Dead in the Dining Room – Leighann Dobbs

Araminta Moorecliff couldn’t have imagined that someone at the family table would be having their last meal when she came out of her room dressed in her finest bright-orange-and-red flowered polyester pantsuit for dinner. “Auntie! It’s time for dinner. Do you require assistance?” Araminta pshawed at the slight hint of good-natured sarcasm in her nephew’s tone. Archibald Moorecliff, or Archie, as the family affectionately called him, knew better than anyone what a stickler she was for punctuality. The fact that she’d recently celebrated her eighty-fourth birthday with family and friends right here in this very house did not mean she now needed help. She was as healthy as an ox, although perhaps not quite as strong, but she was still perfectly capable of descending a few flights of stairs and then some. Doing just that, with Arun and Sasha, her two Siamese cats, marching haughtily along beside her, she met her nephew in the grand two-story foyer at the foot of the stairs. He looked especially debonair tonight in his crisp charcoal-gray suit. Though Archie had attained a shock of silvery hair at each of his temples sometime during the past decade, to Araminta, he looked very much like his late father… which meant he was still quite striking. Probably the reason his much younger second wife, Daisy, had become so enamored of him, Araminta thought. Then again, it could also have been the fact that he had oodles of money. Lifting her cheek for a kiss, Araminta fondly scolded her nephew. “As if a Moorecliff would dare be tardy for any affair. We’ve a good five minutes before the dinner bell, and you know it.” Araminta leaned out of his slight embrace and frowned.

Something was amiss in the foyer. Now, what was it? Araminta was a keen observer and prided herself on that. She knew precisely when things were “off,” and something was definitely off here. It might have been the way the cats were prancing in front of the door to the dining room, their tails straight up in the air. The other times they’d done that had foretold a disturbing event. But no, that couldn’t be it… surely nothing upsetting could happen right in the Moorecliff dining room. It was more like something was missing. Daisy! “Oh, good grief, Archibald. Where in the world is Daisy? She’ll be late for dinner.” “Just here, dear,” Daisy Moorecliff called a bit breathlessly as she appeared at the top of the stairs.

Both Araminta and her nephew turned to watch as she made her way down to join them. Tonight, Daisy had dressed in a lovely white silk wrap dress—a perfect complement to her ebony hair—which reminded Araminta of those flapper dresses girls wore back in the twenties. Daisy had even brought a matching silk purse down with her. It was adorned with tiny black beads and soft down feathers dyed black near the clasp, which was clearly made of silver. Though why Daisy frequently brought a purse when they were staying in the house for dinner was beyond Araminta. “A new outfit and accessories, I presume?” Araminta asked, though she already knew the purchase was recent. Archibald had bought it as a gift to his beloved last week when he’d returned from a trip to the West Coast, but tonight was the first time Daisy had worn it. “You look lovely, dear.” “Thank you.” Daisy’s gaze flicked over Araminta’s outfit, and she frowned.

“So do you.” The compliment seemed a bit insincere, but Araminta appreciated that Daisy had voiced it anyway. It wasn’t the first time someone had scowled at one of her outfits. She’d been told her taste in clothing was a bit loud, but she didn’t care. One of the advantages of living to her age was that you could wear and do pretty much whatever you wanted. Araminta turned to her nephew. “You are spoiling your wife again, Archibald. Is that any way for a man such as you to dispense with the Moorecliff fortune?” At first, Araminta had been suspicious about the huge difference in their ages, assuming that Daisy was only after one thing. But that had been years ago, and the two seemed quite suited for each other, and Daisy did seem fond of Archie. She was grateful and happy they were together because Daisy gave her nephew reasons to smile again despite being fifteen years his junior.

Araminta would not begrudge herself or them such joy for any reason. Archibald laughed and pulled his wife close for a kiss of greeting. “It’s the only way, Auntie. The best I know. How else will I ever burn through all the Moorecliff money before I die?” Araminta smiled. He was teasing, of course. She had several wonderful nieces and nephews. Of them, Archie would be the last person one would accuse of squandering the family money. “I’ve a few ideas we could discuss, brother,” Bernard Moorecliff, another of Araminta’s nephews, said from behind them. “But perhaps we should leave that conversation until after dinner.

” Bernard was the son of Araminta’s sister and ran Moorecliff Motors operations on the West Coast. He’d come all the way out to the headquarters here in the east to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the company that Araminta’s grandfather had started. “Oh, there’s Reginald with but a minute to spare,” Archie said, gesturing to his son, who quietly entered the foyer through a side door. Archie held out his arm to his wife. “Shall we dine, my darling?” Daisy took his arm and walked with him toward the formal dining room, where the family always took their meals together whenever they all were in residence. The Moorecliff dining room was a rather lavish affair, done up in reds, golds, and greens. A long table made of priceless marble and trimmed in gold occupied the center of the room. It was capable of comfortably seating twenty. Tonight, however, the number of diners was limited to five, with Araminta to be seated at the head, where she would quietly listen to the conversation of her family. The floor, made from thick, wide, hand-hewn planks of the finest wood—a deeply polished mahogany—had been covered by a heavily embroidered burgundy carpet.

It was worn, of course, and was definitely showing signs of age. But in a house as old as Moorecliff Manor, how could it not be? Araminta ignored the inevitable scars as she allowed herself to be seated by Harold, the family’s butler, who immediately began to take the warmed plates from the serving cart, a task normally handled by the maid. She glanced around the room, quietly searching. Where was the girl, Trinity? Bernard stood and cleared his throat. “I have an announcement.” All eyes turned toward him, even those of Arun and Sasha, who had been sitting obediently in the corner. Normally Araminta wouldn’t hear of having an animal in the dining room, but the cats stayed on the sidelines and never bothered the diners. Of course, Araminta snuck them a morsel of food or two every so often, and she’d seen Daisy do the same, but for the most part, no one even noticed they were there. “Go on,” Araminta urged. The tantalizing scent of roast beef wafted from under the silver domed trays that Harold was putting on the sideboard, and she was dying to dig in.

“Since this is the two hundredth anniversary of Moorecliff Motors, I’ve procured a bottle of Langmere Vineyard’s most expensive wine for a toast.” He gestured toward the end of the sideboard, where a bottle of wine sat chilling in a silver bucket, and several wine goblets were set on a tray. Harold, taking the hint, brought them to Bernard, who poured the wine, and the goblets were passed to the diners using the standard Moorecliff etiquette of serving the head of the household first. “Wait… where is Stephanie?” Bernard asked about Archie’s daughter as he held the last glass, looking for whom to hand it to. “Shouldn’t she be here?” “She’s in Switzerland. Can you believe it? At this time of year?” Daisy asked as Harold passed out the plates and set two gravy bowls on the table. Araminta agreed. Steph should be there, since they were celebrating the auspicious occasion of Moorecliff Motors’s two hundredth anniversary, but she had chosen to have a trip with her friends instead. Archibald wasn’t happy. Daisy fiddled with the clasp of her purse, absently snapping it open then closed again before waving away any response he might have given.

She continued with a halfhearted shrug. “We really do try to include her, Bernie, but she simply doesn’t like me.” “It isn’t you, dear,” Archibald insisted with a quick smile in her direction, then he sipped his wine before nodding then gesturing toward his son. “If it were… well, have a look at Reggie. He’s here, is he not?” From the end of the table, Reginald Moorecliff lifted his nearly empty glass in a bit of a salute. “Of course I’m here and hailing the reigning stepmom. Love you, Daisy,” he said. Then he mumbled quietly as he leaned forward to tackle the braised beef on his plate, “Where else would I possibly be?” Araminta couldn’t help but notice the pained look Daisy shot her stepson before covering it with a smile that could easily have been a grimace. “Thank you, Reginald, for your support. You know how happy it makes your father and me.

” “Yes, quite… quite happy,” Archie agreed then drew in a deep breath before taking another sip of wine. He patted his brow with his napkin. Beside him, Daisy’s half-hearted smile completely disappeared. “Archibald? Archie, are you all right, darling? You look a little pale.” “I’m fine,” he insisted, brushing away the sudden focus of attention with a shaky wave of his hand. “If not, I have the tablets our fine Dr. Morton gave me for your heart.” Daisy started to rise, but Archie motioned for her to stay seated. “No worries, dear, I, ahh…” He tugged at his collar, his face turning red. “Archie?” Daisy asked, now clearly alarmed.

“I just feel a little… argh…” Araminta watched in horror as Archie slowly listed to the side, his face growing redder and redder until he crashed to the floor, pulling the tablecloth and half the dinner plates with him. “T C H A P T E R T W O his isn’t good,” Arun said as he slunk over to the spot where Archie had fallen. The body was no longer there. The EMTs had tried to revive poor Archie but to no avail. But even with no body, the area still held many mysteries for the cats to unravel. And if there was one thing Arun and Sasha liked to do, it was unravel mysteries. Arun glanced over at Sasha. Her pale-blue eyes glittered with excitement, and her chocolate-brown tail twitched as she sniffed the area. Even though they were both Seal Point Siamese with dark-brown masks, tails, and feet and cream-colored bodies, they were not identical. Arun was a good two pounds heavier—all muscle.

Sasha was daintier, and her eyes were very pale blue, while Arun’s were more of a sapphire. He liked to think that his markings were a bit more regal than Sasha’s, although he didn’t dare tell her that. “Something smells fishy,” Sasha said. “Interesting, because they had beef for dinner.” Arun put his nose to one of the goldrimmed dinner plates. It didn’t smell like fish to him. “I meant that metaphorically.” Sasha moved on to sniff a spot on the rug. “Something isn’t right. For one, the police are here.

” Arun glanced from under the tablecloth to see two pairs of polished black shoes. They didn’t belong to any of the Moorecliffs. He tuned in to the conversation the humans were having. Yep, it was the police. “Then again, he did have a bad heart,” Sasha said as she sniffed the leg of Archie’s chair for clues, her velvety ears turning right and left like furry radar dishes intent on catching every word of conversation happening in the room. “True. Let’s hope it was natural. Still, I will miss the old guy.” Arun made his way to the empty goblet that had rolled under the table, his whiskers twitching. He took a sniff.

“It’s strong. Must have been a good year.” Sasha joined him, wrinkling her nose when it got close to the goblet. “Kind of acidic, but wait…” She sniffed again. “It’s got a sweet tinge that doesn’t seem right.” Arun hunkered down and took another good whiff. “Yes! Flowery.” “But it’s red wine.” Sasha swished her tail toward the drop of wine that had spilled from the goblet and stained the rug. “That’s usually not sweet.

In fact, this scent reminds me of something.” Arun closed his eyes to concentrate on the smell. “Lily of the valley.” He snapped his eyes open, and they met Sasha’s. “Something isn’t right here. We need to alert Araminta.”

.

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