Morning light, which looked like thin spun gold, reminded Harry Haristeen why she loved September so much. The light softened, the nights grew crisp, while the days remained warm. This Thursday, September 18, there was only a vague tinge of yellow at the top of the willow trees, which would become a cascade of color by mid-October.
The old 1978 Ford F-150 rumbled along the macadam road. The big engine's sound thrilled Harry. If it had a motor in it, she liked it.
Her two cats, Mrs. Murphy, a tiger, and Pewter, a gray cat, along with her corgi, Tee Tucker, also enjoyed the rumble, which often put them to sleep. Today, all sitting on the bench seat, they were wide awake. A trip to town meant treats and visiting other animals, plus one never knew what would happen.
Harry had just turned forty on August 7, and she declared it didn't faze her. Maybe. Maybe not. Fair, her adored husband, threw a big surprise birthday party and she reveled in being the center of attention, even though it was for entering her Middle Ages. She wore the gorgeous horseshoe ring her husband had bought her at the Shelbyville Horse Show. She wasn't much for display or girly things, but every time she looked down at the glitter, she grinned.
"All right, kids, you behave. You hear me? I don't want you jumping on Tazio's blueprints. No knocking erasers on the floor. No chewing the rubber ends of pencils. Tucker." Harry's voice kept the command tone. "Don't you dare steal Brinkley's bones. I mean it."
The three animals cast their eyes at her, those eyes brimming with love and the promise of obedience.
Tazio Chappars, a young architect in Crozet, won large commissions for public buildings, but she also accepted a healthy string of commissions for beautiful, expensive homes, most paid for by non-Virginians. The houses were too flashy for a blue-blood Virginian. However, Tazio, like all of us in this world, needed to make a living, so if the client wanted a marble-clad bathroom as big as most people's garages, so be it.
As Harry parked, she noticed a brand-new Range Rover in the small lot. Painted a burnt orange, she walked over to admire it.
"Good wheels," she muttered to herself.
Good indeed, but the closest dealer was ninety miles away in Richmond, which somewhat dimmed the appeal. If that didn't do it, the price did.
Before she reached the door, a stream of invective assaulted her ears. When she opened the door, the blast hit her.
"Wormwood! I don't care what it costs and I don't care if termites get in it. I want wormwood!" An extremely well cared for woman in her mid-forties shook colored plans in Tazio's face.
"Mrs. Paulson, I understand. But it's going to slow down the library because it takes months to secure it."
"I don't care. You'll do what I tell you."
Tazio, face darkening, said nothing.
Mrs. Paulson spun around on her bright aqua three-hundred-dollar shoes to glare at Harry. Harry's white T-shirt revealed an ample chest, and her jeans hugged a trim body with a healthy tan. Mrs. Paulson paused for a minute because, even though not of Virginia, she had divined that often the richest people or the ones with the oldest blood wore what to her were migrant-labor fashions. Carla Paulson wouldn't be caught dead in a white T-shirt and Wranglers. She couldn't fathom why Harry would appear in public looking like a farmhand.
She knew Harry in passing, so she switched into "lunch lady" mode.
Tazio stepped around her drafting table. "Mrs. Paulson, you remember Harry Haristeen; her mother was a Hepworth. Her father, a Minor." Tazio knew perfectly well that Mrs. Paulson didn't know the bloodlines, but the simple fact that Tazio recited them meant "important person."
Not that Harry gave a damn.
Extending her hand, radiating a smile, the well-groomed woman purred, "Of course, I remember."
Harry politely took her hand, using the exact amount of pressure all those battleaxes at cotillion drilled into her year after year. "I can see you've hired the most talented architect in the state." She paused. "Love your new wheels."
"Isn't the interior beautiful? Just bought it last week." Carla Paulson brightened. She checked her diamond-encrusted Rolex. "Well, I'll call later for another appointment. Oh, before I forget, Michael McElvoy said he'd be out at the site tomorrow at eleven."
Tazio wanted to say she had an appointment then, which she did, but if one of the county building inspectors was going to be at the construction site, then she'd better be there, too. Michael lived to find fault.
"Fine. I'll be there." Tazio smiled and walked Mrs. Paulson to the door, while Mrs. Murphy and Pewter jumped on the high chair and onto the drafting table. Those pink erasers thrilled the cats. Tazio even had special white square ones that squeaked when bitten.
Brinkley, a young yellow lab rescued by Tazio during a snowstorm at a half-completed building site, chewed his bone. Tucker lay down in front of the wonderful creature and put her head on her paws to stare longingly at the bone.
Once Carla Paulson exited, Tazio exhaled loudly.
"Murphy, Pewter, what did I tell you?" Harry warned.
Murphy batted the square white eraser off the table. Both cats sailed after it.
"Don't worry about it. I have a carton full of them back in the supply closet. In fact, I'll give you one." She took another breath. "That woman is plucking my last nerve. I thought Folly Steinhauser was high maintenance and Penny Lattimore a diva, but Carla is in a class by herself."
"I can see that."
Tazio slyly smiled. "The diamond Rolex watch is so over the top."
"Better to wear plain platinum. Worth more and not showy. In fact, most people think it's steel." Harry leaned on the drafting table. "But if Carla owned a platinum Rolex, she'd have to tell everyone it wasn't steel and ruin it, of course."
"Harry," Tazio laughed, "you're so Virginia."
"Oh, look who's talking."
"I'm from St. Louis, remember."
"Doesn't matter. You mentioned that gaudy watch. I didn't."
Tazio was half Italian, half African-American, and all gorgeous. Her family, prominent in St. Louis, had provided her with the best education as well as a great deal of social poise, since her mother was on every committee imaginable. From the time she was small, her mother had marched her to different parties, balls, fund-raisers.
"I'm worn out, because she keeps changing her mind. Well, I'll grant, she's been consistent about the wormwood, but every time she changes something the cost spirals upward. It's not my money, but you move a window an inch and either Orrie"-she named the head of construction by his nickname-"or I have to call the building inspector. Michael McElvoy, as you heard."
Harry started to giggle. "Lucky you."
"Oh, well, everyone has their problems. You came to pick up the numbers on the different heating systems for St. Luke's. Got 'em." She walked back to her large, polished mahogany desk, about ten feet from the drafting table. Picking up a folder, she said, "Here. Digest it, then let's go over it before the next vestry meeting."
Harry flipped open the folder. "Jeez."
"Lots of choices, and each one has pluses and minuses."
"Herb have a copy?" Harry mentioned the pastor of St. Luke's, Rev. Herb Jones.
"I thought we should put our heads together first. Anyway, he's on overload because of the St. Luke's reunion next month."
The reunion would be Saturday, October 25. Each October, St. Luke's held a gathering of all its members. Many who had moved away from central Virginia returned, so the numbers ran to about three hundred.
"Okay. I'll get right on this. Be nice to have this installed before the reunion, just in case the weather does turn cold."
"With luck the old boiler ought to hold out for another month or two. First frost usually hits us mid-October. We'll make it, I hope. You know, that old furnace is cast iron. A welder will need to dismantle it to get it out of there. That will take days. They don't build things like they used to," Tazio said with a big grin.
Harry finally noticed Tucker. "What did I tell you?"
Tazio walked back to the supply room, returning with a dog treat called a Greenies. She handed it to a grateful Tucker. "Made in Missouri."
"Well, then it has to be good." Harry laughed. "Come on, kids."
"I want the eraser." Mrs. Murphy carried the item in her mouth.
Harry had reached down to pluck it from those jaws when Tazio said, "Keep it. Really. I have a carton."
"Thanks. You spoil my buddies."
"You don't?" An eyebrow arched over one green eye.
"Well . . ."
"If you spoiled Fair like you spoil these three, he'd be fat as a tick." Tazio mentioned Harry's husband, who was six five, all muscle.
"You know, I don't think Fair will ever get fat. For one thing, if he doesn't work it off, he'll worry it off."
"He doesn't strike me as a worrier."
"Maybe not in the traditional sense, but he's always thinking about the future, investigating new technology and medications. His mind never stops."
"Neither does yours. That's why you were made for each other."
"Guess so. All right, madam. I'll get back to you." She paused. "Speaking of made for each other, you and Paul seem to be."
Tazio shrugged and blushed.
Harry opened the door and the three happy friends scooted out ahead of her. She got in the Ford, ran a few errands, then turned west toward the farm. Once down the long driveway, she could see her field of sunflowers, heads straight up to the sun, her quarter acre of Petit Manseng grapes ripening. How perfect.
One acre of sunflowers towered over another acre of Italian sunflowers, their beautiful heads turned toward the sun. The centers, heavy with seeds, barely moved in the light breeze, which lifted the leaves on the wide, hollow stalks.
Harry pulled the truck alongside the barn, cut the motor, and hopped out. Before returning to her chores, she stood, hands on hips, admiring the rich yellows of the big sunflowers and the subtle greenish white of the Italian variety. A twelve-foot grass swath ran between the sunflower acres and the grapes, pendulous beauties drooping on the vine. Since this was their first year, the grapes would not be picked but allowed to winter on the vine. This would thrill the foxes and birds.
Mrs. Murphy and Tucker followed.
"I need a nap." Pewter hesitated.
"I'm sure you do," Mrs. Murphy agreed.
The tiger's ready reply made Pewter suspicious. Mrs. Murphy and Tucker must be hiding something.
Harry walked along, Tucker alongside her, Mrs. Murphy behind, and Pewter bringing up the rear.
"Thought you wanted a nap," Tucker called over her shoulder.
"Decided I needed the exercise." Pewter's dark-gray fur shone, a sign of her overall health.
As they walked through the sunflower rows, insects buzzing, Harry paused, ran her fingers over a large head, then moved on. "Time for some rain."
A huge fake owl on a stake had thwarted some birds, but the blue jay paid no mind. Consequently, he'd eaten so much over the last month that his speed suffered. A red oak in the pasture next to the sunflower acres provided him with a refuge. He unfurled his topknot once the cats came into view. Lifting off, he circled the party once.
Pewter glanced up. "Butt ugly."
The jay swooped low, just missing Pewter as he emitted what he'd eaten earlier. Satisfied, he returned to the red oak.
"One day," Pewter grumbled.
"Least it wasn't a direct hit." Tucker tried to look on the bright side. The dog swiveled her large ears, then barked, "Susan."
The cats stopped, turning their heads to listen for the Audi station wagon. It was a quarter mile from the house, but they, too, could hear the motor. Few humans can distinguish the unique sounds each set of tires produce, but for the dog and cats this was as easy as identifying someone wearing squeaky shoes.
As the wagon approached the house, Harry finally heard it and turned to behold an arching plume of dust. "Damn, we really do need rain."
They walked briskly toward the house.
Susan met them halfway. "Hey, sugar."
Sweeping her arm wide, Harry beamed. "Can you believe it?"
Susan stopped, putting her hands on her hips. "Promiscuous in fertility and abundance."
"Worried about rain."
"Me, me, me." Susan bent down to scratch Tucker's ears.
"Me, too." Pewter rubbed against Susan's leg, so she petted the gray cannonball.
Harry slipped her arm through Susan's as they stood there for a moment admiring the yield. "Agriculture is still the basis of all wealth. Can't have industry or high tech if people can't eat."
Susan nodded. "Course, most people have forgotten that."
Harry smiled as they walked back to the house, the blue jay squawking after them.
As they passed the barn, Simon, the possum, stuck his head out of the open loft barn doors. "Save me some cookies."
Harry and Susan looked up at him, for he was semitame.
"If I don't eat them first." Pewter giggled.
"You need a diet, girl." Mrs. Murphy arched an eyebrow.
"Shut up." Pewter shot in front of everyone to push open the screen, then squeezed through the animal door in the kitchen door.
Once in the kitchen, Harry poured sweet tea and put out some fruit and cheese.
Susan approached the reason for her visit to her best friend. "You're not going to believe this."
"What?" Harry leaned forward.
"Folly Steinhauser pledged to pay for the entire St. Luke's reunion on October twenty-fifth."
"But she's only attended St. Luke's for two years. I mean, she's only lived here for two years and," Harry thought a moment, "been on the vestry board for one."
"Herb was politically shrewd to call her to the board."
"Well, Susan, if she's going to cough up what will amount to thirty thousand dollars, give or take, I don't wonder."
"He didn't know that originally." Susan closed her eyes in appreciation as she sipped the tea, a sprig of fresh mint from the house garden enlivening the taste. "He was smart because she's a come-here and she knows how to talk to the other come-heres."
"I wasn't aware that one talked to them. I thought, dumb rednecks that we are, we simply listen to their cascade of wisdom."
"Don't be snide."
"All right, then. How about I'm tired of them telling me how they do it up North."
"Harry, they aren't all from the North."
"Some are from the Midwest."
"That's just as damned bad." Harry burst out laughing.
"You are so prejudiced. Now, shut up and do listen."
"Yes, ma'am." She sighed. "Maybe turning forty has allowed me to enter the realm of crankiness." She raised an eyebrow. "But I will listen to you."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Purrfect Murder by Rita Mae Brown. Copyright © 2008 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.