“As feline collaborators go, you couldn’t ask for better than Sneaky Pie Brown.”—The New York Times Book Review
With the New Year just around the corner, winter has transformed the cozy Blue Ridge Mountain community of Crozet, Virginia, into a living snow globe. It’s the perfect setting for Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen to build a new work shed designed by her dear friend, local architect Gary Gardner. But the natural serenity is shattered when out of the blue, right in front of Harry and Deputy Cynthia Cooper, and in broad daylight, Gary is shot to death by a masked motorcyclist.
Outraged by the brazen murder, Harry begins to burrow into her friend’s past—and unearths a pattern of destructive greed reaching far back into Virginia’s post-Revolutionary history. When Harry finds incriminating evidence, the killer strikes again.
Heedless of her own safety, Harry follows a trail of clues to a construction site in Richmond, where the discovery of mysterious remains has recently halted work. Aided as always by her loyal, if opinionated, companions, crime-solving cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and Tee Tucker the Corgi, Harry hunts for a link between the decades-old dead, the recently violently deceased—and ancient secrets that underlie everything. And while other deaths are narrowly averted in a flurry of fur, the killer remains at large—ever more desperate and dangerous. The deep-rooted legacy of corruption that’s been exposed can never be buried again. But if Harry keeps pursuing the terrible truth, she may be digging her own grave.
Praise for Probable Claws
“Series fans will know exactly what to expect: animals who talk to one another, [Rita Mae] Brown’s personal views on an array of topics, and a healthy dose of Virginia history.”—Publishers Weekly
“The animal crew, joined by a surprising new addition, is in rare form. . . . Beautiful illustrations bring the pet personalities to life.”—Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Sneaky Pie Brown, a tiger cat born somewhere in Albemarle County, Virginia, was discovered by Rita Mae Brown at her local SPCA. They have collaborated on numerous Mrs. Murphy mysteries—in addition to Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers and Sneaky Pie for President.
Read an Excerpt
December 23, 2016
“It’s a madhouse out there.” Harry leaned on the checkout counter at Over the Moon bookstore in Crozet.
“Can’t complain. Business has been good.” Anne de Vault, the owner, glanced up as more customers entered the store as if to prove her point.
The store, finally settled in its new location, boasted good floor display space as well as wall bookcases. Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, Harry’s two cats, and Tucker, the corgi, inspected the books closest to the floor.
“No books on catnip,” Pewter, the gray cat, complained.
“Who would write about catnip?” the dog wondered.
“An herbalist,” Pewter replied. “Humans drink catnip tea. It’s a waste of good dried leaves but they do drink it. Catnip is meant to be chewed, inhaled, and then rolled in.” This was pronounced with authority.
Harry watched as customers picked up books, put some down, kept others. There was no accounting for taste.
“Even the post office parking lot is full. I was lucky. Just as I pulled in here a big SUV, big as in big as the state of Illinois, pulled out. Before I start browsing, did my order for Susan come in?”
“Capability Brown. In,” Anne replied.
“Susan is getting as serious about gardening as she is about golf. Saw the book written by the Duchess of Rutland. Thought she’d like it.” Harry commented on one of her best friend’s deepening interest in gardening, and who better to write about it than an Englishwoman?
The English excelled at gardening. Rich, poor, in-between, they had the touch.
“The book is enormous. Lots of photographs, drawings.” Anne placed it on the counter.
“Give me a minute to cruise. I need to find some other gifts and nothing is better than a book.”
The door opened again.
Anne called out, “Lisa, your books are in.”
Lisa Roudabush, mid-thirties, medium height, was the director of the Albemarle County office of Nature First, a statewide environmental nonprofit. The headquarters was in Richmond but small offices were in every town with a university since the young were environmentally conscious.
Raynell Archer, Lisa’s assistant, began to turn the card cylinder looking for clever cards. They had walked into the store together, both lingering.
“Harry.” Lisa smiled. “Come to the office after you buy your books and I buy mine. Gary Gardner is almost finished and it’s a terrific design.”
Raynell, now looking at books displayed artfully on a table, added, “Harry, the walls run diagonally.”
“Do they?” Harry was curious.
“Well, I need to go to his office to pick a few last plans, approve more drawings, but we are nearly finished.” Lisa would be glad when the remodeling was over.
“He’s doing a work shed for me. It’s a gift from my husband. Isn’t Gary fun to work with?”
“He is.” Lisa looked out the large front windows, one of the best features of the store. “Are we ever going to see the sun again?”
“Spring,” Anne called from the counter. “And it’s supposed to start snowing again tomorrow and on Christmas. A white Christmas.”
“I tell myself winter can be beautiful but I never quite believe it.” Lisa walked to the counter where Anne had piled up her ordered books.
Lisa took the first one off the pile, a history of architecture in Richmond. Nature First, while primarily an environmental group, also regularly joined forces with other nonprofits to save historic buildings. The organization was also keen on the epochs before colonization, even before human life.
Lisa licked her forefinger to turn the page.
“My great-aunt used to do that.” Harry laughed.
“Are you telling me I’m an old lady? I’m younger than you,” Lisa fired back as she turned another page.
“Well, yes you are,” Harry replied, enjoying the exchange. “But I’ve only ever seen old people do that.”
Lisa motioned Harry over. “Look here. Pages always stick together. Licking my finger is easier than trying to slide my fingernail between pages or rubbing them together to pop them apart.” She demonstrated her thesis then said, “If I buy a book I have to leaf through it for a few pages, get a glimpse of it. Then I’ll read it later.”
Anne seconded this, adding, “Harry, your Mixed Role Productions calendars are here, too. You’re behind this year. Usually you order them in July.”
“July?” Raynell asked, having joined the others at the counter. “Why order a calendar in July?”
Harry replied, “They run August to August. And they’re eight and a quarter by five and a half inches so I can’t overlook them. See? Perfect size. If I order them in July they arrive in time for August.”
She removed shrink-wrap from the black-covered calendar with silver lettering that read 2017–2018, then demonstrated. “Big squares for each month, and then the days for the month are on lined pages, three days to a page. There’s a monthly financial record, too. A special occasions page is opposite the month at a glance. I got hooked. Here. Merry Christmas.”
“Harry, I can’t take your calendar,” Lisa demurred.
“I always order extras. You use it for a month and you’ll get hooked, too. And they aren’t expensive, which is the best part.”
Lisa took the light green–covered calendar offered her; they came in many colors. “Thank you.”
Harry examined Lisa’s books, read the titles on the spines. “Let’s see, Architecture in Richmond before 1800. Birding books and books on dinosaurs. Are you bringing them back? Nature First isn’t bringing them back, are you? Have you found some DNA?”
“Funny you should bring that up. I believe the day will come when that happens. Look at the uproar over that perfectly preserved mastodon,” Lisa replied.
“No need to dig. Those are in the Senate,” Harry kidded.
“If you only knew some of the people we have to work with in the House of Delegates. They don’t read. They deny what they don’t know. They love to exercise their little bit of power. You’d think they would at least read history and political theory. I always hope the level of intelligence is higher in Washington.”
“Oh, Lisa, I think the results speak for themselves.” Harry shrugged.
Raynell, close to Lisa’s age, piped up. “They deny climate change. They fail to realize how significant the architecture is in parts of Richmond. It’s maddening to work with such limited people. All they think about is their next election.”
“You’re right about that,” Lisa agreed as she closed the book about architecture. “There aren’t many really old buildings left since Richmond was burned in 1865. A few. They are so beautiful. The new stuff, not so much. But the scarcity means we must protect them, the detail alone on some of these structures is beautiful.”
“Marvella Lawson, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts power, has promised to take me to look at some of the newer things, including those under construction,” Harry said.
“We fought the demolition of the Kushner Building,” Raynell said. “Didn’t do a bit of good. Big money. These tall buildings can interfere with nesting and the lights at night confuse migrating birds. Big money doesn’t care about anything but more profit.”
“Richmond doesn’t have a good development plan. Charlottesville is even worse.” Lisa sighed. “I’m beginning to think they hire the architect who will build the ugliest thing ever, like the giant pickle in London.”
“That is pretty awful,” Harry agreed. “I always think the English know better and now they are as bad as everyone else. Old London was so much prettier than New London.”
“Well, they’ve mucked up Philadelphia, too. That used to be such a unique environment. Now it looks like every other city.” Raynell’s voice carried a hint of venom.
“Are you from Philadelphia?” Harry asked.
“I went to Swarthmore.”
“Ah, good school.”
“Where did you go, Harry?” Raynell asked.
That more or less settled the college discussion. It’s hard to beat one of the Seven Sisters. But Anne thought otherwise.
“Well, I went to Denison.” Anne beamed at Harry. “Not Ivy League but I am proud of my alma mater.”
“Back to Richmond.” Lisa tapped the architecture books. “It’s estimated that four hundred thousand people will move to the city in the next ten years. Where are we going to put them so they won’t destroy natural habitats?”
“How about on riverboats?” Harry remarked.
“Why would anyone live on a boat?” Pewter, tired of being in the store, grumbled.
“Maybe they like to fish.” Tucker was practical.
“Houseboats can be pretty,” Mrs. Murphy said. “Remember that old movie Harry and Fair watched? Houseboat.”
“Hollywood.” Pewter sniffed. “Of course the boat looked good. They need to make more movies about cats.”
Slyly, Tucker responded, “I’m sure they’re planning that right now.”
Pewter bared her fangs. Harry saw it just in time. “Don’t you dare. I’ll never bring you in this store again.”
“Bother.” But Pewter did close her mouth.
Anne put a bow on the large paper bag. “Here. You can reuse it.” She handed it to Lisa.
“I don’t see any presents for me,” Pewter complained.
“You don’t read,” the corgi fired at her.
“You can’t read. At least I can.” The fat gray cat sniffed.
“Oh, patting at the pages of a book or the computer screen isn’t reading,” Tucker replied.
That fast, Pewter boxed the corgi’s upright ears. “Don’t you insult me, you illiterate cur.”
“Stop it. We’ll get thrown out of the store. I like it here,” Mrs. Murphy told them.
Both Harry and Lisa carried their treasures in large shopping bags. Harry followed Lisa and Raynell to the Nature First office down the hall from Over the Moon, as they were both located in a new commercial building.
“Hello, Felipe,” Lisa called to the number two man in the organization.
Looking up from his computer, he said, “What a haul. You must have bought out the store. You, too, Raynell, but you showed a little more restraint. Oh, hello, Harry, and your posse, too.” He smiled at the pets.
“I’m here!” A nine-week-old Irish wolfhound puppy, already substantial, raced out from Lisa’s office.
Pewter puffed up. “Don’t touch me!”
The puppy stopped cold.
“Just ignore her,” Tucker counseled the youngster. “Who are you?”
“Pirate. Lisa bought me and she is taking me to work but I have to be quiet and I have to ask to go to the bathroom.”
“Good idea,” commented Mrs. Murphy, who knew how big the Irish wolfhound would grow to be.
Harry set her bag on a corner table, knelt down. “Hello, puppy. Aren’t you beautiful.”
Pirate ambled right over, placed his head in Harry’s hand. “You are a nice person. And you’re walking with Lisa, you have to be a nice person. I start school after Christmas. I have a new collar and leash.”
“Lisa, he’s beautiful. When did you decide to have a dog?”
“I’ve been thinking about it. I live alone. I like dogs but I was always on the go. Now that I’m settled I thought this is the time. Well, come on, let me show you what Gary’s done.”
Raynell ducked into a small office near the front door.
The two walked through the changes Gary had made, which mostly involved moving or angling walls. Clever. His alterations brought in more light, taking full advantage of the many windows in the new building. Although an architect, he also guided Lisa and Felipe to interesting furniture, comfortable chairs in natural colors. Gorgeous photographs of Virginia’s wonders covered the walls: the falls in Richmond, the Chesapeake Bay, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the bridges of Norfolk and Virginia Beach that ran over to the long spit of land, the Eastern Shore. The combination of bridges and tunnels traversing the bay were an engineering wonder. Then again, Virginia was home to one of the Eight Engineering Wonders of the World, the four tunnels that Claudius Crozet dug out of the Blue Ridge Mountains for the new form of transportation, railroads. He had no dynamite. It was all done by hand. Two of the tunnels remained in service. The other two were being reclaimed and rehabilitated as part of a walking tour. Another large photograph of a bald eagle soaring over the James River, sun glistening off his wings, had pride of place when you walked into Lisa’s office.
“This is wonderful,” Harry exclaimed.
“We’re almost done. Gary wants to come make sure the cabinets fit in. You simply touch the front of them and they open.”
“No kidding.” Harry reached out, pressed the front and sure enough the cabinet opened noiselessly.
“They’re enameled. That was expensive but it looks fabulous,” Lisa enthused.
“Do you like puppies?” Pirate asked Mrs. Murphy.
“I do as long as you don’t slobber on me,” the tiger answered.
“Puppies are disgusting. They poop, they pee, they slobber, they throw up, they chew. Ugh!” Pewter bared her fangs.
“Ignore her,” Tucker again told the puppy.
“Do you live with her?” Pirate wondered.
“I don’t have a choice.”
“You would be bored without me. Bored to tears. You have no new thoughts. You rely on me.” Pewter lifted a paw to lick it, languidly.
“What about the other kitty?” the large puppy inquired.
“We’re friends.” Tucker smiled as Mrs. Murphy came over to sit with the corgi while the humans babbled on.
Lisa was showing Harry her revitalized office. Sleek, the only knickknacks were little rubber dinosaurs and some detailed decoys.
The bookshelves, also enameled, reflected light. Behind a row of dinosaur and raptor books two long black legs poked out. Harry, ever curious, peeked behind the books, jumped back.
“Lifelike! What’s a rubber tarantula doing here?”
“I actually had Mildred, I call her Mildred, on the shelf, but Raynell hates spiders, so I sort of hid her.”
“I hate spiders, too,” Pewter pronounced.
Pirate asked, “Why?”
“Too many legs. If you walk into a web it takes time to clean it off. Those strands are sticky,” Pewter said.
“Oh.” The big-little puppy, wide-eyed, looked at the fat cat, who was always happy to be the authority.
Harry, now back at the entrance door, knelt to again pet the puppy. “Lisa, the best friends come on four feet.”
“I believe it.”
“Bye,” Tucker and Mrs. Murphy said to the puppy while Pewter strolled out in front of everyone.
“Come back. We can play!” Pirate wagged his tail.
“We’ll try. Wish we could drive.” Mrs. Murphy laughed.
“Merry Christmas, Lisa. Merry Christmas, Felipe and Raynell.”
“You, too,” they called back.
The four hurried to Harry’s Volvo station wagon as it began to sleet, now turning to snow. The precipitation wasn’t heavy but it was cold. Harry wanted to get home before the roads turned slick as an eel.
“Turn on the heater,” Pewter demanded.
“She will. You have a fur coat. She doesn’t,” Tucker reminded the fatty.
“Humans lack fur, claws, sharp teeth. They are so slow. I mean they can’t run. Hearing, pfft. But their eyes are good.” Pewter added something positive.