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The Cat Who Talked Turkey
By Lilian Jackson Braun
Large Print PressCopyright © 2005 Lilian Jackson Braun
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOne of Qwilleran's "Qwill Pen" columns recently made this statement: "A town without a bookstore is like a chicken with one leg." His devoted readers agreed-even those who had never bought a book in their life. And the Klingenschoen Foundation in Chicago, which managed Qwilleran's inheritance, considered a new bookstore a worthwhile investment.
For fifty years the late Eddington Smith had sold pre-owned books in a picturesque building behind the post office. Two days after his death it burned to the ground, and millions of printed pages were reduced to ashes. This would be the ideal site for a new bookstore. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a bright new adventure for readers. It would be built on the historic site where Eddington's grandfather had once shod horses and forged rims for wagon wheels. Perhaps that was not the blacksmith's only means of supporting his family. There had long been rumors....
All that aside, the site of the nineteenth-century smithy was to be the scene of a ceremonial groundbreaking. The good folk of Moose County liked special events: parades, barn raisings, livestock fairs, long funeral processions, and the like. They had never witnessed a formal groundbreaking. There would be a viewing stand for dignitaries,stirring music by the high school band, and a backhoe garlanded with flowers, to do the digging. It was suggested that the mayor should climb into the operator's seat and strike the first blow. Her Honor, Amanda Goodwinter, screamed, "Are you crazy? You couldn't get me on that blasted contraption with those silly flowers if you paid me!"
On Saturday vehicles streamed into Pickax from all directions. Newspapers in three counties were sending reporters and photographers. State police were called in to assist sheriff's deputies and Pickax police in handling the traffic. There had never been such a celebration in the history of Pickax!
Qwilleran was there, and he described it in his personal journal:
Saturday, May 31-Eddington Smith would turn over in his grave! He was such a modest, honorable gentleman, and he would not want his grandmother's deathbed confession known. But there are no secrets in Moose County, and it seemed to be generally known that Eddington's grandfather was not only a blacksmith but a weekend pirate. He tied a red bandanna on his head and sailed under the black flag, preying on ships that brought gold coins to the New World for the purchase of the beaver pelts that were so much in demand in Europe. The rumor was that the loot was buried in a certain spot, now covered with asphalt.
So, instead of a few hundred spectators, there were a few thousand. County highways as well as city streets were clogged with sensation-seekers. Whole families attended-with picnic lunches and campstools. Would the pirate's loot be found? Or was it just a rumor? Bets were being placed among friends-nothing over a quarter. The idea was to have something "on the nose" to report to future generations.
Then sirens were heard! The state police were escorting TV teams who had unexpectedly flown up from Down Below in chartered planes. The media in metropolitan areas were always alert for bizarre happenings in the boondocks. And in the digital age, buried treasure was bizarre.
The high school band arrived in a school bus and proceeded to tune up noisily and discordantly for the next half hour, exciting the crowd.
The police strung their yellow tape around the digging area. The dignitaries entered the viewing stand. The backhoe operator was perched in the vehicle's lofty seat. Cops and deputies with sidearms entered the area and stood facing the crowd.
The band played "Stars and Stripes Forever," hitting most of the right notes, and the backhoe jockeyed into position. The boom rose, and the bucket dropped with a resounding crack. Onlookers seemed to be holding their collective breath as the machine backed and lunged, bashed and scraped and shoveled. Finally a shout rose from the crowd. The bucket brought up an iron-strapped chest.
Chief Andrew Brodie stepped forward and opened it. He spread his hands palms-down in a negative gesture. The chest was empty!
Groans of disappointment quickly turned into roars of laughter. The good folk of Moose County liked a good laugh, even at their own expense, and this was a good joke. The only ones who weren't laughing and crowing and whooping were the out-of-town media, and this tickled the locals even more; they liked to hoax outsiders.
Even old-timers in Pickax could not remember a year with so much excitement. The old opera house had been restored for the performing arts! Plans were under way for the city's Sesquicentennial celebration! The local soccer team had taken the championship away from Bixby County. And the K Fund was building a bookstore.
It was not just a rumor. The ground had already been broken. Polly Duncan, who had directed the public library for twenty years, was resigning in order to manage the new venture. She had gone to Chicago twice to consult the brain trust at the K Fund, as the philanthropic foundation was known.
There was also an incident of an unfortunate nature, but it was being hushed up. The body of a well-dressed man without identification had been found in a wooded area near the beach. He had been shot, execution-style. It happened on the day of the groundbreaking, and rumormongers were determined to find some connection but failed.
Qwilleran walked home from the groundbreaking. His barn was only a few blocks from downtown, but it was screened by a dense patch of woods. Though only a home address to a pair of pampered felines, it was an architectural wonder to residents of Moose County. An octagonal structure a century old, it rose from the barnyard like an ancient castle, four stories high and built of fieldstone and weathered wood siding.
Originally it had stored wagonloads of apples waiting to be pressed into cider. Now the lofts and ladders were gone, and so was the interior gloom. Odd-shaped windows had been cut into the siding at various levels, and all exposed wood surfaces-beams, rafters, and plank walls-had been bleached to a honey color.
There was living space on three balconies, connected by a ramp that spiraled up the interior wall. And in the center of the ground floor, a giant white fireplace cube served the living areas, with stacks rising to the roof forty feet overhead.
To the cats Qwilleran would say, "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." In reply Koko would yowl and Yum Yum would sneeze delicately.
Now, as he arrived home from the groundbreaking, he looked for the welcoming committee sitting in the kitchen window. They were not there.
After unlocking the door, he found Yum Yum huddled on the blue cushion atop the refrigerator, looking worried. Koko paced the floor, looking uncomfortable.
"Something you ate?" Qwilleran asked in a jocular way.
Suddenly the cat uttered a bloodcurdling howl that started as a growl in his lower depths and ended in a shriek.
Qwilleran shuddered. He recognized Koko's "death howl"! Someone, somehow, somewhere was the victim of foul play.
There was no explanation, except that some cats, like some humans, seem to have psychic powers.
Koko and Yum Yum were a pair of purebred Siamese with pale fawn-colored bodies accented with seal-brown points. The male had a commanding appearance; the female was daintier and sweeter, although with a mind of her own. Both had the incredibly blue eyes of the breed.
Koko was the communicator of the family. He ordered meals, greeted guests, told them when to go home, and always, always spoke his mind, either in ear-piercing howls or an indecipherable ik-ik-ik.
They knew it was dinnertime and were throwing thought waves in Qwilleran's direction, sitting under the kitchen table and staring at their empty plates. He chopped turkey from the deli and watched them. Only once did Koko raise his head, and that was to stare at the wall telephone. A few seconds later, it rang. Polly Duncan, the chief woman in Qwilleran's life, was calling from Chicago, where she had been in conference with bigwigs at the Klingenschoen Foundation. She would be flying home the next morning. Qwilleran said he would pick her up at the airport and asked if she was bringing him something from the big city.
"Yes, and you'll love it!"
"What is it? Give me a clue."
"No clues. @ bienttt."
Later that evening, when Qwilleran was reading a thought-provoking treatise from the Wilson Quarterly, Koko jumped onto a bookshelf and yowled; he wanted Qwilleran to read aloud. They enjoyed the sound of his voice, and Yum Yum liked to snuggle up to his rib cage and feel the vibrations. Koko went so far as to select the title, and Qwilleran read the one about the owl and the pussycat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, embellishing the lines with hoots, purrs, and meows. He thought, How can an animal who cannot read or understand the language ... how can he choose one book over some other? It was something to ponder.
Polly's plane was due to arrive at noon on Sunday. In Moose County all shuttle flights from Chicago-or anywhere else-were consistently an hour late, and friends and relatives who met the passengers were consistently on time. They liked to stand around and make ludicrous comments about the service. They said: "The tail fin was loose, and they'd run out of Scotch tape." "The pilot had to have her hair done." "They forgot to gas up and had to stop in Milwaukee...."
The banter was an old Moose County custom, handed down from pioneer days, when a sense of humor helped the settlers cope with discomforts, hardships, and even disasters.
When the brave little plane finally bounced up to the terminal, Polly was the last one to disembark, descending the ramp warily, as if she believed the myth that it was built of recycled bicycle parts.
Qwilleran stepped forward, took her carry-on, and said he would collect her other luggage-if they could find the can opener to open the baggage compartment. They were discreet in their personal greetings; gossips were always watching for a sign of romance between the librarian and the newsman.
"Bearable," she replied. "How was the groundbreaking?"
"Predictable. The chest was empty."
"It should go on permanent display in a glass case in the bookstore."
"Would you like to stop for brunch at Tipsy's?"
"I think not, dear," Polly said. "There has been much wining and dining, in addition to intensive work sessions. I just want to go home, hug my cats, have some cottage cheese and fruit, and get myself together for work tomorrow.... It's so peaceful here!"
They were driving to Indian Village, past sheep ranches, potato farms, and abandoned mine shafts. After a brief silence she added, "Benson is coming here this week."
"The architect of the bookstore. He wants to confer with the builders. And he's dying to see your barn. I described it, and he said it sounded architecturally impossible. He's a very interesting man." Qwilleran huffed into his moustache. Every time Polly left Pickax, she met an "interesting" man. First it was the horse trainer in Lockmaster, then the professor in Montreal, and the antiques dealer in Virginia, and now an architect in Chicago. Polly went on. "The K Fund thinks we should name the bookstore The Phoenix, after the mythical Egyptian bird that rose from the ashes and was reborn." "Are they serious? The locals would want to know why we named it after the capital of Arizona. I think we should have a countywide contest for a name."
"I think you're right, but I wanted to hear you say it.... Did you look in on Brutus and Catta?"
"They're happy, but I believe your cat-sitter is overfeeding them. As you asked, I filled your refrigerator with everything on your list." They were suddenly silent as they drove through the gates of Indian Village-past the gatehouse on the right, past the clubhouse on the left, and onto River Road with its clusters of condos. Qwilleran parked in front of Unit One of The Willows. "You run in and hug your cats," he said. "I'll take the luggage."
"Would you like to stay for some cottage cheese and fruit?" she asked in the soft, vibrant voice that had first attracted him. Cottage cheese was far from his favorite food. He hesitated a fraction of a second. "Yes, I believe I would."
Later in the afternoon Qwilleran took a legal pad and some yellow pencils-along with the Siamese and the cordless phone-to the gazebo. It was an octagonal summerhouse, screened on all eight sides-located in the bird garden a few yards from the barn. He drafted his Tuesday column; Yum Yum pursued her hobby of batting insects on the outside of the screen; Koko huddled on the floor and watched a family of seven crows strutting back and forth for his benefit. Were they the same ones that had visited the previous summer? Qwilleran wondered; all crows look alike, he thought. He called them the Bunkers, after Dr. Teresa Bunker, corvidologist. He considered her slightly nutty, like her cousin Joe, the WPKX meteorologist. Joe called himself Wetherby Goode and spiced his weather predictions with jokes and jingles.
Qwilleran's ruminations were interrupted by a phone call.
It was his friend Thornton Haggis-retired stonecutter, history buff, and indefatigable volunteer.
"Hi, Qwill! Are you busy? I have something for you-and something to discuss." "Where are you?" "I've been helping out at the art center. I can be there in five minutes."
"We're in the gazebo. Care for a glass of wine?" "Not tonight. We're having company. My wife invited the new pastor and a couple of people from the church." The art center was at the far end of the former apple orchard, connected by an old wagon trail, and soon Thornton's shock of white hair, like a dust mop, could be seen approaching. The Siamese watched and waited with eagerness; they had never figured out the purpose of that white thing on his head.
Thornton was clutching what looked like a dumbbell, and he set it down on a table. "This is for you! A belated birthday present." "It's spectacular!" Qwilleran said. "I can't believe you turned this on your lathe!" Wood turning was Thornton's latest hobby. "It's spalted olive wood. It's sort of a candy dish, but you can use it to feed the cats if you want to."
The Siamese were on the table, appraising the object with quivering noses.
Excerpted from The Cat Who Talked Turkey by Lilian Jackson Braun Copyright © 2005 by Lilian Jackson Braun. Excerpted by permission.
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