Millions of dollars seem to be missing after a long-overdue audit of the local aluminum plant reveals a major accounting discrepancy. Company president Garvey Stokes finds himself at a loss–in more ways than one. He turns to his sharp-tongued, ornery bookkeeper, Iphigenia “Iffy” Demetrios, for an explanation, but she’s no help. Yet when the fuzzy math suddenly includes a body count, the figures can no longer be ignored.
While the town sheriff tries to get to the bottom of the matter, leave it to “Sister” Jane Arnold, venerable master of the Jefferson Hunt Club, to rely on her keen horse-and-hound sense to follow the trail of murder and cover-up. Throwing her off the scent, however, is former hunt club donor and all-around cad Crawford Howard, who thinks he can go toe-to-toe with the beloved septuagenarian and outclass her club by grossly sidestepping hound- and-hunt etiquette. Against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a menagerie of friends, foes, and fresh new faces saddle up for the breakneck ride to unravel the conspiracy. Even the furry denizens in the fields and boroughs have a thing or two to say about these peculiar humans.
Incomparable author Rita Mae Brown returns to the glorious hills of Virginia and its genteel foxhunting society, where how much money you have in the bank is not nearly as important as how long your family has lived on the land–and where nearly everyone has something to hide. As Sister muses, “The little secrets leak out. The big ones, well, some escape like evils from Pandora’s box. And others we’ll never know.”
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Silvered with frost, the geometric patterns on the kennel windowpane displayed Nature’s gift for design. Sister Jane Arnold stared at the tiny, perfect crystals, then turned back to the large old oak desk in the middle of the office. In warmer weather the back door of the office would be open to the center aisle in this, the main kennel. She found it comforting to inhale the odor of her hounds, to hear them breathing as they slept on their raised beds. Today, Boxing Day, December 26, Monday, the mercury clung to twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The office felt warm at sixty-eight degrees, and she gave a small prayer of thanks that she’d found the money to put in a new heat pump and venting for the main building. The hounds, nestled in their straw-filled beds, threw off body heat, so the thermostat in their portion of the building was kept at forty-two degrees. The actual temperature hovered near fifty. The two medical rooms were warmer. Fortunately, no one was in sick bay.
Christmas culminated in such frenzy that Sister wished Joseph and Mary had been sterile. Sister found Boxing Day one of the happiest days of the year. In England, thousands would turn out in the villages and along country roads to witness hundreds of vigorous folk riding to hounds. The ban on foxhunting, voted by Parliament in 2004 and coming into force February 2005, was a sorry work of class hatred. The first Boxing Day after the ban was 2005, and British foxhunters rode out to a man. Local authorities declined to arrest these men and women. Constables knew that foxhunting benefited the livelihoods of their communities. The bizarre aspect of the foxhunting ban was that not even the most fervid Labor Party members pretended they wished to save foxes. It was perfectly fine with them if the farmers shot the beautiful creatures. The whole point of the ban was to punish those suspected of wealth or title from enjoying themselves. The fact that most English foxhunters were middle-class people was lost in this revenge on the wealthy few. As the Labor Party had created seven hundred new criminal offenses under Tony Blair’s leadership, the fact that noncountry people tolerated these infringements on their rights shocked Sister.
She wondered whether Americans, no longer conversant with country life—and worse, feeling superior to it—could become as illiberal as the Laborites. The political push to ban foxhunting in America would start on one of the coasts, but Sister believed it wouldn’t succeed. Americans still retained vestiges of common sense. Better yet, Americans did not hunt to kill the fox. They were content to chase the highly intelligent creature until he finally eluded them—easy enough for the fox.
Sister’s study chair had rollers on it, and in a burst of enthusiasm she propelled herself around the room and spun backwards.
Shaker Crown, the huntsman, opened the front door at this moment. “Someone’s happy.”
“Three hundred and sixty-four days until next Christmas. Thank you, Jesus.” She braked, putting both feet on the ground.
They burst out laughing.
“Hounds had a wonderful Christmas. Nothing like warm stew. I remember watching my father cook it up outside. The pot was large enough to hold three missionaries.”
He smiled. “Horses liked their treats, too, as did I. Thank you for my Dehner boots and my bug guard.”
“Do you think they really work?”
“Bug guards?” He paused. “Not now.”
“I deserved that.” She rolled her eyes at his droll remark. They wouldn’t work now because it was winter, hence no insects were flying around outside.
“Sure they work. That curve at the top sends the bugs away from the windshield.”
“Maybe I should get one for my GMC. You know, I’m still getting used to it. Drove the other one 287,000 miles and buried it with honors.” She smiled at him. “I actually considered parking it in front of the kennel and making a huge planter out of it.”
“You cut the bed off the truck and use it for a wagon.” He pretended to think hard. “Could still fill with dirt and spring bulbs.”
“No point wasting something that can be useful. All I had to do was sand the edges so we wouldn’t cut ourselves, put a Reese hitch on it. If nothing else, we can put a big old water tank up there, and I can water my trees on the drive if another drought comes.” She crossed herself as if warding off the evil eye, for droughts caused terrible damage.
“Heard anything?” After crossing himself, Shaker changed the subject.
“Not a peep.”
He sat on the edge of the desk as she rolled back to it, replying, “He’ll be vicious.”
“Marty can’t calm him down?” Shaker named Crawford Howard’s wife.
“Crawford was publicly humiliated. Even the ministrations of his good wife won’t help. His ego is in a gaseous state, ever expanding.” Sister threw up her hands, exasperated.
“He deserved it, loading hounds up like that, then setting them loose during the hunt ball.”
“Of course he did! After you belted him, he knew he couldn’t stand up to you, so unleashing hounds was his revenge. And a damned sorry one. He wasn’t entirely sober, which only made matters worse. He’s lucky I only slapped him.”
“Hard. Everyone in the room heard that crack.” Shaker relished the recollection.
“Too bad I didn’t have a roll of nickels in my palm. Then I’d have broken his jaw. Now, that’s a happy thought, Crawford Howard with his jaw wired shut.”
“Strange we haven’t heard anything. Betty hasn’t, either. I called her.”
“You surprise me.” Sister didn’t expect him to call Betty Franklin, one of her best friends, an honorary whipper-in.
He folded his arms across his chest. “I didn’t get us in this mess, but I made it worse.”
“When a man pulls down your fiancée’s evening gown, even if he was pushed and tripped, most of us can understand the response.”
“Poor Lorraine. She’s still embarrassed.”
“Honey, any woman with that rack should never be embarrassed. Entire careers have been built on less.”
He smiled. “She’s a beautiful woman.”
“She is. You two are a good pair and a good-looking pair to boot.”
He walked over to the kennel-side door. “Sound asleep.”
“I often envy them. They are loved, have the best of care, and do what they were born to do. Think of the millions of people in this world struggling at jobs that aren’t right for them. They might be flourishing financially, but deep in their hearts, they know this isn’t what they should be doing with their lives—and, oh, Shaker, how fast the time slips away.”
“Got that right.” He returned to the desk. “Hope we can hunt tomorrow.”
“Me, too, but feel the storm coming? Truth is in the bones.”
“Seen the sky in the last hour?”
“No, I’ve been in here rooting through the old stud books.”
“Look.” He opened the front door, and they both stepped out into the biting air.
Gunmetal-gray clouds stacked up behind the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Moving faster than the Weather Channel predicted.” She noticed the tops of trees swaying slightly. “Going to be a big one. We’d better get all the generators in place, just in case.”
“Already did. Up at your house, too.”
Relief filled her voice. “Thank you.”
“Rather deal with snow than ice.”
“Boss, you think Crawford will sue?”
“He doesn’t have much of a case. It would be a hardship on us, of course, but ultimately it would be worse for him. My hunch is he’ll forego that and do something where he can use his wealth as leverage.”
“Like withdraw his support to the club?”
“That’s a given.” She rubbed her shoulders. “It will hurt, too. His largesse covered about 25 percent of our annual budget.”
“He’ll go to Farmington Hunt or Keswick, maybe even Deep Run, and throw money at them. If he can keep his ego in check, he might even get along with most of them. What master doesn’t need money for the club?” Shaker put his arm through hers, and they stepped back into the office. Sister settled back into the warmth of the office, glad the door was closed. “Ego is the key word.”
“Hard on Sam.”
Sam Lorillard of the Lorillards, an African-American family that had been in the country since before the Revolutionary War, possessed both intellectual and athletic brilliance. Unfortunately, a tendency toward alcoholism had also passed from generation to generation among both the white and black Lorillards. Gray, Sam’s older brother and Sister’s boyfriend, had escaped it. Sam had not. He was currently sober after much suffering. Attending Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings helped.
The black Lorillards had taken the name of their owners, common enough in the Old South. Not even the pull of convention or ideology could keep the two sides of this vast family apart. A Lorillard stayed a Lorillard.