Spring arrives in northern Virginia, and as the ground thaws and the peonies begin to bloom a bright magenta, the women of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church prepare for a Homecoming celebration like no other. Harry, Susan Tucker, and their friends are busy planting flowers and trimming hedges to get the church grounds in shape for the big day.
But a note of a menace mars the beautiful spring: The brewery owned by Janice Childs and Mags Nielsen, two members of the gardening committee, gets robbed, with hundreds of dollars in merchandise taken off their delivery trucks in the dead of night. Is this the work of a random thief? Or is something more sinister afoot?
When Jeannie Cordle drops dead at a charity auction, poisoned by a fatal weed, Harry’s worst suspicions are confirmed: a killer lurks in their midst, one with a keen understanding of poisonous plants. Although she can’t yet prove it, Harry knows the murder is related to the thefts at Bottom’s Up Brewery.
With help from her feline sidekicks, Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, as well as Tee Tucker the corgi and sweet puppy Pirate, Harry sets out to find the weed in St. Luke’s garden—and stop a killer before they can strike again.
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About the Author
Sneaky Pie Brown, a tiger cat born somewhere in Albemarle County, Virginia, was discovered by Rita Mae Brown at her local SPCA. They have collaborated on numerous Mrs. Murphy mysteries—in addition to Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers and Sneaky Pie for President.
Read an Excerpt
May 22, 2019
A fully opened peony, hot magenta, swayed slightly in the gentle breeze. Deep in its florid heart a few black ants moved about. St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, completed in 1787, after a few years of construction, attracted photographers thanks to the harmonious balance of the church and its attached buildings. The church, a gleaming cross on top of a bright white steeple, sat in the middle of a perfect quadrangle of lush green grass. Two arcades, slightly set back from the church’s front door, arched stone like miniature aqueducts, flared out from the east and west sides of the main church building to a two-story stone houselike building. These structures contained the pastor’s office and a general meeting room. The women’s groups met in the western building, the men’s, the eastern. The style was simple Georgian, a style that had become grander as America recovered from the Revolutionary War, paid our war debts, and finally began to generate profits. A portion of those profits, or “thankful increase” as the pastor may have called them, had been poured into the landscaping, the solemn yet uplifting graveyard surrounded by a stone fence, and the pastor’s house, which sat fifty yards beyond that on the east side with a stable, also made of gray fieldstone.
The landscaping begun by the architect, former Captain of His Majesty’s regulars, Charles West, reflected his deep learning simply from being raised in England. Captured at Saratoga, marched to The Barracks as a prisoner of war, he quickly divined that these rebellious people were on to something.
Captain West created three large quads, terraced behind the church. Each quad was one hundred yards in length and roughly seventy-five in width, although the width changed over the centuries due to the practice of shoring up the terraces when hard weather began to wear them down. On the edge of the last quad Captain West placed the graveyard, whose first residents died before the church was completed. A married couple, the Taylors, had been laid to rest in October 1786, victims of tuberculosis while relatively young.
Lush grass covered the ground. Captain West preserved gum trees, walnut trees, red oaks, pin oaks, and sycamores by a piddling busy creek to the west. Hickories stood firm as well as tulip poplars. Captain West liked the different bark surfaces as well as the various leaves. To these he added a double row of sugar maples along the drive to the pastor’s house and in front of the stables. The occasional blue spruce dotted the north face. A gigantic Magnolia grandiflora commanded the soft rolling hill in front of the church. Captain West’s wife, Rachel née Garth West, added annuals and some perennials, as she had been taught by her mother, a marvelous gardener.
Over the decades other shrubs and trees had been planted. The annuals, of course, created some work as they needed to be replanted. And some generations of congregants evidenced more enthusiasm for weeding than others.
Now, May 2019, enthusiasm was high. Of course there weren’t many weeds just yet.
The grounds also attracted photographers, not necessarily Lutheran photographers, but no matter. St. Luke’s happily shared its beauty with all. The effect of the grounds—especially now as central Virginia approached high spring—was exquisite and peaceful. The light shining through the two-story stained glass windows added to the feeling of sanctuary. Even the brass doorknobs on the high double doors to the church itself caught one’s eye.
Kneeling down to inspect the magenta peony was Mary Minor Haristeen, in charge of Buildings and Grounds. “Harry,” as she was known, was the first woman to hold this prestigious position. In the past the consensus was that women couldn’t operate the equipment needed for such a position, nor could they fix same. Harry could and did do it all. She loosened the soil around a grouping of the explosive bush, all magenta, pink, and white. She’d put them in herself last fall.
Next to her, also turning soil, knelt her childhood friend, Susan Tucker. Susan had graduated from William and Mary, which she had loved and still did, while Harry had graduated from Smith College. Now in their early forties, they still tussled over who attended the better institution.
“So, why don’t we go down to Williamsburg to check those gardens?” Susan suggested, then peered into a pink bloom. “Have you ever noticed that peonies host black ants?”
“The pink peony is hosting the best party.” Harry stood up and stretched her back. “Actually, I think the ants help with pollination, but don’t hold me to it.”
Susan rose, too. Too much time on her knees had finally gotten to her.
Harry called out to the two other members of the Dorcas Guild, the main ladies group, “We’re about finished here. Going over to the grave at the red oak. How you two doing?”
Janice Childs, tall, well groomed, wearing a gardener’s apron over her summery dress, called back. “Meet you there.”
Mags Nielsen, on the high end of that quad, hollered down, “Me, too.”
Harry and Susan walked to the red oak on the western side of the quad, which contained the graveyard.
“What are you doing?” she hollered to Pirate, her Irish wolfhound, huge, over a year and a half now but still a giant puppy.
“Stop running,” Tucker, the corgi, ordered the big fellow.
Pirate did that. “I wasn’t near one tulip. I was not digging. I was stretching.”
“Make her happy. Do what she asks.”
“Weenies.” Pewter, the fat gray cat, sauntered by, tulip in her mouth.
Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat, now trotting alongside the three other animals, said, “Pewter, drop the tulip. She hasn’t noticed it. She’ll be one step ahead of a running fit if she does.”
“Bother.” But Pewter dropped the yellow tulip.
One lone grave with a modest engraved marker rested under the tall red oak, leaves murmuring in the breeze.
On the headstone engraved in simple roman bold was the inscription unknown woman, died 1786. rest in peace.
Underneath this an “α” and an “Ω” had been engraved, alpha and omega, beginning and end. Since this corpse, or really just her bones, had been discovered on top of the caskets for the Taylors, in November 2016 she could not be identified. Dating the bones revealed she had been a woman, but the absolute fortune in pearls—seemingly the size of pigeon’s eggs, diamonds between each pearl, long enough for three long strands that had been found with her—bespoke gender as well as enormous wealth, riches beyond imagining. A pair of earrings to match along with pieces of a silk dress in an expensive mustard yellow were all that remained.
This was sent to the medical examiner’s office, the jewelry deposited in the large secure safe at St. Luke’s.
Naturally, the pearls and diamonds provoked a discussion about whether or not there had been drag queens in America in the late eighteenth century. For some reason modern-day individuals contest the obvious. There were bones that could tell the tale. What if this had been a man?
Unable to resist, Harry had said, “Of course. There were drag queens in fifth-century b.c. Athens.”
To which Janice Childs, well educated, now walking to the grave, had replied, “Yes, but they were on the stage.”
That conversation, begun over a year ago, remained unresurrected, unlike its cause. The real shock came from finding out that these bones belonged to an African American woman more than likely in her thirties. She had been healthy, murdered, her body hidden using what was then a fresh grave, the only grave. She was killed by a physically powerful person, most likely a man, and, given that men, rich or poor, usually worked hard, most men could have snapped her neck.
The mystery of who she was and who had killed her remained a mystery. But the Very Reverend Herbert Jones felt that, whoever she was, she deserved a Christian burial. Not being a parishioner of St. Luke’s, she couldn’t be buried in the graveyard, so this lovely spot under the red oak became her final home. A small gathering assembled for the service for the Burial of the Dead on April 2, 2018. She’d been found in November 2016. The time lag reflected all the work at the medical examiner’s office, fascinated as they were, plus the legal details that needed to be settled before she could be laid in the ground again. Susan’s husband, Ned, and Fair, Harry’s husband, built a simple pine box, reflective of her time if not her position. Had she been a member of St. Luke’s, her passing would have been noted in the meticulous records. Nothing about her appeared in the county records either.
Janice, Mags, Susan, and Harry looked down at her tidy grave, which Harry tended. The cats and dogs sat nearby but not on the grave.