Barry Monteith was still breathing when Harry found him. His throat had been ripped out.
Tee Tucker, a corgi, racing ahead of Mary Minor Haristeen as well as the two cats, Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, found him first.
Barry was on his back, eyes open, gasping and gurgling, life ebbing with each spasm. He did not recognize Tucker nor Harry when they reached him.
"Barry, Barry." Harry tried to comfort him, hoping he could hear her. "It will be all right," she said, knowing perfectly well he was dying.
The tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, watched the blood jet upward.
"Jugular," fat, gray Pewter succinctly commented.
Gently, Harry took the young man's hand and prayed, "Dear Lord, receive into thy bosom the soul of Barry Monteith, a good man." Tears welled in her eyes.
Barry jerked, then his suffering ended.
Death, often so shocking to city dwellers, was part of life here in the country. A hawk would swoop down to carry away the chick while the biddy screamed useless defiance. A bull would break his hip and need to be put down. And one day an old farmer would slowly walk to his tractor only to discover he couldn't climb into the seat. The Angel of Death placed his hand on the stooping shoulder.
It appeared the Angel had offered little peaceful deliverance to Barry Monteith, thirty-four, fit, handsome with brown curly hair, and fun-loving. Barry had started his own business, breeding thoroughbreds, a year ago, with a business partner, Sugar Thierry.
"Sweet Jesus." Harry wiped away the tears.
That Saturday morning, crisp, clear, and beautiful, had held the alluring promise of a perfect May 29. The promise just curdled.
Harry had finished her early-morning chores and, despite a list of projects, decided to take a walk for an hour. She followed Potlicker Creek to see if the beavers had built any new dams. Barry was sprawled at the creek's edge on a dirt road two miles from her farm that wound up over the mountains into adjoining Augusta County. It edged the vast land holdings of Tally Urquhart, who, well into her nineties and spry, loathed traffic. Three cars constituted traffic in her mind. The only time the road saw much use was during deer-hunting season in the fall.
"Tucker, Mrs. Murphy, and Pewter, stay. I'm going to run to Tally's and phone the sheriff."
If Harry hit a steady lope, crossed the fields and one set of woods, she figured she could reach the phone in Tally's stable within fifteen minutes, though the pitch and roll of the land including one steep ravine would cost time.
As she left her animals, they inspected Barry.
"What could rip his throat like that? A bear swipe?" Pewter's pupils widened.
"Perhaps." Mrs. Murphy, noncommittal, sniffed the gaping wound, as did Tucker.
The cat curled her upper lip to waft more scent into her nostrils. The dog, whose nose was much longer and nostrils larger, simply inhaled.
"I don't smell bear," Tucker declared. "That's an overpowering scent, and on a morning like this it would stick."
Pewter, who cherished luxury and beauty, found that Barry's corpse disturbed her equilibrium. "Let's be grateful we found him today and not three days from now."
"Stop jabbering, Pewter, and look around, will you? Look for tracks."
Grumbling, the gray cat daintily stepped down the dirt road. "You mean like car tracks?"
"Yes, or animal tracks," Mrs. Murphy directed, then returned her attention to Tucker. "Even though coyote scent isn't as strong as bear, we'd still smell a whiff. Bobcat? I don't smell anything like that. Or dog. There are wild dogs and wild pigs back in the mountains. The humans don't even realize they're there."
Tucker cocked her perfectly shaped head. "No dirt around the wound. No saliva, either."
"I don't see anything. Not even a birdie foot," Pewter, irritated, called out from a hundred yards down the road.
"Well, go across the creek then and look over there." Mrs. Murphy's patience wore thin.
"And get my paws wet?" Pewter's voice rose.
"It's a ford. Hop from rock to rock. Go on, Pewt, stop being a chicken."
Angrily, Pewter puffed up, tearing past them to launch herself over the ford. She almost made it, but a splash indicated she'd gotten her hind paws wet.
If circumstances had been different, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker would have laughed. Instead, they returned to Barry.
"I can't identify the animal that tore him up." The tiger shook her head.
"Well, the wound is jagged but clean. Like I said, no dirt." Tucker studied the folds of flesh laid back.
"He was killed lying down," the cat sagely noted. "If he was standing up, don't you think blood would be everywhere?"
"Not necessarily," the dog replied, thinking how strong heartbeats sent blood straight out from the jugular. Tucker was puzzled by the odd calmness of the scene.
"Pewter, have you found anything on that side?"
"Deer tracks. Big deer tracks."
"Keep looking," Mrs. Murphy requested.
"I hate it when you're bossy." Nonetheless, Pewter moved down the dirt road heading west.
"Barry was such a nice man." Tucker mournfully looked at the square-jawed face, wide-open eyes staring at heaven.
Mrs. Murphy circled the body. "Tucker, I'm climbing up that sycamore. If I look down maybe I'll see something."
Her claws, razor sharp, dug into the thin surface of the tree, strips of darker outer bark peeling, exposing the whitish underbark. The odor of fresh water, of the tufted titmouse above her, all informed her. She scanned around for broken limbs, bent bushes, anything indicating Barry--other humans or large animals--had traveled to this spot avoiding the dirt road.
"Big fat nothing." The gray kitty noted that her hind paws were wet. She was getting little clods of dirt stuck between her toes. This bothered her more than Barry did. After all, he was dead. Nothing she could do for him. But the hardening brown earth between her toes, that was discomfiting.
"Well, come on back. We'll wait for Mom." Mrs. Murphy dropped her hind legs over the limb where she was sitting. Her hind paws reached for the trunk, the claws dug in, and she released her grip, swinging her front paws to the trunk. She backed down.
Tucker touched noses with Pewter, who had recrossed the creek more successfully this time.
Mrs. Murphy came up and sat beside them.
"Hope his face doesn't change colors while we're waiting for the humans. I hate that. They get all mottled." Pewter wrinkled her nose.
"I wouldn't worry." Tucker sighed.
In the distance they heard sirens.
"Bet they won't know what to make of this, either," Tucker said.
"It's peculiar." Mrs. Murphy turned her head in the direction of the sirens.
"Weird and creepy." Pewter pronounced judgment as she picked at her hind toes, and she was right.
Crozet was the last stop on the railroad before the locomotive disappeared into the first of the four tunnels Claudius Crozet had dug through the Blue Ridge Mountains. This feat, accomplished before dynamite, was considered one of the seven engineering wonders of the world in the mid-nineteenth century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century they were still wonders as two remained in use; the other two were closed but not filled in.
On the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains reposed the fertile and long Shenandoah Valley, running from Winchester, Virginia, by the West Virginia line all the way to North Carolina. The Allegheny Mountains bordered the huge valley to the west.
But on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains the land, although not as fertile, could be quite good in patches.
Harry's tidy farm rested on one of those patches. Although lacking the thousands of acres of Tally Urquhart, she owned four hundred acres, give or take, plus she had kept her tobacco allotments current, allotments secured by her late father shortly after World War II. Still, like many a Southerner and especially a Virginian, Harry was land poor: good land, little cash.
Deputy Cynthia Cooper drove down the long drive with Harry in the front seat, her animals in the back of the squad car, stones crunching underneath her tires.
"House or barn?"
"House. Did my barn chores. Want coffee or tea?"
"Love coffee." Cooper stopped, cut the motor as Harry opened the doors for Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker. The animals raced ahead, ducking through the animal door on the side of the screened door and then through the second animal door in the kitchen door.
Harry and Cooper followed them.
"Ten-thirty. I hadn't paid attention to the time." She ground coffee beans in the electric grinder as she put up water for tea. Harry loved the smell of coffee but couldn't drink it, as it made her too jumpy. "There's corn bread in the fridge. Miranda made a mess of it yesterday."
Miranda Hogendobber, a lady in her sixties, worked with Harry at the tiny Crozet Post Office, where Harry was postmistress.
The light inside the refrigerator illuminated Cooper's badge. She pulled out the corn bread and some sweet butter.
Harry nodded. "Church of the Holy Light."
Last fall the applesauce had been cooked up to perfection by the ladies of the small church to which Miranda belonged. Harry attended St. Luke's Lutheran Church, where her friend the Reverend Herbert Jones was the pastor. She sat on the Parish Guild, impressing other, older members with her organizational skills.
"Here." Harry refilled the cats' dried-food bowl, then reached into a large stoneware cookie jar to give Tucker a smoked pig's ear.
"Thank you." The corgi solemnly took the tasty ear, remaining in the kitchen to chew it because she didn't want to miss anything.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"It's not every day you find a dead man."
"Dying. He was dying when we reached him. Yeah, I'm okay. I feel terrible for him, but I'm okay."
"Gurgling." Pewter added the vivid detail.
"Right." Cooper opened a drawer, grabbed two blue and yellow linen napkins, placing them by the plates. A country person herself, Cooper understood that country people lived much closer to life and death than most urban or suburban people.
"It was good of Rick to allow you to take me home. I could have walked."
Rick Shaw was sheriff of Albemarle County, an elected position and one growing ever more difficult as more wealthy people moved to this most beautiful place. Wealthy people tend to be very demanding. He was understaffed, underappreciated, and underpaid, but he loved law enforcement and did the best with what he had.
"Rick's more flexible than people realize," Cooper replied. "Once he'd inspected the corpse, questioned you, no reason to keep you. Another thing about Rick, he doesn't miss much," she said. "I hope the autopsy will reveal something. No sign of struggle. No sign that he dragged himself there." Cooper's blond eyebrows pointed upward as her mind turned over events.
"And no scent." Tucker spoke with her mouth full.
"So handsome." Cooper sighed as she sat down while Harry served her a big mug of coffee, then took a striped creamer from the fridge and poured some of the rich eggshell-colored Devon cream into Cooper's coffee.
"Every now and then a girl has to treat herself to the best." Harry put the creamer on the checkered tablecloth as she sat down.
"Enemies--Barry?" Cooper knew Harry would know.
"He used to run with a wild crowd, but when he and Sugar started the business over at St. James Farm he sobered up."
"Sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Cooper reached for more corn bread.
"He was so good-looking and easygoing that he got away with a lot. 'Course, when his father wrapped his Nissan truck around a tree and died, that started to sober up Barry. He hasn't any family left. When he started the breeding operation he really cleaned up his act."
"I recall he left a trail of broken hearts." Cooper sipped her delicious coffee. "The last one was, uh . . ."
"Carmen Gamble. She was mad enough to kill him six months ago."
"But not strong enough to bite his throat out," Cooper added. "For all we know a mad dog bit his throat."
"Boy, what a way to go." Cooper thoughtfully paused a moment.
"If I came up on Susan breathing her last, I'd--" Harry paused. "I think I'd never be the same."
Susan Tucker was Harry's best friend, married to a successful lawyer. They had one son at Cornell and a daughter in high school.
"Makes you wonder about war. Fifty-one thousand dead at Gettysburg. People get used to it. Or the siege of St. Petersburg, Leningrad. You just get used to it."
"I don't know if I could ever get used to the smell."
"Yeah, that's worse than the sight, for sure. Helps if you don't breathe through your nose."
"Certainly makes you understand why soldiers smoke--kills the odor a little bit and soothes your nerves." Harry noticed a flaming red cardinal swoop by the kitchen window, heading for the large bird feeder hanging in the old tree by the kitchen.
"That's another thing: Humans will drink, take drugs, anything to feel better. If you knew how many little drug busts we do . . . I mean, they aren't exactly selling kilos of marijuana, but the law states it's a crime and so I bust these guys. I can't keep up with it and it doesn't work, but it sure has made me think about why so many people do stuff."
"Cooper, that's easy. It feels good. Their body chemistry is a little different from yours and mine. Booze makes me sick. But for someone else, it's heaven--temporarily."
"Well, I'm thinking about drugs and alcohol in a new way. You and I know we're going to die. Humans carry around all this anxiety that stems from that original anxiety: the knowledge of death. Hence drugs and drink. You don't see Mrs. Murphy lapping up rum."
"Tastes awful. But give me some catnip." Mrs. Murphy's green eyes brightened.
"I never thought about that. Coop, you're a philosopher."
"No, just a cop." She finished her third piece of corn bread. "I'm surprised you haven't called Susan or Miranda or Fair." Fair was Harry's ex-husband, who remained a dear friend. In fact, she was thinking how much a part of her life he was and, hopefully, would always be.
"Thought I'd wait until you left. Is anything off-limits?"
"No. We don't even know enough to hold back evidence." Cooper winked. "Not that Rick would ever do such a thing."
"Right." Harry smiled. "How's he doing? I haven't seen him for a while except for today."
"He's been down at the courthouse engaged in the battle of the budget."
"No wonder I haven't seen him. Hey, to change the subject, have you heard anything about the new post office being built?"
"No more than you have. The population increase even out here in Crozet warrants a larger building."
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.