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Following an unseasonable thaw and disastrous flooding, spring came early to Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere. In Pickax City, the county seat, flowerboxes on Main Street were blooming in April, birds were singing in Park Circle, mosquitoes were hatching in the bogs, and strangers were beginning to appear in the campgrounds and on the streets of downtown.
parking lot alongside a small green sedan, and a man wearing a black jersey slipped out of the driver's seat. He glanced furtively to the left and right, and, leaving the motor running, he opened the tailgate. Then he unlocked the trunk of the sedan and quickly transferred something from his vehicle to the other, after which he lost no time in driving away.
might have described him as a Caucasian male, middle-aged, about six feet two, with slightly graying hair and an enormous pepper-and-salt moustache. On the other hand, any resident of Pickax (population 3,000) would have recognized him immediately. He was James Mackintosh Qwilleran, columnist for the Moose County Something and--by a fluke of fate--the richest man in northeast central United States. He had reason to be furtive about the parking-lot caper. In Pickax, everyone knew everyone's business and discussed it freely on the phone, on street corners, and in the coffee shops. Individuals would say:
boyfriend. She's been a widow for a heck of a long time."
birthday present. Wonder what she gave him."
she's at work, and puts the stuff in her car."
could quit her job at the library."
had been an important crime reporter Down Below, as they called the mega-cities south of the Forty-Ninth Parallel. They knew that something sinister had wrecked his career. They would say:
them millions! Talk about luck!"
fella. Friendly. Nothin' highfalutin about Mr. Q!"
barn with two cats."
and he had established the Klingenschoen Foundation to distribute his wealth for the betterment of the community. This generosity, plus his genial personality, had made him a local hero. For his part, he was contented with small-town life and his relationship with the director of the library. Still, his brooding gaze carried a burden of sadness that made the good folk of Moose County ask each other questions.
hand in copy for his column, "Straight from the Qwill Pen." Then he stopped at the used book store and browsed for a while, buying a 1939 copy of Nathanael West's book, The Day of the Locust. At Toodle's Market he asked Grandma Toodle to help him select fruit and vegetables for Polly. These he transferred to her car on the library parking lot, hoping to avoid notice by the ubiquitous busybodies.
he heard sirens and saw flashing lights heading south on Main Street. With a journalist's instinct he followed the emergency vans, at the same time calling the city desk on the car phone.
earlier, and Roger's already on his way there."
into the street leading to the high school. By the time Qwilleran arrived on the scene, the reporter was snapping newsphotos of a gruesome accident in front of the school.
victims covered with blood, broken glass everywhere. One passenger appeared to be trapped inside the worst wreck. Horrified students crowded the school lawn, restrained by a yellow cordon of police tape. Ambulance crews were in action. A drunk driver was hustled to a patrol car. Stretcher bearers rushed one serious case to a medical helicopter that had landed on the school parking lot. Meanwhile, groans and cries rose from the shocked onlookers as they recognized their bloodied classmates. Finally the rescue squad's metal cutters sliced through the car body to reach the trapped victim, who was taken away in a body bag.
system ordered all students to return to the building at once and report to the auditorium.
stroked his moustache in perplexity and beckoned to the reporter, who had started packing his photo gear.
Where'd you get it?"
saying in a confidential tone, "Mock accident. To discourage underage drinking. Tomorrow night's the Spring Fling."
leave the building immediately because of contamination in the ventilating system. I got a little queasy myself when I saw all the blood ... and I knew it was fake!"
Roger, it would have fooled me if your deskman hadn't said the paper was tipped off earlier. What did he mean by that?"
whole thing was a fantastic job of planning and secrecy."
a kids' art show. I can be late." Roger headed for his van. "Meet you there."
eatery that had been feeding downtown workers and shoppers for thirty years. Lois Inchpot--the loud, bossy, hard-working proprietor--served large portions of moderately priced comfort food to loyal customers who considered her a civic treasure. The restaurant was empty when the two newsmen arrived.
pass-through. "The lunch specials are off! And we're low on soup!"
apple pie left."
stark black against his unusually white complexion. A former history teacher, he had switched to journalism when the Moose County Something was launched. He was married to the daughter of the second wife of the publisher. Nepotism in Moose County was not only ethically acceptable but enthusiastically practiced.
melodrama at the school?" More than anything else he disliked being uninformed and taken by surprise. "Who dreamed it up, anyway?"
they were able to keep it under wraps in spite of all the different organizations and personnel involved."
congenital gossips," Qwilleran added. "All of Pickax knows I've started doing Polly's grocery shopping, even though I slink around like a footpad."
unpolluted paradise," the younger man said. "What did you think of the kids who did the playacting? They're all students who've been affected in some way by drunk drivers. What did you think of their bloody makeup? It was done by paramedics from EMS."
enjoyed it, but will their efforts accomplish anything?"
drink at school parties."
mugs of coffee in the other, and forks and spoons in her apron pocket. "If you guys spill anythin', clean it up!" she ordered with swaggering authority. "I just finished settin' up for supper, and my help don't come on till four-thirty."
Roger he put the usual question: "Anything new at the paper?"
made a sensational story, but--"
was the usual go-round. I know you newsguys from Down Below are hipped on the public's right to know, but we have different ideas up here. If we reported the vandalism in any depth, we'd be (a) boosting the perpetrator's ego, and (b) encouraging copycats, and (c) starting a witch-hunt."
Roger's pale face. He was a native of Moose County, and junior Goodwinter, the young managing editor, was a fourth-generation native. Arch Riker, the publisher, was a transplant from Down Below, reluctant to abandon his journalistic integrity. Qwilleran had lived in the north country long enough to appreciate both sides of the argument.
to be another Salem. Last night somebody spray-painted the front of an old farmhouse with the word witch in big yellow letters, two feet high. An old woman lives there alone. She's in her nineties and kind of odd, but this neck of the woods is full of oddballs."
moustache with his knuckles. "Which farmhouse?"
dowser, by any chance?"
dowsing, you know, sometimes called water-witching. It's controversial Down Below. How do you feel about it?"
without hiring a dowser to pick the spot," Roger said. "It sounds crazy--using a forked stick to locate undergound water--but they say it works, so I don't knock it. Qwill, how do you keep coming up with ideas for the `Qwill Pen'? I would've run dry a long time ago."
taught me how to write a thousand words about anything--or nothing. Talk about witches! That woman bewitched us with her big, round, watery eyes! Behind her back we called her Mrs. Fish-eye, but she knew her craft, and she knew how to teach! Every time I sit down at the typewriter to pound out another column, I mutter a thank-you to Mrs. Fish-eye."
history classes," said the ex-teacher.
never told Mrs. Fish-eye how I appreciated her, and now it's too late. I don't even remember her real name, and I doubt whether she's still alive. She was old when I was in tenth grade."
bike I see you riding on Sandpit Road?"
advertised in a bike magazine."
I believe Thanet was influenced by aircraft design."
Qwilleran never said no to coffee. "Made a fresh pot just for you," she said as she poured. "Don't know why."
undeserving wretch, and you're a good soul with a kind heart and a sweet disposition."
never remember the names and ages of his friends' offspring, or even how many there were and which sex.
soccer. I'm coaching the team, believe it or not--the Pickax Pygmies ... How are your cats?" Roger was mortally afraid of cats, and it was an act of courage even to inquire about their health.
after spending the winter in a condo; it cramped their royal style. I've just built a gazebo behind the barn so they can enjoy the fresh air and commune with the wildlife."
Roger looked at him hopefully. "I'm the only reporter working weekends this month, and there's a breaking story Saturday afternoon, but ... that's when I'm duty-bound to drive a vanload of kids to the big game with the Lockmaster Lilliputians. I need someone to cover for me."
wary of substituting. "What's the barn connection?"
the metal storage barn at the Goodwinter Farmhouse Museum. It's a dedication. An open house for the general public."
Moose County as a city-bred greenhorn from Down Below. Roger had been the first native to cross his path. Patiently and without ridicule, Roger had explained that the threatening footsteps thudding across the roof after dark were those of a raccoon and not a burglar. The hair-raising screams in the middle of the night were not those of a woman being abducted but a wild rabbit being seized by an owl. "Well, I suppose I could handle it," he said to the anxious young reporter. "Spot news for Monday, I suppose."
page ... Gee, thanks, Qwill! I really appreciate it!" Roger looked at his watch. "I've gotta jump on my horse."
magnanimity; at the cash register it was possible to scrounge some turkey or pot roast for the Siamese.
banged the keys on the old-fashioned machine. "Tomorrow's special--fish 'n' chips."
Koko and Yum Yum turned up their well-bred noses at anything less than top-grade red sockeye salmon.
Returning home, Qwilleran drove around the Park Circle, where Main Street divided into one-way northbound and southbound lanes. On the perimeter of the traffic circle were two venerable churches, the stately courthouse, and a public library that resembled a Greek temple. Yet the most imposing structure was a fieldstone cube that sparkled in the sunlight. Originally the Klingenschoen mansion, it was now a small theater for plays and concerts, its gardens paved for parking. The four-stall carriage house was still there, and the apartment above was occupied by a woman who took special orders for meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and other freezables for a bachelor's larder.
through an ornamental iron gateway into an ancient grove of evergreens so dense that all was dark and silent even in midday. Suddenly the drive opened into a clearing where a huge structure, more than a hundred years old, loomed like an enchanted castle. This was Qwilleran's barn, octagonal and four stories high.
walls so thick that small windows cut in the stone looked like crossbow ports in a medieval fort. Above the foundation the walls were shingled with weathered wood, and the octagonal roof was centered with a cupola. New windows cut in the walls had odd shapes dictated by the massive interior timbers bracing the structure.
drive-through barn, with doors large enough for a farm wagon and a team of horses. Now the two large openings were filled with glass panels and doors of human scale. A formal double door faced east, leading from the foyer; a single door on the west connected the barnyard with the kitchen.
an architect from Down Below, it featured a continuous ramp that spiraled up to the roof, connecting balconies on three levels. In the central open space, which soared a good forty feet, stood a huge white fireplace cube with white cylindrical stacks rising to the roof. The cube divided the main floor into lounge area, library, dining room, and foyer.
what the barn proved to be. The cube, a good eight feet high, was a safe perch just beyond human reach. The ramp was made-to-order for a fifty-yard dash; before each meal, eight thundering paws spiraled to the top and down again. Odd-shaped windows admitted triangles and rhomboids of sunlight that tantalized the cats by moving throughout the day.
checked the antique sea chest that stood at the back door and served for package deliveries. It was empty. He stood with his hand on the doorknob as he had a moment's qualms about his housemates. Were they all right? Had they wrecked the interior in a fit of catly exuberance? Would they meet him with a yowling welcome and waving tails?
with no visible signs of life.
concern--before starting a search. Circling the main floor counterclockwise, he stopped short when he reached the foyer. "You rascals!" he said with relief and rebuke. "You gave me a scare!"
gazing out the low-silled windows that flanked the front door. They were watching a congregation of seven black crows just outside the glass. They had never seen such birds at such close range. Briefly, they turned glassy eyes toward the person who had called their names, but they were still under the spell of these creatures who strutted in unison like a drill team--all seven to the north, then right-about-face and all seven to the south.
him to the kitchen, walking stiffly on long slender brown legs. When they reached the sunlight streaming through the west windows, their fawn fur glistened with iridescence, and their dark brown masks framed brilliant blue eyes.
forward, and whiplike brown tails waved in approval. Turkey! It was diced and served on separate plates.
logo of the Pickax Public Library and announced, "All aboard!" He lowered it to the floor and spread the handles. Koko was the first to jump in, settling down in the bottom and making himself as compact as possible. Yum Yum followed, landing on top of him. After some good-natured shifting and squirming, they settled in, and other items were tucked in around them. It was the easiest, quickest, safest way to transport two indoor cats, some reading matter, and a coffee thermos to the gazebo. It was only a few yards from the barn--a free-standing octagonal structure, screened on all eight sides.
to the scrubby barnyard.
him, questioning the proposal.
young man assured him. "The cats will flip their whiskers! What they like best is the movement of the birds--the flitting, swooping, hopping, and tail-twitching."
in selected trees and shrubs, some tall grasses, three bird-feeders, and two bird baths, one on a pedestal and the other at ground level. The birds came. The Siamese were ecstatic.
Duncan when they talked on the phone in the early evening. She thanked him for the groceries and complimented him on his choice of produce.
zucchini from a cucumber."
concerned about his casual eating habits.
stern. "Did you take your twenty-minute walk today, Polly?"
tonight, and I'll go early and use the treadmill in the gym."
he found both soothing and stimulating. He liked to keep her talking. "Any excitement at the library today?" he asked. "Any anti-computer demonstrations? Any riots?"
automated, thanks to a Klingenschoen grant, but many subscribers disliked the electronic catalogue. They preferred to make inquiries at the desk and be escorted to the card catalogue by a friendly clerk, who probably attended their church and might even be engaged to marry the son of someone they knew. That was Pickax style. The barcode scanner and the mouse were alien and suspect.
some hands-on workshops for subscribers, especially the older ones."
you can move it back upstairs. Someday the pencil-pushers will rise up and overthrow the computerheads, and sanity will return."
What did you do today when you weren't pushing a pencil?" She knew he drafted his twice-weekly column in longhand, while sitting in a lounge chair with his feet propped on an ottoman.
condition. If you're in the mood for scathing comedy, we might read a portion aloud this weekend. Where would you like to have dinner Saturday night?"
Changing her tone, she said, "I heard something bizarre today. You know the old Coggin farmhouse on Trevelyan Road? Someone painted the front of it with the word witch."
paper. How did you find out?" he asked, as if he didn't know. The library was--and always had been--the central intelligence agency of the community.
they were called in to obliterate the graffiti. The sheriff spotted it on his early morning patrol and alerted them. The paint was gone, I believe, before Mrs. Coggin knew it was there."
band of volunteers recruited through all the churches. Some had technical skills; others were simply young people with energy and strong backs. When household emergencies confronted the poor, the aged, or the infirm, this crisis squad was geared to respond on the double.
many signs of life around there, except for chickens and dogs."
suppose she's considered eccentric, but the nature of the vandalism was scurrilous!"
slowly, a gesture meaning his suspicions were being alerted. There might be more to the accusatory epithet than met the eye. His career in journalism had taught him one thing: there's always a story behind the story.
clubhouse, although I find walking on that treadmill a colossal bore."
else had ever been concerned about his diet; for that matter, had he ever been concerned about anyone's cardiovascular system?
fireplace cube and filled with pre-owned volumes from Eddington Smith's dusty bookshop. The sight of their mellow spines, like the sound of Polly's mellow voice, always pleased him. He agreed with Francis Bacon: Old friends to trust, old wood to burn, old authors to read.
nestle in snug spaces between Biography and Drama or between History and Fiction. Occasionally he raised his nose to sniff the fish glue used in old bindings. Sometimes he pushed a book off the shelf. It would land on the floor with a thlunk, and he would peer over the edge of the shelf to view his accomplishment. That was Qwilleran's cue to pick it up and read a few pages aloud, savoring familiar words and thoughts, while the Siamese enjoyed hearing a familiar voice. He had a full, rich voice for reading aloud.
significance, or so it seemed; it could be coincidence. Yet ... several hours before the vandals branded the old woman a witch, Koko had shoved The Crucible, an Arthur Miller play, off the shelf. Why would he choose that particular moment to draw attention to a work about the Salem witchcraft trials? Koko never did anything without a motive, and the incident gave Qwilleran an urge to visit Mrs. Coggin.