Excerpt from A SILENT STABBING, A Lady & Lady's Maid Mystery #5 (coming Feb. 25, 2020)
Early the next morning, (Phoebe and her grandfather) made their way, arm in arm, across the tiered gardens, bright with late season mums and roses and flame-like celosia, and through the gate in the privet hedge that separated the formal gardens from the service grounds. An autumn sharpness tinged the air and a bright golden hue tipped the ends of the leaves overhead. Soon, green and gold would turn to fiery reds and russets, and fall would burst forth in earnest. Phoebe was grateful for the sun’s lingering warmth. Their destination lay beyond the hothouses with their bright white framework that stood rather like rib cages against the sky. There, another hedge, this one of yew, once again shielded the pleasure gardens from the working areas. Phoebe kept having to slow her pace to avoid overtaxing Grampapa. Ever the gentleman, he had gallantly offered his arm to her, yet it was she who steadied them over the graveled path. “Thank you for posting Keenan Ripley’s bail last night, Grampapa. But was I right to bring the matter to you?” She had fretted over the decision and wondered if she should leave the Ripley brothers to solve their own dilemma. Goodness knew, plenty of families bickered over land and inheritances. Julia had inadvertently entered just such a feud last spring, one that had yet to be resolved. Members of Julia’s deceased husband’s family, the Townsends, continued to squabble over the terms of his will, while Julia’s pregnancy left much in question. A lot depended on whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl. Phoebe had been forced to become involved in that dispute, but she had lain awake last night wondering if she was overstepping her bounds by intervening this time. The Ripleys were not her family. She barely knew either man, really. But of course, matters were more far reaching than that. The servants were hurt and confused by Mr. Peele’s sudden departure, and the change in circumstances had left dear Mr. Giles more disoriented than usual. That certainly was her business. As was Stephen Ripley depriving William of his proper breakfast before starting work. Grampapa hadn’t approved of that one bit. “We’ll talk to the man and hear his side of things,” her grandfather replied. “There is always more than one side to everything.” They arrived at the yew hedge, gracefully carved into vertical, undulating waves of green, to find it deserted, at least the side on which they stood. Though growth since the last trimming was minimal, the smooth, rounded contours of the nearly solid wall of foliage were marred by errant leaves that dared to poke beyond the rest as if stretching forward to catch the attention of passersby. This didn’t surprise her, however. It would certainly take more than a day, or even two, to complete such a task. “They must be working on the other side. Let’s walk around,” Grampapa suggested. Phoebe pricked her ears to listen for the telltale snip-snip of the clippers, as well as bits of conversation between Mr. Ripley and William. She heard only the morning song of birds and the rustling of the breeze. They reached the end of the hedge and walked around. “Where are they?” Phoebe peered along the hedge, some two dozen yards long, cast into deep emerald by the angle of the sun. The gardener’s cart, hitched to its pony, stood about halfway down, partly filled with foliage cuttings. The long handle of a rake also stuck out of the cart’s barrow. The blond-maned pony stood placidly in his harness enjoying whatever treats Mr. Ripley had stuffed into its feed bag. Phoebe could see where a long section at the farther end of the hedge had already been trimmed back into a perfectly even, gently waving plane, but she detected no sign of Mr. Ripley or William. Then, in the deep green shadow of the lawn, a darker shadow stood out. . . . “Is that his ladder lying on the ground?” Grampapa frowned into the distance. As Phoebe’s eyes adjusted, she indeed made out the lines of a stepladder. Grampapa started forward. “Come, my dear. I fear Mr. Ripley has had an accident.” They hurried along. The closer they got, the clearer it became that Mr. Ripley’s ladder wasn’t the only object lying on the ground. A few feet from it, right where he would have landed had the ladder fallen and tossed him from its rungs, lay a figure clad in work denims and a flannel shirt. A pair of spectacles glinted up at her from beyond the tip of a nose, as if trying to crawl back up where they belonged. A brown tweed flat cap lay upside down inches from a wheat-blond head. “It’s Stephen Ripley.” Alarm sent Phoebe hurrying ahead of her grandfather. “Mr. Ripley, are you all right?” She wondered where William was, and then answered her own question. Gone for help, of course. But then, why hadn’t they passed him on their way here from the house? The pony snorted and continue munching. Behind Phoebe, Grampapa’s lumbering footsteps thudded through the grass. “Is he terribly hurt?” Mr. Ripley lay unmoving, but, oddly, holding his hedge clippers. “I don’t know. Mr. Ripley! Mr. Ripley?” Phoebe started to crouch beside him, but something held her upright. She was about to call out his name again, until she realized he wasn’t holding the clippers at all. The clippers were turned the wrong way around, the handles facing out and the sharp ends sunk— Her hand went to her mouth. The clippers had been plunged into his torso. A pool of blood seeped out from under him to weave lurid, spidery patterns in the grass. A frigid numbness swept through Phoebe, and the world around her darkened and blurred.