by Ed’s modest wire rimmed glasses. I sat across from him in my typical all-black all the time business wardrobe (in truth
it was my round the clock wardrobe, business, leisure and sleep all took place in all black – inside and out).

After our typical verbal banter – I think he said something about my only needing a long black wig to pass for Elvira – I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening – until we got down to business. Our new Chief Marketing Officer, Maxie, wanted a debriefing from Ed on his desired target audience. Maxie Morgan was a hard charging, razor sharp, take no prisoners kind of girl and she wanted proof that Ed and his wine
empire were as impressive as we’d described. Under her expert direction, we’d be conducting both qualitative and quantitative research, so our data analytics guy, Craig, was gathering the information he needed to pin down the list for the online survey.

Once we made the shift it was all business. The staffers that had not previously met with Ed, including Maxie, soon became aware that he was a very savvy businessman – and not just a jovial pal of mine. Seeing the shift in the look on their faces was so interesting; I couldn’t help but feel pride in my friend. He knew his stuff and that was a fact.

By the time we’d finished our meeting it was getting close to lunchtime. Ed decided to call his wife, Eva, to see if the three of us could grab a quick lunch in the old market. I knew that Jon, my husband, was busy trying to close a deal so I didn’t bother to check to see if he could join us.

Eva thought she could break free for a quick bite, so we agreed to meet her at the Jackson St. Tavern which was with-in walking distance from the Marcel offices. Jackson St. had good food and a comfortable ambiance. This was a bit out of character for Ed. Normally he would insist we find a new and adventurous dining experience, some new and unique type of meal venue – something being touted by the reliable foodies. But time was against us this time. Within minutes of being seated, the owner came out and made a big fuss over Ed. I sat back and watched him handle his newfound celebrity with grace. By the time they’d covered all the news in the food and wine arena, Eva had arrived. I greeted her with a continental double cheek buss and we seated ourselves to take a serious look at the menu.

Mid-way through the meal, Ed’s phone rang. With an exasperated eye-roll he stood, simultaneously gesturing his intention of taking this call elsewhere so Eva and I could continue enjoying our meal while he dealt with his challenge. Once Ed was safely out of view, Eva’s whole demeanor shifted dramatically; she instantly went from serene to visibly agitated.

“Donna, I’m so glad we have time to talk alone,” she whispered, “I’ve been hoping we’d get a moment.”

“What’s troubling you, Eva?” I asked, not at all sure I’d want to hear the answer.

“I’m so worried about Ed. He hasn’t been himself lately; we had our two best months since we started the business, and when we realized it – he just shrugged.”

“It’s true, that doesn’t sound like Ed,” I offered, “but maybe he’s afraid if he gets too excited he’ll jinx everything.”

“There’s more,” Eva was quick to chime in. “The other day I walked into his office to ask him a question, and I caught him looking very pensive. He tried to hide the email he’d been reading, but I caught enough of a glimpse to realize that someone had threatened him. He was quick to cover it up; I’m sure he didn’t want to worry me needlessly, but I just know the threat is connected to his strange behavior – I knew it instantly.”

“Did you question him about the email?”

“No, his effort to keep me in the dark was so obvious I was afraid to call him on it at the risk of stressing him out even further. You know after all these years of marriage, you can tell when to dive in and when to back off the diving board.”

I nodded. When you’ve been married for over thirty years, there is a telepathic connection that makes verbal communication almost unnecessary. Sometimes we rely on the telepathy to such an extent that we don’t communicate verbally even when it’s essential. How many times have we had that conversation “you remember when I told you…” “No, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I would venture to say that most of the disagreements these days were centered on the fact that one of us swore to have in-formed the other of something while the other swore to be totally ignorant. Who was usually right? Who knows?

“How can I help?” I asked.

“I honestly don’t know, Donna, what do you think?” she asked with a slight note of pleading in her voice.

Before I had a chance to respond, Ed was back from his call.

“Alright, what are you two conspiring about?” Ed asked. And did I detect a hint of genuine suspicion in his question? Apparently Ed’s telepathy was also in high gear. I put money on the fact that Ed knew Eva was worried about him and he was working hard to put her mind at ease. Oh Ed, you’re so naïve!

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I chimed in. I figured that the more I could help put both of them at ease, the more valuable my contribution would be. Okay, so I’m no less naïve than Ed!

Eva rapidly changed the subject and we finished our meal rather quickly. On our way out of the restaurant, Eva gave me a “call me if you think of something” look that couldn’t have been clearer if she’d shouted it directly into my ear.

Who knows, maybe telepathy was more a product of age than sharing a long-term relationship – maybe both.

Back in the office, I gave some thought to Ed and his circumstances. He was a guy who wasn’t afraid to call it like it was; his up-front style had certainly pissed some people off in his day – but enough to want to harm him? That seemed extreme for the rather mild irritation he tended to cause people. Unless, of course, some serious business issues had arisen unbeknownst to me. It might make sense to make a list of the various areas related to Ed’s business where something potentially serious might have been likely to surface.

The first possibility that came to mind was his purchase of the vineyard. Might there have been another party who had coveted the vineyard only to lose it to Ed and his family? That seemed like a serious enough area. Or perhaps his wine distributorship had caused a competitive distributor to lose a sizeable chunk of business; that would be another issue not to be taken lightly. I immediately dismissed the possibility of a friend or relative feeling as though Ed had bested them and left them bitter and envious of his success.

With my list finished I made a few phone calls and answered a few emails. I wanted to call Eva before she left for home so that she’d be free to talk about her concerns, so I put in a call before my 3 o’clock meeting. Unfortunately, Eva was not at her desk, so I left a quick message and gathered my files before heading over to the conference room.

By the time the meeting ended, Eva had called back and left a voicemail for me.

“Sorry to get you all anxious about Ed,” she started, “I’m letting this get to me too much. I want to just try to forget the whole thing for now. I know Ed will tell me if there’s something to worry about. Until then I’m going to focus on my main priorities, and let him handle his own business. Thanks for listening, though. It’s comforting to know you’re there, in case.”

Poor Eva, she was trying so hard to ignore her instincts because she wanted to believe Ed was in no danger. How many times had I done that myself? Over the years, I’ve come to learn that ignoring my instincts always causes bigger problems later on – but would I be doing the same thing in Eva’s place? Most likely. It’s so much easier to be sure of what do to when it’s not you and your family involved. I wouldn’t criticize Eva for trying to convince herself there wasn’t a problem, but I wasn’t about to ignore her angst. Eva generally had flawless instincts so I suspected things would get worse before getting better. I wasn’t sure what good I could do without directly involving Eva, but I would certainly give it a try for both their sakes.