“I don’t believe it.” Susan Tucker stared at the cards that her childhood friend, Harriett Haristeen, “Harry,” had smacked down.
The six other women in the room, all slack-jawed, came over to view the winning card.
“Well, Susan, she did,” BoomBoom Craycroft, another childhood friend, said and smiled.
“Harry can’t play cards worth squat,” Susan complained.
“Well, I did tonight.” Harry beamed. “Susan, mark your calendar, Tuesday, December third, my best friend Harry knocked the stuffing out of me at gin.”
Jessica Hexham was petite and middle-aged, well dressed even though the evening was relaxed. She murmured, “Maybe something less exuberant for the calendar—just a red-letter day?”
“Do you remember when Miss Donleavey lectured us about red-letter days on the ancient Roman calendar?” Susan rolled her eyes.
BoomBoom, Susan, and Harry had been in the same class at old Crozet High School. While the buildings still stood, students now attended Western Albemarle High School, a large complex consolidating former small community schools. Jessica Hexham, Alicia Palmer, Charlene Vavilov, and Arden Higham had not. Jessica had attended Miss Porter’s; Alicia, Orange High School; Arden, Buckingham High; and Charlene, older than the others, had attended St. Catherine’s in Richmond.
With the exception of Jessica, all were central Virginia natives. Jessica, born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, often found them amusing while contradictory at times, and they were reliably solid friends.
“Alea jacta est,” Susan pronounced with emphasis.
Harry translated. “The die is cast. Said when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. at the head of the Thirteenth Legion. He knew civil war would follow.”
“Talk about a red-letter day,” said BoomBoom.
“Isn’t it something, though, how a device thousands of years old still works, I mean, a red-letter day? God bless Miss Donleavey. She taught us well.”
Jessica also recalled her Latin teacher at the expensive private school, perhaps less fondly. “I would never bless Miss Greely.”
The others laughed.
“Charlene, bet you took Latin at St. Catherine’s,” Alicia wondered.
“You couldn’t go to college without two years of it,” said Charlene. “I took four. It’s helped me more than I could know when I hated memorizing those conjugations.” She laughed.
“Funny, isn’t it?” the uncommonly beautiful Alicia said. “What we use? What we remember?”
“What I remember, apart from amo, amas, amat, was Miss Donleavey’s mysterious disappearance. Never found her.” Harry picked up the cards to shuffle.
Susan reached across the card table, placing her hand on Harry’s forearm. “Don’t you dare.”
“Huh?” Harry blinked.
“Are you calling me a cheat?” Harry’s voice rose.
“No, but you won the last hand, so it’s my turn to shuffle. Plus, what if you have a hot hand?” Susan used the gambling term.
“I’d better tell that to my husband.”
This evoked more laughter.
The lights flickered, once, twice, then no light.
“Dammit,” Susan cursed the dark. “Stay put, ladies. I’ll get the candles.”
“You need my little flashlight.” Harry reached into her pocket, pulling out a two-and-a-half-inch LED flashlight made in China.
Susan pressed the button. “Wow.”
“What else do you have in your pocket?” Jessica asked.
“One pocketknife,” BoomBoom answered for Harry. “She always has a pocketknife and a little money.”
“The emphasis is on little,” said Harry, emptying her pockets onto the card table as Susan returned with candles.
“Let me help you.” Thanks to the tiny LED flashlight, Alicia could see. She reached for some candles.
“There’s a hurricane glass lamp. Well, here, let’s do it together. Girls, we’ll be right back.”
True to her word, Susan and Alicia returned to the living room with small brass candleholders, which they placed about and lit. The large hurricane candleholder glowed on the card table. All held six- to eight-inch candles.
Susan noticed the small pile of debris.
“Harry, what’s your stuff doing on the card table?”
“Jessica wanted to know what was in my pocket.”
“In the dark?” Susan questioned.
“We knew there’d be light,” Harry shot back.
Jessica dutifully investigated the contents: one Case pocketknife, a folded cotton handkerchief, twenty-two dollars in small bills, one dog cookie.
Harry pointed out the cookie. “Never know when I might get hungry.”
The ladies laughed again as Alicia walked to the large triple-sash windows. “Girls, we’re in for it.”
“No kidding?” Harry hurried over, as did the others.
“The storm’s early.” BoomBoom, like all country people, paid intense attention to the weather.
“We have a little time before we need to worry about the roads,” Harry confidently predicted. “Everyone has four-wheel drive, right?”
“If not, I’m happy to sell you one.” Charlene smiled. She and her husband, Pete, owned the Ford dealership.
“We’re good,” the others replied.
“Well, let’s not play cards by candlelight. Ladies, I whipped up vegetable hors d’oeuvres, and they’re really tasty, if I do say so myself. I can’t eat them all. You have to help me. Harry, use your flashlight again and let’s bring the food out from the kitchen. BoomBoom, you know where the bar is. Give the girls what they want.”
BoomBoom picked up a candle as she glided to the well-stocked bar. Susan’s husband, Ned, was a delegate to the state legislature in Richmond, and the couple entertained frequently. In this part of the world, good liquor was considered an essential by any host and hostess. Southerners did drink wine, but many still preferred a high-octane bourbon or scotch, and then there were the legions of vodka drinkers who believed it didn’t linger on their breath.
Once settled in the living room, comfortable in decidedly not-modern décor, Jessica, curious, asked, “So what did happen to your Latin teacher?”
“Nobody knows.” BoomBoom shrugged. “She disappeared after a Friday-night football game. Her car was in the parking lot. Monday, she didn’t come to school.”
“We played the Louisa Dragons that night,” Harry recalled. “Good game. Miss Donleavey never missed a football game.”
“She dated the coach, Mr. Toth,” Susan filled in. “Handsome, handsome, handsome.”
“Coach Toth? That Toth?” Jessica asked. “Silver Linings?” She mentioned a youth organization the coach supported, as did all the husbands of the women in the room. Apart from helping young men, business leaders and former athletes ran Silver Linings. To belong was beneficial to one’s career.
“Jessica, this must be irritating, being in the middle of a bunch of old friends.” Harry handed her a napkin.
“No, it’s fascinating. A vanished Latin teacher.”
“You know the stereotype of the old-maid Latin teacher? Well, not Miss Donleavey. She was voluptuous, raven-haired, so pretty,” BoomBoom noted, herself voluptuous.
“Suspects?” Jessica’s eyebrows raised.
Miranda answered. “At first, people thought it might have been a rival of the coach’s. Men were crazy for her.”
Susan added, “Lots of men were questioned. Everyone had an alibi.”
“Anyone else?” Jessica persisted.
“Esther Mercier. Hated Miss Donleavey, just hated her.” Harry bit into a carrot incised with a tiny trench filled with rich cream cheese.
“In love with Coach Toth.” BoomBoom filled in facts. “An attractive enough woman, but not in Miss Donleavey’s league.”
“What was her first name?” Jessica asked. “Miss Donleavey?”
“Uh, Margaret. It’s funny, but I still have a hard time calling my teachers by their first names. I mean, Coach Toth is always Coach Toth.” Susan smiled. “And eventually he did marry Miss Mercier, one of the math teachers.”
“You’d think someone would have known something. Crozet is still a small place,” Charlene wondered.
“If they did, no one noticed. Crozet, like any place anywhere in the world, is full of secrets that people take to their graves,” Harry remarked. “Miss Donleavey’s kin, all older, are gone. It’s one of those persistent small-town mysteries.”
“Well, people don’t just disappear off the face of the earth.” Alicia twirled a fresh bit of broccoli.
“The Black Dahlia,” BoomBoom countered.
“You’re right, to a degree,” said Alicia. “ ’Course, I wasn’t in Hollywood then. And she didn’t disappear, Sweetie. They never found the killer.”
“You’re right.” BoomBoom got up and walked over to the window, nose almost on the windowpane. “It’s really coming down now. We’d all better head home.”
“Let me help you clean up,” Harry offered.
“A tray of vegetables and a couple of glasses? Anyway, no power, no water. Go on. If your cellphones don’t work you can still text if you have a Droid.”
Arden said, “I hope the Silver Linings fund-raiser isn’t canceled.”
“We’ll cross our fingers.” Charlene crossed hers.
After a long, careful drive, Harry slowly finally drove down her long farm driveway, windshield wipers flipping as fast as they could. She pulled in front of the old white frame farmhouse, cut the motor, the lights with it.
Golden candlelight cascaded over the snow. The frosted windows glowed pale gold, the wavy imperfections of the handblown glass all the more obvious with the candles behind her.
“Mom’s home.” Inside the house, Tucker the corgi barked joyfully.
Pewter flopped on the kitchen table, lifted her head. “About time.”
Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat, walked alongside Fair, Harry’s husband, as he opened the kitchen door to the porch. He carried a huge flashlight, which he focused on the path to the back porch, screened-in in summer, glassed-in in winter.
“Honey, I’m glad you’re home.” He stepped into the snow.
“Fair, get back inside. I can see.”
He didn’t, of course, kissing her as she hurried onto the porch, Tucker and Mrs. Murphy at her feet.
Excerpted from Nine Lives to Die by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2014 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.