Read The Cat Who Played Post Office Online

Authors: Lilian Jackson Braun

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

The Cat Who Played Post Office (16 page)

BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
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"A great pity," she said, "because she came from a poor family, and she could have gone to college on a scholarship and achieved some kind of success. " Alexander said with authority, "Great numbers of young women escape their humdrum existence in small towns every year, and they are assimilated into urban life, sometimes with - ah - great success. Many women professionals in New York and Washington were refugees, so to speak, from rural areas; We lose this talent because we fail to provide encouragement and opportunities and rewards." "Chfff!" "It's too bad," Mildred said, "that we don't do as much for artists as we do for farmers." Throughout the salad course Qwilleran persevered in promoting table talk, and he was relieved when the wild raspberry trifle was served. At that point he made an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, absent from this table is an important member of our household who wears many hats - those of resident manager, curator of the collection, regisitrar, and official appraiser. And no one has a better right to wear the hat of a master chef. We are indebted to Iris Cobb for preparing this dinner tonight. I would like to ask her to join us at.



the table for dessert." There were murmurs of approval as he went to the kitchen and returned with the flustered housekeeper, and there was applause when he pulled up a chair and seated Mrs. Cobb between himself and Penelope. The attorney merely stiffened her spine.



When coffee and liqueurs were served in the drawing room, Qwilleran's somnolent tablemates began to revive. A few gathered in a chatty group around the life-size portrait of a young woman with a wasp waist and bustle, circa 1880. "She was a dance-hall girl before he married her." Amanda said. "Look at that bawdy twinkle in her eye." "Let's hear some stories, Roger," Junior urged. "Tell us about the K Saloon." "Tell the one about Harry," Sharon suggested. Roger had snapped out of his malaise. "Do you think I should?" "Why not?" "Go ahead!" "Well, it was like this-and it's true.... One of the regular customers at the K Saloon was a miner named Harry, and eventually he drank himself to death. He was laid out at the furniture store, which was also the undertaking parlor, and his buddies decided he should have one last night at his favorite watering hole. So they smuggled him out of the store and put him on a sledge - it was the dead of winter - and off they went to the K Saloon. They propped Harry up at the bar, and all the patrons paid their respects and drowned their grief. Finally, at three in the morning, Harry's friends put him on the sled again and whipped up the horses. They were singing and feeling no pain, so they didn't notice the corpse sliding off the tail of the icy sledge. When they got back to the furniture store-no Harry! They spent the rest of the night looking for him, but the snow was drifting and they didn't find Harry until spring." There were gasps and groans and giggles, and Qwilleran said, "They were a bunch of necrophiliacs - that is, if the story is really true. I suspect it's apocryphal." Penelope gave a small cough and said in a firm voice, "This has been a delightful evening, and I regret we must say good night." Alexander said, "I emplane for Washington at an early hour tomorrow." Amanda nudged Riker and said in a stage whisper, "They can't run the country without him." The Mooseville group also departed. Riker drove Amanda home. Mrs. Cobb went upstairs to collapse. Qwilleran and Melinda had a drink in the kitchen with the butler, the footmen, and the string trio, praising them for their performances.



Then, when everyone had left, host and hostess kicked off their shoes in the library and indulged in postprandial gossip.



Melinda said, "Did you notice Penelope's reaction when you brought the cook to the table? She considered it the major faux pas of the twentieth century." "She didn't take a drink all evening. I think she wanted champagne, but her brother vetoed it." "Alex doesn't like her to drink; she talks too freely. How did you like her perfume, lover? It's something she asked me to bring from Paris." "Potent, to say the least," Qwilleran said. "She was sitting on my right, you know, and I lost my sense of smell. By the time the fish was served, I couldn't taste anything. Junior was sitting next to her, and he looked glassy eyed, as if he'd been smoking something. Amanda almost passed out, and Roger couldn't remember the names of the ten defunct mines.



It was the perfume, I'm sure. The cats kept sneezing." "I had to smuggle it in," Melinda confessed. "They don't allow it to be sold in this country." "If you ask me, it's some kind of nerve gas. What's it called?" "Fantaisie Feline. Very expensive.... Am I seeing things, or is that a pickax in the comer?" "The Pickax Boosters presented it to me. I might mount it over the fireplace, or use it as a paperweight, or swing it at stray dogs when I'm biking." At that moment Koko stalked into the library, giving Qwilleran his gimlet stare.



"By the way," Qwilleran said, "do you know anything about the Three Pines Mine?" Melinda looked amused. "The shaft house is a notorious lovers' lair, darling. Why? Are you interested? At your age?"






THE MORNING AFTER the party Qwilleran drove Riker to the airport under threatening skies. "We're going to get the rain the farmers have been praying for and the tourist industry has been praying against." "I hope my plane takes off before it closes in," Riker said. "Not that I'm in a hurry to get back to the Fluxion. I wouldn't mind living up here. Why don't you buy the Picayune? I'll come up here and run it for you." "You don't mean it!" "I do! It would be a staggering challenge." "We'd have to fire Benjamin Franklin and spend ten million on new mechanical equipment.... What did you think of Melinda?" "Remarkable young woman. Does she wear green contacts? Are those her own eyelashes?" "Everything is absolutely real," Qwilleran assured him. "I've checked it out." "You know, Qwill, the gold diggers will be after you now. You'd be better off to marry a girl like Melinda and settle down. Her family is well-off; she has a profession; and she thinks you're tops." "You're generous with your advice this morning." Qwilleran never liked to be told what to do.



"Okay, here's another shot. Why don't you quit hunting for the missing housemaid? You could get a bullet in the head - like the girl on the tractor." Watching Riker's plane gain altitude, Qwilleran recalled that his friend had always tried to discourage his investigations - and had never succeeded. This time his own discretion was telling him, however, to wait for more developments before presenting the case to Chief Brodie. All he had to offer at this moment was circumstantial evidence, speculation, a sensitive moustache, and a smart cat.



Before returning home be bought a pink cashmere sweater at Lanspeak's and had it gift-wrapped. At Diamond Jim's he selected a gold necklace and dropped it off at the clinic, where a shingle at the entrance showed signs of fresh paint: DR. HALIFAX GOODWINTER, M.D. DR. MELINDA GOODWINTER, M.D.



As he approached the K mansion he was first aware of a police car, then a traffic jam, then a crowd of onlookers in the street. A bell was tolling a single solemn note as a funeral procession lined up and Tiffany's casket was carried from one of the churches on the Circle.



And then it started to rain. It rained violently, almost in anger.



Qwilleran went to his desk to write a note of condolence to Steve Trotter, with an offer of an annual scholarship in Tiffany's name. As he wrote, the telephone started to jangle with thank-you calls from the dinner guests. Junior had never eaten such good food. Sharon wanted the recipes. Mildred praised everything but thought that Alexander Goodwinter was a stuffed shirt. Amanda was hung over.



"Golly, that was a good party," the designer croaked into the phone. "I've got a hangover that would kill a horse. Did I say anything I shouldn't last night?" "You were a model of propriety, Amanda," said Qwilleran.



"Cripes! That's the last thing I ever wanted to be. I leave that to my cousins." "I've just driven Arch to the airport. He enjoyed your company immensely." "He's my type! Get him up here again - soon!" When Melinda phoned to thank him for the necklace, she complained that his line had been continually busy.



"All our dinner guests have been calling," he said. "Everyone except Penelope." "Penny won't phone. She'll write a very proper thank-you note on engraved stationery, sealed with wax. Did Arch get away before the rains came?" "He did, and he gave me some parting advice: (a) get married and (b) forget about the Daisy Mull mystery. I plan to take at least one of his suggestions." At lunchtime he presented his gift to Mrs. Cobb.



"Oh, Mr. Qwilleran! Pink is my favorite, and I've never had anything cashmere. You shouldn't have done it. Did they all like the food last night?" "Your dinner will make history," he assured her, "and when you see Mrs. Fulgrove, tell her that everyone admired her handwriting." "When she was writing the place cards," Mrs. Cobb said, "she told me something. I don't know whether I should repeat it." "Go ahead." Qwilleran's remark was offhand, but his moustache was bristling with curiosity.



"Well, she works three times a week at the Goodwinter house, you know, and she overheard Miss Goodwinter and her brother having a terrible row - yelling and everything. She said it was kind of frightening because they're always so nice to each other." "What were they arguing about?" "She couldn't hear. She was cleaning the kitchen, and they were upstairs." At that moment a particularly objetionable burst of music came from the upper regions of the K mansion. "I see our star boarder is still on the premises," Qwilleran said.



"He's almost finished, but his bill is going to be enormous, I'm afraid." "Don't worry. The estate will pay for it, and I'll tell them to deduct for five breakfasts, eight lunches, seven gallons of coffee, a case of beer, and a visit to the ear doctor. I think my hearing is permanently impaired." "Oh, Mr. Qwilleran, you must be joking." It rained hard for forty-eight hours, until the stone-paved streets of Pickax were flooded. Downtown Main Street, with its hodgepodge of architectural styles, was a parody of the Grand Canal.



Grudgingly Qwilleran stayed indoors.



On the third day the rain ceased, and the wet fieldstone of the K mansion sparkled like diamonds in the sunshine, A brisk breeze started to dry up the floods. The birds sang. The Siamese rolled on the solarium floor and laundered their fur in the warm rays.



It was shortly after breakfast when an unexpected visitor arrived at the back door.



Mrs. Cobb hurried to the library to find Qwilleran. "Steve Trotter is here to see you. It looks like he's had a lot to drink." Qwilleran dropped his newspaper and went to the kitchen, where the painter in off-duty jeans and T-shirt was leaning unsteadily against the doorjamb, his face slack and his eyelids drooping.



Qwilleran pulled out two kitchen chairs. "Come in and sit down, Steve. How about a cup of coffee?" Mrs. Cobb quickly filled two mugs from the coffee maker and set them on the table, together with a plate of doughnuts. "Don't want no coffee," Steve said, staring at Qwilleran belligerently. "Gotcha letter." "It's hard to express the sorrow I feel about this outrageous crime," Qwilleran said. "I met Tiffany only twice, but - " "Quit the bull! 'S all your fault," the painter said sullenly.



"I beg your pardon?" "Y'got her mixed up in it. If y'didn't shoot off 'bout Daisy, wouldn'ta happened." "Now wait a minute," Qwilleran said gently but firmly. "You overheard my private conversation with a visitor and went home and told your wife, didn't you? It was her idea to come here and talk about it. Furthermore, the police suspect that some tourist drove past the farm and - " "Ain't no tourist, and y'know it." "I haven't the least idea what you're implying, Steve." "The letter y'sent me... tryin' to buy me off. Nodice." "What do you mean?" "Y'wanna give money away to kids. Hell, what y'gonna do for me? Why'n'cha pay for the fun'ral?" With an angry gesture he swept the coffee mug off the table. It shattered on the stone floor.



Mrs. Cobb made a hurried exit and returned almost immediately with Birch Tree.



"Okay, Stevie-boy," Birch said, grinning and showing his big square teeth. "Let's go home and sleep it off." He hoisted the younger man from the chair and propelled him toward the door.



Glancing out the window, Qwilleran saw the painter's truck parked with one wheel in the rhododendrons. "He can't drive in that condition," he said.



"I'll drive his truck. You follow and bring me back," Birch instructed in a tone of authority. "Only a coupla miles.



Terence's dairy farm. Now you'll see where the stink comes from when the wind's from the southwest. Baa-a-a-a!" After depositing Steve in his mobile home on the farm, Birch went to the farmhouse and talked to the in-laws. Then the two men drove back to town in the two-door, Qwilleran marveling at the man's competence and self-assurance in handling the awkward situation.



"Nice day," Birch said. "We needed rain, but they sent us too much. Baa-a-a-a!" "I'll be able to take my bike out this afternoon," Qwilleran said.



"Me, I'm gonna knock off early and get in some fishin'. Big salmon's bitin' a few miles off Purple Point." "Do you have a boat?" "Sure do. Forty-foot cruiser, loaded. Fish-finder, automatic pilot, ship-to-shore-you name it. Y'oughta get one." Qwilleran frowned. "Fish-finder? What's that?" "A graph, y'know. A CGR. Sonar computer graph recorder. Traces the bottom of the lake. Tells you where the fish are, and how many. First-class way to fish!" By noontime Birch had cleared out with his noisebox and tools, and Qwilleran enjoyed his lunch in peace.



"It's good to have the doors fixed," Mrs. Cobb said. "It was worth all the commotion." Qwilleran agreed. "Now Koko won't be able to barge into my room at six A.M. He thinks everyone should get up at dawn." The housekeeper served lunch in the cheerful breakfast room, where William and Mary banister-back chairs surrounded a dark oak table, and yellow and green chintz covered the walls and draped the windows.
BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
2.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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