To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the beloved Mrs. Murphy mystery series, Rita Mae Brown and her intrepid feline co-author Sneaky Pie Brown return with a charming claw-biting tale starring Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen. Of course prowling faithfully at Harry’s side are the sleuthing cats Mrs. Murphy, ever wise, and Pewter, reliably cranky and always primed with a razor-sharp quip. Fiercely loyal and on the alert, corgi Tee Tucker is also never far behind. This time, Harry and her menagerie throw a wrench into the gears of a killer of grease monkeys.
It’s mid-May, and Crozet, Virginia, is heating up fast, or so it seems to Harry. The town’s beloved ex–post mistress is never idle, dividing her time between raising this year’s bounty of crops; taking care of her veterinarian husband, Fair; indulging her passion for classic cars; and adding further to her reputation as a nosy neighbor. It starts when Harry’s dear friend Miranda Hogendobber takes her on a leisurely drive that ends in a narrow drainage ditch. The chaos continues when the Very Reverend Herbert Jones’s Chevy pick-up also abruptly goes kaput. But these vehicular mishaps are nothing compared to the much more distressing state of a mechanic discovered by Harry in a local repair shop: His head’s been bashed in.
Despite numerous warnings from her much-loved coterie of friends, human and otherwise, Harry rather quickly surmises that the time has come to pop the hood and conduct her own investigation. Her animal companions see disaster fast approaching but can do little except try their best to protect their foolishly intrepid human. Harry’s race to the truth leads straight to powerful forces determined to avoid scrutiny at any cost—even if it means running Harry Haristeen off the road for good.
A red-shouldered hawk, tiny mouse in her talons, swoopedin front of the 2007 Outback rolling along the wet country road. She landed inan old cherry tree covered in pink blossoms, which fluttered to the ground fromthe hawk’s light impact.
“Will you look at that?” Miranda Hogendobber exclaimedfrom behind the Outback’s wheel, as she drove to the garden center over inWaynesboro.
“Raptors fascinate me, but they scare me, too,” HarryHaristeen remarked. “Poor little mouse.”
“There is that.” Miranda slowed for a sharp curve.
Central Virginia, celebrating high spring, was alsodigging out from torrential rains over the weekend.
Harry, forty and fit, and Miranda, late sixties and notadvertising, had worked together for years at the old Crozet post office.
When Miranda’s husband, George, died, Harry, fresh fromSmith College, took his position as head of the P.O., never thinking the jobwould last nearly two decades. Miranda, despite her loss, showed up every dayto help orient the young woman whom she’d known as a baby. Harry’s youth raisedMiranda’s spirits. In mourning, it’s especially good to have a task. Over theyears they became extremely close, almost a mother–daughter bond. Harry’smother had died when Harry was in her early twenties.
Noticing fields filled with the debris of thenow-subsiding waters, Harry observed, “What a mess. Can’t turn out stock inthat. You just don’t know what else is wrapped up in all those branches andtwigs.”
“Hey, there’s a plastic chair. Might look good in youryard.” Miranda smiled.
“Well,” Harry drawled the word out, like the nativeSoutherner she was.
The younger woman, generous with her time and happy tofeed anyone, could be tight with the buck. Miranda couldn’t resist teasingHarry about a free if ugly chair.
“This is sure better than my 1961 Falcon,” the olderwoman said. “Initially I resisted the Outback’s fancy radio. I mean, this is aused car and had the Sirius capabilities, but I didn’t want to pay extra. Howdid I live without it?” Miranda mused, now a Subaru convert.
“Regular cars can now do more than Mercedes or even Rollsfrom ten years ago. That’s what amazes me: the speed with which thetechnological developments of those high-end cars became commonplace inmuch-lower-priced vehicles. But I still love my old 1978 F-150 and you stilldrive your old Falcon. Hey, want me to wax it?”
“Would you? What a lovely offer.”
“You know how crazy I get with anything with an engine init. I’ll clean the tires, refresh your dash. I’m a one-woman detailingoperation.”
Her eyebrows knitting together, Miranda said, “Uh-oh.”
An odd pop, then a lurch, made holding the Outback on theroad difficult.
“Put on your flashers and brake.”
They slid toward a narrow drainage ditch, and the airbags billowed up inside as the wheel dipped in the ditch. Miranda couldn’t see.
If there was enough room, narrow drainage ditches, aboutone to two feet deep, paralleled the country roads. Occasionally, smallculverts passed the runoff under farm driveways or sharp curves, moving thewater, which could rise very quickly, away from the roads.
Even without vision, Miranda was not one to panic. Shebraked smoothly, and the right side of the car dropped into the ditch. The carrocked a little.
Asleep on the backseat, Harry’s two cats and dog rolledoff.
“Hey!” Pewter, the rotund gray cat, howled.
The tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, and the corgi, Tee Tucker,scrambled back up on the seat.
“No other cars,” the dog noted.
The tiger cat looked around. “Right.”
“I was asleep.” Pewter hauled herself up to sit next toher friends.
“We all were,” Mrs. Murphy drily noted.
“Well—I was more asleep.”
Harry, already outside, having punctured the air bag withthe penknife she always carried in her hip pocket, crouched down to look at theundercarriage. Then she walked to the right front side of the car, front end inthe ditch.
“See anything?” As best she could, Miranda rolled up herair bag, which Harry had also punctured.
Harry called back, “Your right tire is cracked; therubber’s flat, too. Do you have Triple A?”
“I do.” Miranda slid out as Harry helped her. “But I’mgoing to call Safe and Sound instead.”
Safe & Sound, founded and run by Alphonse “Latigo”Bly, was headquartered in Charlottesville. Specializing in auto insurance, thecompany covered the mid-Atlantic and coastal South. Many business peoplebelieved Safe & Sound would go national, sooner or later.
As Miranda called, Harry opened the back door of theOutback.
“Does anyone need to go potsie?”
“Must she put it that way?” Pewter grumbled. “And I amnot about to get my paws wet.”
“We’re okay.” The corgi answered for the rest of theanimals. Not seeing one of her best friends budge, Harry closed the door to therear, then did her best to fold her air bag back into the dash.
Miranda was already on the phone with Safe & Sound,spilling out details, perhaps too many.
With difficulty, Harry opened the glove compartment,pulling out the manual.
Having concluded her phone conversation, Miranda informedHarry, “Someone will be here in twenty minutes. Says don’t call Triple A. He takescare of this stuff all the time.”
“Always best to do business with friends,” Harryobserved. “When you try to save money, you usually waste time or spend evenmore money. Safe and Sound is local.”
Miranda sighed. “The older I get, the more I realize timeis more precious than money.”
Harry, flipping through the manual, stopped at aschematic drawing of the auto frame. “You’re not old. Anyone who sings in thechoir, gardens like you do, and is a member of every ‘do-good’ group in thestate of Virginia isn’t old.” Changing the subject—a habit with dearfriends—Harry declared, “Whatever happened, it wasn’t the engine. It may be adefective wheel, but there was that odd pop sound.”
“Yes. I couldn’t steer after that.”
“Weird.” Harry glanced back at the manual. “Subaru makesgreat cars for the money.” A fresh breeze brought the aroma of blossoms,flowers, and hay coming up, filling her nostrils.
“I’ll be curious to find out what happened. How lucky wewere that the car swerved to the right, not the left into oncoming traffic.Better yet, there wasn’t any traffic.” Miranda exhaled.
“Monday afternoon. Everyone’s at work or in the fields.Herb’s truck is in the shop, too, after his collision last week,” Harry said,thinking of the minister at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, the Very ReverendHerbert Jones. “Things go in threes. Maybe I’m next.”
“I don’t know what happened, but I bet that will costHerb an arm and a leg. Truck’s still at ReNu,” Miranda said, naming the garagefavored by the insurance company. “He was driving his Chevy truck. His ‘bigfib’ truck.”
They laughed, because the Chevy, used for fishing andfilled with tackle, was also filled with fish stories. Oh, how Herb could waxpoetic on the one that got away! He was also all too happy to show what he hadactually snagged, though the cats generally proved more interested in thedisplay than did the humans.
“If you’re going to be stuck on the side of the road,best it happens on a beautiful spring day.” Harry smiled. “We were lucky.Unlike Tara Meola.”
Harry shuddered at the thought of the poor young womankilled last week in the hard rains when a deer smashed into her vehicle.
“True.” Miranda nodded.
“You just never know,” Harry sighed.
After a bitterly cold winter, spring had stayed cooluntil late April. It was now late May. Nights in the mid-forties or mid-fiftiespromised days in the sixties. Late-blooming dogwoods dotted the forests andmanicured lawns. Over pergolas, the wisteria hung pendulous with lavender orwhite blossoms. The roses threatened to riot.
Harry walked through her tended acres. The farmmaintained a healthy balance of crops, hay, and woodlands. Mrs. Murphy, Tucker,and Pewter followed, taking numerous side trips to investigate rabbit warrensand fox dens. The butterflies danced together, swirling, fluttering theirbeautiful veined wings.
Eying them deviously, Pewter crouched down.
“They see you,” Tucker said.
Ignoring the ever-practical dog, Pewter wiggled her graybutt, then leapt upward.
Without breaking rhythm, the butterflies flew away.
“Almost had ’em.”
“Dream on,” the corgi teased.
Mrs. Murphy at her heels, Harry turned. “Come on, youtwo.”
“She’s always giving orders,” Pewter grumbled.
“True,” the handsome dog agreed. “And she also alwaysfeeds us on time.”
Considering this, the fat cat trotted toward Harry, whowas now leaning over to inspect the tops of sunflower plants just breaking thesurface.
“With a little luck, I’m going to have a good year.”Harry smiled, then moved on to her quarter acre of Petit Manseng grapes.
Dr. Thomas Walker, Thomas Jefferson’s guardian afterPeter Jefferson died, tried to grow grapes. Jefferson did, too. The types theywished to grow didn’t flourish. With the passing centuries, vinicultureadvanced, thanks to people on both sides of the Atlantic. The wine industry nowpoured millions upon millions into the area’s coffers, a boon to growers and aboon to Virginia.
The horse business alone contributed $1.2 billion to thestate economy. Not that any horse wishes to be compared to a grape.
Shortro, a very athletic Saddlebred, and Tomahawk, an oldThoroughbred, hung their heads over their paddock fence.
“This will be the first year she can sell her grapes,”Tomahawk noted. “Remember, she had to let the first year’s stay on the vine.”
“Even the broodmares know that.” Shortro laughed.“Harry’s obsessed with her grapes and her sunflowers. She’s just sure both willbring her money.”
In the adjoining paddock, one of the broodmares heardShortro’s comment. “I resent that.”
“Ah, Gigi”—Shortro called the Thoroughbred by her barnname—“I didn’t mean anything by it. You girls are all wrapped up in yourfoals.”
Gigi tossed her dark bay head. “If she makes money, sheoverseeds the pastures in alfalfa. We all want Harry to succeed.”
The other broodmares nodded in agreement. Their foals,the youngest only a month old, hung by their sides.
Blissfully unaware that she was the topic ofconversation, Harry chatted with her house animals. “I can put up scarecrowsand big plastic owls, but, you know, gang, sooner or later the birds figurethat out, so I mustn’t do that too soon. I’ll wait until the grapesappear—tiny—on the vine, then I’ll put that stuff up.” She shook her head inexasperation. “Tell you what, birds and deer can wipe you out.”
“I can take care of the deer.” Tucker puffed out herbroad chest.
“They’re nothing more than big rats.” Pewter was neverone to keep her opinions to herself.
“Oh, but they’re so beautiful.” Mrs. Murphy lovedwatching herds of deer, with fawns still dappled, as they crossed the pasturesand meadows before melting back into the woods.
The 1812 Overture began to play. Harry fished hercellphone out of her jeans’ hip pocket.
Her husband’s deep voice answered, “Good greeting.”
“What do you want?” She laughed.
“You and only you.”
Pewter could hear Fair’s voice, as could the other twoanimals, their senses much sharper than a human’s.
“Oh, Pewter, you’re such a spoilsport.” Tucker wagged hernonexistent tail.
“Heard anything from Miranda?” Fair asked.
“No. Latigo Bly picked us up himself. Drove her home,then me. He said not to worry. The company would take care of everything. Thecar was hauled to ReNu, where there’s a backlog. Latigo said they’ve beenoverwhelmed with claims. There were quite a few accidents during all that rain.”
“Never thought of that.”
“Fair, we aren’t in the insurance business.” She laughed.
Fair believed that if you did business with friends, youhad the advantage of speaking with someone whose native language was English.Although growing fast, Safe & Sound still seemed like a local outfit toHarry’s husband. Fair got his insurance from Hanckle Citizens, as did Harry.Both their parents had used the company and been well served. “We’ll hear aboutit tomorrow. Herb sure had a tussle when he had his little accident. He couldonly use ReNu, when he actually wanted to use Tom Harvey’s garage. He told meSafe and Sound insisted on ReNu, since the repairs are cheaper. That was theonly time I heard our Very Reverend Jones cuss a blue streak.”
Harry smiled. “I’d pay to hear that.”
“Called to tell you that I ran into BoomBoom”—Fair nameda childhood friend of theirs—“and she told me to be sure to tell you if youintend to sell your sunflower seeds this fall, you ought to get down to thehealth-food store right away. Yancy Hampton is buying now.”
“Yancy is what? Why on earth now? The crop’s not nearlyready.”
“She didn’t say. Oops, call on the other line, and itlooks like Big Mim. See you tonight, darlin’.”
Harry hung up with the thought that he’d be late forsupper, as one of Big Mim’s best mares suffered from lactating problems and thefoal needed that milk. If the mare couldn’t produce, Fair would need to find asurrogate. Since the stud fee had been $75,000 for this particular breeding andthe foal was correct, it was imperative to keep the little guy healthy as wellas get Mama back right.
Harry flipped shut her cellphone. She neither liked nordisliked Yancy Hampton, but, for Harry, neutrality bordered on suspicion.Still, money was money. She’d think on it.
The triple-sash windows, wide open, allowed a freshbreeze to fill the comfortable room at St. Luke’s Church, where thevestry-board meeting was now in progress. The administrative offices wereconnected to the church itself by an old stone arcade, so one could walkwithout getting soaked in those sudden hard Virginia rains. The St. Luke’scomplex was built around a lovely symmetrical inner quad, and parts of thechurch were some two hundred thirty years old. The entire site radiated calmand encouraged contemplation.
The early parishioners and pastor rested in a largerectangular cemetery behind the huge quad at a lower level. This lower largesquare was surrounded by a row of eighty red oaks, in front of which a borderof climbing roses cascaded over the stone retaining wall. The current pastor’sliving quarters anchored the far southern side of the large outer quad. TheVery Reverend Jones’s fishing gear could be seen leaning against the garage. Itwas a hopeful sight.
Also attending the vestry-board meeting were the Lutherancats, Elocution, Lucy Fur, and Cazenovia. As the humans—Harry beingone—discussed and occasionally argued about funds or the social calendar, thefeline parishioners languidly sprawled on the windowsills. Their kind were oncegods in ancient Egypt, but all had the good sense to keep that to themselves.Then, too, they loved their reverend. Why upset him with a competingtheological view? Humans could understand so little of cat communication. Soall felines—not just Elocution, Lucy Fur, and Cazenovia—recognized that thefeline–human relationship was often one-way. They pitied the two-leggedcreatures, but when that tin of Fancy Feast was opened, they utterly adoredthem.
“The riding mower needs a new air filter, and the bladesmust be sharpened.” Susan Tucker, Harry’s childhood friend, now in charge ofbuildings and grounds, read from her monthly report. “This isn’t terriblyexpensive. Jimmy Carter is excellent and more than reasonable, but because ofthat there’s a long, long wait time.”
“We can’t let the grass grow. It will look awful.”BoomBoom Craycroft, a smashing beauty, knew people would grumble about unkemptgrounds, and not just parishioners.
“Can’t we borrow a mower?” Harry sensibly inquired.
Craig Newby, in his first year on the board, replied, “In theory, yes, but everyone is mowing. It’s been a wet spring. Some people are mowing three times a week.”