“What is on my schedule today, Jasper?” Augustine Stiles pronouncement the word “shed-yool,” regardless of the fact he was born in the U.S. midwest.
Mr. Stiles was dressed for the day in khaki twill pants pressed with razor-sharp creases, and a white Oxford shirt accented with a blue and yellow paisley ascot. His overcoat was a black sports coat. He carried a pair of camel kid gloves nestled in a matching tan Ivy cap. He stood in the butler’s suite ready to begin his day, peeved that his secretary didn’t appear to be as eager to begin the day.
Jasper, Mr. Stiles’ concierge, executive secretary, man-friday, and every other title meant to identify him as the person responsible for the smooth running of the Stiles estate and business concerns, was aware of his employer’s pique but it didn’t prompt him to proceed any quicker
Consulting his executive planner, Jasper ran his finger down the day’s schedule of events.
“Your calendar is clear until this afternoon,” Jasper, pronouncing the word, “skedzh-ool” shut the binder and tucked it into his top desk drawer. “Was there anything specific you wished to do this morning?”
“Your word play is, as always, top-notch,” Mr. Stiles looking over his reading glasses at Jasper. “I desire to go to the green grocer. I am keen for some fresh radicchio and arugula.”
“Very good, sir,” Jasper said as retrieved his own hat and gloves from this armoire. “Shall I bring the car around now?”
“Let’s take the BMW,” Mr. Stiles said, “I don’t want any undue attention drawn to us.”
While Jasper headed toward the carriage house, Mr. Stiles exited the manor through the front door, waiting beneath the portico while his car was made ready. Cap firmly set on his balding head, Mr. Stiles tightly held his gloves in one hand, slapping them against the open palm of the other, impatient to begin his errand.
The drive into town took Mr. Stiles and Jasper through a bucolic countryside. Rolling hills spread out into lush fields of golden sunflowers. Apple and pear orchards were well into their fall harvest. The sweet aroma of cider hung in the air.
“Jasper,” Mr. Stiles broke their silence as they pulled into the grocery’s parking lot. He notice a black wreath draped on the business sign, but didn’t comment on it.“Did you place my tea order with Mr. Prescott?
“Yes, sir,” Jasper opened Mr. Stiles’ car door, offering his arm as his employer exited the car. “I will see to your usual order while you are browsing.”
“Ask Mr. Prescott about the freshness of his artichokes, you know how much I favor the smaller fall globes.”
Jasper wordlessly nodded, then strode toward the back of the store to fill Mr. Stiles’ purchase demands.
Wandering around the aisles, Mr. Stiles picked up various fruits and vegetables, smelling their rich earthy scents, contemplating how he would prepare each one for his next dinner party. Soon the basket Mr. Stiles carried was filled to the brim with small, sweet fall carrots in a rainbow of colors; blood-red beets; stalks of small, firm Brussels sprouts; salad greens; and heavy eggplants the color of ruby port wine.
Mr. Stiles had finished unloading his selected produce when Jasper joined him at the cashier, a small, brown paper package of tea in hand. The grocer imported a special blend of tea from Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia, exclusively for Mr. Stiles.
Taking the package from Jasper, Mr. Stiles held the bundle close to his face and inhaled the heady aroma of the green tea.
“Jasper, take note,” Mr. Stiles said, exchanging cash for his selections. “Invite Miss Abigail Bentley for tea this Thursday.”
“A situation has come to light that may conflict with your invitation,” Jasper began. “The wreath gracing the roadside signage was in remembrance of the former Mr. Prescott.”
Mr. Stiles raised a graceful, and questioning eyebrow, directing it at the cashier.
“Mr. Prescott has come to an untimely end?”
“Strangest thing” the cashier said, putting the last of Mr. Stiles’ purchase into a canvas tote Jasper brought. “He got snake bit. An inland taipan, that’s what the wildlife ranger said. Seems that it hitchhiked a ride here on the tea shipment from Australia.”
Pointing to the bag of tea Mr. Stiles was still holding, the cashier explained that the deadly reptile apparently made a nest in the crates shipped from Bryon Bay. When Mr. Prescott unloaded the crate he was bitten by several juvenile snakes. He was dead before the paramedics could arrive.
“That is intriguing,” Mr. Stiles said. “The inland taipan is indigenous to the central, semi-arid region of Australia, from thousands of kilometers away the coastal tea plantations. It is also rather reclusive. Highly venomous, but not aggressive.”
“That’s what the ranger said too,” the cashier handed Jasper change for their purchase. “It was just a freak accident.”
“Assuredly,” Mr. Stiles said.
After their return to the estate, and after Jasper had unpacked the produce, Mr. Stiles reiterated his intention to invite a Miss Abigail Bentley for afternoon tea two days hence.
“Miss Bentley’s wish is on file, please retrieve that for me, Jasper, won’t you?” Mr. Stiles said. “I have some information to impart. Information I believe will help mitigate some of her sorrow regarding her grandfather’s financial collapse.
“I wish the snake in the grass who ruined my granddad’s business learns what it’s like to be betrayed the way he betrayed my granddad.”
“I think the lovely tea we brought home today would be most appropriate for a tête-à-tête with Miss Bentley,” Mr. Stiles said. “She will want to know from me personally that her wish has been granted.”