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Rita Mae Brown and her feline co-author Sneaky Pie Brown are back chasing mystery with their unique circle of Southern sleuths. And though the changing colors of fall are a beauty to behold, this year the scattered leaves hide a grim surprise.
“As feline collaborators go, you couldn’t ask for better than Sneaky Pie Brown.”—The New York Times Book Review
Autumn is in the air in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Crozet, Virginia—and all the traditions of the changing seasons are under way. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen cleans her cupboards, her husband, Fair, prepares the horses for the shorter days ahead, and the clamorous barking of beagles signals the annual rabbit chase through the central Virginia hills. But the last thing the local beaglers and their hounds expect to flush out is a dead body.
Disturbingly, it’s the second corpse to turn up, after that of a missing truck driver too disfigured to identify. The deaths seem unrelated—until Harry picks up a trail of clues dating back to the state’s post-Revolutionary past.
The echoes of the Shot Heard Round the World pale in comparison to the dangerous shootout Harry narrowly escapes unscathed. Next time, it may be the killer who gets lucky. But not if Harry’s furry friends Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker can help it. Lending their sharp-nosed talents to the hunt, they’ll help their mistress keep more lives from being lost—and right an injustice buried since the early days of America’s independence.
Praise for A Hiss Before Dying
“Clearly the cat’s meow.”—Library Journal
“Thoroughly delightful!”—Red Carpet Crash
“An air of mystery, a touch of history and that undeniable voice . . . Sneaky Pie Brown is back on the prowl.”—Daily Progress
“The staccato conversation style of the contemporary chapters contrasts nicely with the more fluid prose of those set in the eighteenth century. Brown’s signature asides—on such subjects as local and national politics, traditional art, race, God, and just about anything else that strikes her fancy—give readers plenty to think about.”—Publishers Weekly
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Hiss Before Dying
October 17, 2016 Monday
A blood-red sugar maple glowed next to the farm lane as the autumn sun shone through its leaves. Two cats and one dog walked in the pleasant sixty-degree weather toward the barns, the Blue Ridge Mountains at their backs.
The bottom rim of the sun, hovering over the spine of the mountains, would soon dip down, ushering in an explosive sunset followed by a beautiful twilight. The changing seasons specialized in twilights of various blues.
Animals moved about as day gave way to night. Day hunters and feeders headed for home, the night creatures popped their heads out of dens, stuck beaks out of tree hollows, preparing for activity. The deer moved toward their sleeping places, which were usually sheltered from the winds in a thicket. Even the beavers stopped timbering, carrying a few thinner branches toward their lodge. That would be tomorrow’s task, trimming the branches.
Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat; green-eyed Pewter, the overlarge gray cat; and Tee Tucker, the intrepid corgi, relished this time of day. With a few barks from Tucker, the retiring deer bolted as the domesticated animals chased after them. Deer were so much bigger, to see them scatter away just puffed up the three amigos. A few harsh words might be exchanged with the fox whose den extended under the roots of an ancient walnut.
The turtles, the salamanders, the fish and crayfish prepared for night. When they sat by the creek, the cats would stare at the freshwater creatures, but in the main they found the fish boring. Birds, on the other hand, squawked, chattered, spit seeds, dropped earthworms on them, cussed the cats unmercifully.
A blue jay looked down from a poplar tree. “Empty-handed.”
“We weren’t hunting.” Pewter detested that bird.
“You couldn’t catch a mouse if your life depended on it. Fat, fat, water rat,” the handsome bird taunted.
Before Pewter could return the insult, Tucker looked up. She’d heard the sound wind makes through feathers built for speed as opposed to feathers designed for stealth.
Overhead, not too far, a fully grown bald eagle carried bloody flesh in its talons.
The three froze. Even the blue jay shut up.
The eagle tucked its wings close to its body and made a taunting dive toward the three pets, who flattened on the lane. At the last minute, the bird opened its wings, a span seemingly as long as a Cadillac, turned slightly, and with one mighty, taunting flap, off he flew.
“Did you see what he had?” Mrs. Murphy asked. “All I saw was bloody flesh.”
“A piece of rawhide hung from above his talon.” The dog looked at the huge bird fast disappearing, thanks to his uncommon speed.
“An eyeball. He carried an eyeball in his talon hanging from the flesh,” the sharp-eyed blue jay informed them. “It was swinging. Blue. A blue eyeball. As blue as my feathers.”
“Sometimes a horse will have blue eyes,” Tucker mentioned.
“Human, a human eyeball. They’re easy to identify, really. Somewhere out there is a person with half a face,” the blue jay proclaimed, opened wide his own wings, lifted off toward the house.
The three looked at one another, then resumed walking toward the house and the barn.
Tucker, puzzled, wondered, “Maybe the rawhide held the eagle. You know, he was somebody’s pet and he got loose.”
“Tucker, a person would have to be crazy to keep a bald eagle. They’re ferocious, huge, and wild,” Mrs. Murphy replied.
“We were once saber-toothed tigers.” Pewter puffed out her chest.
“Yeah, and you sold out for tuna,” Tucker teased.
“Better than Milk-Bones. Dogs are really dumb,” Pewter shot back.
The dog and gray cat argued past the pastures and paddocks. The horses kept eating. They’d heard it all before, including knock-down, drag-out fights in the barn when the two would chase each other, buckets flying, brushes, even halters, pulled off their hooks.
Mrs. Murphy generally exhibited more decorum.
They pushed through the animal door at the large screened-in porch, then through the door into the kitchen, which also had an animal door.
In the kitchen, every cabinet door above the sink was open, dishes stacked on the counters.
Mary Minor Haristeen, “Harry,” stood on a half ladder, wiping down the interior of the cabinets with a wet rag. This was to have been a short task. That was three hours ago.
“Don’t step on the dishes,” she admonished the cats, already on the counter.
“These are old bowls. Throw them out,” Pewter advised. “You don’t have to keep everything. Look how chipped this stuff is.”
“It was her mother’s,” Mrs. Murphy said.
“Guess what? Her mother isn’t here to see it. I am. I don’t want to eat out of old bowls. I’m a modern cat.” Pewter sat beside the stacked bowls, tempted to push them off the counter.
Through the window over the sink in the setting sun, Pewter saw her blue jay nemesis settle on an overhanging tree branch. The bird turned his head to the right, then to the left to afford a clear view.
“Fatty!” he shrieked.
Pewter charged the window, nearly knocking the bowls to the floor, spit loudly, and slammed a paw into the window.
The jay giggled, then hopped up a branch, closer to the window.
“I will kill him!” Pewter promised.
“Get off here. You nearly knocked Mom’s bowls over,” Harry chided.
Harry climbed down the half ladder, put the rag in the sink, wiped her hands. Then she picked up the bowls, climbed back up, and slid them into place. She repeated this until everything she’d put on the counters was back in place.
Just as she finished, the back door opened and her tall neighbor, Cynthia Cooper, a deputy in the sheriff’s department, stepped inside.
“Now you come over. I could have used you to put away this stuff.” Harry pointed to the cabinets.
“A cleaning fit.” Cooper nodded.
“Fall and spring. Best time.” Harry stepped down, folding the ladder.
“You say.” Cooper leaned over to pet Tucker.
“Sit down. Hey, look at the sunset before you do.”
Cooper walked over to look through the sink window. “Like someone tossed a match into the sky.”
“I never get tired of sunsets, or sunrises, for that matter. Get off work early?”
“No. It’s six-twenty. Tell you what, it’s been a long day.”
“Dad’s home!” Tucker rushed outside through the animal doors to greet Fair Haristeen, all six feet five inches of him.
“She’s so obsequious.” Pewter pouted.
Fair stepped inside the screened-in porch, stomped his boots to remove the dust, then opened the kitchen door. “Hi, honey.” He kissed Harry on the cheek, then kissed Cooper, too. “Never pass up the chance to kiss a pretty woman.”
“You’re the worst.” Cooper laughed at him even as she enjoyed the attention.
Fair was one of those men people liked, men and women.
“You know, honey, I actually understand that,” Harry responded and laughed. “And I’ll have you know you’ve walked into a better organized kitchen. Anyone want a drink? Tea?” Harry offered.
“Too late for tea, but if you have a beer, I will indulge, and I owe you a six-pack,” Cooper promised.
“You do not.” Harry pulled out glasses and three beers.
“We saw an eyeball!” Pewter wanted attention so she jumped on Fair’s lap. “It was bloody. A big, blue eyeball.”
“The bald eagle had it.” Tucker filled in detail.
Harry, wisely, put down some treats. Pewter liked Fair, but dried chicken twists trumped affection.
“How cold is it supposed to get tonight?” Cooper asked. “I haven’t had time to check the weather on my phone. Like I said, a long day.”
“No frost. We usually get the first frost mid-October, but it’s warmish right now,” Fair replied.
“Which reminds me, time to close in the screened-in porch,” Harry noted. “We can do it this weekend and then switch the horses’ schedule.”
The horses remained out at night in the summers, and inside out of the sun during the day, with the reverse rotating in the cold months when fall truly arrived.
“They look good. I noticed driving in how shiny their coats are,” Cooper complimented Harry, who took care of them.
“Curry comb. Hair is starting to grow. They’re getting ready for the cold. I just brush out the dirt, then brush with a smoother combination, and bingo, they shine like patent leather. Good food helps, too, like some rice bran. Anyway, you said it was a busy day. If it wasn’t accidents, robberies?”
Cooper smiled. “No. But I got a call from our dispatcher, go to Route 250 right at the top of Afton Mountain before it plunges down the east side. Two-fifty has a hell of a grade. Drove up there. Nothing urgent, just a call for an extra pair of eyes. Got there and here is this big transport loaded with brand-new Volvos, motor running, everything fine but no driver. No one in sight. The keys were in the ignition, the emergency brake was on, nothing was damaged. We checked his shipping papers. He was on his way down to Volvo of Charlottesville. Called them. He was due in. No one had heard a thing. We called Louisville, Kentucky, where he’d picked up the freight. Everything was fine. No driver. No cellphone. Only shipping paperwork.”
“That’s odd,” Harry said.
“His wallet was in the truck. Sunglasses. Not a thing touched that we could tell.”
“What did you do?” Fair thought it peculiar, too.
“The Volvo dealer sent up three men, one to drive, one as a passenger, and one to follow. Luckily there was someone in the dealership that could handle that big boat. As there was no crime, no report, we thought it best to get the new cars to the dealer,” Cooper added. “We looked around for the driver. No sign of him. As a precaution, we dusted the cab for fingerprints.”
Harry, ever imaginative, thought out loud. “He could have been carrying contraband.”
“Well, they go through every new vehicle to prepare it. If something is amiss, I reckon we’ll know. But, poof, just disappeared with that big rig idling by the side of the road.”
“Maybe he stopped to go to the bathroom and had a heart attack,” Fair offered.
“We’ll have bona fide search teams out tomorrow. It’s rugged terrain. Really, could be just what you said, but that doesn’t mean we’ll find him easily.”
“Coop, someone might have picked him up,” Harry, always excited by a mystery no matter how tiny or removed from her own life, said.
“Don’t know.” Cooper shrugged.
“Just think, what if that had been a Brink’s truck, a truck jammed with bags of money?” Harry grinned. “An unlocked truck.”
Fair laughed. “I remember when I was in third grade. Dad and I were down on Main Street, we’d walked back to Water Street, and a truck full of beer turned over. Cans rolling everywhere. I mean in minutes half the male population of Charlottesville was there scooping up them cans.”
“See, there are good accidents,” Harry said and laughed.
“Well, I saw an eyeball. That’s not a good accident.” A tidbit of dried chicken fell out of the side of Pewter’s mouth, as she loudly made her points.
“Pewter, they don’t care about eyeballs any more than you care about a rig full of new cars.” Mrs. Murphy shrugged.
She was right. For now.
October 18, 2016 Tuesday
Crackling logs, the odor of sweet pearwood, gave the Virginians for Sustainable Wildlife meeting a cozy air. Harry hosted this month’s gathering, which had started at 6:30 in the evening. The members took turns hosting, which brought them closer together. A few of the people had known one another for years, but others were new to Crozet, to central Virginia. Being invited into someone’s home provided an opportunity to learn more about them, a sense of their taste, perhaps even their priorities. Anyone coming into Harry’s living room might share a seat with Mrs. Murphy or Pewter, both loath to move. Tucker had the sense to sprawl on the floor.
Jessica Ligon, doctor of veterinary medicine, young, well-liked, finished up her report. “So we’re still seeing fleas and ticks. Granted, raccoons, possums, other quadrupeds deal with it. Fleas can give animals tapeworms. So when deer season starts and your house dog chews on a carcass left behind by an irresponsible hunter, then your dog gets an infestation. Just keep a lookout for them. But tapeworm is easy to purge, fortunately. Do the mammals have Lyme disease? I’m sure some do.”
“Why can’t we break the cycle in the wildlife?” MaryJo Cranston, an investment broker and the treasurer of the group, asked.
“The horrendous expense, for one thing. Plus, MaryJo, you can’t be sure the animals you want to purge of parasites are the ones ingesting the meds. An animal can carry the tick as well as be bitten by it. As for Lyme, we’d have to trap them, get blood. If infected, it’s an antibiotic protocol. Just can’t do it with wild animals, as it takes so many consecutive days of pills. We’d need to keep them in cages until the antibiotic cycle is complete; also, Lyme fatigues them. It’s just close to impossible.”
MaryJo, newer to the group, nodded. “It does sound complicated.”
Susan Tucker, president of the group and Harry’s childhood friend, checked her notes. “Jessica, thanks, we’re always fascinated with new developments in veterinary medicine for all animals.”
“The research being done now is amazing, especially with stem cells. That’s a whole other topic for another meeting, but it is in the future.”
“I read somewhere that veterinarians are better at managing chronic pain than doctors. You all are taught more about it,” BoomBoom Craycroft, another childhood friend of Harry and Susan’s, responded.
“We’ve made tremendous advances.” Jessica reached for her drink.
“Liz, you have your fowl report. Actually, why don’t I amend that to winged report.” Susan grinned.
“Good.” Liz Potter, a middle-aged African American woman passionate about the environment, checked the Apple tablet on her lap. “To date, a three percent increase in woodcock population in central Virginia. Also, grouse are increasing, especially in the Rockfish Valley. We’re getting ready for the raptors’ migration, so they’ll be in the thermal spirals along the Blue Ridge, especially in our area. That will allow us to count as many as we can and to monitor health. The migration is ten days later than usual this year and we think it is due to the unusual warmth. No frosts yet as you know. They are also late in New England.”
“Isn’t it wonderful to see those hawks just lazing in circles?” BoomBoom had been watching this fall phenomenon since she was a child, a phenomenon that drew birders from as far away as Japan.
“How are we doing with the bald eagles?” Harry said. “I see them here, usually flying along the creek.”
Rita Mae Brown is the bestselling author of the Sneaky Pie Brown series; the Sister Jane series; the Runnymede books, including Six of One and Cakewalk;A Nose for Justice and Murder Unleashed; Rubyfruit Jungle; and In Her Day; as well as several other novels. An Emmy-nominated screenwriter and a poet, Brown lives in Afton, Virginia.