Excerpt from "A Twisted Case of Murder"

Erin Emily
Sleuthing Women Excerpt 324 1 Excerpt from "A Twisted Case of Murder"

Whack, whack, whack!

Rosemary Lillywhite tightened her grip on the handle of the three-pronged instrument, raised her arm, and swung it back down again just as hard as she could. She felt a thrill of satisfaction trail up her spine as it sunk, easily, into its intended target. Once, twice, three times more, she repeated the motion until finally, there was no doubt the messy—and, to any sane person, unpleasant—job was finished.

She smiled a slow, delicious smile that failed to fade even when she noticed the state of her fingernails, caked with black as they were. Instead of causing concern, the sight prompted a wry chuckle. Rosemary threw the death-dealing soil cultivator aside and stood, brushing the dirt from her dress while thinking that she probably ought to have donned an apron or at least a pair of gloves.

That, however, would have required forethought, and today’s endeavor was one of spontaneity. Next time, Rosemary promised herself, she’d dress appropriately—and there was certain to be a next time, of that she was sure. It was too much of a thrill, one she wanted to repeat again and again.

It wasn’t surprising, really. Once one got a taste, a dalliance could soon lead to obsession—or so she’d heard from a reliable source.

Having tested her hand, Rosemary found she understood what all the fuss was about. She couldn’t quite call herself a gardener, not at this early stage, but she’d taken to the new hobby with gusto.

Clearing a patch of weeds and exposing the rich, dark soil underneath elicited the same feeling of anticipation she felt when attaching a new canvas to her easel. Rosemary imagined that watching the empty space fill with colorful blooms would be just as satisfying as applying a final brush stroke.

She squatted low now, a motion that only a few weeks ago would have been possible but not entirely comfortable, and began to scoot a sizable evergreen shrub inch by inch towards the readied hole.

“Come on. We can do this. Just a bit of cooperation,” she told the shrub. Ariadne Whittington, mother to Rosemary’s beau, Max, had assured her that any gardener worth their salt talked to their plants and felt no shame in the least for doing so.

Rosemary’s own mother would never concede that point, and that was why, in part, Rosemary had failed to fill Evelyn in on her new pastime. She knew for certain her mother would loathe the fact that, sometimes, Rosemary wore the same trousers from her calisthenics sessions out into the garden. It was, after all, Rosemary’s own private space. Why shouldn’t she feel comfortable in it?

Everything from the dirty fingernails to the mere mention of calisthenics sessions would have caused her mother a coronary—or, at the very least, caused Evelyn to accuse her daughter of trying to give her a coronary.

“Ahem.” Suddenly, Rosemary heard the unmistakable sound of her butler clearing his throat and whirled around in expectation of the exasperated expression she felt certain would be painted across his face. If Wadsworth was one thing, it was a traditionalist, just like Evelyn. While Rosemary had concluded she rather enjoyed taking care of herself, Wadsworth preferred his mistress allow the staff to tend to her every need.

Rosemary’s ideas regarding independence, however, were neither here nor there at that very moment because on Wadsworth’s arm posed a ravishing figure of a woman veritably vibrating with excitement.

“Rosie!” the vision screeched uncharacteristically, careening in Rosemary’s direction. Rosemary thought, for a moment, that Vera might leap straight over the wheelbarrow resting halfway between them, but she sidestepped it deftly and swept Rosemary into her arms.

“I missed you so much Frederick packed our cases halfway through the holiday! He declared me far too droll in your absence and insisted that if we ever do a second honeymoon, you’ll be forced to come along and book an adjoining suite!” Vera practically shouted into her dearest friend’s hair.

“My brother is far smarter than I’d given him credit for, then,” Rosemary replied, squeezing Vera back with relief. The knot that remained lodged in her throat anytime one of her loved ones strayed too far from England finally loosened, the sudden absence of it bringing a sting of tears to her eyes. “From now on, we travel together, or not at all,” she agreed.

Vera leaned back and gazed at Rosemary for a long moment, her eyes searching for signs of distress. An image of Rosemary from one year prior swam up as it still often did, one of a woman broken by loss and one that—thank the gods—bore little resemblance to the woman standing before her now. She breathed a sigh of relief and then cocked an eyebrow.

This Rosemary didn’t even look like the one she’d left behind last month. Her shoulders were straighter and more toned, making her neck appear longer and more regal. The long blond locks remained, despite Vera’s insistence her friend ought to give in to the current styles and affect a smart bob like her own, but there was a brightness to Rosemary’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. There was also a smudge of dirt on her cheek that further widened Vera’s grin.

“What in the heavens have you been doing, Rosie?” she asked, her gaze traveling around the garden with more interest now.

Rosemary linked arms with Vera, steered her towards a bank of meticulously groomed rose bushes, and explained.

“You see, we’ve had a bit of trouble with the trellis and the seating beneath it. The whole thing was crawling with deathwatch beetles! Just after you and Frederick departed, the trellis let go and came tumbling down. It took the potting shed with it, but that had rotted as well, and now, here we are.”

Rosemary’s home in the neighborhood of Marylebone, a moderately affluent area of northwest London, was one in a strip of attached townhouses. In an attempt to provide privacy to each occupant, every home featured its own bit of garden, separated from its neighbors on either side by rows of tall hedges.

Wooden fencing stretched across the rear of the properties, bordering a section of communal grass referred to by the residents as ‘the park’, but not to be confused with the much larger Regent’s Park slightly further east.

At the head of the common sat a quaint stone church. Rosemary enjoyed a lovely view of the spire rising above the tree line from her garden terrace and could hear the big copper bell ringing out each hour in dulcet tones.

Vera jabbed Rosemary in the ribs gently with her elbow and quipped, “So you’ve decided to loosen the purse strings and redo the entire garden. I heartily approve, and it looks positively smashing. Should I assume, based on the size of your arm muscles, that you tore down the crumbling potting shed and rebuilt it with your own two hands?”

Out of reflex and a feeling of elation at her friend’s return, Rosemary flexed against Vera’s hand in a mock masculine gesture, eliciting a laugh and a further raised eyebrow.

She gestured towards the portion of fencing that ran along the rear edge of the property. “There’s a small crew of workmen taking a break in the park on the other side of the fence. I’ve just been dallying out here, but I have come to find I rather enjoy it. As for my arm muscles, you’ve Ivy Gibson and Esme Prescott to blame—really, the entire LLV and their relentless exercise sessions.”

“So the London Lady Vigilantes are at it again, are they?” Vera asked, amused at her cleverness.

“Don’t call them that to their faces,” Rosemary warned. “It’s the Ladies for London Vitality, and Ivy Gibson is taking the whole thing quite seriously. I doubt she’ll find your sense of humor amusing.”

Vera shrugged off the warning. “You’ve been quite busy, haven’t you?” she asked, shaking her head. “You even ensured Freddie and I came home to a clean house. We’ve nothing whatsoever to fret over; you thought of everything, down to the new bedsheets. You’re a marvel, Rosie, truly.”

It was true; Rosemary had ensured her brother’s new home was appropriately unpacked and organized, but even so, she brushed off Vera’s effusive praise.

“I’ve an excess of staff for little old me,” she said, an undercurrent of irritation evident in her tone. Whether it had to do with the reason she found herself living in the large townhouse by herself or something else Vera couldn’t say, but she expected her friend would come out with it eventually. Rosemary tended to hold things in until they sprang forth in a flurry, while Vera practiced a method of simply bursting at the seams a little bit each day.

“Anna was perfectly happy to organize and simultaneously admire your wardrobe,” Rosemary continued. “I suspect she’s bragged to all her friends for being entrusted with the Vera Blackburn’s shoe collection.”

The part of Vera that was, ultimately, quite vain found Rosemary’s statement rather endearing and vowed to bestow a gift upon Rosemary’s young maid so that she might become the object of even further envy amongst her young friends.

“She’s a doll for it,” was what Vera said aloud and with complete sincerity.

“You did have a lovely time on your holiday, I hope?” Rosemary asked, bending over to pull a weed from between two delphiniums. “Aside from missing me terribly, of course.”

Vera grinned and nodded, her eyes clouding with the haze of young love and newlywed bliss. “The loveliest,” she confirmed. “Mallorca was positively divine. We lounged on the beach for days on end and then danced until dawn. I wish we hadn’t had to return to London at all, if I’m honest.” Her voice turned wistful now. “Everything seems so…different.”

“You’re no longer a bride. Now, you’re a wife,” Rosemary said, understanding without requiring any further explanation, “and that’s a role you’d decided you would never play. It’s only to be expected you might require a moment—maybe even two—to adjust to it all.”

They walked, arm in arm, a little further while Vera contemplated her friend’s statement. “You’re right, of course, but also—and this will come as no shock—it’s your mother,” she finally admitted, exasperation evident in her tone. It was not, by far, the first time Vera, or any number of people, for that matter, had made the same exclamation.

“We’ve barely returned from our honeymoon, and already she’s sent someone by to measure the guest bedroom and determine the size cot to get for her next grandchild. She nearly went into a convulsive fit when Freddie told her we weren’t planning on trying for a baby just yet. She’s certifiable; you know that, don’t you?”

“Of course, dear,” Rosemary replied, “and unless you’ve been living in blissful ignorance all these years, so did you.”

Vera’s marriage to Rosemary’s brother Frederick might be shiny and new, but as her oldest and dearest friend, Vera had been on intimate terms with the entire Woolridge family practically since birth.

Vera wasn’t daft, either. She was a good egg, smart and resourceful, loyal to a fault, and exceptionally adept at getting what she wanted. Until that was, she’d begun going toe-to-toe with Evelyn Woolridge on the regular.

“Seeing her tramp all over you lot is one thing,” Vera replied. “Her butting into our childbearing plans is quite another.” She stopped short and sent a pained, contrite look towards Rosemary. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t complain overly much, should I?”

Rosemary smiled thinly and patted Vera’s hand. It all felt so long ago now. She was still a young woman, well within childbearing age, and by her mother’s way of thinking should be leading around a passel of little ones by now.

Evelyn—after feeling scandalized, of course—would be interested to know it hadn’t been for lack of trying. Rosemary’s late husband had desired a son, and she had desperately wanted to give him one.

Except, it hadn’t happened, and Rosemary had no idea why. The doctors didn’t, either; it just worked out that way sometimes, they’d said, before shooing her out of their offices. Eventually, she had decided that perhaps it simply wasn’t meant to be.

My mother isn’t helping, either,” Vera went on. “They have both quite lost their minds. Furthermore, they seem to have joined forces with even more solidarity than usual. Upon arriving home, I found a pair of hand-crocheted baby booties waiting for me! It’s far too soon for that sort of talk. Freddie and I haven’t even settled in, and if I get cast in this play, there’s no telling how long it might run…”

She stopped walking and talking and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she said again, calmer now. “I shouldn’t be so angry or surprised at all. I merely expected that first would come the hints, increasing in frequency but delivered with smiles, and then the more obvious shove in the direction of the nursery shops.”

While listening to Vera’s diatribe, Rosemary gathered a pair of gloves and a bucket from the terrace that butted up to the back of the house. She now led her friend to the far end of the garden.

There, during the initial survey of the property, Rosemary had found a flat slab of slate sunk into the topsoil, which had turned out to be part of a path the earth had all but swallowed.

The workmen had dutifully pulled and reset each piece and cleaned up and mulched the planting beds where Rosemary arranged a series of bird baths and houses. To her delight, they had already begun to attract some adorable little forest friends.

One of the baths, made of alabaster, featured an ornate sculpture of a songbird bending over to take a drink, its tail feather pointed towards the sky. It was Rosemary’s favorite piece, not only because it was beautifully made but also because she enjoyed watching the real birds try to fight the artificial one.

“What are you doing with a bucket of—” Vera crinkled her nose “—what is that in there? Kitchen scraps?”

Rosemary laughed. “It’s food for the birds. Gladys sets aside anything they’ll eat—fruits that have started to turn, vegetable peelings, nuts—and I bring it out each morning. Today I got caught up with the planting, and they’re becoming impatient. Hear them chattering?”

Vera did, indeed, hear the noise Rosemary described, but to her ear, it sounded more like squawking than chattering. She raised one eyebrow but dutifully followed Rosemary, recoiling in disgust when she saw not a flock of starlings but a pair of crows hopping around the footpath.

“Oh, no!” Vera said with a shudder. “You’ve been invaded by crows. Dirty, disgusting things.” She kicked a foot in their general direction and shouted, “Shoo! Shoo!”

Rosemary hushed her friend. “For heaven’s sake, don’t frighten them!” she said while one of the crows cocked its head to one side and peered suspiciously at Vera. “I’ve been feeding them for weeks and they’ve only just begun to trust me.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” Vera demanded. “What reason could you possibly have to purposefully invite harbingers of evil into your garden?”

“That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?” Rosemary replied. She stepped gingerly towards the two inky black birds, holding the bucket of foodstuffs out in front of her. The crows hopped around and kept their beady eyes trained on the bucket. “It’s nonsense, besides,” Rosemary continued. “They’re actually quite clean and are far smarter than most people think—they’re simply scavengers and so have garnered a poor reputation for their tendency to congregate around dead bodies.”

As there was nothing else to be done, Vera tolerated the lecture. Only the barest hint of a raised brow gave away her sardonic mood.

 “In point of fact,” Rosemary informed her audience of one, “crows are monogamous creatures, and they become tightly bonded with their flock, like a family. They even talk with one another. Can’t you hear it? They’re nervous but curious about the scraps. It may sound dramatic, but that’s what I think.”

The larger bird, the one Rosemary presumed to be the male, hopped sideways over to his partner and lowered his head. She, in turn, began grooming his neck with her beak.

“Isn’t that sweet?” Rosemary asked, to which Vera replied with a dubious glance. “She’s preening the spots he can’t reach. They’re mates.”

Vera’s lips quirked, and she peered at her friend with a wrinkled brow. “I really ought not to have left you here all by your lonesome, Rosie. You have, quite literally, gone to the birds!”

Rosemary ignored the proclamation with a roll of her eyes and instead focused on the two crows who accepted her offering with a racket that, to Vera at least, still sounded like nothing but noise.

A moment later, the three members of the work crew and their supervisor, returning from their lunch break, emerged from the gate at the back of the garden. One of the men gazed towards Vera with some interest, but after a pointed look from their supervisor, quickly averted his eyes. The second avoided acknowledging Rosemary entirely, and he, she suspected, fully disapproved of her inclination to participate in the landscaping process.

Only one of the workers approached Rosemary and Vera, albeit with some hesitation. He was a hulking, brutish man with an unexpectedly soft smile, and Rosemary greeted him warmly despite the supervisor’s narrow-eyed expression. She was, after all, the lady of the house and, ultimately, the one in charge.

“Hello, Jack,” Rosemary said with a smile.

Suddenly, the birds stopped in their tracks, their caws becoming short, clipped, and urgent as they swooped out of the garden and up, up to land beneath the eaves of the church steeple and the safety of the nest tucked beneath it. They peered down at Jack with suspicion and cawed once more.

“Miss Rose,” he replied, raising one club of a hand and presenting her with a fragile-looking bellflower, his eyes shifting uncertainly in Vera’s direction. “Stem got bent,” he stammered. “Didn’t want it to go to waste. Best put it in some water, though. Won’t last long in this heat.”

Graciously, Rosemary accepted the gift. “Thank you. It’s quite beautiful. Jack, this is Vera, my dear friend and now my sister-in-law,” she explained just as the supervisor hollered, “Come on, now, Jack, you’ve got work to do. The mice in those traps aren’t going to drown themselves, are they?”

Rosemary grimaced at the thought, but Jack merely nodded politely in Vera’s direction and, before steam began to pour from his supervisor’s ears, ambled across the lawn.

“You always do make the most unlikely friends, Rosie dear,” Vera said after he’d gone, linking arms with Rosemary once more and steering her back towards the house.

“It is rather a rare talent of mine,” Rosemary replied.

Sleuthing Women 324 Question Excerpt from "A Twisted Case of Murder"
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