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It was late October, and Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere, was in danger of being wiped off the map. In the grip of a record-breaking drought, towns and farms and forests could be reduced to ashes overnight—given a single spark and a high wind. Volunteer firefighters were on round-the-clock alert, and the congregations of fourteen churches prayed for snow. Not rain. Snow! Winter always began with a three-day blizzard, called the Big One, that buried everything under snow drifting to ten feet. So the good folk of Moose County waxed their snow shovels, bought antifreeze and earmuffs, stockpiled bottled water and flashlight batteries—and prayed.
Late one evening, in a condominium northeast of Pickax City, the county seat, a cat sat on a windowsill, stretching his neck, raising his nose, and sniffing. The man watching him thought, He smells a skunk. They had recently moved to the wooded area with its new sights, new sounds, new smells.
He went outdoors to investigate and found no sign of a skunk. It was a calm, quiet night—until the whoop of a police siren shattered the silence, followed by the honk-honk of a fire truck speeding south on a distant highway. The noise stopped abruptly as the emergencyvehicles reached their destination. Reassured that another wildfire was under control, he went back indoors.
The cat was lapping water from his bowl. It was remarkable that he had smelled smoke three miles away, on a night without a breeze, and with the window closed. But Kao K'o Kung, was a remarkable cat! They had moved to a condominium in Indian Village for the winter: two Siamese and their personal valet, Jim Qwilleran. He also wrote a twice-weekly column for the local paper, the Moose County Something. Now middle-aged, he had been a prizewinning crime reporter for metropolitan newspapers Down Below, as the rest of the United States was known to Moose County. Odd circumstances had brought him to the north country with his two housemates, both adopted after crises in their nine lives.
Kao K'o Kung, familiarly known as Koko, was a sleek, stalwart male with amazing intelligence and intuition. Yum Yum was smaller, softer, and sweeter. Both had the pale fawn fur with seal brown "points" typical of the breed, and their brown masks were accented with shockingly blue eyes. While the female was adored for her dainty walk and kittenish ways, the male was admired for his masterful whiskers—sixty instead of the usual forty-eight.
By coincidence, Qwilleran was noted for his luxuriant pepper-and-salt moustache. It appeared at the head of his "Qwill Pen" column every Tuesday and Friday and was recognized everywhere he went, A well-built six-foot-two, he was seen walking around town, riding a bicycle, dining in restaurants, and covering his beat. But he had claims to fame other than the unorthodox spelling of his name and the magnificence of his moustache. Fate had made him the heir to the vast Klingenschoen fortune, and he was the richest man in the northeast central United States. Turning his wealth over to a foundation for philanthropic purposes helped to endear him to the citizens of Moose County.
After the smoke-sniffing episode, Qwilleran gave the Siamese their bedtime treat and conducted them to their comfortable room on the balcony, turning on their TV without the sound, to lull them to sleep. Then he sprawled in a large chair and read news magazines until it was time for the midnight news on WPKX: "A brushfire on Chipmunk Road near the Big B minesite has been extinguished by volunteer firefighters from Kennebeck. When they arrived on the scene, the flames were creeping toward the shafthouse, one of ten in the county recently designated as historic places. 'Motorists driving on country roads are once more reminded not to toss cigarettes out the car window,' said a spokesman for the sheriff's department. 'Roadside weeds and forest underbrush are dry as tinder.' This is the third such fire in a week."
Qwilleran tamped his moustache, as he often did when harboring suspicions; strangely it seemed to be the source of his hunches. He thought, Arson for purposes of vandalism is on the increase nationwide. In Moose County any black-hearted arsonist who wanted to infuriate the populace could torch a shaft house. Yet, locals were reluctant to admit that "it can happen here." Nevertheless, he had been glad to desert the centers of overpopulation, crime, traffic jams and pollution—and accept the quirks of small-town living. He himself was not inclined to gossip, but he was willing to listen to the neighborly exchange of information that flourished in coffee shops, on street corners and through the Pickax grapevine.
At Toodle's Market the next day, where he bought groceries, the three brush fires were the chief topic of conversation. Everyone had a theory. No one believed the sheriff. It was a cover-up. The authorities were trying to avert panic. The groceries were for Polly Duncan, director of the public library. Qwilleran had an arrangement with her. He shopped for her groceries while she slaved in the workplace. Then she invited him to dinner. It was more than a practical proposition; Polly was the chief woman in his life—charming, intelligent, and his own age.
The dinner-deal was especially convenient in the winter, when he closed his summer place—a converted apple barn—and moved his household to Indian Village. There he owned a condo, a few doors from Polly's. He liked a periodic change of address; it satisfied the wanderlust that had made him a successful journalist Down Below.
Indian Village was an upscale residential development in Suffix Township (which had been annexed by Pickax City after years of wrangling). It extended along the west bank of the Ittibittiwassee River. Rustic cedar-sided buildings were scattered among the trees: condominiums in cluters of four, multiplex apartments, a clubhouse, and a gatehouse. Qwilleran had Unit Four in the cluster called The Willows. Unit Three was occupied by the WPKX meteorologist, Wetherby Goode (real name, Joe Bunker). There was a new neighbor in Unit Two; Kirt Nightingale was a rare book dealer from Boston, returning to his hometown in middle age. ("What do you suppose is his real name?" the village wags whispered.) Polly Duncan, in Unit One, was impressed by his erudition and said, "If we can accept Qwilleran with a QW and a weatherman named Wetherby Goode, we shouldn't flinch at a Nightingale. And he's going to be a nice quiet neighbor."
That was important. The walls of the contiguous units were thin, and there were other construction details that were flawed. But it was a good address with a wonderful location and many amenities for residents.
Arriving at Unit One with bags of groceries, Qwilleran let himself in with his own key (Polly was at the library), greeted her two cats, and refrigerated perishable purchases. All the units had the same layout: a foyer, a two-story living room with wall of glass overlooking the river, two bedrooms on the balcony, and a kitchen and dining alcove beneath. A garage with space for one vehicle was under the house.
There the similarity ended. Polly's unit was furnished—even overfurnished—with antiques inherited from her in-laws. Qwilleran preferred the stark simplicity of contemporary design, with two or three antique objects for decorative accent. When friends asked, "Why don't you and Polly get married?" he would reply, "Our cats are incompatible." The truth was that he would find it suffocating to live with the appurtenances of the nineteenth century. Polly felt the same way about "modern." They stayed single.
Before leaving, Qwilleran said a few friendly words to Brutus, muscular well-fed Siamese, and looked about for Catta, who was younger and smaller. A flicker of movement overhead revealed her perched on a drapery rod. She had the Siamese taste for heights.
"Are you guys all set for the Big One?" he asked. "It won't be long before snow flies!"
There was no answer, but he could read their minds. They sensed that he had cats of his own. They knew he had been there before, even feeding them when she was away. But was he to be trusted? What was that large brush on his face?
When Qwilleran returned for dinner at six-thirty, Brutus rubbed against his ankles; Catta squealed and hopped about. They knew he had a treat in his pocket.
Polly's harried voice came from the kitchen. "Qwill, I'm running a little late. Would you be good enough to feed the cats? Open a can of the Special Diet for him and the salmon in cream gravy for her.... And you might put a CD on the stereo. Not Mozart."
"What's for dinner?"
"Minestrone and lasagne."
"How about mandolin music?"
Polly had put a butterfly table and two ladderback chairs in one of the large windows, setting it with Regency silver and Wedgwood.
After adding a plentiful garnish of Parmesan to the soup, Qwilleran asked, "What's the latest news in the stacks?" He knew that the library was the unofficial hub of the Pickax grapevine.
"Everyone's concerned about the brush fires," she said. "The Big B mine was owned by Maggie Sprenkle's great-grandmother, you know, and if anything happened to the shafthouse, she'd have a heart attack!"
Qwilleran smoothed his moustache. "Has there ever been a threat to a shafthouse in the past?"
"Not that I know, and I've lived here since college."
"It's ironic that last night's incident should coincide with the dedication of the plaques." Ten bronze plaques, donated anonymously, had been installed at the historic minesites.
"That's exactly what Maggie said. She was the donor, you know, although she doesn't want it known. You won't mention it, will you?"
"Of course not." He had already heard the rumor from three other sources.
When the lasagne was served, conversation turned to the art center's new manager—Barb Ogilvie, the art-knitter.
"A very good choice," Polly said. "She's well-organized and has a pleasant personality. She's going to teach a class, and she'll be able to do her own knitting on the job, which will make up for the modest salary they pay. At the craft fair I bought several pairs of her goofy socks for Christmas gifts."
"Not for me, I hope," Qwilleran said. "By the way, my compliments on the lasagne. It's one of the best I've ever tasted."
"Thank you. It's from the deli," she said smugly, countering his brash remark about the socks. "Beverly Forfar was never right for the manager's job, although I liked her as a person. I wonder where she is now."
"She found work in a large university town, I happen to know," Qwilleran said. "She won't have to worry about chickens crossing the road, or tractors dumping mud on the pavement."
"She had a strange haircut, didn't she?"
"Yes, but good legs."
"Help yourself to the sauce, Qwill. Mildred made it. The recipe came from the chef at the Mackintosh Inn."
"The local Clan of Mackintosh presented the inn with an antique Scottish curling stone—did you know? It's in a glass case in the lobby," he said. "Is Nightingale still staying at the inn?"
"No, the moving van finally arrived from Boston, with his furniture and books. How could it have taken them so long?"
"They got lost," Qwilleran guessed. "They couldn't find Pickax on the map. They had a triple load and delivered here by way of Miami and St. Louis."
They had met Kirt Nightingale at a welcoming party in the Village and were impressed by his expertise, although they found him ordinary in appearance and without much personality. He intended to publish his own catalogue and do mail-order business from his condo.
Qwilleran, a collector of old books, had asked a question about Dickens, and the dealer said, "If you're interested, I can get you three volumes of Sketches by Boz for thirty thousand. Two were printed in 1836 and the third a year later."
Qwilleran nodded seriously. He never paid more than three or five dollars for a preowned classic at the used book store in Pickax.
When he and Polly recalled the incident over dinner at the butterfly table, she said, "Don't you think it gives us a certain éclat to have a rare book dealer in our midst?"
"How much éclat do you want?" he asked. "We already have you and me and the WPKX meteorologist and the publisher of the newspaper and a city councilmember—and the Indian Village developer himself!" The last name was added with sarcasm; Don Exbridge was not highly admired by the residents. They blamed him for the thin walls, leaking roofs, rattling windows, and bouncing floors. But it was, they told themselves, a good address.
After the dessert—fresh pears and gorgonzola—Qwilleran built a fire in the fireplace, and they had their beverages in front of the comforting blaze: tea for her, coffee for him. He knew her so well but not well enough to ask, "What kind of coffee do you use? How long has it been in the house? How do you store it? What brewing method do you use?"
She asked, "How's the coffee, dear?" She knew he was a connoisseur.
"Not bad," he replied, meaning it was drinkable.
"I'm glad you like it. It's only instant decaf."
Later, when he was leaving, he noticed a carved wooden box on the foyer table. It was long compared to its other dimensions, and the hinged lid was carved with vines and leaves surrounding the words LOVE BOX.
"Where did you get the box?" asked.
"Oh, that!" she said with a shrug. "On the day the moving van came, I thought it would be neighborly to invite Kirt in for a simple supper, and the box was a thank-you, I suppose."
She had shortened the man's splendiferous name to a single syllable. "What is its purpose?" he asked crisply.
"It's for gloves. The first letter is half-hidden by the leaves. It had belonged to his mother, and he wanted me to have it. It seemed like a rather touching gesture."
"Hmff," he muttered.
"Actually I don't care for the light oak and stylized carving. It seems rather mannish, and I have a lovely needlepoint glove box that my sister made.... I wish you'd take it, Qwill."
"How old is it?"
"Early twentieth century, I'd guess ... But whatever you do, don't let Kirt know I gave it away! We'll put it in a large plastic bag, in case he's looking out the window when you carry it home."
The glove box looked good on the sleek modern chest of drawers in Qwilleran's foyer—old enough to be interesting but not old enough to look fussy. He immediately filled it with his winter gloves: wool knit, leather, fur-lined. It stood alongside a handmade lamp from the craft exhibit—a tall square column of hammered copper. The Siamese sensed something new and came to investigate. Koko's nose traced the letters on the lid from right to left. "He reads backwards," Qwilleran always said.
Then—abruptly—the cat's attention was distracted. He jumped down from the chest and went to a southeast window, where he stretched his neck, raised his head, and sniffed, while his tail switched nervously.
Without waiting to hear the scream of the police sirens and urgent bleat of the fire truck, Qwilleran ran out to his van just as his neighbor, the weatherman, was returning from his late-evening report.
Qwilleran rolled down the car window. "Joe! Quick! Get in!"
Wetherby Goode was a husky, happy-go-lucky fellow, always ready for an adventure—no questions asked. Settled in the passenger seat, he asked casually, "Where to?"
"I think there's another fire—to the southeast. Open the window and see if you smell smoke."
"Not a whiff ... but southeast would be across the river. Turn right at the gate and right again at the bridge."
That took them to the intersection of Sprenkle and Quarry roads. They stopped and looked in three directions and sniffed hard. There was no traffic on these back roads at this hour.
"Go east another mile to Old Glory Road," Wetherby said.
"There's a mine down there," Qwilleran said. "Has it occurred to anyone that these fires are at minesites?"
"Well, the theory is that these abandoned mines are bordered by secluded dirt roads that kids use as lovers' lanes. The chances are that they smoke and throw cigarettes out the window.... You don't hear of any fires starting in daylight."
Approaching the Old Glory Mine, they could see the taillights of a car receding in the distance.
"See what I mean? I see a red glow just ahead!"
Qwilleran stopped the van and used his cell phone to report a brush fire at Old Glory mine. They waited until they heard the emergency vehicles on the way, then drove back to the Village.
"It was my cat who smelled smoke," Qwilleran said. "Koko sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and smells the unsmellable."
"Jet Stream never smells anything unless it's food," Wetherby said.
Have you met the new guy in Unit Two?"
"I introduced myself out on the sidewalk one day, and we had a few words. I asked what had happened to the Jaguar he drove when he came here. He said it was too conspicuous among all the vans and pickups, so he disposed of it in Lockmaster and bought a station wagon, four-wheel-drive."
"Has he discovered our dirty little secret?" Qwilleran asked. "If the roof leaks on his thirty-thousand-dollar books, XYZ Enterprises will get sued for plenty."
"The roofs have been fixed!" Wetherby said. "Just in time for the worst drought in twenty years—wouldn't you know? But you were at the beach this summer when they reroofed the whole Village!"
"How come? Did Don Exbridge have a near-death experience?"
"You missed the fun, Qwill. A few of us got together and vandalized the XYZ billboard at the city limits—the one that says, 'We stand behind our product.' A prime example of corporate hogwash! Well, we went out after dark and pasted a twelve-foot patch over it, saying. 'We stand under our roofs with a bucket.' We tipped off the newspaper, of course. The sheriff's night patrol stopped, and the deputy had a good laugh. It didn't hurt that one of the vandals was a city council member. The roofers were on the job the next day!"
Qwilleran said, "That story's good enough for a drink, Joe. Do you have time?"
"Next time, Qwill. I have to get up early tomorrow and drive to Horseradish for a family picnic—last get-together before snow flies. I hear you're driving a limousine in the Shafthouse Motorcade."
"Yes, and I may live to regret it."
Excerpted from Cat Who Smelled a Rat by Lilian Jackson Braun Copyright ©2002 by Lilian Jackson Braun. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 26, 2013
Posted July 10, 2002
Posted June 29, 2002
Although I always enjoy 'The Cat Who...' mysteries, I have found the last few books to be different from the books in the beginning of the series. It seems as though the writer doesn't really know Qwill or the supporting cast that well. The characters don't seem real, they seem as if someone read character descriptions and made up scenes that fit these descriptions. The author doesn't get into the 'guts' of the characters; you can see their surfaces but not who they really are. The mystery itself was good, but I wish Ms. Braun would try to make the characters more three-dimensional, the way they used to be.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 16, 2001
Yet another conquest for LJB, The Cat Who Smelled a Rat provided all the necessary thrills, chills, and side-splitting quips that readers have come to expect from this master of mystery. Perhaps the best yet! READ THIS BOOK!! (If you already have, then RE-READ IT!!)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 17, 2001
Posted February 4, 2001
Posted February 1, 2001
Comic strip characters aside, Lillian Jackson Braun¿s cats are probably the most famous felines in literature! A long-time series which features cats Koko and Yum Yum, ¿The Cat Who¿ has been a ¿purr-fect¿ time out for mystery readers--Braun¿s series, while stretching the imagination a bit--still is quite a readable one. Her latest, ¿The Cat Who Smelled a Rat¿ is in keeping with the rest of the series--a fun read, for the most part. In this one, the cats and their ¿master¿ Jim Qwilleran (without a ¿u¿) are investigating what looks like arson. As the plot heats up, we continue to marvel at the prolific ability of this investigative trilogy! Fans of this series will not be disappointed; if you haven¿t read any of Braun¿s books, too, you may wish to back up and start at the beginning, although, really, that isn¿t necessary to get a kick out of an interesting, imaginative, and original series concept. It¿s the cat¿s meow!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2013
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Posted November 11, 2008
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Posted December 22, 2010
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Posted November 12, 2012
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