"People tell me things. Of course, I have a kind face and I'm a good listener, but the real reason they tell me things is they think I can't repeat their secrets. They couldn't be more wrong."
"People tell me secrets." The corgi looked up at Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat, reposing on the windowsill at the post office.
"You're delusional. Dogs blab." She nonchalantly flipped the end of her tail.
"You just said people think you can't repeat their secrets but they're wrong. So you blab, too."
"No, I don't. I can tell if I want to, that's all I'm saying."
Tucker sat up, shook her head, and walked closer to the windowsill. "Well, got any secrets?"
"No, it's been a dull stretch." She sighed. "Even Pewter hasn't dug up any dirt."
"I resent that." A little voice piped up from the bottom of a canvas mail cart.
"Wait until Miranda finds out what you've done to her garden. She hasn't a tulip bulb left, Pewter, and all because you thought there was a mole in there last week."
"Her tulips were diseased. I've saved her a great deal of trouble." She paused a moment. "And I was careful enough to pull mulch over the hole. She won't find out for another month or two. Who knows when spring will come?"
"I don't know about spring but here comes Mim the Magnificent." Tucker, on her hind legs, peered out the front window.
Mim Sanburne, the town's leading and richest citizen, closed the door of her Bentley Turbo, stepping gingerly onto the cleared walkway to the post office because ice covered much of central Virginia.
Odd that Mim would own a Bentley for she was a true Virginian, born and bred, plus her family had been in the state since the early 1600s. Driving anything as flashy as a Bentley was beyond the pale. The only thing worse would be to drive a Rolls-Royce. And Mim didn't flaunt her wealth. Miranda, who had known Mim all of her life, figured this was a quiet rebellion on her friend's part. As they both cruised into their sixties, not that they were advertising, this was Mim's salvo to youth: Get Out Of My Way.
Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen smiled when Mim pushed open the door. "Good morning."
"Good morning, Harry. Did you have trouble driving in today?"
"Once I rolled down the driveway I was fine. The roads are clear."
"You didn't ask me if I had trouble." Miranda walked up to the counter dividing the post office staff from the public. As she lived immediately behind the post office, with just an alleyway in between, she slipped and slid as she made her way to work on foot.
"You haven't broken anything so I know you're fine." Mim leaned on the counter.
"Gray. Gray. Cold. Hateful."
"Four degrees Fahrenheit last night." Miranda, passionate gardener that she was, kept close watch on the weather. "It must have been colder at Dalmally." She mentioned the name of Mim's estate just outside of town. As some of Mim's ancestors fled to America from Scotland they named their farm Dalmally, a remembrance of heather and home.
"Below zero." Mim strolled over to her postbox, took out her key, the brass lock clicking as she turned the key.
Curious, Mrs. Murphy dropped off the windowsill, jumped onto the wooden counter, then nimbly stepped off the counter onto the ledge that ran behind the postboxes, dividing the upper boxes from the larger, lower boxes. She enjoyed peering in the boxes. If a day dragged on she might reach in, shuffle some mail, or even bite the corners.
Today she noticed that Susan Tucker's mailbox had Cracker Jacks stuck on the bottom of it.
Mim's gloved hand, a luscious, soft turquoise suede, reached into her box. Murphy couldn't help herself; she peered down, then took both paws and grabbed Mim's hand, no claws.
"Mrs. Murphy. Let me have my mail." Mim bent down to see two beautiful green eyes staring back at her.
"Give me your glove. I love the smell of the suede."
"Harry, your cat won't let me go."
Harry walked over, slipped her fingers into the mailbox, and disengaged Murphy's paws. "Murphy, not everyone in Crozet thinks you're adorable."
"Thank you!" Pewter's voice rose up from the canvas mail cart.
Harry gently placed her tiger on the counter again. A pretty woman, young and fit, she stroked the cat.
Miranda checked the bookshelves for cartons. "Mim, got a package here for you. Looks like your coffee."
Mim belonged to a coffee club, receiving special beans from various world-famous cafes once a month. "Good." She stood at the counter sorting her mail. She removed one exquisite glove and slit open envelopes with her thumbnail, a habit Harry envied, since her own nails were worn down from farm work. The older, elegant woman opened a white envelope, read a few sentences, then tossed the letter and envelope in the trash. "Another chain letter. I just hate them and I wish there'd be a law against them. They're all pyramid schemes. This one wants you to send five dollars to Crozet Hospital's Indigent Patients Fund and then send out twenty copies of the letter. I just want to know who put my name on the list."
Harry flipped up the divider, walked over to the wastebasket, and fished out the offending letter.
"Sister Sophonisba will bring you good fortune." She scanned the rest of it. "There is no list of names. All it says is to pass this on to twenty other people. 'If you wish.'" Harry's voice filled the room. "Send five dollars to Crozet Hospital's Indigent Patients Fund or your microwave will die."
"It doesn't really say that, does it?" Miranda thought Harry was teasing her but then again . . .
"Nah." Harry flashed her crooked grin.
"Very funny." Mim reached for her letter again, which Harry handed to her. "Usually there's a list of names and the top one gets money. You know, your name works its way to the top of the list." She reread the letter, then guffawed, "Here's the part that always kills me about these things." She read aloud. "Mark Lintel sent five dollars and the Good Lord rewarded him with a promotion at work. Jerry Tinsley threw this letter in the trash and had a car wreck three days later." Mim peered over the letter. "I seem to recall Jerry's wreck. And I seem to recall he was liberally pickled in vodka. If he dies he'll come back as a rancid potato."
Harry laughed. "I guess he has to get rid of that old Camry somehow so he decided to wreck it."
"Harry," Miranda reprimanded her.
"Well, I liked your death threat to microwaves." Mim handed the letter over the worn counter to Harry, who tossed it back into the wastebasket, applauding herself for the "basket."
"Two points." Harry smiled.
"Seems to be local. The references are local. None of this 'Harold P. Beecher of Davenport, Iowa, won the lottery,'" Mim said. "Well, girls, you know things are slow around here if we've wasted this much time on a chain letter."
"The February blahs." Harry stuck her tongue out.
"Ever notice that humans' tongues aren't as pink as ours?" Tucker, the corgi, cocked her head, sticking her own tongue out.
"They are what they are," came the sepulchral voice from the mail bin.
"Oh, that's profound, Pewts." Mrs. Murphy giggled.
"The sage of Crozet has spoken," Pewter again rumbled, making her kitty voice deeper.
"Well, I don't know a thing. What about you two?"
"Mim, we thought you knew everything. You're the--" Harry stopped for a second because "the Queen of Crozet" dangled on the tip of her tongue, which was what they called Mim behind her back. "--uh, leader of the pack."
"At least you didn't say Laundromat." Mim referred to a popular song from the sixties, before Harry's time.
"How's Jim?" Miranda inquired after Mim's husband.
"Marilyn?" Miranda now asked about Mim's daughter, Harry's age, late thirties.
"The same, which is to say she has no purpose in this life, no beau, and she exists simply to contradict me. As for my son, since you're moving through the family, he and his wife are still in New York. No grandchildren in sight. What's the matter with your generation, Harry? We were settled down by the time we were thirty."
Harry shrugged. "We have more choices."
"Now what's that supposed to mean?" Mim put her hands on her slender hips. "All it means is you're more self-indulgent. I don't mind women getting an education. I received a splendid education but I knew my duty lay in marrying and producing children and raising them to be good people."
Miranda deftly deflected the conversation. "Don't look now, but Dr. Bruce Buxton is flat on his back coasting down Main Street."
"Ha!" Mim ran to the window, as did Mrs. Murphy and Tucker. "I hope he's black and blue from head to toe!"
Bruce spun around, finally grabbing onto a No Parking sign. Breathing heavily, he pulled himself up, but his feet insisted in traveling in opposite directions. Finally steadied, he half slid, half skated in the direction of the post office.
"Here he comes." Mim laughed. "Pompous as ever although he is handsome. I'll give him that."
Dr. Bruce Buxton stamped his feet on the post office steps, then pushed the door open.
Before he could speak, Mim dryly remarked, "I give you a 9.4," as she breezed past him, waving good-bye to Harry and Miranda.
"Supercilious snot!" he said only after the door closed because it wouldn't do to cross Mim publicly. Even Bruce Buxton, a star knee specialist at Crozet Hospital, knew better than to offend "The Diva," as he called her.
"Well, Dr. Buxton, I gave you points for distance. Mim gave you points for artistic expression." Harry laughed out loud.
Bruce, in his late thirties and single, couldn't resist a pretty woman so he laughed at himself as well. "I did cover ground. If it gets worse, I'm wearing my golf spikes."
"Good idea." Harry smiled as he opened his mailbox.
"Bills. More bills." He opened a white envelope, then chucked it. "Junk."
"Wouldn't be a letter from Sister Sophonisba, would it?" Harry asked.
"Sister Somebody. Chain letter."
"Mim got one, too. I didn't." Harry laughed at herself. "I miss all the good stuff. Say, how is Isabelle Otey?"
Harry was interested in the gifted forward for the University of Virginia's basketball team. She had shredded her anterior cruciate ligament during a tough game against Old Dominion. UVA won the game but lost Isabelle for the season.
"Fine. Arthroscopic surgery is done on an outpatient basis now. Six weeks she'll be as good as new, providing she follows instructions for six weeks. The human knee is a fascinating structure . . ." As he warmed to his subject--he was one of the leading knee surgeons in the country--Harry listened attentively. Miranda did, too.
"My knees are better." Mrs. Murphy turned her back on Bruce, whom she considered a conceited ass. "Everything about me is better. If people walked on four feet instead of two most of their problems would vanish."
"Won't improve their minds any," came the voice from the mail cart, which now echoed slightly.
"There's no help for that." Tucker sighed, for she loved Harry; but even that love couldn't obviate the slowness of human cogitation.
"Pewter, why don't you get your ass out of the mail cart? You've been in there since eight this morning and it's eleven-thirty. We could go outside and track mice."
"You don't want to go out in the cold any more than I do. You just want to make me look bad." There was a grain of truth in Pewter's accusation.
Bruce left, treading the ice with slow respect.
In ten minutes Hank Brevard, plant manager of Crozet Hospital, and Tussie Logan, head nurse in Pediatrics, arrived together in Tussie's little silver Tracker.
"Good morning." Tussie smiled. "It's almost noon. How are things in the P.O.?"
"The P.U.," Hank complained.
He was always complaining about something.
"I beg your pardon." Mrs. Miranda Hogendobber huffed up.
"Cat litter." He sniffed.
"Hank, there's no litter box. They go outside."
"Yeah, maybe it's you," Tussie teased him.
He grunted, ignoring them, opening his mailbox. "Bills, bills. Junk."
Despite his crabbing over his mail, he did open the envelopes, carefully stacking them on the table. He was a meticulous man as well as a faultfinder.
Tussie, by contrast, shuffled her envelopes like cards, firing appeals, advertisements, and form letters into the wastebasket.
Miranda flipped up the dividing counter, walked out, picked up the wastebasket, and started to head back to the mailbag room, as she dubbed the working portion of the post office building.
"Wait." Tussie swiftly dumped two more letters into the trash. "If you don't open form letters you add three years onto your productive life."
"Is that a fact?" Miranda smiled.
"Solemn," Tussie teased her.
Miranda carried the metal wastebasket around the table to Hank. "Any more?"
"Uh, no." He thumbed through his neatly stacked pile.
"Can't you ever do anything on impulse?" Tussie pulled her mittens from her coat pocket.
"Haste makes waste. If you saw the damaged equipment that I see, all because some jerk can't take the time. Yesterday a gurney was brought down with two wheels jammed. Now that only happens if an orderly doesn't take the time to tap the little foot brake. He pushed, got no response, then pushed with all his might." Hank kept on, filled with the importance of his task. "And there I was in the middle of testing a circuit breaker that kept tripping in the canteen. Too many appliances on that circuit." He took a breath, ready to recount more problems.
Tussie interrupted him. "The hospital does need a few things."
He jumped in again. "Complete and total electrical overhaul. New furnace for the old section but hey, who listens to me? I just run the place. Let a doctor squeal for something and oh, the earth stops in its orbit."
"That's not true. Bruce Buxton has been yelling for a brand new MRI unit and--"
"What's that?" Harry inquired.
"Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Another way to look into the body without invading it," Tussie explained. "Technology is exploding in our field. The new MRI machines cut down the time by half. Well, don't let me go off on technology." She stopped for a moment. "We will all live to see a cure for cancer, for childhood diabetes, for so many of the ills that plague us."
"Don't know how you can work with sick children. I can't look them in the eye." Hank frowned.
"They need me."
"Hear, hear," Miranda said as Harry nodded in agreement.
"Guess we need a lot of things," Hank remarked. "Still, I think the folks in the scrubs will get what they want before I get what I want." He took a breath. "I hate doctors." Hank placed the envelopes in the large inside pocket of his heavy coveralls.
Excerpted from Claws and Effect by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2002 by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.