The Cat Who Went Up the Creek
Qwill and the cats-Koko and Yum Yum-are at the Nutcracker Inn in Black Creek when a drowned guest puts a damper on their stay. And if they don't solve the murder soon, they're going to be up the creek without a paddle...chapter one
It was Skeeter Week in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere. Armies of young enthusiastic mosquitoes rose from woodland bogs and deployed about the county, harassing tourists. Permanent residents were never bothered. And, after a while, even newcomers developed an immunity, attributed to minerals in the drinking water and in the soil that grew such flavorful potatoes. As for the summer people, they bought quantities of insect repellent and went on praising the perfect weather, the wonderful fishing, and the ravishing natural beauty of Moose County.
One morning in mid-June a columnist for the Moose County Something was working against deadline, writing his annual thousand-word salute to Skeeter Week. With tongue in cheek he reported readers' exaggerated claims: A farmer in Wildcat had trained a corps of skeeters to buzz him awake every morning in time for milking. A music teacher in Pickax City had a pet skeeter that buzzed Mendelssohn's "Spinning Song."
He was no backwoods journalist. He was James Mackintosh Qwilleran, former crime writer for major newspapers Down Below, as the locals called all states except Alaska. A freak inheritance had brought him north to Pickax, the county seat (population 3,000). It also made him the richest man in the northeast central United States. (It was a long story.)
He cut a striking figure as he went about, interviewing and making friends for the paper. He was fiftyish, tall, well built, with an enviable head of graying hair and a pepper-and-salt moustache of magnificent proportions. But there was more to the man than an instantly recognizable moustache; he had brooding eyes and a sympathetic mien and a willingness to listen that encouraged confidences. Yet, his friends, readers, and fellow citizens had come to realize that the sober aspect masked a genial personality and sense of humor. And everyone knew that he lived alone in a converted apple barn, with two Siamese cats.
Qwilleran wrote his column, "Straight from the Qwill Pen," on an old electric typewriter at the barn, closely supervised by his male cat. As he ripped the last page out of the machine, Kao K'o Kung, with an internal growl, let him know the phone was going to ring.
It rang, and a familiar woman's voice said anxiously, "Sorry to bother you, Qwill."
"No bother. I've just finished-"
"I need to talk to you privately," she interrupted, "while my husband is out of town."
Qwilleran had a healthy curiosity and a journalist's taste for intrigue. "Where's he gone?"
"To Bixby, for plumbing fixtures. It may be foolish of me, but-"
"Don't worry. I'll be there in a half hour."
"Come to the cottage in the rear."
Lori and Nick Bamba were the young couple who had come to his rescue when he was a greenhorn from Down Below getting bitten by mosquitoes. She was a small-town postmaster then; he was chief engineer at the state prison. They had two ambitions: to raise a family and to be innkeepers.
When Qwilleran had an opportunity to recommend them for the new Nutcracker Inn located in Black Creek, he was happy to do so. In a way, he felt like the godfather of the Nutcracker. If he had not been the sole heir of Aunt Fanny Klingenschoen (who was not even related to him)...And if he had not been totally overwhelmed by the size of the bequest (billions) and the responsibility it entailed...And if he had not established the Klingenschoen Foundation to use the money for the good of the community...And if the K Fund had not purchased the old Limburger mansion to refurbish as a country inn...
Such were his ruminations as he drove the miles to Black Creek, a virtual ghost town until the Nutcracker Inn brought it back to life. The renovation had won national publicity; some well-known names had appeared on the guest register; new shops were opening in the quaint little downtown.
Qwilleran had seen the Victorian house when the last eccentric Limburger was alive. A section of the ornamental iron fence had been sold to a passing stranger; a broken window was a Halloween trick when the old man refused to treat; bricks from the crumbling steps were used to throw at stray dogs. In Qwilleran's opinion, the only upbeat feature was a cuckoo clock in the front hall, its crazy bird popping out and announcing the time with monotonous cheer.
Now, approaching Black Creek, he planned his strategy. In Moose County, where everyone knew the make and model of everyone's vehicle, his own five-year-old brown van was especially conspicuous. It would hardly do to be seen calling on the innkeeper's wife while the innkeeper was in Bixby buying plumbing supplies. So the brown van was parked in the main lot of the inn with the luncheon guests, after which the driver ambled about the grounds feeding the squirrels. Not having any peanuts, he had brought cocktail nuts, and the squirrels showed no objection to pecans and cashews, slightly salted.
The Lori Bamba who admitted him to the cottage was not the sunny personality he had known. The golden braids coiled around her head seemed drab, and her eyes were not as blue. She offered him coffee and a black walnut cookie, and he accepted.
"How are the Bambas' brilliant brats?" he asked to add a light touch.
"The boys are in summer camp, and Lovey is with her grandma in Mooseville. We get together Sundays."
"That's good. So what is the serious matter on your mind?"
"Well...I always thought innkeeping would be my kind of work: meeting people, making them happy, providing a holiday atmosphere. Instead I feel gloomy."
"Is your health okay?'
"At my last physical my doctor said I'd live to be a hundred and ten." She said it without a smile. "The funny thing is-when I go to Mooseville on Sundays or into Pickax on errands, I feel normal. I think there's something depressing about the building itself! I've always been sensitive to my environment, and I believe the theory that old houses absorb the personality of those who've lived there."
He nodded. "I've heard that!" He avoided saying whether he believed it.
"Nick says I'm being silly. He says it's all in my head. It's a grand old building, and the redecorating is fabulous, but I feel a dark cloud hanging over the premises."
What could he say? He thought of the Dunfield house at the beach, where a man had been murdered. Realty agents could neither rent nor sell it, although its unsavory past had been suppressed. He said, "I wish there were something I could do. I'd be willing to spend a few days here-to see if I pick up any adverse vibrations."
"Would you, Qwill?" she cried. "You could have a suite on the top floor and bring the cats. You'd be our guest!"
"No, no! The story would be that I'm researching material for my column. All charges would go on my expense account. What meals are available?"
"Breakfast and dinner. We have an excellent chef-from Palm Springs. Also, the suites have a small refrigerator and a coffee maker. Would you like to see one of them?"
"Won't be necessary. I had the grand tour when the inn opened last fall. Is the black cat still here?"
"Nicodemus? Oh, yes! The guests love him; he's so sweet in spite of his wicked eyes!" He was sleek and black with the most unusual eyes; they were triangular and had a stare like a laser beam. "He's our rodent control officer," Lori said with some of her old enthusiasm. "He doesn't catch mice; he just terrifies them. Do you like canoeing, Qwill? We have a few canoes available down at the creek."
In his younger days Qwilleran had often thought, If I can't play second base for the Chicago Cubs, or write for The New York Times, or act on the Broadway stage...I'd like to be an investigator. And now even so nebulous a mystery as Lori's "dark cloud" piqued his curiosity. Furthermore...
Qwilleran relished a frequent change of address. His early experience as a globetrotting correspondent had given him a chronic case of wanderlust. The Black Creek venture would be timely; the chief woman in his life was leaving on vacation. Polly Duncan, director of the Pickax public library, planned to tour museum villages on the East Coast in the company of her sister, who lived in Cincinnati. Qwilleran wondered about these sisterly flings. In Canada the previous year they had met a highly personable Quebec professor, and he had been corresponding with Polly ever since...in French! She said it helped her brush up on her idioms.
Qwilleran would drive her to the airport in the morning, but tonight there would be a farewell dinner in the Mackintosh Room at the hotel.
As soon as they were seated, he asked the usual fatuous questions. "Are you all packed? Are you excited?"
"I hate to leave Brutus and Catta, but there's a cat-sitter in the neighborhood who'll come in twice a day to give them food and attention. This morning I wrote a limerick about Catta while I was showering: A female feline named Catta/is getting fatta and fatta/but she's pretty and purry/and funny and furry/so what does an ounce or two matta?"
"I couldn't have done 'betta' myself," he said, with apologies. "If we announce another limerick contest this summer, will you be one of the judges?"
"I'd love to! Meanwhile, what are you going to do while I'm away?"
"Read trashy novels and give wild parties, if I can find anyone who likes wild parties....But seriously, I plan to spend a couple of weeks at the Nutcracker Inn in search of new material for my column."
"I wish you were coming with me, Qwill."
"Maybe next year, but no museums! I get all the education I want on the 'Qwill Pen' beat."
"We could go to the Italian hill country and read poetry, far from the madding crowd."
"The madding crowd is everywhere these days, Polly-taking snapshots and buying postcards. And by the way, when you send me postcards, bear in mind that the picture on the front is less important than the message on the back! More news! More news!"
His own words would ring in his ears for the next two weeks; Polly always cooperated with zeal.
But first Qwilleran had to get her to the airport for the 8:00 A.M. shuttle flight to Minneapolis. After tearful good-byes to Brutus and Catta and a race to the airport, the flight was delayed because the pilot of the shuttle had not arrived. According to the airport manager, the pilot's baby-sitter was ill, and she was having difficulty finding a substitute. Eventually she arrived and passengers were reassured that they would make their connections.
When the plane finally taxied to the runway, lifted off and disappeared into the sky, the groundlings watched it go, as if witnesses to a miracle.
On the way home Qwilleran pulled off the highway to make some phone calls. Moose County was the first in the state to prohibit use of a cell phone while operating a vehicle. The county commissioners expected enough revenue from traffic tickets to build a soccer stadium.
First he called Andrew Brodie, the Pickax chief of police. "Andy, I'll be out of town for a few weeks, and I have a bottle of twelve-year-old single-malt Scotch that's too good to leave around for burglars. How about coming over for a nightcap?"
The chief, always interested in crime prevention, said he would be there at 10:00 P.M.
Next Qwilleran phoned Junior Goodwinter, the young managing editor of the Moose County Something. "Junior, I'll be faxing the copy for my next few columns. I'll be crossing the Egyptian desert by dromedary."
"So soon? You just got back from doing Paris by skateboard!"
"I have to keep my column fresh, you know."
"Don't let it get too fresh," Junior warned. "We have a conservative readership."
On the way home, Qwilleran made a mental list of things to do and items to pack for the trek to Black Creek, half an hour from home:
Notify post office.
The Siamese were waiting for him apprehensively; they knew! They sensed a change in their comfortable lives.
"You're going on vacation!" Qwilleran assured them. "You're to be guests at a glamorous inn that has room service and a chef from Palm Springs-or Palm Beach. There's a resident cat named Nicodemus who's very friendly. And you can even go up the creek in a canoe."
The Siamese, who subscribed to the home-sweet-home ethic, were always vastly inconvenienced by his restlessness, however. Silent and motionless and disapproving, they sat in a shaft of sunlight slanting through a high barn window. It made the pale fur bodies glisten, and their dark brown masks and ears stand out in sharp and defiant contrast. (Brown legs and tails were tucked out of sight.)
"Well, for your information, you're going anyway," Qwilleran told them.
Yum Yum, the gentle little female, squeezed her eyes noncommittally. Koko, the lordly male, who knew his name was really Kao K'o Kung, slapped the floor with his tail. When their midday snack was placed in the feeding station, they ignored it until Qwilleran was out of the room.
In the afternoon he reported to the art center, where he was to help judge best of show in a new exhibit opening Sunday. They would be self-portraits by local artists. He would be first to admit he knew nothing about art, but he knew it was his name they wanted on the judges' panel-not his expertise. The manager of the art center had swiveled her eyes at him; Barb Ogilvie had a talent for using her eyeballs to get what she wanted. She had neglected to tell him that the portraitists were all third-graders.
"The purpose of this event," she explained to the assembled judges, "is to introduce the art center to families who might not otherwise come here. They will be voting for their favorite and having punch and cookies. We hope to make friends."
The judges' choice as best-of-show was a portrait of a blond girl in a pink dress, done in pastels.
Barb said to Qwilleran, "Will you attend the opening?"
"Sorry. I'll be in Black Creek on assignment, but I think it would be nice if you'd have dinner with me sometime afterward-at the Nutcracker Inn." One of his chief pleasures was taking someone-anyone-to dinner at a good restaurant.
"I'd love it!" she cried, swiveling her eyes. No one ever said no to Qwilleran's dinner invitations.
So far, so good, Qwilleran thought. Now came the hard part: relocating two opinionated cats who disliked a change of address. His strategy would be one of stealth, carried out in three separate operations.
First, while waiting for Andy, he took the Siamese to the screened gazebo overlooking the garden. Nature's night noises would steal their attention from activity in the barnyard, where two bikes were being lashed to the interior of a van.
At 10:00 P.M. Andrew Brodie arrived at the barn-a big burly Scot with the authority of a police chief and the swagger of a bagpiper. He was both. "So where you goin' this time?" he demanded.
"Black Creek-staying at the Nutcracker Inn, scrounging material for the column."
"What'll you do with the cats?"
"Take them along." Qwilleran was setting out a cheese board with Cheddar, smoked Gouda and Stilton. Andy liked to sit at the snack bar and cut chunks and slices for himself. "Your daughter did a great job of refurbishing that old building, Andy."
"Yep, it was pretty much of a dump."
"It'll be in a national magazine next month, and I hear Fran is getting offers from Chicago and elsewhere."
"Yep, she's doin' all right." Brodie said it ruefully, and Qwilleran recalled that he was talking to a typical old north-country father who considered a career less desirable than family life. He changed the subject. "Andy, did you know old Gus Limburger?"
"Sure did! He was a crazy old codger. He went around asking women to marry him and run his mansion like a boarding house. He asked young and old, ugly and pretty, married and single. We had so many complaints, we threatened to charge him with disturbing the peace." Andy slapped his thigh and hooted. "Lois Inchpot chased him out of her restaurant with a rolling pin! That was after he came back from living in Germany for a while. I was working for the sheriff then, and the Limburger mansion was one of our regular stops on patrol. A real estate office paid the taxes and kept the grass cut, and we reported vandalism to them. People called it a haunted house. That was twenty-thirty years ago....Ever meet old Gus?"
"I tried to interview him but he was too eccentric. He sat on the porch, throwing stones at stray dogs, and he was chasing a dog when he tripped over a loose brick in the front steps. The fall killed him."
"Everybody was surprised to learn he had a daughter in Germany. I bet she was only too glad to sell everything to the K Fund."
"Freshen your drink, Andy?" Qwilleran asked.
"A wee dram....Say, d'you know Doc Abernethy? Lives in Black Creek. Pediatrician. Takes care of my grandkids."
Soberly Qwilleran said, "No, I don't know him. I take my family to the vet."
His guest dismissed that remark with a grunt. "Doc has a story to tell that changed his life."
"From what to what?"
"You look him up and ask him. He tells a good story-and all true, he swears."
"He writes a good letter to the editor," Qwilleran admitted.
"Good citizen. Gets involved." The chief looked at his watch, and drained his glass. "Gotta pick m'wife up at the church."
His departure ushered in the second stage of Qwilleran's strategy. He brought the cats in from the gazebo, half-drugged with nocturnal lights, and then he gave them a larger-than-usual bedtime snack. They staggered up the ramp to the third balcony, and Qwilleran put a wildlife video (without the sound) on their VCR. Yum Yum was asleep before he closed the door, and Koko was swaying noticeably in front of the screen.
Congratulating himself, Qwilleran spent the next hour in feverish but silent activity-padding around in house slippers, packing luggage and boxes, quietly opening and closing doors and drawers, being careful not to drop anything.
Everything was going as planned. The chief had promised to keep an eye on the barn in his absence. Three weeks' needs for man and cats were successfully stacked inside the kitchen door, ready for a pre-breakfast getaway, when Qwilleran turned off the lights and went to his suite on the first balcony. Before he could open the door, his ears were assaulted by a prolonged, high-decibel howl in two-part harmony from the upper precincts. He cringed. It seemed to say, You can't fool us, you chump!
There was nothing more he could do or say; they would have to howl until their batteries ran down. Then it occurred to him to reread a chapter in a book he was writing. A collection of Moose County legends, it was to be titled Short & Tall Tales.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when Moose County was beginning to boom, it was a Gold Rush without the gold. There were veins of coal to be mined, forests to be lumbered, granite to be quarried, land to be developed, fortunes to be made. It would become the richest county in the state.
In 1859 two penniless youths from Germany arrived by schooner, by way of Canada. On setting foot on the foreign soil, they looked this way and that to get their bearings, and both saw it at the same time! A piece of paper money in a rubbish heap! Without stopping to inquire its value, they tore it in half to signify their partnership. It would be share and share alike from then on.
Their names were Otto Wilhelm Limburger and Karl Gustav Klingenschoen. They were fifteen years old.
Labor was needed. They hired on as carpenters, worked long hours, obeyed orders, learned everything they could, used their wits, watched for opportunities, took chances, borrowed wisely, cheated a little, and finally launched a venture of their own.
By the time they were in their thirties, Otto and Karl dominated the food-and-shelter industry. They owned all the rooming houses, eating places and travelers' inns along the shoreline. Only then did they marry: Otto, a God-fearing woman named Gretchen; Karl, a fun-loving woman nicknamed Minnie. At the double wedding the friends pledged to name their children after each other. They hoped for boys, but girls could be named Karla and Wilhelmina. Thus the two families became even more entwined...until rumors about Karl's wife started drifting back from the waterfront. When Karl denied the slander, Otto trusted him.
But there was more! One day Karl approached his partner with an idea for expanding their empire. They would add saloons, dance halls, and female entertainment of various kinds....Otto was outraged! The two men argued. They traded insults. They even traded a few blows and, with noses bleeding, tore up the fragments of currency that had been in their pockets since the miracle of the rubbish heap.
Karl proceeded on his own and did extremely well, financially. To prove it, he built a fine fieldstone mansion in Pickax City, across from the courthouse. In retaliation Otto imported masons and woodworkers from Europe to build a brick palace in the town of Black Creek. How the community reacted to the two architectural wonders should be mentioned. The elite of the county vied for invitations to sip tea and view Otto's black walnut woodwork; Karl and Minnie sent out invitations to a party and no one came.
When it was known that the brick mansion would be the scene of a wedding, the best families could talk of nothing else. The bride was Otto's only daughter. He had arranged for her to marry a suitable young man from the Goodwinter family; the date was set. Who would be invited? Was it true that Otto had taken his daughter before a magistrate and legally changed her name from Karla to Elsa? It was true. Elsa's dower chest was filled with fine household linens and intimate wedding finery. Gifts were being delivered in the best carriages in town. Seamstresses were working overtime on costumes for the wedding guests. Gowns for the bridal party were being shipped from Germany. Suppose there were a storm at sea! Suppose they did not arrive in time!
Then, on the very eve of the nuptials, Otto's daughter eloped with the youngest son of Karl Klingenschoen!
Shock, embarrassment, sheer horror and the maddening suspicion that Karl and Minnie had promoted the defection-all these emotions combined to affect Otto's mind.
As for the young couple, there were rumors that they had gone to San Francisco. When the news came, a few years later, that the young couple had lost their lives in the earthquake, Elsa's father had no idea who they were.
Karl and Minnie lived out their lives in the most splendid house in Pickax, ignored by everyone of social standing. Karl never knew that his immense fortune was wiped out, following the financial crash of 1929.
Toward the end of the century, Otto's sole descendent was an eccentric who sat on the porch of the brick palace and threw stones at dogs.
Karl's sole descendant was Fanny Klingenschoen, who recovered her grandfather's wealth ten times over.
Eventually the saga of the two families took a curious twist. The Klingenschoen Foundation has purchased two properties from the Limburger estate: the mansion in Black Creek and the hotel in Pickax. The former has become the Nutcracker Inn; the latter is now the Mackintosh Inn. The "legend of the rubbish heap" has come full circle.
When Qwilleran finished reading, he thought, That old building has earned a dark cloud....We shall see!
"As enjoyable as the past twenty-three." —Los Angeles Times
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