Authors: Lilian Jackson Braun
Tags: #Qwilleran; Jim (Fictitious character), #Detective and mystery stories, #Journalists, #Mystery & Detective, #Political, #Yum Yum (Fictitious character: Braun), #General, #Cat owners, #cats, #Journalists - United States, #Pets, #Siamese cat, #Yum Yum (Fictitious character : Braun), #Koko (Fictitious character), #Fiction
The Cat Who Went Underground
by Lilian Jackson Braun
IF JIM QWILLERAN had read his horoscope in the daily paper on that particular morning, perhaps none of this would have happened. But astrology had never been one of his interests.
As he drank his third cup of coffee in his bachelor apartment over the garage, he glanced at the floor, which was strewn with out-of-town newspapers. He had devoured the national and international news, studied the editorials, scoffed at the viewpoints on the Op-Ed page, and scanned the sports section. As usual he skipped the stock market reports and the comics, and he never thought of looking at the horoscope column.
The advice he failed to read was portentous. The Daily Fluxion said, “This is not an auspicious time to change your life-style. Be content with what you have.” The Morning Rampage said, “You may feel restless and bored, but avoid making impulsive decisions today. You could regret it.”
Comfortably unaware of this counsel from the constellations, Qwilleran sprawled in his overscale lounge chair with a coffee mug in his hand, a cat on his lap, and another on the bookshelf nearby. They were an unlikely threesome. The man was a heavyset six feet two, fiftyish, sloppily attired, with graying hair and mournful eyes, and his exceptionally luxuriant moustache needed trimming. His companions, on the other hand, were aristocratic Siamese with elegantly sleek lines and well-brushed coats, who expected pampering as their royal prerogative.
Qwilleran’s ragged sweatshirt and cluttered apartment gave no clue to his career credentials or his financial status. He was a veteran journalist with worldwide experience, now retired and living in the small northern town of Pickax, and he had recently inherited millions, or billions, from the Klingenschoen estate; the exact figure had not yet been determined by the battery of accountants employed by the executors.
Qwilleran had never cared for wealth, however, and his needs were simple. He was content to live in an apartment over the Klingenschoen garage, and for breakfast on that particular morning he had been satisfied with coffee and a stale doughnut. His roommates had more discriminating palates. For them he opened a can of Alaska king crab, mixing it with a raw egg yolk and garnishing it with a few crumbles of fine English cheddar.
“Today’s special: Crustacean a la tartare fromagere,” he announced as he placed the plate on the floor. Two twitching noses hovered over the dish before tasting it, like oenophiles sniffing the bouquet of a rare wine.
After breakfast the Siamese huddled as if waiting for something to happen.
Qwilleran finished reading the newspapers, drank two more cups of coffee, and drifted into introspection.
“Okay, you guys,” he said as he finally roused himself from his caffeine reverie. “I’ve made a decision: We’re going up to the lake. We’re going to spend three months at the log cabin.” He made it a policy to discuss matters with the cats. It was more satisfying than talking aloud to himself, and his listeners seemed to enjoy the sound of a human voice making conversational noises in their direction.
Yum Yum, the amiable little female, purred. Koko, the male, uttered a piercing but ambiguous “Yow-w-w!”
“What did you mean by that?” Qwilleran demanded. Receiving only an incomprehensible blue-eyed stare in reply, he smoothed his moustache and went on: “I have three reasons for wanting to get out of town: Pickax is a bore in warm weather; Polly Duncan is away for the summer; and we’re out of ice cubes.”
For two years he had been living in Pickax not by choice but in accord with the terms of the Klingenschoen will and the old stone buildings and stone-paved streets seemed dull in June. The nearby resort town of Mooseville, on the other hand, was burgeoning with leaf, flower, bird, sunshine, blue sky, rippling wave, lake breeze, and hordes of carefree vacationers.
The second reason for Qwilleran’s discontent was more vital. Polly Duncan, the head librarian in Pickax, around whom his life was beginning to revolve, was spending the summer in England on an exchange program, and he was feeling restless and unfulfilled. Although he knew little about the outdoors and cared even less for fishing, he conjectured that a log cabin on a lonely sand dune overlooking a vast blue lake might cure his malaise.
There was a third reason, less sublime but more pertinent: the refrigerator in his apartment was out of order. Qwilleran expected appliances to function without a hitch, and he showed irrational impatience when equipment broke down.
Unfortunately the Pickax refrigeration specialist had gone camping in northern Canada, and the only other serviceman in the county was hospitalized with a herniated disc.
Altogether, a summer in Mooseville sounded like an excellent idea to Jim Qwilleran.
“You probably don’t remember the cabin,” he said to the cats. “We spent a few weeks there a couple of years ago, and you liked it. It has two screened porches. You can watch the birds and squirrels and bugs without getting your feet wet.”
The seventy-five-year-old log cabin, with its acres of woodland and half mile of lake frontage, was among the far-flung holdings Qwilleran had inherited from the Klingenschoen estate, and it was being managed by the executors until the terms of the will could be fulfilled. He had only to express his wishes to the attorneys, and the property-management crew would turn on the power, activate the plumbing system, restore phone service, and remove the dust covers from the furniture.
“You don’t need to worry about a thing!” attorney Hasselrich assured him with his boundless optimism. “You’ll find the key under the doormat. Just unlock the door, walk into the cabin, and enjoy a relaxing summer.”
As circumstances evolved, it was not that easy. The summer vacation started with a dead spider and ended with a dead carpenter, and Jim Qwilleran respected journalist, richest man in the county, and card-carrying good guy was suspected of murder.
But in his blissful ignorance, he had taken the attorney at his word. Preparing for the trip to the lakeshore, he packed his small car with a few summer clothes, a box of books, a turkey roaster filled with gravel that served as the cats’ commode, a computerized coffeemaker, his typewriter, and the Siamese in their travel coop. This was a wicker picnic hamper outfitted with a down-filled cushion, and Yum Yum hopped into it with alacrity. Koko hung back. He had some covert catly reason for not wanting to go.
“Don’t be a wet blanket,” Qwilleran chided. “Jump in and let’s hit the road.” He should have known that Koko’s whims were not to be taken lightly. The cat seemed to have a sixth sense that detected precarious situations.
When they embarked on their jaunt to Mooseville it was only thirty miles the occasion had the excitement of a safari. The skies were sunny, the June breeze was soft, and the temperature was warm enough for Qwilleran to wear shorts and sandals. To avoid tourist traffic he drove north on Sandpit Road instead of the main highway, waving a friendly hand to strangers in pickup trucks and tooting a friendly horn at any farmer on a tractor. Within minutes he had shed the tensions of the City of Stone, for although the population of Pickax was only three thousand, it had the commercial bustle of a county seat. With growing elation he planned his summer. He would do plenty of reading, take long walks on the beach, go canoeing whenever the lake was calm. He also had a writing commitment: two features a week for the Moose County newspaper, to be given thumb position on page two. His column, called “Straight from the Qwill Pen,” would be enjoyable to write (the editor was giving him carte blanche) and challenging enough to keep the creative juices percolating.
“Is everybody happy back there?” he called out over his shoulder without, however, hearing any reply from the hamper.
Qwilleran had only one regret about the forthcoming summer: Polly Duncan would not be there to share it with him. Her substitute, a librarian from the English Midlands, had already arrived in Pickax. Young, brash, brisk in her manner, and clipped in her speech, she was far different from Polly, who had a gentle nature and a soft, low musical voice. Polly’s figure was matronly, and there were traces of gray in her unstyled hair, but she was stimulating company. Animated discussions enlivened their dinner dates, and weekends at her country hideaway made him feel twenty years younger.
As Qwilleran brooded about the absence of Polly, a car approached from the north, far exceeding the speed limit. He recognized the driver. It was Roger MacGillivray, a young reporter for the county newspaper. Qwilleran presumed wryly that Roger was rushing to the office to file a breaking story on some momentous news event in Mooseville: Someone had caught a whopping big fish, or someone’s great-grandmother had celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday. Stop the presses!
Roger was a likable young man, and he had a motherin-law who was an interesting woman. She spent summers at a cottage half a mile down the beach from the Klingenschoen cabin. Mildred Hanstable taught home economics and art in the Pickax schools, wrote the food page for the Moose County newspaper, and happened to be a superlative cook. It occurred to Qwilleran that he might expect a few dinner invitations in the forthcoming weeks. Mildred had a husband, but he was “away” and no one ever mentioned him.
Soon the potato farms and sheep ranches and sandpits were left behind, and the road plunged through lush evergreen forests. A commotion in the wicker hamper indicated that the Siamese could smell the lake air, still a mile away.
Qwilleran himself noticed something different in the atmosphere an invigorating buoyancy. It was the Mooseville magic! Every summer it attracted droves of tourists from polluted, crime-ridden urban centers in the southern part of the state, which the locals called Down Below.
“It won’t be long now,” he told his passengers.
The lake burst into view, a body of water so vast that its blue met the blue of the sky at some invisible point. At the side of the road a chamber of commerce sign welcomed visitors to: “Mooseville, 400 miles north of everywhere!” Here the highway ran along the shoreline, ascending gradually to, the top of Mooseville’s famous sand dunes. Qwilleran frowned when he encountered unusual conditions: mud on the pavement, dump trucks coming out of the woods, the whine of chain saws, the grinding din of a backhoe. He regretted the symptoms of lakefront development, while realizing it was inevitable. Next came the rustic arch marking the entrance to the Top o’ the Dunes Club, a private community of summer people, Mildred Hanstable included.
Half a mile farther along he turned into a dirt road marked with the letter K on a cedar post. The wicker hamper started to bounce with anticipation. The Siamese knew! It had been two years ago, yet they remembered the scent; they sensed the environment. The private drive meandered through the woods, past wild cherry trees in blossom, through a stand of white birches, up and down over gentle dunes created by lake action eons ago and now heavily wooded with giant oaks and towering, top-heavy pines.
The drive ended in a clearing, and there was the picturesque old cabin, its logs and chinking dark with age, virtually dwarfed by the massive fieldstone chimney.
“Here we are!” Qwilleran announced, opening the top of the hamper. “You stay here while I take a look around.”
While the Siamese hopped about inside the car and stood on hind legs to peer out the windows, he walked to the edge of the dune and surveyed the placid lake.
Gentle waves lapped the sandy beach at the bottom of the dune with seductive splashes. The breeze was a mere caress. Flocks of tiny yellow birds were flitting in the cherry trees. And here, in this quiet paradise, he was to spend the entire summer!
As Hasselrich had promised, the key was under the mat on the screened porch, and Qwilleran unlocked the door eagerly. The moment he opened it, a blast of frigid air slapped him in the face the musty breath of a cabin that had been closed for the winter. He shivered involuntarily and retreated to the porch and the warmth of a summer day. Something had gone wrong! Hasselrich had failed him! Tentatively he reached a hand around the door jamb and found a wall switch; the hall light responded, so he knew the cabin had power. And someone had been there to remove the sheets shrouding the living room furniture. Qwilleran retreated hastily to the warm porch to think about this unexpected setback.
From his previous visit he vaguely remembered a heating device installed unobtrusively on one wall of the living room. Grabbing a jacket from the car and wishing he had not worn shorts and sandals, he once more braved the dank chill. Hurriedly he switched on lights and opened the interior shutters that darkened the place. The wall-heater lurked in a dim corner a flat metal box with louvers and knobs, and a metal label that had the effrontery to read Komfort-Heet.
Qwilleran huffed angrily into his moustache. The thermostat was set for seventy degrees, but the thermometer registered fifty, and to him it felt like a damp thirty. He dialed the thermostat to its highest limit, but there was no rush of heat, not even a reassuring click. He gave the heater a kick, a primitive technique that worked with old steam radiators, but had no effect on the Komfort-Heet.