The Cat Who Lived High (The Cat Who... Series #11)by Lilian Jackson Braun, Melville
The colorful Casablance apartment building is in danger of demolitionbut not if Jim Qwilleran can help it. He's determined to restore the building to its original grandeur. So he moves in with Koko and Yum Yumand discovers that the Casablanca is steeped in history...and mystery. In Qwill's very apartment, a glamorous art dealer met an untimely fate, and… See more details below
The colorful Casablance apartment building is in danger of demolitionbut not if Jim Qwilleran can help it. He's determined to restore the building to its original grandeur. So he moves in with Koko and Yum Yumand discovers that the Casablanca is steeped in history...and mystery. In Qwill's very apartment, a glamorous art dealer met an untimely fate, and the veteran journalist and his crime-solving cats are about to reach new heights in detection as the evidence builds up...and the Casablanca threatens to crumble down around them!
Read an Excerpt
Jove titles by Lilian Jackson Braun
THE CAT WHO COULD READ BACKWARDS
THE CAT WHO ATE DANISH MODERN
THE CAT WHO TURNED ON AND OFF
THE CAT WHO SAW RED
THE CAT WHO PLAYED BRAHMS
THE CAT WHO PLAYED POST OFFICE
THE CAT WHO KNEW SHAKESPEARE
THE CAT WHO SNIFFED GLUE
THE CAT WHO WENT UNDERGROUND
THE CAT WHO TALKED TO GHOSTS
THE CAT WHO LIVED HIGH
THE CAT WHO KNEW A CARDINAL
THE CAT WHO MOVED A MOUNTAIN
THE CAT WHO WASN’T THERE
THE CAT WHO WENT INTO THE CLOSET
THE CAT WHO CAME TO BREAKFAST
THE CAT WHO BLEW THE WHISTLE
THE CAT WHO SAID CHEESE
THE CAT WHO TAILED A THIEF
THE CAT WHO SANG FOR THE BIRDS
THE CAT WHO SAW STARS
THE CAT WHO HAD 14 TALES
(short story collection)
THE CAT WHO ROBBED A BANK
in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons
THE NEWS THAT reached Pickax City early on that cold November morning sent a deathly chill through the small northern community. The Pickax police chief, Andrew Brodie, was the first to hear about the car crash. It had occurred four hundred miles to the south, in the perilous urban area that locals called Down Below. The metropolitan police appealed to Brodie for assistance in locating the next of kin.
The victim, they said, had been driving through the heart of the city on a four-lane freeway when the occupants of a passing car, according to witnesses, fired shots at him, causing him to lose control of his vehicle, which crashed into a concrete abutment and burned. The driver’s body was consumed by the flames, but through the license plates the registration had been traced to James Qwilleran, fifty-two, of Pickax City.
Brodie smashed his leathery fist down on the desk, and his face contorted in grief and anger. “I warned him! I warned him!” he shouted.
Qwilleran had no living relatives; a phone call to his attorney confirmed that fact. His family consisted of two Siamese cats, but his extended family included the entire population of Moose County. The genial personality and quirky philosophy of the retired journalist endeared “Mr. Q” to everyone. The column he wrote for the local newspaper had won him a host of admirers. His luxuriant moustache and drooping eyelids and graying temples were considered sexually attractive by women of all ages. And the fact that he was the richest bachelor in three counties and an unbridled philanthropist made him a civic treasure.
Brodie immediately called Arch Riker, Qwilleran’s lifelong friend and current publisher of the Moose County newspaper. “Dammit! I warned him about that jungle!” the chief shouted into the phone. “He’s been living up here for three years, and he forgot that life Down Below is like Russian roulette!”
Shocked and searching for something to say, Riker mumbled soberly, “Qwill knew all about that. Before moving up here he lived in cities for fifty years. He and I grew up in Chicago.”
“Things have changed since then,” Brodie snapped. “God! Do you know what this means?”
The fact was that Qwilleran had inherited vast wealth from the Klingenschoen estate—on one condition: He must live in Moose County for five years. Otherwise, the Klingenschoen millions—or billions—would go to the alternate heirs out of state.
Riker listened glumly to Brodie’s tirade and then phoned Polly Duncan, the woman in Qwilleran’s life, who was prostrated by the news. He himself made immediate plans to fly down to the city. By the time the publisher had notified his own news desk and the local radio station, the telephone lines were spluttering with the bad tidings, and Moose County was caught up in a frenzy of horror and grief. Thousands would miss Qwilleran’s column on page two of the newspaper. Hundreds would miss the sight of Mr. Q riding his bicycle on country roads and walking about downtown Pickax with a long stride and a sober expression, answering their greetings with a courteous salute. And everyone realized the community would now lose scholarships, grants, and interest-free loans. Why, they asked each other, had he been so rash as to venture Down Below? Only one person thought to worry about the Siamese. His part-time secretary, Lori Bamba, cried, “What will happen to Koko and Yum Yum?”
There were cats galore in Moose County—barn mousers, feral cats, and pampered pets—yet none so pampered as the two thoroughbreds who lived with Qwilleran, and none quite so remarkable as Kao K’o Kung, whose everyday name was Koko. With his noble whiskers, aristocratic ears, sensitive nose, and inscrutable gaze Koko could see the invisible, hear the inaudible, and sense the unknowable. His companion, Yum Yum, was a charmer who captivated Qwilleran with shameless wiles, reaching out a paw to touch his moustache while squeezing her eyes and purring throatily. They were a handsome pair—fawn-furred, with seal-brown extremities and mesmerizing blue eyes. What would happen to them now? Where were they? Would anyone feed them?
Then came the gripping question: Were they still alive? Had they been in the car when it burned?
About two weeks before the metropolitan police called Brodie with the fateful news, Qwilleran and his two feline companions were spending a quiet evening at home in Moose County—the man, a husky six feet two, sprawled in the second-best easy chair with nothing much on his mind; the cats lounging on the best chair, as was their due, meditating and looking exquisite. When the raucous bell of the telephone disturbed the domestic peace, Qwilleran reluctantly hoisted himself to his feet and went to the phone in the adjoining room. It was a long-distance call from Down Below.
He heard an unfamiliar voice say, “Hello, Mr. Qwilleran. You’ll never guess who this is! . . . Amberina, from the Three Weird Sisters in Junktown! Do you remember me?”
“Of course I remember you,” he said diplomatically, at the same time thinking fast. The three women had an antique shop, but which of the sisters was Amberina? The giddy young blond or the man-crazy redhead or the unimpressive brunette? “How’s everything Down Below?” he asked. “I haven’t been there for quite a while—three years, as a matter of fact.”
“You’d never recognize Junktown,” she replied. “We’re being gentrified, like they say. People are buying the old townhouses and fixing them up, and we’re getting some first-class restaurants and antique shops.”
“Do you still have your shop?”
“No, we gave it up. Ivrene finished art school and got a job in Chicago. Cluthra married money—wouldn’t you know?—and moved to Texas. And I’m working for an auction house. From what I hear, Mr. Qwilleran, your life has changed, too, with the inheritance and everything.”
“Much to my surprise, yes . . . By the way, did you hear about Iris Cobb?”
“Gosh, were we ever shocked! When she was in Junktown she was such a live wire.”
“Does Mary Duckworth still have the Blue Dragon?”
“She sure does! It’s the best antique shop on the street—the most expensive, that is. Robert Maus has opened a classy restaurant, and Charlotte Roop is his manager. You know both of them, I think.”
Why, Qwilleran thought, is this woman calling me after three years? His momentary silence brought her to the point.
Amberina said, “Mary wanted me to call you because she’s going out of town. She has something she’d like to suggest to you.”
“Well, fire away!”
“Do you know the big old white apartment building called the Casablanca? It’s sort of rundown, but it’s a landmark.”
“I vaguely remember it.”
“It’s a tall building between Junktown and the reclaimed area where they’re putting up the new office towers and condos.”
“Yes, now I know the one you mean,” he said.
“Well, to make a long story short, some developers want to tear it down, which would be a crime! That building is really built! And it has a lot of history. Junktown has formed a task force called SOCK—Save Our Casablanca Kommittee—spelled with a K, you know.”
“Does SOCK have any clout?” Qwilleran quipped.
“Not really. That’s why we’re calling you.”
“What’s the proposition?”
She drew a deep breath. “The Casablanca used to be the best address in town. SOCK wants you to buy it and restore it . . . There! I said it! It wasn’t easy.”
It was Qwilleran’s turn to take a deep breath. “Now wait a minute, Amberina. Let me straighten you out. I’m no financier, and I don’t get involved in business ventures. Nothing is further from my mind. In fact, I’ve turned my inheritance over to the Klingenschoen Memorial Fund. I have nothing to do with it.” Actually he made suggestions to the Fund, but he saw no need to mention that.
“We all remember what you did for Junktown when you wrote for the Daily Fluxion, Mr. Qwilleran. Your series of articles in the paper really woke us up and started our comeback.”
He stroked his moustache as he remembered his memorable winter in that slummy part of town. “I admit my Junktown experience whetted my interest in preservation,” he said, “and theoretically I endorse your cause, although I’m in no position to know whether it’s feasible.”
“Oh, but you should see the Casablanca!” she said with enthusiasm. “The experts tell us it has great possibilities.” Qwilleran was beginning to remember her now. Amberina was the least weird of the Three Weird Sisters. “The building used to be very grand,” she was saying. “Some changes have been made, but the architects say they’re reversible. It could go back to being a fashionable place to live, and that would be a real boost for Junktown. Right now the Casablanca is . . . well, the tenants are a mixed bag. But they’re interesting! Mostly singles, but a few couples, not necessarily married. Whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics . . . yuppies, artists, truck drivers, wealthy widows, college students, a couple of stunning call girls, and a few bums and crazies, but they’re harmless.”
“You make it sound irresistible.”
“I live at the Casablanca myself,” she said with a small hysterical laugh.
Quill now remembered more about Amberina. She had dark hair, very attractive blue eyes (probably wore contacts), and a husband. Yet she now spoke as if she lived alone. “I’d like to see the place,” he said.
“Mary said to tell you the penthouse apartment is available for sublet, and it’s very well furnished. Maybe you’d like to come down and stay for a while.”
“Well, I don’t know . . .”
“You should decide fast, Mr. Qwilleran, because the developers are putting pressure on the owner of the building to sell it to them. SOCK is getting kind of antsy.”
“Who is the owner?”
“We call her the Countess. She’s seventy-five years old. She’s lived in the building all her life and still has her original apartment. I’m sure you could talk her into selling to your Memorial Fund, Mr. Qwilleran. You’re a very charming man.”
“Not always,” he protested in mock modesty, grooming his moustache. He was well aware of his success in winning over women, especially older ones. “If I were to drive down there,” he said slowly and thoughtfully, “I’d have to take my cats. Are pets permitted?”
“Cats are okay, but not dogs. In fact, there are cats all over the place.” Amberina giggled. “Some people call it the Casablanca Cathouse.”
“Did you say there’s a penthouse available?” he asked with increasing interest.
“You’d love it! It’s really very glamorous. There’s a large sunken living room with a skylight and indoor trees . . . and a marvelous view . . . and a terrace . . .”
“Let me call you back tomorrow. I’ll have to discuss it with my bosses,” Qwilleran said facetiously, meaning the Siamese.
“Don’t lose any time,” she warned. “If anything happens to the old lady, Mary says, the building will be sold to the developers so the heirs can be paid off.”
After hanging up the phone he rationalized fast. One: He had been confined to Moose County for three years, except for one flying trip Down Below to have dinner at the Press Club. Two: Winter was on its way, and winters in Moose County were not only cruel but interminable. Three: The imperiled Casablanca would be a convenient excuse to escape the glacial pavements and ten-foot snowbanks of Pickax. At least, he thought, there’s no harm in driving down and checking out the building’s potential.
First he broke the news to the Siamese. Living alone, he made it a practice to converse with his cats, often reading aloud to them and always discussing his problems and plans. They seemed to enjoy the sound of his voice, whether or not they knew what he was saying. More importantly, verbalizing his thoughts helped him to make decisions.
“Listen, you guys,” he called out to them, “how would you like to spend the winter in the Crime Belt instead of the Snow Belt? . . . Where are you?”
His companions had deserted their comfortable chair and were nowhere in view.
“Where did you brats go?” he demanded.
There was not a murmur from either of them, although he could feel their presence, and he could guess where they were. Koko had burrowed under the hearth rug, and Yum Yum was hiding under the rug in front of the sofa. Their silent comment was readily interpreted: They abhorred a change of address, and they sensed what Qwilleran had in mind.
He paced the floor with growing eagerness. Despite the reaction of his housemates, he relished the idea of a winter in the big city. He missed the Press Club. He missed the camaraderie of the staffers at the Daily Fluxion, where he had been a popular feature writer. He missed the stage shows, the hockey and pro basketball, and the variety of restaurants. There was one drawback: He would have to forgo the companionship of Polly Duncan. He had become very fond of Pickax City’s head librarian. They shared the same interests. She was his own age—an intelligent and loving woman. And since neither had a desire to marry, they were a compatible pair.
Polly was the first one he wanted to consult about his proposed venture, and he phoned her little house in the country, but before he could break the news, she quelched his elation with a cry of distress.
“Oh, Qwill! I was just about to call you. I’ve had some dreadful news. I’m being evicted!”
“What do you mean?” For years she had been the tenant of a snug cottage in farming country, and he had spent many idyllic weekends surrounded by cornfields and deer habitat and a hemisphere of blue sky.
“I told you the farm had been sold,” she said, almost in tears. “Now I learn that the new owner wants my cottage for his married son. Winter’s almost here! Where can I go? Landlords don’t permit cats, and I can’t give up Bootsie! What shall I do?” she wailed. Here was a woman who could devise a swift solution to the most complex problem arising at the public library; her panic over this personal setback was disturbing. “Are you there?” she cried impatiently. “Did you hear me, Qwill?”
“I heard you. I’m thinking,” he said. “It so happens that I’m invited to spend the winter months Down Below—in a penthouse apartment. That means . . . you could put your furniture in storage and stay at my place in Pickax while you scout for a new house.” Whimsically he added, “I have no objection to cats.” There was silence at the other end of the line. “Are you there, Polly? Did you hear me?”
“I’m thinking,” she said. “It sounds like an ideal solution, Qwill, and it’s certainly very generous of you, and of course it would be handy to the library, but . . .”
“But I don’t like the idea of your spending all that time Down Below.”
“You went to England for an entire summer,” he reminded her. “I didn’t care for that idea, either, but I survived.”
“That’s not what I mean. Cities are so unsafe! I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Polly, may I remind you that I lived in large cities all my life before moving up here.”
“What is the penthouse you mentioned?” she asked warily.
“Let’s have dinner tomorrow night, and I’ll explain.”
Next he phoned his old friend, Arch Riker, now publisher of the local paper. He said, “I’ve just had an interesting call from Down Below. Do you remember the Casablanca apartments on the edge of Junktown?”
“Sure,” said Riker. “Rosie and I lived there when we were first married. They’d cut up most of the large apartments into efficiencies and one-bedroom units. We had a few good years there. Then the kids started coming, and we moved to the suburbs. What about the Casablanca? I suppose they’re tearing it down.”
“You guessed right,” Qwilleran said. “Some developers want to take it over.”
“They’ll need a nuclear bomb to demolish that hunk of masonry. It’s built like the Rock of Gibraltar.”
“Well, hold on to your hat, Arch. I’ve been thinking it might be a good public relations ploy for the Klingenschoen Fund to buy it and restore it.”
“What! You mean—restore it all the way? That would be a costly operation. You’re talking about megamillions!”
“That’s what I mean—restore the apartments to their original condition and go condo. The Fund is making money faster than the board of directors can give it away, so what if it’s a financial loss? It will be a triumph for the cause of preservation—and a feather in the Klingenschoen cap.”
“I have to think about that. Offhand, it sounds like a madcap gamble. Have you suggested it to the board of directors?”
“I heard the news only half an hour ago, Arch. I’ll need more particulars, but see what you think of this: If I spend the winter down there, investigating the possibilities, I can write a weekly column for you on the horrors of city living. Moose County readers will lap it up!”
“Are you sure you want to go down there?” Riker asked apprehensively. “It’s a dangerous place to live, what with muggings and break-ins and murders.”
“Are you telling me? I wrote the book!” At the height of his career Qwilleran had written a best-seller on urban crime. “You may remember, Arch, there were muggings and break-ins and murders when you and I worked for the Daily ‘Fluxion, and we took them for granted.”
“From what I hear and read, conditions are much worse now.”
“There’s no coward so cowardly as a city dweller who has moved to the boondocks, my friend. Listen to this: I can get the penthouse at the Casablanca, furnished.”
“Sounds good, I guess, but don’t rush into anything,” Riker advised. “Think about it for a couple of weeks.”
“I can’t wait a couple of weeks. The K Fund will have to sneak in a bid ahead of the wrecking ball. Besides, we can expect snow any day now, and it won’t stop snowing until March. I won’t be able to get out of here.”
“What about the cats?”
“I’ll take them with me, of course.”
“They won’t like living high up. We were on the ninth floor, and our cats hated the elevator.”
“They’ll adjust. There’s a terrace, and where there’s a terrace there are pigeons. Koko is a licensed pigeon watcher.”
“Well . . . do it if you want to take the gamble, Qwill, but wear a bulletproof vest,” Riker warned, and said good-bye.
Qwilleran found it difficult to settle down. He tried reading aloud to the Siamese to calm his excitement, but his mind was not on the printed page. He was impatient to learn more about the Casablanca. Unable to wait until morning, he phoned Down Below.
“I hope I’m not calling too late, Amberina,” he said. “I need more information before I can broach the subject to the board of directors.”
“Sure,” she said distractedly, as if watching something attention-riveting on television.
“First, do you know anything about the history of the building? When was it built?”
“In 1901. The first high-rise apartment building in the city. The first to have an elevator.”
“How many stories?”
“Who lived there originally? What kind of people?”
“Well, Mary says there were financiers, government officials, railroad tycoons, judges, heiresses—that kind. Also, they had suites for visiting royalty, opera stars, and so forth. After the stock market crash in 1929, more millionaires jumped off the roof of the Casablanca than any other building in the county.”
“An impressive distinction,” Qwilleran said wryly. “When did the place start to go downhill?”
“In the Depression. They couldn’t rent the expensive apartments, so they cut them up, lowered ceilings—anything to cut costs and bring in some rent money.”
“What can you tell me about the structure itself?”
“Let’s see . . . SOCK put out a brochure that’s around here somewhere. If you don’t mind waiting, I’ll try to find it. I’m not a very well-organized person.”
“Take your time,” he said. He had been making notes, and while she searched for the brochure, he sketched out his approach to the board of directors, scheduled his departure, and made a list of people to notify.
“Okay, here I am. I found it. Sorry to keep you waiting,” Amberina said. “It was with my Christmas cards.”
“Aren’t you early with Christmas cards?”
“I haven’t sent out last year’s cards yet! . . . Are you ready? It says the exterior is faced with white glazed brick. The design is modified Moorish . . . Marble lobby with Persian rugs . . . Elevators paneled in rosewood . . . Mosaic tile floors in hallways. Apartments soundproof and fireproof, with twelve-foot ceilings and black walnut woodwork. Restaurant with terrace on the top floor. Also a swimming pool up there . . . this is the way it was in 1901, you understand. How does it sound, Mr. Qwilleran?”
“Not bad! You’d better reserve that penthouse for me.”
“Mary told me to say that you’ll be the guest of SOCK.”
“I can afford to pay my own rent, but I appreciate the offer. How’s the parking?”
“There’s a paved lot with reserved spaces for tenants.”
“And what’s the crime situation in Junktown?”
“Well, we finally got the floozies and winos and pushers off the street.”
“How did you do that?”
“The city cooperated because the Pennimans were behind it—”
“—and the city realized a broader tax base,” Qwilleran guessed.
“Something like that. We have a citizens’ patrol at night, and, of course, we don’t take any chances after dark.”
“How about security in the building itself?”
“Pretty good. The front door is locked, and there’s a buzzer system. We had a doorman until a year ago. The side door is locked except for emergencies.”
“Apparently the elderly woman who owns the building feels safe enough.”
“I guess so. She has sort of a live-in bodyguard.”
“Then it’s a deal. Count on me to arrive next weekend.”
“Mary will be tickled. We’ll make all the arrangements for you.”
“One question, Amberina. How many persons know that SOCK is inviting me to go down there?”
“Well, it was Mary’s idea, and she probably discussed it with Robert Maus, but she wouldn’t gab it around. She’s not that type.”
“All right. Let’s keep it that way. Don’t broadcast it. The story is that I want to get away from the abominable snow and ice up north, and the Casablanca is the only place that allows cats.”
“Okay, I’ll tell Mary.”
“Any instructions for me when I arrive?”
“Just buzz the manager from the vestibule. We don’t have a doorman anymore, but the custodian will help with your luggage. It will be nice to see you again, Mr. Qwilleran.”
“What happened to the doorman?” he asked.
“Well,” she said apologetically, “he was shot.”
THE SENIOR PARTNER of the Pickax firm of Hasselrich Bennett & Barter, legal counsel for the Klingenschoen Memorial Fund, was an elderly man with stooped shoulders and quivering jowls, but he had the buoyant optimism and indomitability of a young man. It was Hasselrich whom Qwilleran chose to approach regarding the Casablanca proposal.
Before discussing business, the attorney insisted on serving coffee, pouring it proudly from his paternal grandmother’s silver teapot into his maternal grandmother’s Wedgwood cups, which rattled in the saucers as his shaking hands did the honors.
“It appears,” Qwilleran began after a respectable interval for pleasantries, “that all of the Fund’s ventures are on the East Coast, and it might be advisable to make ourselves known in another part of the country. What I have to suggest is both an investment and a public beneficence.”
Hasselrich listened attentively as Qwilleran described the gentrification of Junktown, the unique architecture of the Casablanca, and the opportunity for the K Fund to preserve a fragment of the region’s heritage. At the mention of the marble lobby and rosewood-paneled elevators, the attorney’s jowls quivered with approval. “Many a time I have heard my grandfather extolling that magnificent building. He knew the man who built it,” said Hasselrich. “As a young boy I was once treated to lunch in the rooftop restaurant. Unfortunately, I remember nothing but the spinach timbales. I had a juvenile aversion to spinach.”
Qwilleran said, “The rooftop restaurant is now a penthouse apartment, and I plan to spend some time there, investigating the possibilities and persuading the owner to sell, if it seems wise. You know what will happen if developers are allowed to acquire the property; the building will be razed.”
“Deplorable!” said Hasselrich. “We must not let that happen. This must be added to the agenda for the directors’ meeting next week.”
“I plan to drive down there in a few days—to beat the snow,” said Qwilleran. “If you will be good enough to make the presentation in my absence, I’ll supply a fact sheet.” He welcomed any excuse to avoid meetings with the board of directors.
“Do you find it quite necessary to attend to this research yourself?” asked the attorney. “There are agencies we might retain to make a feasibility study.”
“I consider it highly advisable. The owner is being pressured by the developers, and it will require some personal strategy to persuade the lady to sell to us.”
The elderly attorney’s lowered eyes and twitching eyelids were making broad inferences.
“She’s seventy-five,” Qwilleran added hastily, “and if she dies before deciding in our favor, we’re out of luck and the Casablanca is doomed.”
Hasselrich cleared his throat. “There is one consideration that gives me pause. You have indicated a profound interest in the welfare of Moose County, and that entails a responsibility to remain in good health, so to speak. You understand my meaning, do you not?”
“Moose County’s interest in keeping me alive is no greater than my own desire to live, and I might point out another fact,” Qwilleran said firmly. “When I go Down Below I am not a naive tourist from the outback; I’ve been city-smart since childhood.”
Hasselrich studied his desktop and shook his jowls. “You seem to have made your decision. We can only hope for your safe return.”
That same afternoon, the Moose County Something, as the local newspaper was waggishly named, carried the regular Tuesday column headed “Straight from the Qwill Pen,” with an editor’s note stating that Jim Qwilleran would be on a leave of absence for an indefinite period, pursuing business Down Below, but he would file an occasional column on city living, to appear in his usual space.
As soon as Qwilleran read this he recognized a conspiracy on the part of Arch Riker, the publisher, and Junior Goodwinter, the managing editor. The two guessed what the result of such an announcement would be, and they were right. Qwilleran’s telephone started to ring, and the citizens of Moose County tried to dissuade him from braving the perils Down Below. When told that the trip was important and necessary, they offered advice: “Wear a money belt . . . Don’t take your best watch . . . Get a burglar alarm for your car . . . Lock yourself in when you drive in the city.”
Police Chief Brodie said, “Och, mon, you’re a bit daft. I happen to hear a few things that don’t get in the papers, but if you insist on going, stay home after dark and buy one of them gadgets that lock the brake pedal to the steering wheel.”
From Susan Exbridge, a member of the Theatre Club, there was a melodramatic phone call: “Darling, don’t walk anywhere! Take a taxi, even if you’re only going a block. I have friends Down Below, and they tell me it’s hell!”
Dr. Goodwinter warned of respiratory ailments caused by airborne pollutants, and Eddington Smith, the timid dealer in secondhand books, offered to lend his handgun.
Lori Bamba was concerned chiefly about the cats. “If you’re taking Koko and Yum Yum,” she said, “don’t let it be known that you have pedigreed animals. Kitnapping is big business Down Below. Also, you should feed them extra B vitamins to combat stress, because they’ll sense menacing elements.”
Even Qwilleran’s cleaning man was worried. “It’s prayin’ I’ll be,” said Mr. O’Dell, “until you be comin’ safe home, Mr. Q.”
Nevertheless, Qwilleran stubbornly shopped for the journey. He bought a cagelike cat carrier that was more commodious and better ventilated than the picnic hamper in which the Siamese had formerly traveled. For their meals en route he laid in a supply of canned crabmeat, boned chicken, and red salmon. He also bought two blue leather harnesses—one medium and one large—with matching leashes. For himself he would take whatever he happened to have on hand. There were two suits in his closet—a gray flannel that he had worn once to a wedding and a dark blue serge that he had worn once as a pallbearer. These—with two white shirts, a couple of ties, and a raincoat—were his concessions to city dressing. Otherwise, he would take flannel shirts, sweaters, and his comfortable tweed sports coat with leather patches on the elbows.
During Qwilleran’s final days in Pickax, farewell scenes with friends and associates had the solemnity of a deathbed vigil. Polly Duncan, on their last evening together, was lachrymose and in no mood to be comforted or to quote Shakespeare, although Qwilleran rose to the occasion with “parting is such sweet sorrow.”
“Promise you’ll call me as soon as you arrive” were her final words. He had hoped for less wifely anxiety and more amorous sentiments.
Even the Siamese sensed that something dire was afoot, and they sulked for twenty-four hours before their departure. When taken for rides in their new carrier, as rehearsal for the trip, they reacted like condemned nobility on the way to the guillotine—stoic, proud, and aloof.
None of this heightened Qwilleran’s anticipation of the expedition, but he packed the car on Saturday morning with grim determination. Two suitcases, his typewriter, the unabridged dictionary, and his computerized coffeemaker went into the trunk. On the backseat were two boxes of books, the new cat carrier, and a blue cushion. The cats’ water dish and their commode—a turkey roaster with the handles sawed off—were on the floor of the backseat.
The car was a small, energy-efficient, preowned four-door that Qwilleran had bought in a hurry, following his accident on Ittibittiwassee Road. The paint finish, a metallic purplish-blue, was not to his liking, but the used-car dealer assured him it was a color ahead of its time, called Purple Plum, and it would increase in acceptance and popularity.
“It looks better on fruit,” Qwilleran remarked. The price was right, however, and the gas mileage was said to be phenomenal, and he had retained thrifty habits despite his new financial status, so he bought it. This was the car he packed for the four-hundred-mile journey, which he intended to stretch over two days for the comfort of the Siamese.
“All aboard the Purple Plum for Lockmaster, Paddockville, and all points south!” he announced to his two reluctant passengers. Grudgingly they allowed themselves to be stuffed into the carrier.
As the three of them pulled away from their home on Park Circle, the pair in the backseat maintained their funereal silence, leaving Qwilleran long, quiet hours to reflect on his sojourn in the north country. Despite the king-size mosquitoes, poison ivy, skunks, and hazardous deer crossings, Moose County afforded a comfortable life among good people. Most of them were rampant individualists and non-stop gossips, but that merely made them more interesting in the eyes of a journalist. How, he questioned, would he adjust to city life with its mask of conformity, guarded privacy, and self-interest?
His ruminations were interrupted by a demanding shriek from the backseat—so loud and so sudden that he gripped the steering wheel to keep the car on the road. Yum Yum was merely making a suggestion. How a creature of such delicacy and gentleness could produce this vulgar screech was beyond his comprehension, but it was effective. At the next crossroads he stopped for a coffee break and released the Siamese from their coop to stretch, peer out the windows, lap a tongueful of water, and examine the gas pedal.
After six hours of driving (Yum Yum objected to speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour), Qwilleran could not fault his passengers. They were behaving like mature, sophisticated travelers. At the motel that night—a less-than-deluxe establishment that welcomed pets—the Siamese slept soundly throughout the night, although Qwilleran was disturbed by barking dogs, slamming doors, and a growling ice machine outside his room. This appliance was located at the foot of wooden steps, up and down which the second-floor guests thumped frequently, shouting to each other:
“Where’s the gin?”
“In the trunk under the spare tire!”
“I can’t find the peanuts!”
It was Saturday night, and travelers were partying late. They also took an undue number of showers in Qwilleran’s estimation. The force of the water hitting the fiberglass tubs in neighboring rooms thundered like Niagara, while he lay awake waiting for the tumult to end.
Meanwhile, the Siamese slept peacefully on top of his feet, and when he wriggled to relieve the numbness, they moved farther up and draped their soft bodies across his knees. Then late arrivals slammed their car doors and ran up the wooden steps, exchanging shouts:
“Bring my zipper bag up with you!”
“The blue one!”
“Do you have the key?”
“Yes, but I can’t find 203.”
“Who’s going to take Pierre for a walk?”
After that they all took showers, and the cascading water in the rooms above drowned out the television in the rooms on either side. Qwilleran heaved the cats off his knees, and they crawled farther up without opening their eyes.
So it continued until four o’clock in the morning, at which time he managed an hour’s sleep before the early risers started taking showers, slamming car doors, and revving motors. He could have been excused for greeting the new day with a colossal grouch, but he exhibited a purposeful and admirable calm. All of Moose County had advised against this trip, and he was determined to prove them wrong from start to finish. He was, he told himself repeatedly, having a good time.
On the second day of driving, the panorama of woods and open fields and farmyards gave way to a scattering of billboards, gas stations, auto graveyards, and party stores, followed by strip malls and housing developments with fine-sounding names, and finally the freeway. Heavy traffic and increased speed began to put the backseat passengers on their guard, their noses lifting to register the density of emissions, while Yum Yum complained bitterly. For Qwilleran the sight of sweeping interchanges and incoming jets and the jagged skyline produced an urban high that he had relished in the past and had almost forgotten. Even the Purple Plum looked less offensive in the smoggy atmosphere.
He left the freeway at the Zwinger exit. On this late Sunday afternoon, downtown was virtually deserted. Zwinger Street, formerly a blighted area, was now Zwinger Boulevard—a continuous landscaped park dotted with glass towers, parking structures, and apartment complexes. Then the boulevard narrowed into the nineteenth-century neighborhood known as Junktown, with the Casablanca standing like a sentinel at the approach.
“Oh, no!” Qwilleran said aloud. “It looks like a refrigerator!” The Casablanca was indeed white, although in need of cleaning, and it had the proportions of a refrigerator, with a dark line across the facade at the ninth floor, as if delineating the freezer compartment. Modified Moorish, the SOCK brochure had called it. True, there were some arches and a marquee and two large ornamental lanterns of Spanish persuasion, but on the whole it looked like a refrigerator. Not so in 1901 perhaps, when iceboxes were made of golden oak, but now . . .
Qwilleran made a U-turn and pulled up to the curb, where the city permitted twenty-minute parking. He unloaded the cat carrier and the turkey roaster and then, taking care to lock all four doors, approached the shabby entrance. Broken glass in the two lanterns exposed the light bulbs, and the glass sidelights of the door were walled up with plywood that no one had bothered to paint. Carefully he picked his way up the cracked marble steps and set down the carrier, opening the heavy black door and holding it with his foot while he maneuvered into the dark vestibule.
“Help ya?” called a voice from the gloom. A jogger was about to leave the building.
“How do I ring the manager?” Qwilleran inquired.
“Right over here.” A young man with a reddish moustache almost as imposing as Qwilleran’s pressed a button on the apartment directory panel. “You moving in?”
“Yes. Where do you jog around here?”
“Around the vacant lots behind the building. Two times around is a mile—and not too much carbon monoxide.”
“Is it safe?”
The man held up a small tube and pointed it at Qwilleran. “Zap!” he said, looking wise. “Hey, nice cats!” he added, squinting at the carrier. When a voice finally squawked on the intercom the obliging jogger yelled, “New tenant, Mrs. Tuttle.” A buzzer released the door, and he sprang to open it. “Manager’s desk straight down the hall, opposite the second elevator.”
“Thanks. Good running!” Qwilleran wished him. The inner door slammed behind him, and he found himself in an empty lobby.
It was narrower than he had expected—a tunnel-like hall with a low ceiling and a lingering odor of disinfectant. Fluorescent tubes were spaced too far apart to provide effective light. The floor was well-worn vinyl, but clean, and the walls were covered with something that looked like sandpaper. When he reached the first elevator, however, he stopped and stared; the elevator door was burnished bronze sculptured in low relief, representing scenes from Don Quixote and Carmen.
As he studied the unexpected artistry, the door slid open, and a man in black tie and dinner jacket stepped out, saying coolly, “This is a private elevator,” at the same time flinging a contemptuous glance at the turkey roaster.
With the top handle of the carrier in one hand and the roaster under the other arm, Qwilleran walked slowly toward the rear of the building, observing and sniffing. Someone on the main floor was cooking, and he knew Portuguese garlic soup when he smelled it. Lined up in the tunnel were a cigarette machine, a soft-drink dispenser, and an old wooden telephone booth. Some attempt had been made to brighten the hall by painting apartment doors in jellybean colors, but the paint was scratched and dreary with age.
As he reached the phone booth, a body tumbled out onto the floor. It was a woman of indefinite age, wearing a red cocktail dress, and she was clutching a pint rum bottle, uncapped. “Oops!” she said.
Gallantly, Qwilleran set down his baggage and went to her assistance. “Hurt yourself?”
She slurred an apology as he helped her up, propped her on the seat of the phone booth, and closed her safely inside, leaving only a puddle on the floor.
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