Read The Cat Who Played Post Office Online

Authors: Lilian Jackson Braun

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

The Cat Who Played Post Office (10 page)

BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
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Dear Qwill, Are you enjoying your new lifestyle? Don't forget you're only thirty miles from Mooseville. Drop in some afternoon. I've been picking wild blueberries for pies.

 

 

Mildred Hanstable

 

 

She had been Qwilleran's neighbor at the beach, and he remembered her as a generous-hearted woman who loved people. He seized the phone and immediately accepted the invitation-not only because she made superb pies but because she had been Daisy Mull's art teacher.

 

 

Driving up to the shore the next afternoon he sensed a difference in the environment as he approached the lake - not only the lushness of vegetation and freshness of breeze but a general air of relaxation and well-being. It was the magic that lured tourists to Mooseville.

 

 

The Hanstable summer cottage overlooked the lake, and an umbrella table was set up for the repast.

 

 

"Mildred, your blueberry pie is perfection," Qwilleran said. "Not too gelatinous, not too viscous, not too liquescent." She laughed with pleasure. "Don't forget I teach home ec as well as art. In our school district we have to be versatile, like coaching girls' volleyball and directing the senior play." "Do you remember a student named Daisy Mull?" he asked.

 

 

"Do I ever! I had great hopes for Daisy. Why do you ask?" "She worked for the Klingenschoens a while back, and I found some of her artwork." "Daisy had talent. That's why I was so disappointed when she didn't continue. It's unusual for that kind of talent to surface in Moose County. The focus is on sports, raising families, and watching TV. Daisy dropped out of school and eventually left town." "Where did she go?" "I don't know. She never kept in touch, to my knowledge - not even with her mother, although that's easy to understand. What kind of artwork did you find?" Qwilleran described the murals. "I'd love to see them," Mildred said. "In fact I'd like to see the whole house, if you wouldn't mind. Roger says it's a showplace." "I think we can arrange that.... Didn't Daisy get along with her mother?" "Mrs. Mull has a drinking problem, and it's hard for a young girl to cope with an alcoholic parent.... Please help yourself to the pie, Qwill." He declined a third helping, reminding himself that Mrs. Cobb was planning lamb stew with dumplings for dinner, with her famous coconut cake for dessert.

 

 

He drew a postal card from his pocket. "I found this at the house, dated five years ago. Daisy was on her way to Florida.' Mildred looked at the address side of the card, frowning a little. Then she turned it over and read the message twice.

 

 

She shook her head. "Qwill, this is definitely not Daisy's handwriting.'"

 

 

7

 

 

QWILLERAN SAT IN a deck chair on the Hanstable terrace overlooking the lake. Clouds scudded across the blue sky and waves lapped the beach, but his mind was elsewhere. Why would anyone forge a communication to Daisy's employer?

 

 

He could make a guess or two, but he needed more information.

 

 

"How do you know," he asked his hostess, "that this card wasn't written by Daisy?" "It's not her handwriting or her spelling," Mildred said with assurance. "She'd never put a w in 'writing' or an e in 'goodbye' or an apostrophe in anything. She could draw, but she couldn't spell." "You knew her very well?" "Let me tell you something, Qwill. For a teacher - a real teacher - the biggest reward is to discover raw material and nurture it and watch it develop. I worked hard with Daisy - tried to raise her sights. I knew she could get a scholarship and go into commercial art. It would have been a giant step forward for anyone with the name of Mull. She had invented Ian individual style of handwriting - hard to read but pleasing to the eye - so I know that no way did she write that postcard." Any idea who might have written it?" "Not the faintest. Why on earth would anyone..." Qwilleran said, "Was there any reason why she might want people in Pickax to think she had gone to Florida? Was she afraid of someone here? Afraid of being followed and brought back? Were the police looking for her? Had she stolen something? She may have gone out west but I arranged for someone else to mail the card in Maryland. Was she clever enough to figure that out? Did she have an accomplice?" Mildred looked distressed as well as bewildered. "She I took a rather pricey object from the decorating studio, but I Amanda didn't prosecute. Honestly, I can't imagine Daisy being involved in a serious theft." "What kind of guys did she go around with?" "Not the most respectable, I'm afraid. She started... hanging out after she left school." "Would her mother know her friends?" "I suspect her mother would neither know nor care." "I'd like to talk with that woman." "It might not be easy. The Mulls are suspicious of strangers, and Della isn't sober very often. I could try to see her when I go to Dimsdale to check on my craft workers. Della does nice knitting and crochet, and she could make items for Sharon's shop, but she can't get herself together." "You could tell her I've found her daughter's belongings," Qwilleran said, "including a valuable piece of gold jewelry.

 

 

Stress 'valuable,' and see how she reacts. Ask if I might deliver Daisy's luggage to her." "Did she really have some good jewelry?" Mildred asked.

 

 

"It was in her suitcase in the attic. The question is: why did she leave it behind? She disappeared in the month of July and left both summer and winter clothing, including her toothbrush and... Did you know she was pregnant?" "I'm not surprised," Mildred said sadly. "She never got any love at home. How do you know she was pregnant?" "She'd been buying baby clothes from Lanspeak's - that is, buying or shoplifting. She left those behind, too. My first hunch was that she was running away to have an abortion." "She could have had a miscarriage. That can unhinge a woman, and Daisy wasn't the most stable girl in the world - or the healthiest." "To tell you the truth, Mildred," said Qwilleran, "I'm getting some unsavory vibrations about this case. But I can't say any more - just yet." Driving back to Pickax he made a detour at the Dimsdale intersection. Just as Roger had said, a dirt road led back into the woods, and among the trees were flat-roofed shacks and old travel trailers. The number of small outhouses suggested a lack of plumbing in this shantytown. Junk was scattered everywhere: bedsprings, an old refrigerator without a door, fragments of farm machinery, rusted-out cars without wheels. The only vehicles that looked operative were trucks in the last stages of dilapidation. Here and there a dusty vegetable garden was struggling to survive in a clearing. Gray washing hung on sagging clotheslines. Flocks of small children played among the rubbish, shrieking and tumbling and chasing chickens.

 

 

Comparing the scene with his own lavish residence, Qwilleran cringed - and put the Dimsdale squatters on his mental list for the K Foundation: decent housing, skill training, meaningful jobs, something like that.

 

 

At the K mansion he was surprised to see a motorcycle parked at the back door. The service drive was usually occupied by a pickup or two. The green jumpsuit was constantly mowing, edging, watering, spraying and pruning, and Amanda's crew was always coming and going on obscure missions. This afternoon there was a black motorcycle - long in the wheelbase, wide in the tank, voluptuous as to fairings, and loaded with chrome.

 

 

Qwilleran stepped into the entry hall and heard voices: "Whaddaya see, Iris baby? Gimme the bad news." "Your palm is very good, very easy to read. I see a long lifeline and - oh my! - many love affairs." "Baa-a-a-a!" There was no mistaking the laugh or the motorcycle. In the kitchen the scene was casual, to say the least, Birch Trevelyan in his field boots and feed cap sprawled in a chair at the kitchen table, a T-shirt stretched across his beefy chest and a leather jacket with cutoff sleeves hanging on a doorknob. Mrs. Cobb, apparently dazzled by this macho glamour, was holding his hand and stroking the palm. Koko was monitoring the situation from the top of the refrigerator, not without alarm. Yum Yum was under the table sniffing the man's boots. And on the table were the remains of the three- layer, cream-filled coconut cake that Mrs. Cobb had baked for Qwilleran's evening meal.

 

 

She jumped to her feet, looking flushed and guilty. "Oh, there you are, Mr. Qwilleran. This is Birch Tree. He's going to solve all our repair problems." "Howdy," said Birch in the coffee-shop style, loud and easy. "Pull up a chair. Have some cake. Baa-a-a!" His mismatched eyes - one brown, one hazel - had an evil glint, but he had a disarming grin showing big square teeth.

 

 

Qwilleran accepted a chair that Birch shoved in his direction and said, "That's some classy animal you've got tethered out there." "Yeah, it's a mean rig. Y'oughta get one. You can hit a hundred-fifty in sixth on the airport road, if it's clear. Ten miles of straight, there. Ittibittiwassee - you get four straight but you rev up to ten grand and it's all over." Tactfully Qwilleran slipped into the topic of primary interest. "There's something wrong with the doors in this house, Birch. They don't latch properly. Even the cat can open them." "Lotta muscle in one of them small packages," Birch said with authority.

 

 

"We've got about twenty doors that won't stay shut. What can be done?" The expert tucked his thumbs in his belt, rocked his chair on two legs, and nodded wisely. "Old house. Building settles. Doorframes get out of whack. Doors shrink. I can fix 'em, but it'll cost ya." For a man who hated to work, he seemed most agreeable. New lock for the back door? "Easy!" Twenty doors refitted? "Piece o' cake!" He said he would start the next morning - early. Qwilleran surmised that Mrs. Cobb had bribed him with a promise of huckleberry pancakes and sausages.

 

 

After Birch had roared away on his motorcycle, the housekeeper said, "Isn't that a wonderful machine?" Qwilleran grunted noncommittally. "How is he going to transport tools with that thing?" "Oh, he told me he has a couple of trucks, and an ORV, and one of those big campers. He likes wheels. He wants to take me for a ride on the motorbike. What do you think?" Qwilleran exhaled audibly into his moustache. "Don't rush into anything with that guy. I think he's an opportunist." "He seems very nice. When I told him that smoke was harmful to antiques, he chucked his cigar without a word. And he loved my coconut cake." "That's obvious. He ate most of it." "Even little Yum Yum liked him. Did you see her sniffing his boots?" "Either he'd been walking around a barnyard or she was looking for a shoelace to untie. It wasn't necessarily a character endorsement.... By the way, have you noticed Koko sitting on the main staircase a lot?" She nodded. "That's his favorite perch, except for the refrigerator." "The strange thing is that he always sits on the third stair. I don't understand why." The housekeeper looked warily at Qwilleran. "I have something strange to report, too, but I'm afraid you'll laugh at me." "Mrs. Cobb, I always take you seriously." "Well, you remember I mentioned ghosts when I came here. I was only kidding, sort of, but now I'm beginning to think this house is haunted - not that I'm afraid, you understand.'" "How did you get that idea?" "Well, sometimes when I come into the kitchen at night I see a white blur out of the comer of my eye, but when I turn to look, it's gone." "I'm always seeing white blurs, Mrs. Cobb. One's called Koko and the other's called Yum Yum." "But things also move around mysteriously - mostly in the kitchen. Twice it was the kitchen wastebasket, right in the middle of the floor. Last night that old suitcase was shoved across the doorway. Do you know anything about the people who lived here, Mr. Qwilleran? Were there any unexplained deaths? I don't know whether you really believe in ghosts." "These days I'll believe anything." "It's dangerous. I almost fell over the suitcase in the dark. What's it doing here? It seems to be full of musty clothes." "I'll put it in the broom closet - get it out of your way. And you must promise to turn on lights when you come in here after dark." "I guess I'm used to saving electricity." "Forget about that. The estate owns a big chunk of the electric company. And please don't walk around without your glasses, Mrs. Cobb. How's your eye problem these days?" She held up two crossed fingers. "I still see the eye doctor twice a year." "Is everything else working out all right? Any questions?" "Well, I took some cookies over to the painter in the garage - he's a nice young man - and he showed me the huge daisies allover the walls. Who painted those?" "A girl named Daisy, by a strange coincidence. She used to work here. I hope you're not planning to paint irises all over the kitchen." "Oh, Mr. Qwilleran," she laughed.

 

 

"Have you started to catalogue the collection?" "Yes, and I'm terribly excited. There's a silver vault in the basement with some eight-branch silver candelabra about three feet high. The butler's pantry has china to serve twenty-four, and the linen closet had damask and Madeira banquet cloths like you wouldn't believe! You ought to give a big dinner party, Mr. Qwilleran. I'd be glad to cook for it." "Good idea," he said, "but don't try to do too much. Save some time for youself. You might want to join the Historical Society, and when you're ready to take on appraisal jobs we'll run an ad in the Picayune - even get you some publicity on WPKX." "Oh, that would be wonderful!" "And how would you like to attend a city council meeting? I intend to go, and the attorney suggested you might enjoy it, too." "Wasn't that sweet of her! Yes, I'd love to go," Mrs. Cobb said, her eyes shining. "We had so much trouble with bureaucrats in the city; I'd like to see how a small town operates." "Okay, it's a date. Now I'm going to take a bike ride before dinner." "Mr. Qwilleran," the housekeeper said hesitantly, "It's none of my business, but I'd like to say something if it won't offend you." "Fire away!" "I wish you'd get a new bicycle. That old one is such a rattletrap! It's not safe." "The bike's perfectly safe, Mrs. Cobb. I've cleaned it and oiled it and bought new tires. It has a few squeaks, but it's good enough for my purposes." "But there are so many trucks, and they travel so fast! They could blow you right off die road." "I do most of my biking on country roads, where there's very little traffic. Don't worry." The housekeeper set her mouth primly. "But it doesn't look right for a man in your position to be riding a - riding a piece of junk, if you'll pardon the expression." "And if you'll pardon my saying so, Mrs. Cobb, you're beginning to sound like Penelope Goodwinter. Those eight- branch candelabra have gone to your head." She smiled sheepishly.
BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
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