Read The Cat Who Played Post Office Online

Authors: Lilian Jackson Braun

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

The Cat Who Played Post Office (9 page)

BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
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Qwilleran could explain why the girl had abandoned her cold-weather gear, but why had she left her summer wearabIes as well? Perhaps she had lined up a situation that would provide an entirely new wardrobe - either a job or a generous patron. Perhaps a tourist from some other part of the country had come up here and staked her to a getaway - for better or worse. Qwilleran wished the poor girl well.



There were other items in the suitcase: a paper bag containing tasteless junk jewelry as well as one fourteen-karat gold bracelet, heavy enough to make one wonder. Had she stolen it? And if so, why had she left it behind? Another paper bag was stuffed with messy cosmetics and a toothbrush; she had left in a hurry!



There was one more surprise in the suitcase. In a shopping bag with the Lanspeak's Department Store logo Qwilleran found a pathetic assortment of baby clothes.



He sat down in a kitchen chair to think about it. Had she left town hurriedly to have an abortion? After starting a sentimental collection of bootees and tiny sweaters with rosebuds crocheted into the design, why had she decided to end her pregnancy? And what had happened to her? Why had she not returned? Did her family know her fate? Did they know her present whereabouts? Did she even have a family? If so, did they live in that shantytown near the old Dimsdale Mine site? Unanswered questions tormented Qwilleran, and he knew he would never stop probing this one until he had an answer.



His ruminations were interrupted by the sound of a vehicle in the service drive. Dropping the gold bracelet into his pocket, he stuffed the rest of Daisy's belongings back into the sad excuse for a suitcase - broken handle, tom lining, scuffed comers. Then he went outdoors to greet Mrs. Cobb. Her van was filled to the roof with boxes of books, which he began to carry into the house.



She was happy to the point of tears. "I'm so thrilled, I don't know where to begin." "Get yourself settled comfortably," he said. "Then make a list of what you need for the refrigerator and pantry. The cats are looking forward to your Swedish meatballs and deviled crab." "What do you like to eat, Mr. Qwilleran?" "I eat everything - except parsnips and turnips. I'll take you out to lunch this noon, and then I have an appointment at my attorney's office." The meeting that Penelope had scheduled included Mr. Fitch from the bank and Mr. Cooper, accountant for the estate. The banker was well tanned; Mr. Cooper was ghastly pale in spite of the sunshine that was parching Moose County. Mr. Fitch graciously congratulated Qwilleran on his proposal to start an eleemosynary foundation. He also inquired if Qwilleran golfed.



"I'm afraid I'm a Moose County anomaly," was the answer. "Non-golfing, non-fishing, non-hunting." "We'll have to do something about that," said the banker cordially. "I'd like to sponsor you for the country club." The first order of business concerned the opening of a drawing account at the bank. Then Penelope suggested to Qwilleran that he start sifting through any documents he might find in the house. "It would be wise," she said, "to acquaint yourself with insurance coverage, taxes, household inventories, and the like before turning them over to our office." He squirmed uncomfortably. He despised that kind of paperwork.



"Is everything progressing smoothly?" she asked, smiling and dimpling.



"The housekeeper arrived this morning," he said, "and she agrees we should have some day help." "I recommend Mrs. Fulgrove. She works for us a few days a week and is very thorough. Has Birch Trevelyan made contact with you?" "Never showed up. All the doors need attention, and we definitely need a lock on the back door." "That Birch is a lazy dog," said the banker. "You have to catch him atone of the coffee shops and twist his arm." Penelope threw Mr. Fitch a reproving glance. "I'll handle it, Nigel. I think I can put a little diplomatic pressure on the man.... Do you have any questions, Mr. Qwilleran?" "When does the city council meet? Sitting in on a meeting is a good way to get acquainted with a new community.



Mrs. Cobb might like to go, too." "In that case," Penelope said quickly, "I'll take the lady as my guest. It wouldn't be appropriate for you to escort her." "Oh, come on, Penny," said the banker with a half laugh, and she threw him one of her sharp glances.



Turning to the silent accountant, she asked, "Do you have anything to add, Mr. Cooper?" "Good records," he said. "It's important to have good records. Do you keep good records, Mr. Qwilleran?" Qwilleran had visions of more paperwork. "Records of what?" "Personal income, expenditures, deductions. Be sure to keep receipts, vouchers, bank statements, and such." Qwilleran nodded. The accountant had given him an idea. After the meeting he drew the man aside. "Do you have the records of domestic help at the Klingenschoen house, Mr. Cooper? I'd like to know the dates of employment for one Daisy Mull." "It's all in the computer," the accountant said. "I'll have my secretary phone you with the information." In the ensuing days Qwilleran enjoyed the housekeeper's home cooking, answered letters, and bought new tires for the bicycle in the garage. He also telephoned the young managing editor of the Picayune. "When are you going to introduce me to coffee shop society, Junior? You promised." "Any time. Where do you want to go? The best place is the Dimsdale Diner." "I had lunch there once. I call it the Dismal Diner." "You're not kidding either. I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at ten. Wear a feed cap," the editor advised, "and you'd better practice drinking coffee with a spoon in the cup." Although Junior Goodwinter looked like a high school sophomore and always wore running shoes and a Pickax varsity letter, he had graduated from journalism school before going to work for his father's newspaper. They drove to the diner in his red Jaguar, the editor in a baseball cap and Qwilleran in a bright orange hunting cap.



"Junior, this county has the world's worst drivers," he said. "They straddle the centerline; they make turns from the wrong lane; they don't even know what turn signals are for. How do they get away with it?" "We're more casual up here," Junior explained. "You people Down Below are all conformists, but we don't like anybody telling us what to do." They parked in the dusty lot at the diner, among a fleet of vans and pickup trucks and one flashy motorcycle.



The Dismal Diner was an old railroad freight car that had been equipped with permanently dirty windows. The tables and chairs might have been cast-offs from the Hotel Booze when it redecorated in 1911. For the coffee hour, customers pushed tables together to seat clubby groups of eight or ten - all men wearing feed caps. They helped themselves to coffee and doughnuts on the counter and paid their money to a silent, emaciated man in a cook's apron. Cigarette' smoke blurred the atmosphere. The babble of voices and raucous laughter was deafening.



Qwilleran and Junior, sitting at a side table, caught fragments of conversation: "Never saw nothin 'like what they put on TV these days." "How's your dad's arthritis, Joe?" "Man, don't try to tell me they're not livin' together." "We need rain." "The woman he's goin' with - they say she's a lawyer." "Ever hear the one about the little city kid who had to draw a picture of a cow?" Qwilleran leaned across the table. "Who are these guys?" Junior scanned the group. "Farmers. Commercial fishermen. A branch bank manager. A guy who builds pole barns.



One of them sells farm equipment; he's loaded. One of them cleans septic tanks." Pipe smoke and the aroma of a cigar were added to the tobacco haze. Snatches of conversation were interwoven like a tapestry.



"Durned if I didn't fix my tractor with a piece of wire. Saved a coupla hundred, easy." "Always wanted to go to Vegas, but my oId lady, she says no." "Forget handguns. I like a rifle for deer." "My kid caught a bushel of perch at Purple Point in half an hour." "We all know he's got his hand in the till. Never got caught, that's all." "Here's Terry!" several voices shouted, and heads turned toward the dirty windows.



One customer rushed out the door. Picking up a wooden palette, he slanted it across the steps to make a ramp.



Then a man in a feed cap, who had eased out of a low-slung car into a folding wheelchair, waited until he was pushed up the ramp into the diner.



"Dairy farmer," Junior whispered. "Bad accident a few years ago. Tractor rollover... Milks a hundred Holsteins an hour in a computerized milking parlor. Five hundred gallons a day. Eighteen tons of manure a year." The talk went on - about taxes, the commodities market, and animal waste management systems. There was plenty of laughter - chesty guffaws, explosive roars, cackling and bleating. "Baa-a-a" laughed a customer behind Qwilleran.



"We all know who she's makin' eyes at, don't we? Baa-a-a!" "Ed's new bam cost three quarters of a million.".



"They sent him to college and dammit if he didn't get on dope." "That which is crooked cannot be made straight, according to Ecclesiastes One-fifteen." "Man, he'll never get married. He's got it too good. Baa-a-a!" "We need rain bad." "If he brings that woman here, there's gonna be hell to pay." A sign over the doughnut tray read: "Cows may come and cows may go, but the bull in here goes on forever." "I believe it," Qwilleran said. "This is a gossip factory." "Nah," Junior said. "The guys just shoot the breeze." Toward eleven o'clock customers began to straggle out, and a man with a cigar stopped to give Junior a friendly punch in the ribs. He had a big build and arrogant swagger, and he bleated like a sheep. He rode off on the flashy motorcycle in a blast of noise and flying gravel.



"Who's that?" Qwilleran asked. "Birch Tree," Junior said. "It's really Trevelyan, an old family name in Moose County.



His brother's name is Spruce, and he has two sisters, Maple and Evergreen. I told you we're individualists up here." "That's the guy who's supposed to do our repairs, but he's taking his own sweet time." "He's good, but he hates to work. Hikes his prices so people won't hire him. Always has plenty of dough, though.



He's part owner of this diner, but that would never make anyone rich." "Unless they're selling something besides food," Qwilleran said.



On the way back to Pickax he asked if women ever came to the coffee hour.



"Naw, they have their own gossip sessions with tea and cookies.... Want to hear the eleven o'clock news?" He turned on the car radio.



Ever since arriving in Moose County Qwilleran had marveled at the WPKX news coverage. The local announcers had a style that he called Instant Paraphrase.



The newscaster was saying, "... lost control of his vehicle when a deer ran across the highway, causing the car to enter a ditch and sending the driver to the Pickax Hospital, where he was treated and released. A hospital spokesperson said the patient was treated for minor injuries and released.



"In sports, the Pickax Miners walloped the Mooseville Mosquitoes thirteen to twelve, winning the county pennant and a chance at the play-offs. According to Coach Russell, the pennant gives the miners a chance to show their stuff in the regional play-offs." Suddenly Junior's beeper sounded, and a siren at City Hall started to wail. "There's a fire," he said. "Mind if I drop you at the light? See you later." His red Jaguar varoomed toward the fire hall, and Qwilleran walked the few remaining blocks. On every side he was hailed by strangers who seemed happy to see him and who used the friendly but respectful initial customary in Pickax.



"Hi, Mr. Q." "Morning, Mr. Q." "Nice day, Mr. Q." Mrs. Cobb greeted him with a promise of meatloaf sandwiches for lunch. "And there's a message from Mr. Cooper's office. The person you inquired about terminated her employment five years ago on July seventh. She started April third of that year. Also, a very strange woman walked in and said she'd been hired to clean three days a week. She's upstairs now, doing the bedrooms. And another thing, Mr. Qwilleran - I found some personal correspondence in my desk upstairs, and I thought you should sort it out. It's on your desk in the library." The correspondence filled a corrugated carton, and perched on top of the conglomeration of papers was Koko, sound asleep with his tail curled lovingly around his nose. Either the cat was developing a mail fetish, or he knew the carton had once contained a shipment of canned tuna.



Qwilleran removed the sleeping animal and tackled the old Klingenschoen correspondence. There was no order or sense to the collection, and nothing of historic or financial importance. Mail that should have been thrown into a wastebasket had been pigeon-holed in a desk. A letter from a friend, dated 1921, had been filed with a solicitation for a recent Boy Scout drive.



What caught Qwilleran's attention was a government postal card with two punctures in one comer, looking suspiciously like the mark of feline fangs.



The message read: "Writing on bus. Sorry didn't say goodbye. Got job in Florida - very sudden. Got a lift far as Cleveland. Throw out all my things. Don't need anything. Good job - good pay." It was signed with the name that had been haunting Qwilleran for the last ten days, and it was dated July 11, five years before. Curiously enough, there was a Maryland postmark. Why the girl was traveling from Cleveland to Florida by way of Maryland was not clear. Qwilleran also noted that the handwriting bore no resemblance to the precise penmanship on Daisy's luggage tags.



He ripped the tag from the suitcase in the kitchen and went in search of Mrs. Fulgrove. He found her in the Empire suite, furiously attacking a marble-topped, sphinx-legged table with her soft cloths and mysterious potions.



"This place was let go somethin' terrible," she said, "which don't surprise me, seein' as how the Old Lady didn't have no decent help for five years, but I'm doin' my best to put things to rights, and it ain't easy when you're my age and pestered with a bad shoulder, which I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy." Qwilleran complimented her on her industry and principles and showed her the luggage tag. "Do you know anything about this?" "Course I do, it's my own writin', and nobody writes proper anymore, but the nuns taught us how to write so's anybody could read it, and when the Old Lady told me to put that girl's things in the attic, I marked 'em so's there'd be no mistake." "Why did the Old Lady keep Daisy's clothing, Mrs. Fulgrove? Was the girl expected to return?" "Heaven knows what the Old Lady took it in her head to do. She never throwed nothin' away, and when she told me to pack it all in the attic, I packed it in the attic and no questions asked." Qwilleran disengaged himself from the conference and let Mrs. Fulgrove return to her brass polish and marble restorer and English wax. He himself went back to answering letters. The afternoon delivery brought another avalanche spilling into the vestibule, to be distributed by the two self-appointed mail clerks. Koko delivered a card announcing a new seafood restaurant, as well as a letter from Roger's mother-in-law. She wrote:
BOOK: The Cat Who Played Post Office
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