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It was a September to remember! In Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere, plans were rife and hopes were high.
First, the historic hotel in Pickax City, the county seat, was finally restored after the bombing of the previous year, and it would reopen with a new name, a new chef, and a gala reception.
Then, a famous American (who may or may not have slept there in 1895) was about to be honored with the city's first annual Mark Twain Festival.
Next, a distinguished personage from Chicago had reserved the presidential suite and would arrive on Labor Day, setting female hearts aflutter.
To top it off, the tri-county Scottish Gathering and Highland Games would be held at the fairgrounds: bagpipes skirling, strong men in kilts tossing the caber, and pretty young women dancing the Highland Fling on the balls of their feet.
The one unexpected happening was the homicide on the Pickax police blotter, but that was a long story, starting twenty-odd years before.
As September approached, the good folk of Pickax (population 3,000) were quoting Mark Twain about the weather, suggesting ribald names for the hotel, and gossiping endlessly about a man named Delacamp; few would ever meet him, but all had something to say about him.
Jim Qwilleran, columnist for the Moose County Something, felt an air of anticipation when he made his rounds of downtown Pickax. When he went to the bank to cash a check, the young woman who counted out his fifties said,"Isn't it exciting? Mr. Delacamp is coming again, and he always comes into the bank. I hope he comes to my window, but the manager usually handles his transactions. Anyway, it's all so thrilling!"
"If you say so," Qwilleran said. After a long career as a newspaperman he was seldom excited and certainly never thrilled.
At the florist shop where he went to order a flowering plant for a sick friend, the wide-eyed assistant said breathlessly, "Did you hear? Mr. Delacamp is coming! He always has to have fresh flowers in his hotel room, and he sends roses to his customers."
"Good!" said Qwilleran. "Anything that helps the local economy has my approval."
While picking up a New York Times at the drugstore he heard a woman customer saying she had received an engraved invitation to Mr. Delacamp's afternoon tea, and she wondered what kind of perfume to wear. The pharmacist's wife said, "They say he likes French perfumes. We don't carry anything like that. Try the department store. They can special-order."
Qwilleran crossed the street to the department store, his newshound instincts scenting a good story with human interest and a touch of humor. Lanspeak's was a large fourth-generation store with new-fashioned merchandise but old-fashioned ideas about customer service. He found the two owners in their cramped office on the main floor.
"Hi, Qwill! Come on in!" said Larry Lanspeak.
"Have a cup of coffee," said his wife, Carol.
Qwilleran took a chair. "No coffee, thanks, but please tell me something. Explain the Delacamp mystique." He knew the couple were official hosts for the man's visit. "Why all the excitement?"
Larry looked at his wife, and she made a helpless gesture. "What can I say? He's an older man, but he's handsomeelegantgallant! He sends women roses!"
"And kisses their hands," said Larry with raised eyebrows.
"He pays lavish compliments!"
"And kisses hands," Larry repeated derisively.
"Everything is very formal. Women have to wear hats to his Tuesday afternoon tea, and we've sold out of millinery. We sell the basic felt that women wear to church, but our daughter said we should gussy them up with feathers and flowers and huge ribbon bows. So we did! Diane is a sober, dedicated M.D., but she has a mad streak."
"Takes after her mother," Larry said.
"The results are really wild! Sorry you can't write it up, Qwill, but everything is private, invitational, and exclusive. No publicity!"
"Okay. I'll forget it. No story," Qwilleran acquiesced. "But he sounds like an interesting character ... You two go back to work."
Larry accompanied him out of the office and toward the front door, down the main aisle between cases of men's shirts and ties and women's scarves and earrings. "Old Campo is harmless, although a trifle phony," he said. "Still, his visits every four or five years are good for a certain element in our communityand good public relations for the store. It's Carol's project, actually. I stay out of it."
The facts were that Delacamp was a dealer who bought and sold estate jewelry, making periodic visits to remote areas with a history of affluence. In such communities the descendants of old moneyed families might be willing to part with an heirloom necklace of rubies and emeralds, or a diamond tiara, in order to finance a new car or a college education or an extravagant cruise. Artisans in Delacamp's Chicago firm could break up such outdated items and re-mount them in rings, pendants, earrings, and so forth for sale to a new generationas an investment or status symbol.
Moose County fitted the picture, and Delacamp apparently had found his visits worthwhile. It had been the richest county in the state in the nineteenth century, when natural resources were being exploited and there was no income tax to pay. The old mining tycoons and lumber barons had built themselves mansions with large vaults in the basement. They had sent their offspring to eastern colleges and had taken their wives to Paris, where they bought them jewels that would appreciate in value. When the mines closed in the early twentieth century, the economy collapsed and most families fled to the big cities. Others elected to stay and live quietly on their private means, going into business or the professionsor even bootlegging during Prohibition.
All of this convinced Qwilleran that Old Campo had a good thing going, and he enjoyed listening to gossip in the coffee shops. Blue-collar and white-collar opinions were freely expressed:
"He'll be puttin' on the dog and gettin' the old gals all het up."
"They say he drinks nothin' but tea, but ten to one he puts a little somethin' in it."
"Yeah, I was night porter at the hotel a few years ago, and he used to send out for rum. He was a big tipper, I'll say that for him."
"I know a guyhis wife drew ten thousand from their joint account and bought a diamond pin."
"I'm glad my wife's not on his list. Women go to that tea party of his and they're pushovers!"
"He always brings a female assistant, and she always happens to be young and sexy. She's supposed to be his cousin or niece or something, but you never notice any family resemblance, if you know what I mean."
Gossip was the mainstay of Moose County culture, although it was called "caring and sharing." Men had their coffee shops; women had their afternoon circles.
Qwilleran listened to it and nodded and chuckled. He himself had been the subject of gossip. He was a bachelor who lived simply, and yet he was the richest man in the northeast central United States. Through a twist of fate he had fallen heir to the vast Klingenschoen fortune based in Moose County. Previously he had managed on a reporter's salary without any particular interest in wealth; in financial matters, moreover, he felt like a simpleton. He handled the situation by establishing the Klingenschoen Foundation with a mandate to give the money away judiciously to benefit the community.
Needless to say, "Mr. Q" had become an icon in the north country, not only because of his generosity. He wrote a twice-weekly column, "Straight from the Qwill Pen," that was the most popular feature in the newspaper. He had a genial disposition and a sense of humor, even though his brooding eyes gave him a look of melancholy. And he was his own man.
Pioneer blood had made the natives into a race of determined individualists, as a glance at the map would confirm. There were places like Squunk Comers, Little Hope, Sawdust City, Chipmunk, and Ugley Gardens. Qwilleran belonged in this environment. He spelled his name with a QW, lived in a barn with two cats, sported an enormous pepper-and-salt moustache, and rode a recumbent bicycle which required him to pedal with feet elevated.
There were other characteristics in his favor. Being tall and well-built, he had a distinct aura of authority. Being a journalist, he had trained himself to listen. Strangers felt they could confide in him, air their dreams, relate their woes. He always listened sympathetically.
One of Qwilleran's quirks was his desire for privacy. He needed solitude for thinking, writing, and reading, and his converted barn was effectively secluded. Though within the city limits and not far from Main Street, it had acreage. It had once been a strip farm extending from Main Street to Trevelyan Road, which was a half-mile to the east. Paving was unknown in those days.
Now Main Street divided into northbound and southbound traffic lanes, called Park Circle. Around the rim were two churches, the courthouse, a majestic old public library, and the original Klingenschoen mansion, now functioning as a small theatre for stage productions. To the rear of the mansion was a four-stall carriage house with servants' quarters upstairs. From there a rustic wagon trail wound its way through evergreen woods, ending in a barnyard.
The hundred-year-old apple barn rose like an ancient castleoctagonal in design, four stories high, with a fieldstone foundation and siding of weathered shingles. Odd-shaped windows had been cut in the walls, reflecting the angled timbers that framed the interior.
The property to the east had been a thriving orchard until a mysterious blight struck the trees. Now it was reforested, and wild gardens attracted birds and butterflies.
On the last day of August Qwilleran walked down the old orchard lane to pick up his mail and newspaper on Trevelyan Road. On the site where the old farmhouse had burned down there was now a rustic contemporary building housing the Pickax Art Center. County residents attended classes there, viewed exhibitions, andin some casesrented studios. As Qwilleran passed it, he counted the cars in the parking lot. It looked as if they were having a good day.
The highway marked the city limits. Beyond it was farmland. He waved to a farmer chugging down the road on a tractor and the driver of a farm truck traveling in the opposite direction. His rural mailbox and a newspaper sleeve were mounted on posts alongside the pavement. There were few letters in the box; his fan mail went to the newspaper office, and official business and junk mail went to the law firm that represented the Klingenschoen Foundation.
A boy carrying a grocery sack was running toward him from the direction of the McBee farm. "Mr. Q! Mr. Q!" he shouted. It was the ten-year-old Culvert McBee. "I brought you something!"
Qwilleran hoped it was not turnips or parsnips from the McBee kitchen garden. "That's very good of you, Culvert."
The chubby boy was breathing hard after running. "I made something for you ... I took a summer class ... over there." He jerked his head toward the art center and then handed over the sack.
"What is it?"
Qwilleran was dubious about knickknacks made for him by fond readers, and he peered into the sack with no great expectations. What he saw was a pad of paper stapled on a small board. The top sheet was computer-printed with the well-known saying Thirty Days Hath September.
"It's a calendar," Culvert explained. "Every day you tear off a page and read what it says."
The second page had the date (September 1) and the day (Tuesday) and a brief saying: Let sleeping dogs lie.
"Well! This is really something!" Qwilleran said with a good show of enthusiasm. He flipped through the pages and read: What's good for the goose is good for the gander ... You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink ... A cat can look at a king. "Where did you get these sayings, Culvert?"
"At the library. They're from all over the world."
"They're all about animals!"
"Well, I certainly appreciate your thoughtfulness!"
"There's a hole in the board. You can hang it on a nail."
"I'll do that."
"I made one for my mom, too."
"How are your parents? I haven't seen them lately."
"Dad's okay. Mom has a sore hand from using the computer."
"How about the dogs?" Culvert had a shelter for old, unwanted dogs.
"Dolly died of old age and I buried her behind the shed. I painted her name on a stone. You can come and look at it if you want to. My aunt came and brought flowers."
"That was nice of her. Are you ready to go back to school?"
Then Qwilleran praised the calendar once more, and Culvert walked back to his farm on Base Line Road.
* * *
At the art center there was a familiar car parked on the lot, and Qwilleran went in to talk with his friend, Thornton Haggis. He was a retiree with a shock of white hair, now serving as interim manager until they could find a replacement for Beverly Forfar.
"Still holding the fort, I see," Qwilleran said. "Has anyone heard from Bev?"
"No. After the turmoil she experienced here, I believe she was glad to wash her hands of our fair city."
The former manager had written to Qwilleran, however, thanking him profusely for his farewell gift, little knowing it was something he had been trying to unload.
She had written, "It was so wonderful of you to arrange for me to have The Whiteness of White. It hangs in my apartment, where it is admired by everyone. You may be interested to know I have found a small job in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that could develop into something big."
Qwilleran nodded. From what he knew of that city it had the right climate for an esoteric intaglio. He had won it in a raffle at the art center, simply because he was the only one who bought a chance. He bought several, using the alias of Ronald Frobnitz. As the winner he was trying to dispose of it discreetly without offending the artist who had donated it. Luckily Beverly Forfar was leaving Pickax forever, and she was happy to acquire an artwork valued at a thousand dollars.
In a postscript to her letter she had written, "If you are in touch with Professor Frobnitz in Japan, please thank him for his generosity. I'm sorry I didn't meet him while he was in Pickax. On the telephone he sounded positively charming."
Qwilleran asked Thornton, "Any good prospects for Beverly's successor?"
"They've interviewed a few applicants but can't seem to make a decision."
"You're doing too good a job, Thorn. Why hire a manager when good old Thom will do the work free?"
"Don't think that hasn't crossed my mind! After September thirtieth, I quit! Meanwhile we're setting up the craft fair. Are you coming to the opening? I'll have a few of my own things on exhibit."
"Are you doing something creative in tombstones?" Qwilleran asked lightly.
Thornton was a retired stonecutter who had studied art history at one time. "You can kid all you like," he retorted, "but I felt the need for a manual hobby. I bought a lathe, and now I'm doing woodturning in my basement."
"That I've got to see!" Qwilleran said.
"Then come to the craft fair," his friend said. "Bring money."
When Qwilleran walked up the lane to the apple barn, he was approaching from the east. In its heyday it had been a drive-through barn with huge doors east and west, large enough to admit a horse-drawn wagon loaded with apples. Now the huge openings had been filled in and equipped with human-size doors. On the east side there were handsome double doors flanked by glass panels. These were the front doors, opening into the foyer, although they were on the back of the building. The back door was, of course, on the front, opening into the kitchen. (This kind of anomaly was common in Moose County, where Pickax was referred to as Paradox.) Twice the Pickax voters had vetoed a proposal to change the names of streets. "Old East Street" was west of "New West Street," and there was confusion about "North Street East" and "South Street West." Only strangers were befuddled, however, and befuddling strangers was a local pastime.
As Qwilleran approached the double doors, two Siamese cats watched from the sidelights, standing on their hindlegs with their forepaws on the low windowsill. Entering the foyer he had to wade through weaving bodies and waving tails, circling him, doubling back, rubbing his ankles, and getting under his feetall the while yowling in the operatic voices of Siamese. The tumultuous welcome would have been flattering if Qwilleran had not consulted his watch. It was feeding time at the zoo!
"What have you guys been doing this afternoon?" he asked as he prepared their dinner. "Anything worthwhile? Solve any world problems? Who won the fifty-yard dash?" The more you talk to cats, the smarter they become, he believed.
The long, lean, lithe muscular one was Kao K'o Kung, familiarly known as Koko. His female companion was Yum Yumsmall, dainty, shy, although she could shriek like an ambulance siren when she wanted something and wanted it immediately. Both had pale fawn-colored fur and seal brown masks, ears and tails. Her eyes were blue tinged with violet, and their appealing kittenish gaze could break hearts. Koko's deeper blue eyes had a depth that suggested secret intelligence and untold mysteries.
They were indoor cats, but the barn interior was as big as all outdoors to a small creature weighing ten pounds or less. The space, a hundred feet in diameter, was open to the roof. A ramp spiraled up the walls and connected the balconies on three levels. In the center stood a huge white fireplace cube with white stacks soaring to the cupola, and it divided the main floor into functional areas: dining, lounging, foyer, and library. The kitchen was under a balcony, half hidden by an L-shaped snack bar.
In the daytime a flood of light came through triangles and rhomboids of glass. Pale colors prevailedin the bleached timbers, upholstered furniture, and Moroccan rugs. After dark, when a single switch activated indirect lights and artfully placed spotlights, the effect was nothing less than enchanting.
Qwilleran's favorite haunt was the library area. One wall of the fireplace cube was covered with bookshelves, and the shelves were filled with secondhand classics purchased from a local bookseller. A library table held the telephone, answering machine, and writing materials. In a capacious lounge chair with an ottoman Qwilleran liked to read aloud to the Siamese or draft his column on a legal pad with a soft lead pencil.
On the last day of August, before going out to dinner, he read to the cats from a book selected by Koko. He was the official bibliocat. He prowled the bookshelves and liked to curl up between the biographies and the nineteenth-century English fiction. At reading time it was his privilege to select the title, although Qwilleran had the power of veto. They had been reading Greek drama. Koko could sense which book was which, and he repeatedly sniffed The Frogs by Aristophanes.
"Okay, we'll do it once more," Qwilleran said, "but this is the last time!" Both cats liked the froggy chorus that he dramatized so colorfully: brekekekex koax koax. Yum Yum's eyes grew wide, and a rumble came from Koko's chest.
"Those cats are just like little kids," Qwilleran said at dinner that night. "When I was three years old, I wanted to hear Jack and the Beanstalk over and over again. It was in desperation that my mother taught me to read so young."
He was dining with the chief woman in his life, a charming companion of his own age, whose gentle voice, soft smile, and agreeable disposition camouflaged a will as strong as Yum Yum's. She was Polly Duncan, director of the public library. She always wore something special for their dates, and this time it was a green silk dress with a necklace of long slivers of silver alternating with beads of green jade.
"You look lovely!" he said. He had learned not to say, "You look lovely tonight." That would imply that she usually looked unlovely. Polly was sensitive about the niceties of speech.
Pleased, she said, "Thank you, dear. And you' re looking very handsome!"
He always wore a coat and tie, well coordinated, when having dinner with Polly. It was a compliment they paid each other.
They had a reservation at Onoosh's in downtown Pickax, a café with the exotic murals, lamps, brasses, and aromas of the Mediterranean rim. Ethnic foods were finally being accepted 400 miles north of everywhere, although it had been a slow process. Seated at the brass-topped tables were foodists with adventurous palates, vacationers from out of town, and students from Moose County Community College, who were eligible for a discount.
For starters Polly had a dry sherry and Qwilleran ordered Squunk water on the rocks with a twist, a local mineral water.
"What's the latest gossip at the library?" he asked. It was a center of information in more ways than one. "Has the Pickax grapevine blown a gasket over Mr. Delacamp?"
"No, no!" she corrected him with excitement. "The latest news is about Amanda! Haven't you heard?"
"I heard the rumor in July, while you were in Canada, but she denied it."
"She changed her mind several times after that, but I think she was building up suspense. There's nothing naive about Amanda!"
"So what's the latest?" he asked impatiently. As a journalist he always felt uncomfortable if he didn't know the latest.
"Well! Today was the deadline, and she picked up her petition at city hall at nine A.M. Eight hours later, she returned it with the required number of signaturesfive percent of registered voters! She stood in front of Toodle's Market and Lanspeak's and created quite a stir, as you can well imagine."
"That's our Amanda!" Qwilleran gloated.
There was only one illustrious Amanda in Pickax. As owner of the design studio on Main Street she had decorated the homes of well-known families for forty years. She had served on the city council for twenty yearsalways outspoken and sometimes cantankerous. The locals loved her for her fearless individualism, and that included her eccentric dress and grooming. Now she was daring to challenge the incumbent mayor in the November electiona politician who had held office for five terms, simply because his mother was a Goodwinter.
That was the big name in Pickax. The four Goodwinter brothers had founded the city in 1850.
But the mayor's name was Gregory Blythe. His challenger was Amanda Goodwinter!
Qwilleran said, "I predict she'll win by a landslide."
A bright young woman in an embroidered vest served them baba ghanouj and spanokopetes, and he said, "I wish my mother could see me noweating spinach and eggplant. And liking it!" Then he asked, "What's the latest on Old Campo?"
"How can you be so derisive?" Polly rebuked him. "The jealousy among our male population is ludicrous! A few members of my library board are on his guest list, and they say he's a grand gentleman with polished manners and great charisma!"
"I hear he always has a girl Friday who travels with him and happens to be young, sexy, and related by blood." He said this with an ounce of sarcasm.
Polly replied in all seriousness, "He's training family members to take over the business when he retires.... Or so I'm told," she added. "But the big news is that Carol has asked me to pour at his celebrated Tuesday Tea! Those opals you gave me were ordered by Carol from a Chicago jeweler. That was Delacamp's firm, and so I'm suddenly in the inner circle."
"Just what does he do when he's in town?"
"Well, first he gives an exclusive tea for potential customers. Then families with heirloom jewelry to sell invite him to their homes, and those who wish to buy vintage jewelry from his private collection make appointments to meet him in his hotel suite."
Qwilleran considered the situation briefly and then asked, "If he's so discriminating, how did he react to the old hotel with its broken-down elevators and wretched food?"
"He had the good taste not to criticize or make fun of it.... I don't mind telling you, Qwill: I'm having stage fright about pouring tea for him."
"Nonsense, Polly. You're always in control, and now that you've had your surgery, you're healthier and livelier and more admirable than ever."
The young waitress serving the entrees grinned to see "an older couple" holding hands across the table.
"Don't snicker," Qwilleran told her. "It's an old Mediterranean custom."
For a few moments they contemplated the presentation of food on the platestuffed grape leaves for her, curried lamb for himand the subtlety of the flavors. Then he asked, "What are you wearing to the reception Saturday night?"
"My white dinner dress and the opals. Are you wearing your kilt with your dinner jacket?"
"I think it would be appropriate."
The grand opening of the refurbished hotel would be a black-tie event at three hundred dollars a ticket, proceeds going to Moose County's Literacy Council. There would be champagne, music, and a preview of the renovated facility.
Qwilleran said, "I'm getting a preview of the preview. Fran Brodie is sneaking me in."
"It was a stroke of genius to rename the hotel, considering its grim reputation in the past."
"The new sign is going up Thursday."
Conversation lapsed into trivia:
The theatre club was opening its season with Night Must Fall.
The art center had been unable to replace Beverly Forfar.
Celia Robinson had married Pat O'Dell and had moved into his big house on Pleasant Street, leaving the carriage-house apartment vacant.
When finally they left the restaurant, Qwilleran asked, "Would you like to stop at the barn and see my new calendar?"
"For just a minute. I have to go home and feed the cats."
It was twilight when they drove into the barnyard. A faint, dusky blue light seemed to bathe the world. It was the breathless moment after sunset and before the stars appeared, when all is silent ... waiting.
"Magical," Polly said.
"The French have a word for it: l'heure bleue."
"There's a French perfume by that name. I imagine it's lovely."
Eventually they went indoors to look at the calendar, and eventually Polly went home to feed Brutus and Catta. Qwilleran took the Siamese out to the screened gazebo, and the three of them sat in the dark. The cats liked the nighttime. They heard inaudible sounds and saw invisible movement in the shadows.
Suddenly Koko was alert. He ran to the rear of the gazebo and stared at the barn. In two or three minutes the phone rang indoors. Qwilleran hurried back to the main building and grabbed the receiver after the sixth or seventh ring.
The caller was Celia Robinson O'Dell, who had been his neighbor in the carriage-house apartment. "Hi, Chief!" she said cheerfully, her voice sounding young for a woman of her advancing age. "How's everything at the barn? How are the kitties?"
"Celia! I've been trying to call you and extend felicitations on your marriage, but you're hard to reach."
"We took a little honeymoon trip. We went to see Pat's married daughter in Green Bay. He has three grandchildren."
"How do you like living on Pleasant Street?"
"Oh, it's a wonderful big house with a big kitchen, which I need now that I'm going into the catering business seriously. But I enjoyed living in the carriage house and running over with goodies for you and the kitties. I can still cook a few things for your freezer, you know, and Pat can deliver them when he does your yardwork."
"That'll be much appreciated by all three of us."
"And if there are any little ... secret ... missions that I can handle for you ..."
"Well, we'll see how that works out. Give Pat my congratulations. He's a lucky guy."
As Qwilleran hung up the phone, he stroked his moustache dubiously, fearing that his espionage stratagem was collapsing. He liked to snoop in matters that were none of his businesspropelled by curiosity or suspicionand he had relied on Celia to preserve his anonymity. She was an ideal undercover agent, being a respectable, trustworthy, grandmotherly type. And, as an avid reader of spy fiction, she enjoyed being assigned to covert missions. There had been briefings, cryptic phone calls, hidden tape recorders, and secret meetings in the produce department at Toodle's Market. Now, as a married woman, how long could she retain her cover?
As for Qwilleran, there was nothing official about his investigations. He simply had an interest in crime, stemming from his years as a crime reporter for newspapers Down Belowas locals called the metropolitan areas to the south. In recent years he had uncovered plenty of intrigue in this small community, and in doing so he had won the trust and friendship of the Pickax police chief. It was an association that would continue, with or without his secret agent.