Homicide in the Hydrangeas – Leighann Dobbs

Moorecliff Manor was once again calm… Well, as calm as it could be, given the happy chatter among family who had chosen that bright and sunny morning to have breakfast together in the solarium. Gone was all evidence from the murder which had taken place right in this very room during the family’s memorial celebration, given last week to celebrate the life of Archibald Moorecliff, Araminta Moorecliff’s late nephew. In its place was a picture of lush serenity with a backdrop out the wide windows that revealed not only sprawling green lawns, but also the memorial garden that Daisy, Archie’s wife, had requested to have put in by the gardener, Yancy, in remembrance of her dear and beloved Archie. Archie’s daughter, Stephanie Moorecliff, had of course been cleared of all suspicion of wrongdoing in the murder of her great-aunt Shirley Moorecliff—the family’s long-reigning family gossip. Yancy, the gardener, who had also been under suspicion until the murder weapon was found, had been cleared, too, and now spent a portion of every afternoon instructing Stephanie in matters of horticulture, both outdoors and in the solarium. Reginald Moorecliff, adorable scamp that he was, seemed to have taken an interest in the Moorecliff family business. Now that Daisy headed up both divisions of Moorecliff Motors—Archibald had left control in her hands—Reggie was never far from her side. Yes, all was well, Araminta Moorecliff thought as she gazed out at the gardens. Except… Her two clue-chasing Siamese cats, Arun and Sasha, were sniffing around the hedges. Normally, they would be playing, one of them hunkered down behind a tree trunk or shrub ready to pounce on the other. But right now, it looked like they had a specific task, as if they were sniffing out something… No. She was just being paranoid, given that two murders had happened here at the house in such a short time. The cats were simply doing what cats do— exploring their environment. Craning her neck to the side to catch one more glimpse of the cats, she reassured herself they weren’t investigating anything unseemly. Thankfully, their tails were down, not straight in the air, which Araminta had come to learn was a sign that something very bad was about to happen… and that something usually had to do with murder.

Araminta relaxed and turned her attention back to the table and her family. Delicious aromas of breakfast came in from a side door, and Araminta’s stomach rumbled. Good grief, she thought, as she slid a hand to her stomach. Her tummy rumbles were becoming almost as loud as her snores. “Breakfast is served,” Harold, the Moorecliff butler, announced as he came forward to help Araminta with her chair while Reginald seated first his stepmother then his sister, Stephanie. Trinity rolled in a mahogany tray laden with food. It was trimmed in gold with a black-and-gold-marbled top. Araminta thanked the butler then turned in her seat to give him a second look. Something was different about his appearance this morning. She had noticed the moment he walked into the room.

Though things had been delayed a bit after his exam a few weeks ago, his eyeglasses had finally arrived. “Those glasses suit you to a T, Harold. The bronze rims really enhance your features. Don’t you think so, Daisy?” “Hm? Oh, yes. I do indeed. They are perfect for you, Harold.” Daisy had turned in her chair and was busy fussing with a bouquet of wildflowers that had been delivered for her the previous afternoon. Roses, Araminta knew from days past, would no doubt arrive today. The flowers had started coming shortly after Archibald’s death: first, the loveliest of roses in every color, then bright bouquets of equally beautiful wildflowers. Araminta’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as she looked at them, but she said nothing.

It was now abundantly clear that someone in the family had acquired a secret admirer. “They make you look stately, Harold. Quite powerful, in my eyes,” Stephanie said. Araminta couldn’t help but smile when his cheeks turned color. It was rather precious to see the old fellow still given to blushing over compliments. Reginald laughed. “Don’t let her sweet-talk you like that, old man. Next thing you know, she’ll have you eating from the tips of her fingers.” Stephanie made a face, but Reginald ignored it. Instead, he nodded at Harold.

“Distinguished is, I believe, the word my sister was looking for, and she is correct, of course. You look very distinguished in your new eyewear, Harold.” As Trinity moved carefully around the table, placing plates filled with portions of various dishes still steaming from the kitchens in front of each of the Moorecliffs, Araminta snuck another peek outside at the cats. They’d moved over to the edge of the row of tall hydrangeas. They looked excited, tails twitching, but thankfully not up in the air. Phew. Araminta turned back to her plate. “Thank you, dear.” She glanced up at Trinity. The poor girl had dark circles under her eyes.

She obviously hadn’t been sleeping well. But then, who had? With two murders in the family, so close together, it was a wonder any of them had slept at all. “Now that he can see what we are doing, we’d best be on our game,” Trinity said, fighting back a yawn. “No more hiding mashed potatoes in your vegetables. Harold will see it now.” Everyone laughed at the joke. “In a few weeks, he will be able to hear us too,” Daisy informed everyone, contributing to the friendly ribbing with a gentle smile in Harold’s direction. “Mary told me yesterday they’ve received confirmation on the hearing aids.” Araminta joined the others in congratulating Harold on the news he would soon get his hearing aids, but as she was about to turn her attention back to her food, movement in the edge of her peripheral vision caught her attention. Sasha and Arun were strutting back and forth at the edge of the row of hydrangeas, and unfortunately, this time their tails were sticking straight up in the air.

A C H A P T E R T W O raminta felt the weight of something ominous pressing in the air as she made her way outside toward the cats. Behind her, the rest of the family and even the servants trailed along. “What is it, Aunt Minty?” Stephanie asked. “What did you see?” “The cats,” Daisy answered for her. “In the woods near the edge of the garden.” “We left our delectable breakfast to watch Arun and Sasha play?” Reginald grumped, and from the noise he made soon after, Araminta could only guess Daisy had given him a bit of a tap, warning him to hush his mouth. “Fine. I don’t understand, but I’m not going back without you.” “What is that—that thing they are doing?” Araminta heard Stephanie ask her stepmother. “The prancing with their tails all straight in the air?” “The Death Dance,” Araminta pronounced loudly so everyone could hear her.

She’d never thought the cats’ peculiar way of alerting her to these things should have a name before, but today, it just seemed to fit. At the edge of the garden, she drew up and peered into the shadows beneath the hydrangeas. Oh, dear. Was that a foot? Cautiously, she crept closer. “Araminta, is that a man in the bushes?” It appeared so, she thought without answering, but she wasn’t close enough to tell for sure yet. “Who could it be?” Araminta ignored the fact that the questions assumed she’d already identified whomever had gone sprawling in the bushes when she’d yet to get within ten feet of him —or her. “Do you think he’s okay?” Stephanie asked with concern in her tone. Araminta glanced back at her niece then considered. There was a chance that whoever the unlucky soul was who had found their way into the hydrangeas was merely out cold, she supposed. Marching closer now that there was no movement from the body, even with all the noise being made, she shooed away the cats.

Oh, dear. Dear, dear, Araminta thought, her eyes going over every detail. Not again. Three strikes and you’re out. The old baseball phrase roared through her head, and it fit because that’s what today would be for the Moorecliff family, if her suspicions regarding what she would find here turned out to be correct. Still, she gave her best effort to push back such gloomy thoughts and continued to move ahead. Beside the body now, as close as she could get without actually touching it, Araminta bent forward to push back a branch near the head of whoever was lying in the bushes on the ground. She let go of the thing in a hurry, turning her face away from what she had seen. To the gathering group behind her, she said. “I’m afraid not.

It is a man, but he has a bit of a hole in his head. Reginald, fetch Yancy, if you’d please, and you’d best call 911 because he’s obviously not breathing. Whoever this man may turn out to be, one thing is sure: he’s not just resting. He’s dead.” One at a time, the family and servants pushed forward to have a closer look at the man in the bushes. Reginald had one look and walked away to make the call that Araminta had instructed him to make. Daisy shook her head, and Stephanie ducked her own against Harold’s shoulder with a shudder. Trinity was last to peek, and she’d barely caught a glimpse before she shrieked, dropped the plate cover she’d still been holding, and ran back to the house. Araminta watched, thinking her reaction to seeing a body over the top, given all that had happened here of late. “Poor girl,” Daisy, who had also watched Trinity flee back to the house, said.

“So much death in the recent weeks is taking its toll on her. She’s been yawning on her feet at the breakfast table, and you can see she’s not been sleeping well.” Reginald rejoined the others, his expression grim. “EMTs and the coroner have been dispatched. I suppose we will be seeing Detective Hershey soon as well.” Stephanie broke from Harold’s comforting shoulder and straightened her blouse. “Really? Then I suppose we should go in the house and wait.” “Good idea.” Araminta shooed the others away. “We don’t want him thinking we contaminated the crime scene.

” While the Moorecliff family talked, Arun and Sasha busied themselves with nosing around the body. Araminta had already mentioned that the guy was shot in the head, but what bothered Arun was that no one had said a word about hearing a gunshot last night. Sure, there had been a bit of thunder, but he would have thought the sound from a gunshot would have carried. “It’s a small hole, Arun, so probably a small-caliber gun. They don’t make as much noise as the others, right?” Sasha’s sky-blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Though they were both Siamese, Sasha was of lighter coloring with almost white fur, a mink-brown mask, and lighter eyes. Arun was darker, his own eyes more of a sapphire color and his mask brownish-black. “It was a gunshot, Sasha. It would have made a big noise. Smaller caliber would have been sharper, not quite as explosive, but still there would have been a sound.

” Arun felt a pang of guilt. Why had he not heard the shot? Sasha trotted along the side of the body. “Not in our room. Or have you forgotten that Araminta snores so loud, it could wake the dead? Maybe her snores just drowned out the sound? I do believe there was also some thunder.” “Hmm.” Arun considered the possibility. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But look, Sasha. There’s a bit of gunpowder residue.

The forensics team can use that.” Looking up at the now cloudless sky, he said, “Thank goodness the rain has stopped.” “It might have obliterated a lot of clues,” Sasha said as they continued to inspect the area around the body. They skulked around low to the ground, ducking under branches, sniffing at blades of grass, but always careful not to disturb the crime scene for the police. They didn’t want to endanger the investigation; they wanted to help with it. “Arun, what’s this?” Sasha lifted a paw so he could have a look. Trotting around the body, he sniffed at the folded paper. “A matchbook.” “Looks like it came from his pocket.” Sasha tilted her head to get a better look at the angle.

The matchbook lay near the side pocket of the victim’s trousers. Arun supposed it could easily have slipped out. “Good find. We must alert Araminta so that she sees it before the police take it away.” “Hurry, they’re leaving!” Sasha leaped over the body, and the two of them trotted to the edge of the bushes and started meowing. The mournful meows coming from both cats interrupted the hushed conversation from Araminta and the others as they slowly walked away. Everyone turned to look, but Araminta hurried back over to see what the cats had found, just as Arun had known she would. The old girl was becoming much more aware of the meanings of their actions and meows when it came to matters of murder investigations. “What in the world are those two off about now?” Reginald asked. Araminta knelt beside the body and looked at the ground.

“A matchbook,” she said. Bending closer, she squinted. “There’s a logo on the front, but without my glasses, it’s hard to make out.” Daisy nudged Harold. “Araminta needs your help, Harold. Can you see it?” He walked over and took a look. “It says, ‘The Lantern Lounge.’”

.

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