SERIES

Whiskers in the Dark

A Mrs. Murphy Mystery
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Death stalks the Blue Ridge Mountains as a centuries-old mystery resurfaces and murder mars the lead-up to an annual beagle competition, in a thrilling new tale from Rita Mae Brown and her feline co-author Sneaky Pie Brown.

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

A massive nor’easter has hit northern Virginia, where Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen joins groundskeeping efforts at the National Beagle Club at Aldie as the date for its springtime Hounds for Heroes veterans’ benefit approaches. Harry’s fellow volunteers, including her oldest friend, Susan Tucker, comprise a spirited group of hunting enthusiasts, some former service members themselves. But things take a sinister turn when, after a routine tree cleanup along the Club’s hunting trails, retired foreign services officer Jason Holzknect is found dead, throat slit from ear to ear. Soon enough, another murder in their midst jolts the preparations, convincing Harry that the killer is familiar with the Club—and must be close by, masked in plain sight.

The intrigue extends to the grounds of Harry’s beloved local church, where the identity of an eighteenth-century skeleton wearing precious pearls remains a mystery. The anonymous woman’s neck had been snapped, and marks on the grave where her body was secreted indicate that someone recently tried to remove it, leading Harry to question how well she really knows those around her.

As always, Harry’s crime-solving cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and Tee Tucker the Corgi share her determination to sniff out the foes among friends, even those long buried. Harry will need her four-legged companions’ help more than ever: a ghostly beagle only they can see may hold the key to the culprit.

Excerpt

1

April 5, 2018

Thursday

“Did you kill anybody?” Harry asked as the firelight flickered on her face.

“Do you think I’m going to answer that question?” Arlene Billeaud laughed at her.

Harry Haristeen, her best friend, Susan Tucker, Arlene Billeaud, Jason Holzknect, and his wife, Clare Lazo Holzknect, sat by the fireplace in the large stone building known as the Institute in Aldie, Virginia. Built in the 1850s as the Loudoun Agricultural and Chemical Institute, it had weathered many a storm. In 1855 an advertisement claimed that courses would benefit the farmer, the merchant, the engineer, certainly a broad student base. But the panic of 1857, a damaging depression for so many, ended the Institute. Next came the war. Still it persevered, today being the home of the National Beagle Club of America.

The people in the inviting room had come from Maryland and Virginia to clean up paths, move downed trees, and repair the kennels, as violent storms had swept through Loudoun County and much of Northern Virginia.

They were there to prepare for the annual competition hosted by Hounds F4R Heroes at the end of the month. Anyone could enter two pairs of beagles—four hounds—to hunt, prizes being given to the top couples.

The purpose, to raise money for veterans, drew many spectators and competitors. The funds were used to provide veterans with fishing and hunting events. This was done in other states as well and was growing nationally.

The small group arrived early for tomorrow’s work. Others would drive in the next morning. Harry and Susan stayed in one of the cabins, the first ones built in 1917 when the Institute was just up and running. Other cabins were added later, tight, warm if you kept the fire going, with enough windows to let in the light. Harry’s two cats, Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, along with her two dogs, Tucker, a corgi, and Pirate, a half-grown Irish wolfhound, were back at the cabin. No dirty paws at the Institute.

“Another drink?” Jason, tall, maybe mid-fifties, offered, pointing to the opened bottle of wine.

“No thanks,” Harry, not a drinker, replied.

“A smidge.” Susan raised her glass as did the other two women.

Apart from the work they expected to face tomorrow, they talked about packs of hounds, both bassets and beagles; their hunting season, which had just ended; friends in common.

“Oh, come on.” Harry tweaked Arlene. “We know you had a dangerous job before you retired.”

“Not as dangerous as you might think. I was not an undercover agent.”

Arlene had recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Rats.” Harry pretended to pout. “I want good stories.”

“Well, this isn’t a good story, but my area was Russia, so I was responsible for absorbing and digesting information from that area.”

“From undercover agents there?” Harry was fascinated.

“I would never say we have agents there, but I can promise you we have their agents here.” Arlene smiled.

Clare, a former Navy captain, sipped her white wine. “Not only does Russia have agents here but so do our allies. Everyone spies on everyone and yes, Harry, we, too, have agents everywhere. One must.”

“The best way to look at this is that power is amoral.” Jason settled into his chair, having poured himself another glass of wine.

“I know what you’re saying is true, but it drives me crazy,” Susan said. “All that money to sift through people’s computers, hacking this and hacking that. Following people, and I suppose killing some. Harry isn’t far wrong.”

“So the question is if one must kill, say, a Nigerian undercover agent who is funneling American funds to a terrorist group, thousands are dying, is the murder justified?” Arlene asked a question back.

“Well, if we aren’t being killed, no.” Harry was firm.

“What about the terrorists, at least I think of them as terrorists, who kidnapped the girls in Nigeria? It doesn’t affect us, but you don’t kidnap hundreds of children.” Susan tried to think this out.

“But sending operatives over there costs a lot of money, sending troops outright even more,” Jason said. “When I was in the diplomatic corps, depending on where I was assigned, we were always told and trained, ‘Hands off!’ ”

Clare spoke again. “The theory is that every state has sovereign rights. They may treat their people quite differently than we treat ours, but we have no right to interfere in internal issues, no matter how repugnant. Hence agencies like the CIA, which does not necessarily interfere, but provides information to shape our foreign policy that a diplomat going through normal channels may not be able to provide.”

“Jason, did you ever feel you were in a tight spot?” Harry’s curiosity kept her questioning.

“Not physically. As you know, my longest posting was in Ankara, Turkey. I speak fluent Turkish, know the culture, and have a smattering of some languages of countries near Turkey. Enough to be able to read, say, a Russian headline. But Turkey’s geographic position guarantees it will forever be a trade and political crossroads. Any violence in surrounding countries, such as Greece—remember they’ve had riots—could spill over into Turkey.”

“Greece would invade Turkey?” Harry was incredulous.

“Not today.” Jason smiled. “But riots in Greece or in the Crimea, for instance, might set off the disaffected in Turkey. Every nation has a pool of disaffected people who can take to the streets with or without much provocation. This includes us.”

“Unfortunately, it does. Which is why Hounds for Heroes is important.” Arlene put her feet up on a hassock. “Those men and women, many of them, have seen service in miserable spots. But if you’ve worn our country’s uniform, you deserve some recognition. I’m thrilled we can provide sport.”

Harry knew that Arlene had lost a leg in the Middle East. She had a good false limb masked by well-tailored slacks and socks. She’d served in the Army before being recruited, not a word that Arlene used, for the CIA. Her analytical skills and her IQ made her particularly valuable. Not that she wasn’t valuable in the Army, but while she was recuperating in a Veterans Hospital she was wooed. Turned out to be a wonderful job for her. She liked the Army but she loved the Agency. Then again, she was in no danger of losing her other leg in Washington.

“I predict Ashland Bassets will win the basset day. Beagles, maybe Sandanona or Ben Venue.” Jason sounded authoritative.

“Why aren’t we going to win?” His wife raised her eyebrows.

“What do you think?” Jason asked Arlene.

“Since I’m the director of the event for this year, I plead neutral. I’m hoping for good weather, whoever wins.”

“Ashland Bassets, Waldingfield Beagles.” Harry gave her favorites.

“Can’t do that, Harry. We know those hunts. Of course, we want them to win, but who knows?” Susan looked at her watch. “You know what, I’m turning in. We should be up and out at first light tomorrow, especially since we don’t know how much damage there is. We have five hundred and twelve acres to canvas.”

“Glad as I am that the founders of the National Beagle Club had the foresight to buy all this, it is a lot to maintain,” Clare posited.

“Is, but there’s no place like it.” Harry stood up with Susan. “Cold though, isn’t it?”

“Going to be a late spring.” Arlene knew she should rouse herself, but she was ready to fall asleep where she was.

Harry and Susan left the building, hurrying to their cabin, smoke curling out of the chimney since Harry had built a solid fire before they joined the others. As the humans opened the door, the dogs awakened, hurried up, tails wagging.

“Oh, I missed you.” Tucker, the corgi, licked Harry’s hand.

“Me, too,” the growing giant, Pirate, agreed.

One eye now open, fat, gray Pewter, grumbled, “Suck-ups.”

Mrs. Murphy, sprawled on the comforter on the narrow bed with Pewter, flicked the tip of her tail. “We can at least purr.”

Harry carefully placed two more logs on the fire, adjusting the grate cover. “That should see us through the night.”

“You build good fires. I kind of think there’s going to be a lot to do.”

“Yeah.” Harry agreed with Susan. “Wasn’t Clare in the Navy?”

“She speaks fluent Russian. She was, according to her, mostly on a giant ship out in the Gulf of Finland, listening to the Russians, not far away.”

“I wouldn’t have the patience for that. Would you?”

“I suppose I could do it, but I wouldn’t like it. Well, I wouldn’t mind being on a ship for months at a time.” Susan took off her shoes and socks, stripped off her clothes, quickly jumped into bed. “I’d think of it as a long respite from housework.”

The room was warm but the bed would be warmer.

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