Hiss of Death

A Mrs. Murphy Mystery

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Ah, spring! The brighter days and singing birds have a way of lifting people’s spirits, as well as those of their animal companions. But the season can also bring out the first blossoms of murder. As the redbuds open in Crozet, Virginia, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is especially excited—until a health crisis sends her reeling into the forbidding world of hospitals and doctors, treatments and procedures. Surviving this journey will be tough, but Harry has her animal friends—and her ever-helpful husband, Fair—to support her. Others are considerably less fortunate: A promising nurse’s lifeless body is discovered without a mark on her. Then another hospital employee, who had seemed in perfect health, is also found dead. There’s a mystery afoot—and that’s one thing Harry and her menagerie can’t keep their noses out of.


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

“[Rita Mae Brown] reunites the reader with beloved characters, supplies a wealth of local color and creates a killer whose identity and crimes are shocking.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“The paw-biting action . . . builds to the revelation of a surprising killer.”—Publishers Weekly



“Moldy money.” Susan Tucker jabbed her best friend, Harry Haristeen, with her elbow.

“Come on, you all, I’m cautious with money. That doesn’t mean I’m cheap,” Harry said, defending herself.

“Cautious? How about paralyzed?” BoomBoom Craycroft, another friend from childhood, said, laughing.

“My concern is I want to make as much money as possible for our five-K run this Saturday. I just think a thousand pink rubber bracelets is five hundred too many.”

Paula Benton, an ER nurse at Central Virginia Hospital and one of the prime organizers of the 5K Run for Breast Cancer Awareness, said, “Harry, they’re already here. What’s the point of complaining?”

Toni Enright, another operating-room nurse, agreed. “They’ll sell like hotcakes. Think positive, Harry.”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I just get nervous. Hey, we all have our quirks. I know a nurse who can’t give herself a shot.”

Paula reached over to pinch Harry. “No fair.”

“ ’Fess up,” Harry teased her. “If you all are going to pick on me, I’ll pick back.”

“Paula, are you really afraid to give yourself a shot?” Susan queried. “I thought you were allergic to bees, wasps, and hornets. Don’t you have to carry a little kit around? Shoot yourself up with the antidote?”

Paula rolled her eyes. “Luckily, I’ve never had to use it as an adult. Mom shot me up once. I suppose I could do it, but it just creeps me right out.” She playfully lunged for Harry. “I could hit you up, though.”

As they all laughed, Nita Vitebsk, the treasurer of the group, older than the others, in her mid-fifties, pushed her polka-dot reading specs up on the bridge of her nose, bringing them back to business. “The runners’ entry fees have paid for all our expenses. Those are the pre-entry fees, to be exact. You know we’re going to pick up more entries, and Harry, since you’re the check-in girl, you have the happy task of toting up the sums.”

The group of women, this Wednesday evening, April 14, sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor, bracelets in the middle, along with most of the numbers to be worn on runners’ backs. They had been working on this project since last year’s run.

Every year, the oncology department of Central Virginia Hospital offered staff support, and individual physicians wrote personal checks, too. The nominal head of the 5K run was Dr. Cory Schaeffer, a surgeon specializing in cancer as well as new therapies for healing. As he was developing a large reputation, his name on the fund-raising letterhead was a plus. He didn’t do the scut work, nor did most of the other doctors, understandably enough. Dr. Jennifer Potter, the new kid on the block, actually came to some meetings, as did Dr. Annalise Veronese, a pathologist. Annalise said that as she personally witnessed the ravages of cancer in a way others did not, she especially wanted a cure. Many doctors would be at the run, as would the media. The group could thank Alicia Palmer for that. The former movie star wheedled the media into cooperation. Then again, she could pretty much wheedle anyone into cooperation as she remained a dazzler, even in her mid-fifties.

The run would go off the first Saturday after April 15, a date picked because spring would be in its initial blush. Also, it would take people’s minds off the financial horrors of April 15. The other factor was that it usually was quite cool in the morning--mid-forties to low fifties, often warming to the mid-sixties--perfect weather for a run.

All the high school cross-country teams participated. The University of  Virginia made a showing, too, unless there was an ACC track meet. Charlottesville nurtured a dedicated running club, and the members turned out in full force. Nadine “Noddy” Cespedes urged all her members at Heavy Metal Gym to run. Every year, the race had a big turnout. As it was one of the first celebrations of the spring, the public especially enjoyed it. The streets of the town were closed for three hours, and people lined the sidewalks, many offering drinks or towels. Volunteers dutifully grabbed the empty bottles and towels when runners stretched out their arms. Everyone felt as if they were part of the event. The police liked the run, as did the sheriff’s department.

The city of Charlottesville funded its own police department. The county, Albemarle, kept a sheriff’s department. The city and county were separate political entities. They cooperated with each other, but in many ways the two law enforcement groups faced different problems. The city police confronted endless fender benders as traffic increased each year. Certain “businessmen” from other countries moved in to sell hard drugs. In a wealthy city of 42,000, this was hardly surprising. The city did have its poor sections, along with the problems universally associated with poverty. The police department never had enough money, no surprise there.

This problem was shared by the county sheriff. Money was ever in short supply, yet people needed more services. However, country folks are less demanding, most times, than city folks. Sheriff Rick Shaw and his officers also faced traffic problems, but often enough they involved as many deer as humans. And all too often the county’s twisty narrow roads sent many a drunken speeder to his or her death. Unfortunately, these drunks often took other innocents with them.

Another distinctive problem for the county was meth. More of this drug circulated here than in the city. The labs could be set up in the back of a van if the “cooker” knew what she or he was doing. Didn’t matter that drugstores limited the sale of Sudafed and the like, which contained the pseudoephedrine used in making meth. The people making it never seemed to run out of supplies. Then, too, illegal distilleries abounded because of the pure water running off the Blue Ridge Mountains. While Albemarle County boasted of some folks who could turn out what is called “country waters,” Nelson County felt their county produced premier products.

When the sheriff’s people weren’t chasing the “white dog,” another name for country waters, they faced the usual quota of domestic abuse, suicide, and thefts. To call country waters moonshine marked one as an outsider. Meant you’d never be able to buy it.

This amused both the police department and the sheriff’s department. Sooner or later the sterling reputation for the local product’s quality reached a newcomer’s ears. They wanted a sip but couldn’t find it. After determining that they weren’t law enforcement or a plant, a bighearted local usually found a drop for them. A regular customer was born.

Perhaps all these things made the wholesome 5K something both law enforcement agencies liked. Closing the streets was preferable to their normal duties. The other reason they liked it? Many officers ran in the race.

This year, Deputy Cynthia Cooper--“Coop” to her buddies--Harry’s next-door neighbor, suggested that each participant from the sheriff’s department wear an armband with an outline of his or her badge.

Truth was, all those men and women in law enforcement--like everyone else--knew what cancer could do. The horrible disease seemed to miss no family, or any profession, leaving behind loved ones who had watched the painful struggle. A law enforcement officer fixes things, but you can’t fix cancer.

Of the group of women who’d worked to pull this together for the last five months, cancer had savaged their lives as well. Each of them had lost someone--a parent, a sibling, a co-worker, or, worst of all, a child--to the disease. A few had battled the disease themselves and won.

Harry decided not to fuss about the bracelets but to make a huge pink sign advertising them. Every participant received a bracelet, but Paula had wanted extras so people could buy them as a sign of support. Harry--who agonized over every expenditure, thereby driving her friends and her husband to distraction--couldn’t quite grasp that a non-runner would purchase a pink rubber bracelet.

Committee work finished, Alicia and BoomBoom brought out the food and drinks. Their strict rule was no gossip, eating, or imbibing until the official work was done. This removed extraneous chat. All was accomplished in a timely manner, a small miracle, given the human propensity for useless chatter.

Alicia’s dog, Max, tried to keep awake as they worked but had fallen asleep on the floor next to Alicia. When she rose, Max raised his head, bounced up, and followed the person he loved into the kitchen.

Each committee meeting was held at a different member’s house. This spread out the cost of entertaining, but it also drew the group closer. When you see someone’s furniture, pictures, the colors they chose for fabrics and the walls, you gain insight into them. Granted, most of these people had known one another from grade school. Others, like Alicia, had lived in the area off and on for thirty years. Nita Vitebsk was a sixteen-year resident. Toni Enright was originally from Harrisonburg, so she fit right in. Paula Benton, there for two years, was such a sunny personality that the ladies in the group had a hard time remembering when she had first come into their lives. Somehow it seemed she was always there.

Alicia’s subdued and elegant home reflected her tastes and her income. Any woman who has a Munnings on the wall can’t be poor. Sir Alfred Munnings’s canvases, the larger ones, routinely sold for two million and some for more. However, you never felt overpowered or smothered by Alicia’s money. Her home warmly enveloped you.

Susan Tucker’s home contained a mixture of Georgian furniture and some startlingly modern pieces, and Nita Vitebsk’s home was Art Deco. This just about sent the old Virginians into a tizzy. They hadn’t reached the 1930s in design terms just yet. As for Harry’s Virginia farmhouse, it boasted a huge library with many old, valuable books from preceding generations. She’d read most of them. Their monetary worth was a mystery to her. It never occurred to her to hire Jerry Showalter, a well-known antiquarian book dealer, to create an inventory of value. Sandy McAdams, owner of Daedalus Bookshop, encouraged her, too, but his sage advice went in one of Harry’s ears and out the other. The furniture--again inherited, some pieces quite good, especially a Sheraton sideboard--did not scream “new money.” They whispered “slender means but loving care.” The freshly painted walls pointed to some aesthetic consideration, but that was her husband’s. Pharamond Haristeen, D.V.M., had reached the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore, so he had painted the entire house himself.

When you walked into Harry’s barn, you saw perfection. When you trod into the equipment sheds, you saw old equipment fanatically maintained, everything in order, down to the jars of screws, marked with sizes and head types. When you cast your eyes over the vines, the sunflowers, the corn rows, the acres filled with hay just now popping up in force, you saw what mattered to this woman. She never stinted on her horses, who gleamed, or her land.

Harry good-naturedly endured the jibes of her friends. She even submitted to Susan and BoomBoom once dragging her to Nordstrom in Short Pump, outside of Richmond, where they forced her to try on clothes. She had resisted the prices, so they each bought her one outfit, which shamed her into buying the rest. Her husband proved far more grateful for this fashion intervention than Harry.

When the 5K group met at her house, it was invariably clean and tidy. She served fried chicken, the ubiquitous ham biscuits, corn bread, and a wonderful salad with mandarin oranges. She would spend money on food for her friends and for her animals, as well as the wild animals she had befriended. Harry just had a hard time spending it on other things. The credit card debt the average American carried, about fifteen thousand dollars’ worth, sometimes made her wonder if she was as American as she should be.

As they caught up on gossip, politics, taxes, and the effects the severe winter had had on Virginia, each woman was, in her own way, happy to be part of the group. Their work gave them a purpose outside of their own lives, and that seems to make people content.

As they sat at the graceful table--Alicia could never bear to eat with her plate on her knees; she always set the table--they discussed the school budget cuts. They passed on to postal service cuts. Harry was once the postmistress of Crozet. Then on to other things, and Alicia pulled from her blouse a little newspaper clipping.

She rapped her crystal glass with her knife. “Ladies.”

“Is this a pronouncement from Mount Olympus?” BoomBoom, the person Alicia loved most in the world, rolled her eyes.

“No. This is a clipping from The London Sunday Times. I’m not going to read all of it, but you’ve got to hear it. Ready? The Times has converted Australian dollars into pounds, so when I get to that part, bear with me. I’m not converting it back.”

“Can’t wait.” Harry smiled as the others agreed.

“In Adelaide, Australia, a restaurant, Thai Spice, was ordered to pay compensation to a blind man. Ian Jolly, the blind man, wanted to take his dog into the restaurant. Obvious enough. But the waiter, who we shall assume does not speak English as a first language, turned him away because he thought the dog was gay.”

“What!” Nita exploded with laughter.

“Are you making this up?” Paula, too, was disbelieving.

“I couldn’t possibly make this up. No one could. I’ll pass this around. But let me finish. Okay. Thai Spice must pay nine hundred pounds’ compensation. The waiter thought the dog--whose name is Nudge, by the way--was gay. He misunderstood Mr. Jolly, who said this was a ‘guide dog.’ Thought the blind man said ‘gay dog.’ It gets worse. At what must have been a very unusual hearing before the judge, the staff at Thai Spice reported that they thought Nudge was a pet dog who had been de-sexed to become gay!”

How they laughed. That absurd story brought up others. They laughed until they cried.

Later, each woman would look back and recall that at that meeting they were all together and so very happy.


“Slut,” Thadia Martin spit.

“Look who’s talking,” Paula Benton fired right back. “And just what the hell are you doing in my driveway at six at night?”

“I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’m sick and tired of your lying.”

“Thadia, you’re back on drugs.”

“How convenient. My past. I haven’t taken a drink or a toot in eleven years. I’m as sober as a judge, and you know it.” Thadia pulled the soft cashmere scarf tighter around her neck, exposing a graceful scarab bracelet on her left wrist. She jammed her hands back into her pockets as the air turned sharp, cold, this  Thursday early evening.

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