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
Mary Minor Haristeen, Harry to her friends, trotted along the railroad track. Following at her heels were Mrs. Murphy, her wise and willful tiger cat, and Tee Tucker, her Welsh corgi. Had you asked the cat and the dog they would have told you that Harry belonged to them, not vice versa, but there was no doubt that Harry belonged to the little town of Crozet, Virginia. At thirty-three she was the youngest postmistress Crozet had ever had, but then no one else really wanted the job.
Crozet nestles in the haunches of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The town proper consists of Railroad Avenue, which parallels the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad track, and a street intersecting it called the Whitehall Road. Ten miles to the east reposes the rich and powerful small city of Charlottesville, which, like a golden fungus, is spreading east, west, north, and south. Harry liked Charlottesville just fine. It was the developers she didn't much like, and she prayed nightly they'd continue to think of Crozet and its three thousand inhabitants as a dinky little whistle stop on the route west and ignore it.
A gray clapboard building with white trim, next to the rail depot, housed the post office. Next to that was a tiny grocery store and a butcher shop run by "Market" Shiflett. Everyone appreciated this convenience because you could pick up your milk, mail, and gossip in one central location.
Harry unlocked the door and stepped inside just as the huge railroad clock chimed seven beats for 7:00 a.m. Mrs. Murphy scooted under her feet and Tucker entered at a more leisurely pace.
An empty mail bin invited Mrs. Murphy. She hopped in. Tucker complained that she couldn't jump in.
"Tucker, hush. Mrs. Murphy will be out in a minutewon't you?" Harry leaned over the bin.
Mrs. Murphy stared right back up at her and said, "Fat chance. Let Tucker bitch. She stole my catnip sockie this morning."
All Harry heard was a meow.
The corgi heard every word. "You're a real shit, Mrs. Murphy. You've got a million of those socks."
Mrs. Murphy put her paws on the edge of the bin and peeped over. "So what. I didn't say you could play with any of them."
"Stop that, Tucker." Harry thought the dog was growling for no reason at all.
A horn beeped outside. Rob Collier, driving the huge mail truck, was delivering the morning mail. He'd return at four that afternoon for pickup.
"You're early," Harry called to him.
"Figured I'd cut you a break." Rob smiled. "Because in exactly one hour Mrs. Hogendobber will be standing outside this door huffing and puffing for her mail." He dumped two big duffel bags on the front step and went back to the truck. Harry carried them inside.
"Hey, I'd have done that for you."
"I know," Harry said. "I need the exercise."
Tucker appeared in the doorway.
"Hello, Tucker," Rob greeted the dog. Tucker wagged her tail. "Well, neither rain nor sleet nor snow, et cetera." Rob slid behind the wheel.
"It's seventy-nine degrees at seven, Rob. I wouldn't worry about the sleet if I were you."
He smiled and drove off.
Harry opened the first bag. Mrs. Hogendobber's mail was on the top, neatly bound with a thick rubber band. Rob, if he had the time, put Mrs. Hogendobber's mail in a pile down at the main post office in Charlottesville. Harry slipped the handful of mail into the mail slot. She then began sorting through the rest of the stuff: bills, enough mail-order catalogues to provide clothing for every man, woman, and child in the United States, and of course personal letters and postcards.
Courtney Shiflett, Market's fourteen-year-old daughter, received a postcard from Sally McIntire, away at camp. Kelly Craycroft, the handsome, rich paving contractor, was the recipient of a shiny postcard from Paris. It was a photo of a beautiful angel with wings. Harry flipped it over. It was Oscar Wilde's tombstone in the Piere Lachaise cemetery. On the back was the message "Wish you were here." No signature. The handwriting was computer script, like signatures on letters from your congressperson. Harry sighed and slipped it into Kelly's box. It must be heaven to be in Paris.
Snowcapped Alps majestically covered a postcard addressed to Harry from her lifelong friend Lindsay Astrove.
Arrived in Zurich. No gnomes in sight. Good flight. Very tired. Will write some more later.
It must be heaven to be in Zurich.
Bob Berryman, the largest stock trailer dealer in the South, got a registered letter from the IRS. Harry gingerly put it in his box.
Harry's best friend, Susan Tucker, received a large package from James River Traders, probably those discounted cotton sweaters she'd ordered. Susan, prudent, waited for the sales. Susan was the "mother" of Tee Tucker, named Tee because Susan gave her to Harry on the seventh tee at the Farmington Country Club. Mrs. Murphy, two years the dog's senior, was not amused, but she came to accept it.
A Gary Larsen postcard attracted Harry's attention. Harry turned it over. It was addressed to Fair Haristeen, her soon-to-be-ex-husband, but not soon enough. "Hang in there, buddy" was the message from Stafford Sanburne. Harry jammed the postcard in Fair's box.
Crozet was still small enough that people felt compelled to take sides during a divorce. Perhaps even New York City was that small. At any rate, Harry reeled from fury to sorrow on a daily basis as she watched former friends choose sides, and most were choosing Fair.
After all, she had left him, thereby outraging other women in Albemarle County stuck in a miserable marriage but lacking the guts to go. That was a lot of women.
"Thank God they didn't have children," clucked many tongues behind Harry's back and to her face. Harry agreed with them. With children the goddamned divorce would take a year. Without, the limbo lasted only six months and she was two down.
By the time the clock struck eight the two duffel bags were folded over, the boxes filled, the old pine plank floor swept clean.
Mrs. George Hogendobber, an evangelical Protestant, picked up her mail punctually at 8:00 a.m. each morning except Sunday, when she was evangeling and the post office was closed. She fretted a great deal over evolution. She was determined to prove that humans were not descended from apes but, rather, created in God's own image.
Mrs. Murphy fervently hoped that Mrs. Hogendobber would prove her case, because linking man and ape was an insult to the ape. Of course, the good woman would die of shock to discover that God was a cat and therefore humans were off the board entirely.
That large Christian frame was lurching itself up the stairs. She pushed open the door with her characteristic vigor.
"Morning, Mrs. Hogendobber. Did you have a good weekend?"
"Apart from a splendid service at the Holy Light Church, no." She yanked out her mail. "Josiah DeWitt stopped by as I came home and gave me his sales pitch to part with Mother's Louis XVI bed, canopies and all. And on the Sabbath. The man is a servant of Mammon."
"Yesbut he knows good stuff when he sees it." Harry flattered her.
"H-m-m, Louis this and Louis that. Too many Louis's over there in France. Came to a bad end, too, every one of them. I don't think the French have produced anyone of note since Napoleon."
"What about Claudius Crozet?"
This stopped Mrs. Hogendobber for a moment. "Believe you're right. Created one of the engineering wonders of the nineteenth century. I stand corrected. But that's the only one since Napoleon."
The town of Crozet was named for this same Claudius Crozet, born on December 31, 1789. Trained as an engineer, he fought with the French in Russia and was captured on the hideous retreat from Moscow. So charmed was his Russian captor that he promptly removed Claudius to his huge estate and set him up with books and engineering tools. Claudius performed services for his captor until Frenchmen were allowed to return home. They say the Russian, a prince of the blood, rewarded the young captain with jewels, gold, and silver.
Joining Napoleon's second run at power proved dangerous, and Crozet immigrated to America. If he had a fortune, he carefully concealed it and lived off his salary. His greatest feat was cutting four railroad tunnels through the Blue Ridge Mountains, a task begun in 1850 and completed eight years later.
The first tunnel was west of Crozet: the Greenwood tunnel, 536 feet, and sealed after 1944, when a new tunnel was completed. Over the eastern portal of the Greenwood tunnel, carved in stone, is the legend: c. crozet, chief engineer; e. t. d. myers, resident engineer; john kelly, contractor. a.d. 1852.
The second tunnel, Brooksville, 864 feet, was also sealed after 1944. This was a treacherous tunnel because the rock proved soft and unreliable.
The third tunnel was the Little Rock, 100 feet long and still in use by the C & O.
The fourth was the Blue Ridge, a long 4,723 feet.
Unused tracks ran to the sealed tunnels. They built things to last in the nineteenth century, for none of the rails had ever warped.
Crozet was reputed to have hidden his fortune in one of the tunnels. This story was taken seriously enough by the C & O Railroad that they carefully inspected the discontinued tunnels before sealing them after World War II. No treasure was ever found.
Mrs. Hogendobber left immediately after being corrected. She passed Ned Tucker, Susan's husband, on his way in. They exchanged pleasantries. Tee Tucker, barking merrily, rushed out to greet Ned. Mrs. Murphy climbed out of the mail bin and jumped onto the counter. She liked Ned. Everyone did.
He winked at Harry. "Well, have you been born again?"
"No, and I wasn't born yesterday either." She laughed.
"Mrs. H. was unusually terse this morning." He grabbed a huge handful of mail, most of it for the law office of Sanburne, Tucker, and Anderson.
"Count your blessings," Harry said.
"I do, every day." Ned smiled. Escaping a tirade of salvation on this hot July morning was just one blessing and Ned was a happy enough man to know there'd be many more. He stooped to rub Tucker's ears.
"You can rub mine, too," Mrs. Murphy pleaded.
"He likes me better than you." Tucker relished being the center of attention.
"Don't you love the sounds they make?" Ned kept scratching. "Sometimes I think they're almost human."
"Can you believe that?" Mrs. Murphy licked her front paws. Being human, the very thought! Humans lacked claws, fur, and their senses were dismal. Why, she could hear a doodlebug burrow in the sand. Furthermore, she understood everything humans said in their guttural way. They rarely understood her or other animals, much less one another. To get a reaction out of even Harry, who she confessed she did love, she had to resort to extravagant behavior.
"Yeah, I don't know what I'd do without my kids. Speaking of which, how're yours?"
Ned's eyes darted for a moment. "Harry, I'm beginning to think that sending Brookie to private school was a mistake. She's twelve going on twenty, and a perfect little snob too. Susan wants her to return to St. Elizabeth's in the fall but I say we yank her out of there and pack her back to public middle school with her brother. There she has to learn how to get along with all different kinds of people. Her grades fell and that's when Susan decided she was going to St. Elizabeth's. We went through public school, we learned, and we turned out all right."
"It's a tough call, Ned. They weren't selling drugs in the bathroom when you were in school."
"They were by the time we got to Crozet High. You had the good sense to ignore it."
"No, I didn't have the money to buy the stuff. Had I been one of those rich little subdivision kidslike todaywho's to say?" Harry shrugged.
Ned sighed. "I'd hate to be a child now."
Bob Berryman interrupted. "Hey!" Ozzie, his hyper Australian shepherd, tagged at his heels.
"Hey, Berryman," Harry and Ned both called back to him out of politeness. Berryman's personality hovered on simmer and often flamed up to boil.
Mrs. Murphy and Tucker said hello to Ozzie.
"Hotter than the hinges of hell." Berryman sauntered over to his box and withdrew the mail, including the registered letter slip. "Shit, Harry, gimme a pen." She handed him a leaky ballpoint. He signed the slip and glared at the IRS notice. "The world is going to hell in a handbasket and the goddamned IRS controls the nation! I'd kill every one of those sons of bitches given half the chance!"
Ned walked out of the post office waving goodbye.
Berryman gulped some air, forced a smile, and calmed himself by petting Mrs. Murphy, who liked him although most humans found him brusque. "Well, I've got worms to turn and eggs to lay." He pushed off.
Bob's booted feet clomped on the first step as he closed the front door. As she didn't hear a second footfall, Harry glanced up from her stamp pads.
Walking toward Bob was Kelly Craycroft. His chestnut hair, gleaming in the light, looked like burnished bronze. Kelly, an affable man, wasn't smiling.
Wagging his tail, Ozzie stood next to Bob. Bob still didn't move. Kelly arrived at the bottom step. He waited a moment, said something to Bob which Harry couldn't hear, and then moved up to the second step, whereupon Bob pushed him down the steps.
Furious, his face darkening, Kelly scrambled to his feet. "You asshole!"
Harry heard that loud and clear.
Bob, without replying, sauntered down the steps, but Kelly, not a man to be trifled with, grabbed Bob's shoulder.
"You listen to me and you listen good!" Kelly shouted.
Harry wanted to move out from behind the counter. Good manners got the better of her. It would be too obvious. Instead she strained every fiber to hear what was being said. Tucker and Mrs. Murphy, hardly worried about how they'd look to others, bumped into each other as they ran to the door.
This time Bob raised his voice. "Take your hand off my shoulder."
Kelly squeezed harder and Bob balled up his fist, hitting him in the stomach.
Kelly doubled over but caught his breath. Staying low, he lunged, grabbing Bob's legs and throwing him to the pavement.
Ozzie, moving like a streak, sank his teeth into Kelly's left leg. Kelly hollered and let go of Bob, who jumped up.
"No" was all Bob had to say to Ozzie, and the dog immediately obeyed. Kelly stayed on the ground. He pulled up his pants leg. Ozzie's bite had broken the skin. A trickle of blood ran into his sock.