Alone figure walked along a shoveled- off bricklaid path. The dormant gardens glimmered with frost. The skies seemed low enough to touch.
Aunt Tally, two weeks away from her one- hundredth birthday, called her Gordon setter, Doodles.
As the young dog joyfully returned to his master, Aunt Tally leaned on her silver- headed cane, the head being in the graceful shape of a hound. Apart from having to use that cane—thanks to the usual involuntary dismounts all horsewomen take—she betrayed few signs of her advanced years. Had you seen her peering at the ground as she walked along, you would have pegged her at eighty, perhaps.
“More snow coming.” She squinted at the sky this March 11, Wednesday.
Doodles, who had sharper senses, replied, “Before sundown.” Aunt Tally stroked the dog’s head upon hearing the little yodel. Tightening her cashmere scarf, she continued on.
A deep rumble alerted Doodles, who recognized the motor’s signature sound as well as the sound of the tires. Identifying a vehicle by its tire sound and motor is easy for dogs. Humans can’t do it. Doodles wagged her tail as she bounded up to the front of the house, where Marilyn “Big Mim” Sanburne, Tally’s niece, had parked her brand-new Dodge half- ton.
The two walked to the back of the house to join Tally.
Big Mim, teasingly called “The Queen of Crozet,” was a formidable woman. However, even Big Mim could be backed off by the small, lean Tally.
“What are you doing out here? It’s 24°F.”
“Checking for my crocus. A shoot here and a shoot there and I get to thinking about the redbuds.”
Big Mim put one gloved hand on her hip. “Redbuds aren’t going to be in full flower until about April fifteenth. You know that.”
“Of course I do. That doesn’t mean I can’t check them.” She tapped her cane on the old brick. “I’m longing for spring. By this time of the year I’ve had enough.”
“You really will have enough if you don’t come in out of the cold. You’ll catch your death.”
“It’s not a baseball,” the old woman replied.
“You know what I mean,” Big Mim said, sounding tolerant. “Are you ready to go, or do you need anything from the house?”
“Just need to put up the dog.” Aunt Tally walked to the back door, opened it, and Doodles scooted in, happy for the warmth.
“Purse?” Big Mim raised an eyebrow.
“My wallet’s in my coat pocket. Purses are a pain. Even if I find one that slings just right over my shoulder, sooner or later it drops down. Hard to carry a purse with a cane.”
“Guess it is.” Big Mim walked to the passenger side of her blue truck and opened the door for Tally, who climbed in unassisted. Once out on the road, the two chattered as only two people who have known each other all their lives can. Aunt Tally had been pushing thirty when Big Mim was born. It was a day of celebration. Aunt Tally, thanks to a disastrous love affair when young, shied away from marriage but not affairs. She treated Big Mim as her own daughter, which had occasioned some arguments with Tally’s late, loved sister. A brother to Big Mim followed later, but he died on the hideous Bataan Death March. Apart from rage and grief, the result was that no Urquhart of any succeeding generation would buy a Japanese car or any product if they could help it. As with all old Virginia families, regard less of generations of marriages on both the male and female sides, they generally referred to themselves by the surname of the first European to settle on Virginia soil. In this case, the Urquharts.
Aunt Tally, staring straight ahead, raised her voice a bit. “Oh, Mimsy, I make notes. I read them. I throw them out. I can’t bear the thought of standing up there spouting bromides and sentimental mush. I haven’t found what I want to say.”
“That’s a first.”
Aunt Tally ignored this, instead concentrating on an upcoming T-cross. Her farm, Rose Hill, reposed about four miles west of Harry Haristeen’s farm. They’d passed Harry’s place on the way to Crozet, reaching the intersection of a dirt road and the two- lane paved highway on which they traveled.
“Can never drive over this without thinking about Ralston Peavey.” Aunt Tally repositioned her cane to her left side. “Never found his murderer.”
“Someone really wanted him out of this world.” Big Mim remembered it, as well. “Fall, wasn’t it?”
Aunt Tally nodded in affirmation. “A light frost, patchy fog.”
“1964. The year sticks in my head because that was the first year Jim was elected mayor.”
Jim Sanburne, her husband, remained mayor, and their daughter, Little Mim, was now vice mayor. The joke was, father and daughter came from two different political parties. Being a small town, Crozet never bothered with term limits. Jim, a good mayor, would most likely retain his office until such day as he died.
“Jim picked up the call from Dinny Myers; wish we had him back. There was a sheriff with sense,” Aunt Tally mumbled.
“Oh, the one we have now has sense. You just think everything was better when you were younger.”
“ ’Twas.” Aunt Tally raised her voice. “This country is going to hell in a handbasket. Well, I’m not going off on that; it’ll ruin my day. But even you have to admit that Ralston Peavey was the best blacksmith you ever saw.”
“He was. He was.”
Pleased with her little victory, Aunt Tally recalled the details as they rolled over the spot. “Found Ralston right here, spread- eagled in the middle of the road, facedown. Run over one way and then backed over. To make sure he was dead, I reckon.”
“Jim saw him before Dinny removed the corpse. Said the tire tracks were clear. They hoped to find the killer from the tire treads. Never happened, of course.”
“Dinny and the department really did check every set of tires in the area. He couldn’t do all of Albemarle County, but he did check Crozet. Nothing. Not one thing. Some folks thought whoever did it was not from these parts. Not me. I think it was one of us.”
Big Mim slowed for a curve. “Well, Ralston could drink. He was pretty loaded.”
“He didn’t lie down in the middle of the road because he was drunk.”
“His truck was by the side of the road.” Big Mim, who enjoyed driving her new truck, picked up speed. “I still think he’d been fooling around, and the husband found out and killed him.”
“Maybe, but we all knew who was weak that way. He’d never done it before. Two kids—what, eight and ten—and he seemed to get along with them. I wonder if it wasn’t something else. Couldn’t be drugs. That hadn’t taken off yet.”
“Can’t imagine Ralston a dealer. Although, being a blacksmith, he had the perfect job for distributing.”
“No.” Aunt Tally shook her head. “Something else.”
Big Mim paused. “Let’s just say not a stone was left unturned.”
“One was, or we’d have the killer.” Tally frowned.
“After all this time, maybe he’s dead himself.”
“Mimsy, I’ve seen a lot. One of these days, might be 2050, the truth will wriggle out. Always does.”
“Talk to Inez?” Big Mim mentioned Aunt Tally’s best friend, who had graduated from William Woods University—then known as William Woods College—two years behind Aunt Tally. The lovely school, located in Fulton, Missouri, had provided Aunt Tally with her first taste of life outside Virginia.
“She’s flying in two days before, because of the alumnae board meeting.”
“Good. Harry’s driving.”
Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen was not a William Woods graduate. She had graduated from Smith College. Age forty, best described as an attractive tomboy, she now put all her attentions to farming, her true love, as she’d quit her job at the post office two years earlier. Harry would be going to the celebration at Aunt Tally’s alma mater because she loved the old lady and knew the event was not to be missed, especi ally since the salty woman would give a speech. “Be good for Harry to get away,” Aunt Tally said.
At that moment, Harry had her hands full with a William Woods alumna, no less.
Excerpted from Cat of the Century by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2010 by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie 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.