Stabbed in the Solarium – Leighann Dobbs

Sometime after midnight: The solarium was kind of creepy at night. The plants of all shapes and sizes were mere shadows in the dark, lurking in every corner of the large room. The air was heavy with humidity and the scent of moist earth. A cricket had gotten inside, and he chirped mechanically in the corner. Vines had grown up along the tall arched windows that made up three of the walls. There were so many vines and plants that one could hardly even see outside. Still, a sliver of moonlight had managed to filter in, and Shirley could see the stars through the tops of the ten-foot-tall windows. It was an odd place to meet. Shirley took a sip of her margarita for liquid courage. Not that she needed courage; she was used to clandestine meetings. The door creaked open, and Shirley swung around, sloshing the margarita over the rim of her glass. “Ha! So you came!” The figure stayed in the shadows, giving Shirley pause. Was it the person she had been expecting or someone else? Why didn’t they say something? She leaned forward and squinted, trying to make out who it was. “Did you bring the money?” The person didn’t answer. Shirley took another sip of her drink.

It didn’t really matter who it was. Any money was good money, and she’d discovered most would pay plenty of it to keep their secrets. And Shirley knew a lot of secrets. “Why are you lurking in the shadows? No one can see in here. The windows are covered with vines and leaves.” Shirley gestured around the room, sloshing more of her drink. “Just give me the money, and let’s get this over with.” The person stepped forward, and Shirley could see who it was. “Oh! It’s you. You sent me the note?” “Yes, it was me.

” “Okay, well get on with it, then.” The person lifted their arm, and Shirley wondered for a split second if they were going to go on a long tirade. She hoped not—she wasn’t really up for it, and she should be getting to bed. But then she saw the moonlight glinting off the blade of the knife. Too late, she tried to dodge the blade arcing down toward her chest. The margarita glass slipped out of her hand and smashed to the floor. Shirley quickly followed it. The last thing she heard was the solarium door banging shut as her killer fled out into the woods. T C H A P T E R T W O he next morning… Moorecliff Manor was a hive of activity, filled with out-of-town guests, waitstaff, and friends who had all come to attend the memorial celebration for Archibald Moorecliff. Archie’s funeral had been a small affair for close family only, and his widow, Daisy, had spent weeks planning the celebration so the rest of the large Moorecliff family and out-of-town friends could pay their respects.

Araminta Moorecliff, Archie’s octogenarian aunt, had dressed in her finest neon-pink outfit especially for the occasion. She’d even topped it off with a bright-pink widebrimmed sun hat and added a lime-green sash, which she had tied around her neck, to finish the perfect celebratory ensemble most suited for the day’s outing: the reveal of a new memorial garden Daisy had had created in honor of her late husband. At the moment, however, Araminta was seated at one of the small round tables the staff had set up in the dining room to help accommodate the large number of guests staying at Moorecliff Manor, enjoying a light breakfast with a handful of others from the Moorecliff family. Arun and Sasha, her Siamese cats, were winding their way around the room, slinking under tables and skulking against walls. They were smart enough to seek only the attention of those in the Moorecliff clan who actually liked cats, accepting a gentle petting here and a morsel of food there. Their intelligent blue eyes scanned the room for their next victim as they darted from table to table. Daisy, who was dressed impeccably in an off-white linen designer suit, her ebony hair tucked back in a chignon at the base of her neck, sat at the head of the main table. Her stepdaughter, Stephanie, was seated at her right. Steph had had a hard time accepting Daisy as a stepmother, and Araminta hoped this could be a time of healing for both of them. She truly wished that her grandniece would come to see that Daisy really had married her father for love and not for his money, as many in the family had assumed, and that she would come to think of Daisy as family.

Poor Stephanie did look a little under the weather, the dark circles under her hazel eyes giving away the strain of the past few weeks. Araminta saw a rare smile on Stephanie’s face as she bent to pet the cats, her hand gliding over the silvery fur on Arun’s back and giving a few scratches between his mink-brown ears. She hoped the girl had found her own sense of closure these past weeks since her father’s unexpected death. She’d spent almost every waking hour in the gardens with Yancy, helping him— and the crew of locals he’d called in to help with the undertaking—to create a special corner of the grounds that would remind future generations of Moorecliffs of Archibald’s existence. Poor Reginald, Archie’s son. He hadn’t been as involved in the creation of the garden to honor his father’s memory as his sister had, and he would not be taking part in today’s unveiling, but he was taking a step in the right direction. Out of gratitude for his stepmother’s help with saving him from the harsh repercussions of doing business with Tony “the Fist” Romano, Reggie was attending a special three-day seminar for Gamblers Anonymous and would not be home until the day after the memorial’s unveiling. The timing was unfortunate but couldn’t have been avoided. Despite the seriousness of the matter, the scamp was likely thrilled to have escaped having to deal with the Moorecliff family en masse. A few members at a time, he could handle, but when the aunts and cousins from several generations descended upon the manor at one time, he’d always found a convenient excuse to make himself scarce.

Looking around at the motley crew, Araminta couldn’t much blame him. Today, however, Araminta knew he would have preferred to be in attendance. He missed his father a great deal, though he dealt with his own grief in a way quite different from his sister. While Stephanie had thrown herself into helping create the memorial garden, Reggie had thrown himself into learning as much as he could about the day-today workings of the family business. Araminta was proud of her great-nephew for applying himself. He would become a valuable asset to the business in the future. For the moment, however, her late nephew had left everything in the capable hands of his father’s widow. “I knew she was a gold digger from the moment I met her!” someone at the table next to Araminta’s whispered. There was a sting of envy edging the woman’s tone. Araminta almost turned to correct the woman, because she knew Daisy better than any of them.

But then there was more… “She’s not even a Moorecliff! What was Archibald thinking to leave her in charge of the entire company?” Araminta heard a low chuckle, and then, “Don’t worry. Shirley said she’ll fix her, good and proper. She knows something about her past. Something truly horrid. And she knows the truth about Reginald. You’ve all noticed he isn’t here, but Shirley says it’s not because he got stuck in the Himalayas with his skiing buddies, like we’ve been told.” “Wait—Shirley has dirt on Daisy? Ooh!” “Shirley has dirt on everyone. She even told me she knew Bernard was embezzling from Moorecliff Motors for years!” Bernard Moorecliff was the reason a special memorial was needed to begin with. For years, he’d controlled operations of the West Coast division of Moorecliff Motors, while Archie was CEO of the entire company and took care of things on the East Coast. But he’d gotten greedy and wanted everything to himself.

So he’d poisoned his brother and landed himself in prison for the murder—but not before Daisy discovered he was also stealing from the company. The courts had added another crime to his lifelong sentence: embezzlement. “Where is Shirley, anyway? I could have sworn she said she’d be here early this morning.” One of the guests snorted into her orange juice. “Probably sleeping it off in her room upstairs. She was drunk last night. Too drunk, if you ask me. She was trying to hold court but losing ground and started threatening to spill all the family secrets.” “Do you think there are more? After embezzlement and murder, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to top those,” someone said. “I’ll bet she’s with that gardener guy.

They had a fling years ago, you know. She had it bad, our Shirley. I heard she used to sneak the poor fellow upstairs in the dumbwaiter!” A round of giggles followed the revelation. “Maybe we should look for her in there? Shirley was so drunk last night, she may have passed out on the way down to retrieve her lover.” “Oh, but Shirley isn’t the only one who went a little crazy for the Moorecliff gardener,” another whisperer chimed in. “I hear Charlotte, Betty, and Anastasia had a thing for him too…” Araminta was about to step in, to stop their gossip before things got out of hand, when the cats caught her eye. They were over by the window, looking out as if they’d seen something. Wait, they had! Someone was lurking around outside the windows. After the conversation she’d just heard, she wondered if it was Yancy helping Shirley sneak back to her room before anyone decided to join them outside. Or maybe they’d decided to have another go this morning? Whichever may have been the case, Araminta decided she did not want to see whatever the two of them might be up to.

Instead, she turned her attention back to her breakfast, but she made a mental note to caution Yancy. In this family, it paid to be discreet when one decided to… do whatever they were doing together. A short while later, Daisy signaled an end to breakfast. It was time for everyone to head out to the gardens! Araminta headed out with the rest of the crowd, but then something else drew her eye. Oh, no. This could not be a good sign. Sasha and Arun had raced ahead to the solarium, then they drew up quite suddenly. After a few turns back and forth with their tails straight up in the air, Araminta became worried. She knew their actions meant they’d found something that begged her attention. The last time they’d acted that way, there had been a murder.

But that couldn’t be the reason now. What were the odds of that happening at Moorecliff Manor again in such a short period of time? Breaking away from the rest of the crowd, she hurried toward the solarium. She would just have a quick peek inside, to make sure all was as it should be before rejoining the others. But as she opened the door, she knew all was not as it should be. A margarita glass lay smashed on the floor amid a pool of blood. The air was tinged with a coppery smell. The tables so carefully draped in white linen cloths were spattered with red. And if those things didn’t indicate that the memorial luncheon that Daisy had worked so hard on was about to be ruined, then the body lying in the middle of the room left no doubt. “Oh, dear,” she whispered as she backed out, closing the door behind her. “I guess Shirley isn’t going to make it to Archie’s memorial.

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