Tail Gait

A Mrs. Murphy Mystery Paperback

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There’s nothing like a tail well told. Rita Mae Brown and her feline co-author Sneaky Pie Brown return with an all-new mystery featuring Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, crime-solving cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and ever-faithful Tee Tucker the corgi.
 
TAIL GAIT
 
Spring has sprung in Crozet, Virginia—a time for old friends to gather and bid farewell to the doldrums of winter. Harry and her husband, Fair, are enjoying a cozy dinner with some of the town’s leading citizens, including beloved University of Virginia history professor Greg “Ginger” McConnell and several members of UVA’s celebrated 1959 football team. But beneath the cloak of conviviality lurks a sinister specter from the distant past that threatens to put all their lives in jeopardy.
 
When Professor McConnell is found murdered on the golf course the next day—gunned down in broad daylight by an unseen killer—no one can fathom a motive, let alone find a suspect. Just as Harry and her furry cohorts begin nosing into the case, however, a homeless UVA alum confesses to the crime. Trouble is, no one believes that the besotted former All-American could have done the foul deed—especially after Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker make another gruesome discovery.
 
As the questions surrounding Ginger’s death pile up, Harry’s search for answers takes her down the fascinating byways of Virginia’s Revolutionary past. The professor was something of a sleuth himself, it seems, and the centuries-old mystery he was unraveling may well have put a target on his back. As Harry edges closer to identifying an elusive killer, her animal companions sense danger—and rally to find a way to keep Harry from disappearing into history.
 
Praise for the Mrs. Murphy mysteries
 
“As feline collaborators go, you couldn’t ask for better than Sneaky Pie Brown.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Mrs. Murphy mysteries are fun, sweet, and beautifully adventurous.”Bustle
 
“Brown [is] the queen of the talking animal cozy.”Publishers Weekly


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise for the Mrs. Murphy mysteries
 
“As feline collaborators go, you couldn’t ask for better than Sneaky Pie Brown.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Mrs. Murphy mysteries are fun, sweet, and beautifully adventurous.”Bustle
 
“Brown [is] the queen of the talking animal cozy.”Publishers Weekly


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

1

October 7, 1777

Bemis Heights, near Saratoga, New York

Lieutenant Charles West slipped through the heavy woods with a handful of his men, all selected marksmen, part of Captain Alexander Fraser’s 34th Regiment. Below, other soldiers of Fraser’s 34th Regiment could be heard firing at the Continental forces. Any hope of the brave British lieutenant’s piercing the American rebels’ line was fading. The barrage was intense. Wearing green coats helped to conceal West’s Rangers, but the enemy knew the territory and had learned a great deal about fighting in such terrain from the Mohawks. The Continentals also carried rifles made in Kentucky or Pennsylvania, far more accurate than the British-issued musket, Brown Bess.

Senses razor-sharp, the nineteen-year-old lieutenant hoped to push forward, verify the flank of the rebel army, and report back to Captain Fraser. With only twenty men and his dog, Piglet, he searched for the back of that enemy flank. If only he could find it, then surely some of them would survive and return to their commander with that vital information.

Lieutenant Charles West, intrepid, and his men stealthily moved forward. At the young man’s heels trod his alert herding dog, a tough little fellow favored by the Welsh. While not Welsh, West hailed from the borderland with Scotland, had played as a child on Hadrian’s Wall. He’d learned to prize the ability of corgis.

Piglet was named for the king. With senses far superior to his master’s, he was accustomed to rifle fire and the boom of cannons. Stopping for a moment, he lifted his head and inhaled. A low growl and raised hackles alerted the dog’s beloved master. Charles halted. Looking down at Piglet bristling, he held up his hand for a halt. The twenty men under West’s command did as ordered but for Angus MacKenzie, twenty yards ahead.

A shot rang out directly in front of Angus, then a second to his left. The sturdy Scot dropped.

“If you want to live, stop,” a deep voice called from the woods while Angus struggled for breath. “Throw down your muskets.”

West looked around. A shot was fired over his head, then another and another. He put down his musket and hurried to Angus’s side. The men in West’s far rear carefully withdrew and were soon out of sight. Four other British soldiers remained with the lieutenant.

“MacKenzie, hang on, man.” Charles knelt to lift the older man’s grizzled head so gently the wounded man smiled.

Piglet came over to lick Angus’s face.

“Piglet, no,” Charles softly said as nearby a rebel rifleman rose from the brush and moved toward him and his men.

“I’ll carry you to wherever they take us,” West assured poor Angus.

Angus tried to smile through clenched teeth as he finally was able to mutter, “No time.”

Lieutenant West laid Angus gently down as Piglet whined a bit. Angus was gone. The officer in charge of the rebels, a young man close to Charles West in age, took note of the care his counterpart evidenced toward a simple soldier.

“Lieutenant,” the dark fellow said. “You and your men are my prisoners.”

“Charles West.” He inclined his head slightly.

The handsome young fellow prayed no one would be foolish. The four men close to Lieutenant West laid down their arms. The marksmen had done all that was asked of them.

With a flick of his hand, Captain John Schuyler sent some of his men to search for the other fleeing Brits. Six stayed behind with the captain.

Captain Schuyler strode up to Charles. Glancing down at the handsome flintlock pistol shoved into the lieutenant’s breeches, Schuyler plucked it out.

“A beauty.” Tall like Charles, Schuyler looked him right in the eye.

“A parting gift from my father.”

Stuffing the captured sidearm behind his belt, Captain Schuyler smiled broadly. “The fortunes of war.”

Oddly enough, the two strapping fellows were mirror images of each other, even as Schuyler’s black hair and brown eyes were in contrast to West’s blue eyes and blond hair.

Knowing he could not possibly keep a sidearm as a prisoner, West was stung by the loss of his one prized paternal gift. However, West had more important worries.

“I shall assume,” Charles said, “that there is no time to bury MacKenzie?”

“I’m afraid not,” Captain Schuyler replied. He heard intensified gunfire below, as well as a bugle call abruptly silenced. “But you may retrieve from the body any such keepsake to send to his family.”

“Thank you, Sir. Most kind.” Charles again knelt down. Removing a letter from the inside of the dead man’s green coat, he also took a worn wedding band off Angus’s left hand. Feeling through his pockets, West pulled out a few coins, which he handed to Captain Schuyler.

The darker officer gave them back. “No, no, send what you can to his wife,” he said, for he noticed the wedding ring. “From the prison camp, you’ll be able to send letters, receive same and funds.” Observing West’s quizzical expression, Schuyler said, “We aren’t savages, man.”

West stood up, Piglet intently studying his master’s face. “What you are, Captain, are damned good soldiers.”

Grins appeared on the rebel faces. These cocky Brits thought they’d roll right over them, or, even worse, they thought most colonists would stick with the Crown. Hearing the battle raging below, the Americans liked the acknowledgment.

Captain Schuyler and his men surrounded his small harvest of captives. “Jacob, each one of you men take a musket.” Jacob and the others did as ordered.

The long march to an uncertain future began.

As an officer, Captain Schuyler walked with his British counterpart. He was intent on showing these people the rebellious colonists were civilized and understood the rules of war. Looking down at the corgi, he asked. “What is his rank?”

Despite himself, West smiled. “Private Piglet, Captain, eager to do my bidding.”

Voice low, slightly conspiratorial, Captain Schuyler replied, “Ah, now there’s a good soldier.”

Piglet, pleased, trotted along. Cannon fire could be heard at a distance, mostly from the rebels’ side. The British struggled to haul their big guns over the uneven ground. The little fellow was not afraid. He had liked Angus, would remember him in his fashion, for the older man would occasionally share a biscuit with him, speak to him in his accent, a soothing sound.

Piglet knew war as well as any canine, and he would protect Charles to the death. Through searing heat, driving rain, biting sleet, and heavy snows, Piglet didn’t care, as long as he was with his young man, a battle-hardened young man with a heart of gold. Even this terrible war couldn’t kill that, and Piglet knew it. But then dogs know the things about humans that humans work to conceal from other humans.

On that day, October 7, 1777, Fate tossed together three lives. Lieutenant Charles West, Captain John Schuyler, and Piglet, three lives that would be entwined until their own deaths years later. What the American Captain Schuyler knew that neither Lieutenant West nor Piglet could imagine was that an old order was dying and a new country was being born.

2

April 10, 2015

Long, low, pale golden rays washed the western side of the stone wall around St. Luke’s graveyard. Many of the souls therein had been sleeping since shortly after the Revolutionary War. The church itself—of hand-laid stone, much of it pulled from the fields—matched the deceased in age. The architect of this peaceful symmetry had fallen in love with central Virginia and a young Virginia beauty while in a Revolutionary War camp a few miles away. Three arched walkways connected the church at one end and the rectory office at the other. St. Luke’s inner quad was bounded on the north by the main arcade. At each corner the two shorter arcades created a quiet rectangle; a longer arcade duplicated the front arcade. The proportions of this old rectangular plan were graceful, simple, timeless. The shorter arcades were anchored by one-story stone buildings with the handblown glass wavy in their paned windows. Originally used as classrooms, one lower school and one upper, the space was now used by different church groups. The men’s building reposed on the north. The women’s sat on the south, each a duplicate of the other, as with the arcades. The men’s building was so clean one could eat off the random-width heart-pine floor, a cleanliness that had each wife wondering why this was not the case in her home.

Bordering this inner quad was a large outer quad, big enough for football games and gatherings in good weather. The far border was the graveyard, enclosed by a gray stone wall, the same stone as the church’s structures.

From the large quad, the pastor’s house was to the left of the graveyard. The dwelling had grown over the centuries, with additions as well as a two-car garage. Originally a stable with living quarters overhead, the parsonage had been constructed of clapboard painted white. Its shutters were midnight blue, each with a cross cut into the top.

As St. Luke’s was a Lutheran church, it was high church, but the décor, while testifying to a brief flirtation with gilt, was more subdued than that of the Catholic church down the road. However, it was not nearly as barren as the local Church of the Holy Light.

Inside this delightful, warm home, a dinner party brought together friends. The Very Reverend Herbert Jones, at long last emerging from the shadow of his wife’s death, had decided to entertain this evening. Although his wife, a great beauty in her day, had passed away seven years ago, it had taken the good man that long to rebound.

Inside, Harry and Fair Haristeen, D.V.M.; Susan and Ned Tucker; Nelson and Sandra Yarbrough, both dentists; Professor Greg “Ginger” McConnell and his wife, Trudy; Marshall and Joyce Reese; and Paul and Anita Huber all sat in the simple, pale yellow living room with Reverend Jones and his dear friend, Miranda Hogendobber. After Harry’s mother died, Miranda was a surrogate mother to her and a good friend to all. Miranda also possessed a singing voice touched by an angel, a voice in the service of the Church of the Holy Light, an evangelical house of worship.

The caterer could be heard at work in the old country kitchen.

“I don’t know why you didn’t let me cook tonight’s repast,” said Miranda, looking quite nice in a peach dress.

“Because then you’d fret.” Herb smiled as Lucy Fur, a Lutheran cat, leapt to the back of his big easy chair.

“I’ve forgotten how lovely this house is,” Trudy remarked. “Like walking back in time.”

“Well, at least there’s no television in the living room,” remarked Susan, in her early forties. “Drives me crazy.”

Harry, Susan’s friend since cradle days, reached over to pinch her. “Oh, Susan, everything drives you crazy.”

“There, she said it, I didn’t.” Ned laughed. Ned was the district’s representative to the state legislature, which he usually referred to as the House of Burgesses, as it was known before the Revolution. He also, not for public consumption, referred to it as “the Asylum.”

“She’s a perfectionist in everything, but most especially deportment,” Fair complimented Susan, using the word his mother had always used to chide him. In his head, he could still hear the voice: “Pharamond, a gentleman always walks to the outside of a lady. In this fashion, should a conveyance drive through a mud puddle, he will be besmirched, not she.”

And so, since age five, Fair had always walked on the outside as well as performing all the duties a Virginia gentleman was supposed to perform. These duties were ironclad, regardless of race, religion, age, or class. His father’s way of enforcing the same standard was to mutter, “Don’t be a dolt, son.”

All of the assembled that evening at Reverend Jones’s home had been raised with strict rules of behavior. While other parts of the country might see such rules as imposing on their self-expression, every Southerner knows that the way to truly insult someone is with impeccable manners. One slight shift of tone, one turn of the hand, jingling coins in a pocket, could be like an arrow shot from the bow. While none of the people there dwelt on it, each one knew manners provided vital information on social and emotional levels. To not know them was like reading with one eye closed.

The Lutheran cats, however, were under no such dictates. At that moment, Cazenovia was in the kitchen, clawing the leg of the caterer in hopes he would drop a morsel. “Damn cat,” the caterer was heard to exclaim.

The Reverend Jones rose, entered the kitchen to confront the unrepentant calico. “Where are your manners?”

Elocution, the third of the Lutheran cats, sauntered into the kitchen but was prudent enough not to meow.

“Sorry to curse,” apologized Warren Chiles, a parishioner and the caterer.

The Reverend laughed. “I do it all the time. My hope is that the Good Lord has bigger fish to fry than a pastor who cusses.”

“I think he does.” Warren nodded. “Dinner’s ready.”

“Good. I’m starved. Bet everyone else is too.”

The Reverend Jones returned to the living room and rounded up his guests. They filed into the dining room, which was painted a flattering deep ivory. A small chandelier from 1804 cast soft light on the table. An embroidered tablecloth covered many a scratch—not from the cats, of course.

As pork roast was served and wine poured, outside the windows the sunset’s last golden rays turned deep salmon, then exploded in fire.

Harry called their attention to it. “Look at that sunset.”

The others paused to turn around.

Trudy, originally from Michigan, stared at the fireworks. “I never tire of the beauty of this place.”

“I remember beautiful sunsets over Tampa Bay when I was a kid, but there’s something about watching the mountains turn colors with the sunset, then twilight,” Nelson remarked.

“It makes me wonder who else is watching this and where?” Sandra wondered. “Is it this beautiful right now in Asheville, North Carolina, or up in the Hudson River Valley?”

“Or who watched this valley’s gorgeous sunsets back in 1820?” Marshall mused. Like Nelson and Paul, Marshall had studied history under Professor McConnell when they’d played football for the University of Virginia back in 1959.

The dinner conversation covered sunsets and sunrises, moonrises, and whether it was better to live on the water or by the mountains. These were gentle conversations among people who had known one another for decades. After dinner, they repaired to the living room. The Reverend Jones started a fire in the fireplace. The three cats—now full—quickly plopped in front of it.

The last frost was usually about mid-April, but last year, there had been frosts into early May. You never knew. Frosts or not, the daffodils were up already, redbuds swelled but had not yet opened. It was early spring in the Appalachians, a magical time.

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