Santa Clawed

A Mrs. Murphy Mystery
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Bestselling authors Rita Mae Brown and her feline partner, Sneaky Pie Brown, are back for the holidays in a mystery featuring Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, the sleuthing cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and corgi Tee Tucker. Can they save the season from a killjoy who’s decided to gift the festive little town . . . with murder?

As Harry well knows, there’s hardly a place on earth cozier than Crozet, Virginia, at Christmastime. The snowflakes drifting lazily down, the soft glow of the winter light, the sound of old carols in the streets…even cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter get into the spirit batting ornaments and climbing the holiday tree. In fact, it’s this year’s tree that Harry and her husband, Fair, have gone to fetch when they find the one they’ve chosen grimly decorated with a dead body.

The tree farm is run by The Brothers of Love, a semimonastic organization that tends to AIDS patients. The brothers live in a monastery atop the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Harry is surprised to find an old high-school friend associated with The Brothers of Love. Christopher Hewitt wasn’t a bad man, but good works weren’t exactly one of his priorities. But then, if even Scrooge could turn over a new leaf, certainly Chris could. And after the scandal that all but destroyed his life, there were probably few in Crozet who needed the gift of a second chance more.

Harry knows she shouldn’t take it personally, but it was her tree that someone left the corpse under. Now, as the season grows merrier, a murderer is growing bolder. One by one, prominent men of Crozet are being crossed off Christmas shopping lists and added to the morgue. And if Harry and her four-legged helpers aren’t very good—and very careful—this Christmas may be her last.

Praise

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

"An easy, enjoyable read ... Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie have written another winner in the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series." —Albuquerque Journal

Excerpt

Chapter One


St. Luke's, a beautiful stone church on the outskirts of Crozet, Virginia, appeared even more stunning than usual given the fresh snow on the rooftops, the windowsills of the parish office, and the pastor's living quarters across the now-white quad. Plumes of smoke rose from the great hall, which formed one side of the quad, and smoke spiraled from the parish office. The church was built in 1803, and it was clear that those early Lutherans needed many fireplaces. Over the centuries the buildings had been wired, vented, and plumbed. The modern conveniences served to enhance comfort. The structures had to last for centuries and no doubt would endure more improvements over ensuing centuries.

As Harry Haristeen walked across the large quad to the great hall, her two cats and corgi behind her, she wondered if people today could build as securely as our forefathers did. Seemed like things were built to fall apart. Grateful that she lived in an old farmhouse built about the same time as the church, she paused on her way to the work party long enough to make a snowball and throw it up in the air.

Tucker, the corgi, jumped up to catch it. As she did, the snowball chilled her teeth, so she dropped it.

"Dumb!" Pewter, the portly gray cat, laughed.

"I knew it would do that, but if she throws a ball, I have to catch it. That's my job," Tucker defended herself.

Harry decided to sprint the last two hundred yards to warm up.

The tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, shot past her. The shoveled walkway was covered with inches of fresh snow but easily negotiable.

Pewter, hating to be outdone, couldn't get around Harry so she leapt onto the snow, where she promptly sank.

Tucker, trotting on the path, called out, "Dumb."

A snow triangle like a coolie hat on her head did not cool down Pewter's temper. She shook off the snow hat, plowed onto the path. Running right up to Tucker's butt, she reached out and gave the dog a terrific swat.

Tucker growled, stooped to whirl around.

Harry commanded over her shoulder, "That's enough, you two."

"You're lucky she saved your fat rear end." Pewter flattened her ears to look extra mean.

"Ooh la." The dog now ignored the cat, which was far more upsetting than a knock-down/drag-out to Pewter, who felt the world revolved around her.

Upon entering the great hall, Harry inhaled the fragrance of oak burning in the two fireplaces, one at either end. The aroma of a well-tended fire added to winter's allure. Harry loved all the seasons. Winter's purity appealed to her. She loved being able to see the spine of the land, loved popping into a friend's house for a hot chocolate or serving the same. Born and raised here, she was buoyed up by close friendships. People might feel alienated in big cities, but she couldn't imagine that emotion. Tied to the land, the people and animals that inhabited it, Harry knew she was a lucky soul.

"Look at those hardworking women," she called out as she removed her coat, hat, gloves, and scarf.

Alicia Palmer and BoomBoom Craycroft, both great beauties, moved a long table near the eastern fireplace. The large room cost so much to heat that the thermostat stayed at fifty-two. The fireplaces helped considerably. Sitting near one kept one's fingers from stiffening, and they'd need their fingers today.

Alicia, a former movie star, now in her fifties, was in charge of decorations for the Christmas party, which was little more than a week away. Each season St. Luke's hosted a large party that brought parishioners and neighbors together in a relaxed setting. Reverend Herb Jones, the pastor, constantly came up with ways to strengthen the community.

Susan Tucker, Harry's best friend from cradle days, and the breeder of Tucker, put grapevines on the table.

Racquel Deeds and Jean Keelo, two former sorority sisters from Miami University in Ohio, laid out gorgeous dried magnolia grand flora blossoms along with the large, shiny dark-green leaves.

BoomBoom brought bay leaves and gold-beaded strands.

Harry carried dried red roses along with strands of cranberries.

Once the women settled down at the table to make wreaths, the cats and dog volunteered to help.

Mrs. Murphy, on the table, played with the gold beads. "Aren't these the same kind of beads that men throw to women at Mardi Gras if the women expose their glories?"

"Sure won't be flashing anything in this weather." Tucker, on the floor, laughed.

Pewter batted around a lovely red rosebud. "I will never understand why humans pitch a fit and fall in it if someone shows their breasts or if a man shows his equipment. I mean, everybody has them."

"Genesis. Remember when the angel comes to the Garden of Eden after Adam eats the apple and Adam and Eve realize they are naked?" Mrs. Murphy read over Harry's shoulder, not that Harry knew the cat could fathom it.

"Ha. Adam was taking money under the table from the garment industry." Pewter swept her tail over the table, knocking rosebuds on the floor.

"If you don't behave, missy, you're going on the floor," Harry chided Pewter.

"If you give me treats, I'll be an angel."

"Liar, liar, your pants are on fire," Mrs. Murphy sassed.

That fast, Pewter charged the tiger cat, the gold beads entangled between them. The two boxed. Harry stood up, separating the cats to save the beads.

Off the table, the two chased each other around the room.

"Anyone bring Valium for cats?" asked BoomBoom.

"Remind me next time to stock up," Harry replied.

Racquel and Jean had married best friends, and both couples had moved to Crozet when Bryson Deeds took a slot in the cardiology department at the University of Virginia hospital. He'd gone on to become one of the leading cardiologists in the country. Bill Keelo, his best friend, specialized in tax law. He, too, flourished. Both men earned very good money, and their wives reflected being well-tended. Of the two, Racquel was obsessed with her looks and appearing young.

While both wives were very attractive, any woman paled next to Alicia or BoomBoom. The funny thing was, neither of these great beauties fussed over themselves all that much, which only made them more alluring.

Harry, good-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous, lived in jeans. Since she farmed, this was as it should be, but every now and then Alicia, BoomBoom, and Susan would gang up on her and drag her to stores to find dresses. It took three of them to make her do it.

Although Racquel and Jean had not grown up with everyone, they had lived in Crozet for twenty years, fitting right in.

"You know, this really is lovely." Susan held up a wreath of magnolia leaves, white magnolia blossoms, red rosebuds, and gold beads wrapped diagonally around the wreath.

"This looks pretty good, too. A little more plain, perhaps." Harry held up the bay leaf wreath with cranberries wrapped around it, set off with large pale-green bows and speckled with tiny gold stars.

"The odor. That's what makes the bay leaf wreaths so special." Jean adored the fragrance.

"What are we going to do with the grapevines?" Susan was twisting some, now pliable from being soaked in water, into lovely wreaths.

"Well, I thought we could put one big bow on the bottom and tie in the wooden carved figures from that plastic carton." Alicia pointed to the carton.

Susan asked, "Want me to do that now?"

Alicia answered, "No, let's make the wreaths for the outside doors. By that time we should be able to handle the two huge wreaths for in here."

"How huge?" Harry wondered.

"Three feet in diameter," Alicia replied.

"That is huge." Harry was surprised.

"It will take two of us to make each one, then hang them over each fireplace, but they will look spectacular." Alicia felt confident about that.

One of the outside doors opened. Rushing in were the three Lutheran cats, Cazenovia, Elocution, and Lucy Fur, followed by Herb Jones, wearing no coat.

"Rev, you'll catch your death." Harry called him Rev.

"Oh, I just ran over from the office." He glanced at the few finished wreaths and the pile of materials on the table as the cats, now five in number, roared through the great hall. "These are so pretty."

"Thought about adding walnuts, but I don't think they'd last long." BoomBoom pointed to the grapevine wreaths. "Alicia's come up with other ideas. She's the boss."

"I'm grateful to you girls for doing this." Herb smiled at them. "Do you all need anything? Food? Drink?"

"Brought it," Jean replied. "Dip into either of those coolers. You'll be happy."

Rarely able to resist food, Herb flipped up both lids. "Are those your famous turkey and cranberry sandwiches?"

"The same," Jean replied.

Herb picked out one, as well as a Coca-Cola. "I'm going to eat and run. Actually, I'll eat in the office. Oh, Racquel, how's Aunt Phillipa doing?"

"Thank God for the Brothers of Love Hospice. Her mind remains clear, but I doubt she'll make it to spring. Emphysema takes you down." Racquel looked up at him.

Jean added, "The brothers have been wonderful. Apart from the work they do with the dying, it's inspirational to learn each monk's history. Everyone is there to atone for some wrongdoing."

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