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The Cat Who Wasn't ThereCat Who Wasnt There
Lilian Jackson Braun

Lilian Jackson Braun - The Cat Who Wasn't There

One

In late August, sixteen residents of Moose County, a remote part of the United States 400 miles north of everywhere, traveled to Scotland for a tour of the Western Isles and Highlands, lochs and moors, castles and crofts, firths and straths, burns and braes, fens and bens and glens.

Only fifteen of them returned alive, and the survivors straggled home in various states of shock or confusion.

Among the travelers who signed up for the Bonnie Scots Tour were several prominent persons in Pickax City, the county seat. They included the owner of the department store, the superintendent of schools, a young doctor from a distinguished family, the publisher of the local newspaper, the administrator of the public library, and a good-looking, well-built, middle-aged man with a luxuriant pepper and-salt moustache and drooping eyelids, who happened to be the richest bachelor in Moose County--or in fact the entire northeast central United States. Jim Qwilleran's wealth was not the result of his own effort but a fluke inheritance. As a journalist, he had been content to pound a beat, churn out copy, and race deadlines for large metropolitan dailies Down Below. (so Pickax folk called the urban areas to the south.) Then fate brought him to Pickax City (population 3,000) and made him heir to the Klingenschoen estate. It was more money than he really wanted. The uncounted millions hung over his head like a dark cloud until he established the Klingenschoen Foundation to dispose of the fortune philanthropic ally leaving him free to live in a barn, write a column for the Moose County Something, feed and brush his two Siamese cats, and spend pleasant weekends with Polly Duncan, head of the Pickax Public Library. When the tour to Scotland was proposed, Qwilleran and his feline companions had just returned from a brief sojourn in some distant mountains, a vacation cut short by disturbing news from Pickax. Polly Duncan, while driving home after dark, had been followed by a man in a car without lights, narrowly escaping his clutches. When Qwilleran heard the news, he had a sickening vision of attempted kidnapping; his relationship with Polly was well known in the county, and his millions made him an easy mark for a ransom demand.

Immediately he phoned the Pickax police chief to request protection for Polly. Then, canceling his vacation arrangements, he made the long drive back to Moose County at a speed that discommoded the two yowling passengers in the backseat and alerted the highway patrols of four states. He arrived home Monday noon and dropped off the Siamese and their water dish before hurrying to the Pickax Public Library. He went on foot, cutting through the woods and approaching the library from the rear. In the parking lot behind the building he recognized Polly's small gray two-door and an elderly friend's ancient navy blue four-door. There was also a maroon car with a Massachusetts license plate that gave him momentary qualms; he had no wish to encounter Dr. Melinda Goodwinter, who had come from Boston for her father's funeral. He mounted the steps of the stately library in un stately leaps and found the main room aflutter with small children. There was no evidence of Melinda Goodwinter.

The youngsters were squealing and chattering and lugging picture books to the check-out desk, on which sat a rotund object about three feet high, like an egg with a cracked shell. The six-foot-two man pushed through the horde of knee-high tots, went up the stairs to the mezzanine three at a time, and barged through the reading room to the glass-enclosed office of the head librarian. None of the persons at the reading tables, he noted with relief, was the young doctor from Boston. Sooner or later he would have to face her, and he was unsure how to handle their reunion: with cool politesse? with lukewarm pleasure? with jocular nonchalance? The librarian was a dignified and pleasant-faced woman of his own age, and she was eating lunch at her desk, the aroma of tuna fish adding an earthy touch to the high-minded bookish ness of the office. Silently she reached out a hand across the desk and managed to smile her delight and surprise while chewing a carrot stick. A fervent and lingering handclasp was as amorous a greeting as they dared, since the office had the privacy of a fishbowl and Pickax had a penchant for gossip.

Their eye contact said it all.

"You're home!" she murmured in her gentle voice after swallowing.

"Yes, I made it!" It was a dialogue unworthy of Polly's intelligence and Qwilleran's wit, but under the circumstances they could be excused.

He dropped into a varnished oak chair, the keys in his back pocket clanking on the hard seat.

"Is everything all right?" he asked anxiously.

"Any more scares?" "Not a thing," she said calmly.

"No more prowlers in the neighborhood?" She shook her head. For one uncomfortable moment his suspicious nature suggested that she might have invented the prowler episode to bring him home ahead of schedule; she was inclined to be possessive. He banished the thought, however; Polly was an honorable and loving friend. She might be jealous of women younger and thinner than she, but she had absolute integrity; of that he was sure.

"Tell me again exactly what happened," Qwilleran said.

"Your voice was shaky when you talked to me on the phone." "Well, as I told you at the time, I was returning after dark from the library banquet," she began quietly in her clear, considered manner of speaking.

"When I drove into Goodwinter Boulevard--where curb parking is not allowed, as you know--I noticed a car parked the wrong way in front of the Gage mansion, and I could see someone sitting behind the wheel--a man with a beard. I thought that was strange. Mrs. Gage was still in Florida, and no one was living in the main house. I decided to notify the police as soon as I reached my apartment." "Did you feel personally threatened at this point?" "Not really. I turned into the side drive of the mansion and was driving back to the carriage house when I realized that the car was following me without lights! And then--then I was terrified! I accelerated and parked close to my doorstep with the headlights beamed on the keyhole. As I jumped out of my car, I glanced to the left. He was getting out of his car, too.

I was able to rush inside and slam the door before he reached me." Qwilleran tapped his moustache in an expression of anxiety.

"Did you get a further look at him?" "That's what the police wanted to know.

I have the impression that he was of medium build, and when I first pulled up to the drive my headlights picked up a bearded face behind the wheel. That's all I can tell you." "That narrows it down to forty percent of our male population," Qwilleran said. In Moose County beards were favored by potato farmers, hunters, sheep ranchers, fishermen, construction workers, and newspaper reporters.

"It was a bushy beard, I would say," she added.

"Did Brodie give you a police escort as I requested?" "He offered to drive me to and from work, but honestly, Qwill, it seemed so un nec in daylight." "Hmmm," he murmured, slumping in his chair in deep thought. Was it a false alarm? Or was Polly really at risk? Rather than worry her unduly, he asked, "What's that absurd egg doing on the check-out desk?" "Don't you recognize Humpty Dumpty? He's the focus of our summer reading program," she explained patiently.

"The children are helping to put him together again by checking out books. After they've taken home a certain number, he'll be well and happy, and we'll have a party... You're invited," she added mischievously, knowing he avoided small children.

"How do you know the kids will read the books after they get them home?

How do you know they'll even crack them?" "Qwill, dear, you're so cynical!" she reproved him.

"Your stay in the mountains hasn't mellowed you in the slightest... By the way, did you see our elevator installation? We're very grateful to the Klingenschoen Foundation. Now the elderly and infirm have access to the reading room." "You should ask the K Foundation for some chairs with padded seats," he suggested, squirming uncomfortably.

"Apart from Humpty Dumpty's great fall, is there any other world-shaking news in Moose County?" "We're still grieving over the suicide of Dr.

Halifax. Dr. Melinda returned for her father's funeral and has decided to stay. Everyone's pleased about that." It was a small-town custom to use the honorific when a local son or daughter had earned it.

Melinda Goodwinter had been Polly's predecessor in Qwilleran's affection--as everyone in Pickax knew--and he was careful not to react visibly. Casually he asked, "Will she take over Dr. Hal's patients?" "Yes, she's already sent out announcements." Polly spoke of Melinda with studied detachment.

"How about dinner tonight at the Old Stone Mill?" he asked, changing the subject to conceal his personal concern about Melinda redux.

"I was hoping you'd suggest it.

I have something exciting to discuss." "About what?" She smiled mysteriously.

"I can't tell you right now. It's a wonderful surprise!" "Where shall I pick you up? And at what time?" "Shall we say seven o'clock?" Polly suggested.

"I'd like to go home to change clothes and feed Bootsie." "Seven o'clock it is." "Are you sure you aren't too tired after all that driving?" "All I need is a strong cup of coffee, and I'll be swinging from the chandeliers." "I've missed you, dear. I'm so glad you're home," she said softly.

"I've missed you, too, Polly." He started to leave her office and paused on the threshold, from which he could see the reading tables. A white-haired woman sat knitting laboriously with arthritic hands; an elderly man was bent over a stack of books; a younger man with an unruly beard was leafing idly through a magazine.

"Who's the fellow with the beard?" Qwilleran mumbled behind his hand as he stroked his moustache.

"I don't know. The woman is Mrs. Crawbanks; her granddaughter always drops her off here while she does errands. Now that we have an elevator we've become a day-care center for grandparents. Homer Tibbitt--you know him, of course--is doing research for the Historical Society. The younger man, I don't know." Qwilleran strode through the reading room to speak to the thin and angular Mr. Tibbitt, who was in his nineties and still active, despite creaking joints.

"I hear you're digging into Moose County's lurid past, Homer." The retired school principal straightened up, his bony frame clicking in several places.

"Got to keep the old brain cells functioning," he said in a cracked voice.

"No one's ever recorded the history of the Goodwinters, although they founded Pickax one hundred fifty years ago. There were four branches of the family, some with good blood and some with bad blood, sorry to say.

But the clan's dying out in these parts. Amanda's the last of the drinking Goodwinters. Dr. Halifax had two children, but the boy was killed in an accident a few years ago, and if Dr. Melinda marries and produces sons, they won't continue the family name. Of course," he continued after a moment's reflection, "she could do something unconventional; you never know what the young ones will do these days.

But at present, Junior Goodwinter is the only hope. He's produced one son so far..." Mr. Tibbitt would have rambled on, but Qwilleran noticed that the bearded man had left the reading room, and he wanted to follow him. Excusing himself, he bolted down the stairs and out of the building, dodging preschoolers, but the car with the Massachusetts plate was pulling out of the parking lot.

From the library he took the back street to the police station, hoping to avoid acquaintances who would question his premature return from the mountains. He found Andrew Brodie, the big, broad shouldered chief of police, hunched over a computer, distrustfully poking the keys.

"Who invented these damn things?" Brodie growled.

"More trouble than they're worth!" He leaned back in his chair.

"Well, my friend, you hightailed it back to Pickax pretty fast!

How'd you do it?" "By flying low, bribing cops, and not giving my right name," Qwilleran retorted in the familiar bantering style that Brodie liked.

"How's it going, Andy? Have you logged any more reports of prowlers?" "Nary a one! The incident on Goodwinter Boulevard is hard to figure.

Can't say that I buy your theory, Qwill.

Kidnapping is something we've never had around here, except once when a father snatched his kid after a custody battle." "There was a stranger loitering in the reading room outside Polly's office a few minutes ago, a youngish man with a bushy beard and a gray sweatshirt.

He was driving a car with a Massachusetts license plate, but he pulled out of the lot before I could catch the number." "Could it be Dr. Melinda's car? She's back in town." "This was an old model, and muddy. I'm sure she drives something new and antiseptic-looking." "If you see it again, get the number and we'll run a check on the registration just for the hell of it. Did you get a description?" "All I can tell you is that it's a medium-sized car in dull maroon, and it looks as if it's been on dirt roads lately." "Not hard to do in this neck o' the woods." Qwilleran looked over Brodie's shoulder toward the coffeemaker.

"Could the taxpayers afford a cup for a weary traveler?" "Help yourself, but don't expect anything like that liquid tar that you brew!" Qwilleran pushed open the gate into the enclosure, poured a cup of weak coffee, and sat down in another hard institutional oak chair.

"Did you play your bagpipe at Dr. Hal's funeral, Andy?" The chief nodded soberly.

"Everybody broke up! Men, women, and children--all in tears! There's nothing sadder than a dirge on a bagpipe. Dr. Melinda requested it.

She said her dad liked the pipes." Switching to a confidential tone, he went on.

"She thinks she's gonna take over his patients, but the guys around here won't warm up to the idea of stripping and being examined by a woman doctor. I'm squeamish about it myself. I'll find me a male doctor even if I have to go down to Lockmaster. How about you?" "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Qwilleran said carelessly, although he knew the situation would be awkward in his own case.

"Our health care setup will improve when the Klingenschoen Professional Building is finished. We'll be able to lure some specialists up here from Down Below. After all, it's a good place to raise a family; you said so yourself." His effort to divert attention from Melinda was unsuccessful. Brodie regarded him sharply.

"You and her were pretty thick, I understand, when she was here before." "She was the first woman I met when I came to Moose County, Andy, but that's ancient history." "I don't know why you and Polly don't get hitched. It's the only way to live, to my way of thinking." "That's because you're a dedicated family man. Try to get it through your skull that some of us make rotten husbands. I found it out the hard way, to my sorrow. I lost several years of my life, and ruined another life in the process." "But Polly's a good woman. Damn shame to see her wasted." "Wasted! If she knew you called her life wasted, she'd tear up your library card! Polly is living a useful and rewarding life.

She's the lifeblood of the library. And she chooses to be independent.

She has her women friends and her bird-watching and a comfortable apartment filled with family heirlooms..." And she has Bootsie, Qwilleran said to himself as he walked from the police station to the newspaper office. He huffed into his moustache. It was his impression that Polly lavished too much maudlin affection on the two-year-old Siamese. When Bootsie was a kitten, she babied him unconscionably, but now he had outgrown kittenish ways and she still babbled precious nonsense in his ear. In Qwilleran's household, the Siamese were sophisticated companions whom he treated as equals, and they treated him the same way. He addressed them intelligently, and they replied with expressive yips and yowls. When he discussed problems in their presence, he felt their sympathy. He regularly read aloud to them from worthwhile books, news magazines, and--on Sundays--the New York Times.

Kao K'o Kung, the male (called Koko as a handy everyday diminutive), was a gifted animal endowed with highly developed senses quite beyond those of humans and other cats.

Yum Yum was a female who hid her catly wiles under a guise of affectionate cuddling, purring and nuzzling, often extending a paw to touch Qwilleran's moustache. From the police station it was a short walk to the office of the Moose County Something, as the local newspaper was named. (everything in mile-square Pickax was a short walk.) The publication occupied a new building made possible by financial assistance from the Klingenschoen Foundation, and the editor-and-publisher was Qwilleran's longtime friend from Down Below, Arch Riker. In the lobby there were no security guards or hidden cameras such as those employed by the large metropolitan dailies for which Qwilleran had worked. He walked down the hall to Riker's office and found the door open, the desk unoccupied. From the managing editor's office across the hall Junior Goodwinter hailed him.

"Arch went to Minneapolis for a publishers' conference. He'll be back tomorrow. Come on in! Have a chair. Put your feet up. I don't suppose you want a cup of coffee." Recalling the anemic brew he had just swallowed, Qwilleran replied, "I majored in journalism and graduated with a degree in caffeine. Make it black and hot." Junior's boyish build, boyish countenance, and boyish enthusiasm were now tempered by a newly grown beard.

"How do you like it?" he asked as he stroked his chin.

"Does it make me look older?" "It makes you look like a young potato farmer. What's your wife's reaction?" "She likes it. She says it makes me look like a jolly elf.

What brings you home so soon?" he asked as he handed over a steaming cup.

"Polly was frightened by a prowler on Goodwinter Boulevard. I didn't like the sound of it." "How come we didn't hear about it?" "She reported it, but there's been no further incident, so far as anyone knows." "They've got to do something about Goodwinter Boulevard, no kidding," said Junior.

"It used to be the best street in town. Now it's getting positively hairy with all those vacant mansions looking like haunted houses. The one where Alex and Penelope lived has been up for sale for years! The one that Van Brook rented is empty again, and it's going begging. Who wants fifteen or twenty rooms nowadays?" "Rezoning, that's what it needs," Qwilleran said.

"It should be rezoned for apartments, offices, good restaurants, high-class nursing homes, and so forth. Why don't you write an editorial?" "I'd be accused of special interest," Junior said.

"How do you figure that?" "Grandma Gage has bought a condo in Florida and wants to deed the mansion to me while she's still living.

What would I do with fifteen rooms? Think of the heating bills and the taxes and all those windows to wash! I'll own just another white elephant on Goodwinter Boulevard." Qwilleran's eyes, known for their doleful expression and drooping lids, roamed over the clutter on the editor's desk, the crumpled paper that had missed the wastebasket, the half-open file drawers, the stacks of out-of-town newspapers.

But he wasn't looking; he was thinking. He was thinking that the Gage mansion occupied the property in front of Polly's carriage house. If he lived there, he could keep a watchful eye on her. Also, it would be convenient for other purposes, like dropping in for dinner frequently.

He smoothed his moustache with satisfaction and said to Junior, "I could use a winter house in town. My barn is hard to heat and there's too much snow to plow. Why don't I rent your house?" "Wow! That would be great!" the young editor yelled.

"But I still think you should run that editorial." "The city will never do anything about rezoning. Tradition dies hard in Pickax." "How about Stephanie's Restaurant in the old Lanspeak house? It was opened a couple of years when I first came here." "That was the first house on the boulevard," Junior explained.

"It faced Main Street and could be legally used for commercial purposes. Too bad it closed; the building's still empty... No, Qwill, there are still influential families on the boulevard who'll fight rezoning like tigers. We'll have to wait for some more of them to die off. Dr. Hal lived on the boulevard, you know." "Do you think Melinda will keep the house?" "No way! She has an apartment and intends to sell the house and furnishings. Off the record, her dad didn't leave much of an estate.

He was an old-fashioned country doctor, never charging patients who couldn't pay and never taking advantage of the insurance setup. And don't forget the expense of round-the-clock nurses for his wife for all those years! Melinda has inherited more problems than property.. Have you seen her?" Junior asked with a searching look. He knew about Melinda's former pursuit of the county's most eligible bachelor. She was Junior's cousin. All Goodwinters were cousins to a degree.

"She's changed somehow," he said.

"I don't know how to pinpoint it." "Three years on the staff of a Boston hospital can do that," Qwilleran said.

"Yeah, they worked her pretty hard, I guess.

Well, anyway, can we expect some copy from you this week? Or are you too bushed?" "I'll see what I can do." Walking home, Qwilleran recalled his earlier association with Dr. Melinda Goodwinter. He had been a stranger in Moose County at the time, suffering from a fierce case of ivy poisoning. After treating his condition successfully, she offered friendship, flip conversation, and youth. She was twenty years his junior, with green eyes and long lashes and the frank sexuality of her generation. As a doctor, she had convinced him to give up smoking and take more exercise. As a woman, she had been overly aggressive for Qwilleran's taste, and her campaign to bulldoze him into matrimony resulted in embarrassment for both of them. She moved to Boston after that, telling everyone she had no desire to be a country doctor. When he met Polly, it was he who did the pursuing--an arrangement more to his liking. She was not so thin as Melinda, nor were her lashes so long, but she was a congenial companion and a good cook, who shared his literary interests. They liked to get together and read Shakespeare, for one thing. She made no unacceptable demands, and, more and more, Qwilleran found Polly occupying his thoughts. On the way home he stopped at Toodles' Market to buy the Siamese something to eat--always a problem because they had fickle palates. Their preferences changed just often enough to keep him perpetually on his toes. There was only one constant: no cat food! As if they could read labels, they disdained any product intended for the four-legged trade. Sometimes they were satisfied with a can of red salmon garnished with a smoked oyster or a dab of caviar, preferably sturgeon. At other times, they would kill for turkey, but he could never be sure. At Toodles' he considered a slice of roast beef from the deli or some chicken liver pate.

Better yet would be a few ounces of tenderloin from the butcher, to serve au tartare, but he would have to hand-mince it; ground meat was somehow objectionable. He settled for the pate. From there he followed the long way home, just for the exercise, trudging along a back road, then up a gravel trail through an old orchard. He was a hundred feet from the apple barn when he heard clarion voices yowling a welcome. The nineteenth-century barn was an octagonal structure four stories high, with large windows cut into the walls at various levels, and he could see two furry bodies darting about indoors, observing him first from one window and then another. They met him at the door, prancing and waving their tails like flags. It was a ritual that gave him a leap of inner joy in spite of his unsentimental greeting.

"What have you young turks been doing since you got home?" They sensed the liver pate with quivering whiskers.

In spasms of anticipation they dashed up the ramp that spiraled around the interior of the building, connecting the three balconies and ending in narrow catwalks under the roof. Then they pounded pell-mell down the slope to the first balcony, from which they flew like squirrels, landing in the cushioned seating on the main floor.

There they washed their paws and whiskers before dinner. When Qwilleran spread the pate on a plate and placed it on the floor, he watched them with fascination as they devoured it. They were masterpieces of design: sleek fawn bodies on long brown legs; incredibly blue eyes in seal-brown masks; expressive brown tails tapered like rapiers. To Qwilleran they seemed to have more elegance than Bootsie, who was being overfed to compensate for the loneliness of his solitary life. At seven o'clock he called for Polly at her carriage-house apartment behind the Gage mansion, and as he climbed the narrow staircase, Bootsie was waiting at the top with ears back and fangs bared.

"Greetings, thou paragon of animals," Qwilleran said, thinking a phrase from Shakespeare would please Polly. Bootsie hissed.

"You must forgive him," she apologized.

"He sensed danger when the prowler was outside, and he's been edgy ever since." After a warm, silent, meaningful embrace that would have astonished the library patrons and started the Pickax grapevine sizzling, Qwilleran presented Polly with a tissue-wrapped bundle.

"Sorry it isn't giftwrapped," he said.

"I brought it from the mountains. It looked like your shade of blue." Polly was thrilled.

"It's a batwing cape! It's handwoven! Who did it?" "One of the mountaineers," he said, shrugging off the question.

"They're all weavers and potters and woodworkers in the mountains." He avoided mentioning that the weaver was an interesting young woman whom he had taken to dinner and who had rescued him twice when he was in trouble on mountain passes.

Polly had shed the drab suit she wore at the library and was looking festive in a summer dress of mixed polka dots, red-on-white and white-on-red.

"You're sure it isn't too bold for me?" she asked when Qwilleran complimented her.

"Irma Hasselrich helped me choose it." They drove to the restaurant in the rental car that had brought him from the mountains.

"My own car broke down," he explained, "and I left it there." The tale was loosely true; the car had bogged down in mud, and he had given it to the young mountain woman, who would be able to haul it out with her swamp buggy. The restaurant called the Old Stone Mill occupied a historic gristmill. There was enough affluence in Pickax--and there were enough educated palates--to support one good eatery, and it was owned by a syndicate of businessmen who needed an unprofitable venture for tax purposes. It paid its chefs handsomely and offered a menu worldly enough for local residents who had dined in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris. After Qwilleran and Polly were greeted and seated at their usual table, a six-foot-seven busboy, who towered above customers and staff alike, shuffled up to the table with a water pitcher and basket of garlic toast. His name was Derek Cuttlebrink.

"Hi, Mr. Q," he said in friendly fashion.

"I thought you were going away for the summer." "I came back," Qwilleran explained succinctly.

"I'm taking two weeks in August to go camping." "Good for you!" "Yeah, I met this girl, and she has a tent. Blue nylon, seven-by-eight, with aluminum frame. Sets up in five minutes." "Take plenty of mosquito repellent," Qwilleran advised.

"Stay away from poison ivy. Watch out for ticks." Polly asked, "Have you given any more thought to college, Derek?" "Well, you know, it's like this, Mrs. Duncan. I've decided to stay in the food business. I'm getting promoted to the kitchen, end of the month--in charge of French fries and garlic toast." "Congratulations!" said Qwilleran. When the busboy had sauntered away, Polly wondered, "Do you think Derek will ever amount to anything?" "Don't give up hope," Qwilleran said.

"One of these days he'll meet the right girl, and he'll become a famous brain surgeon.

I've seen it happen." He ordered dry sherry for Polly and, for himself, a local product called Squunk water--from a flowing well in Squunk Corners. He always drank it on the rocks with a twist. Polly raised her glass.

"Slainte!" "Ditto," Qwilleran said.

"What does it mean?" "I don't know exactly. It's a toast in Gaelic that Irma Hasselrich always uses." Polly often quoted her new friend.

Personally, Qwilleran had his doubts about Irma Hasselrich. In her forties, she still lived at home with her parents, her father being senior partner in the law firm of Hasselrich, Bennett and Barter.

She was the chief volunteer at the Senior Care Facility, and Qwilleran had met her while interviewing an aged patient. At that time, he thought her a handsome woman. She had a Junoesque figure, a polished appearance, and a charming manner. Since Polly was spending the summer in England, he tried to take Irma to dinner, but his invitation was pointedly avoided. He was not accustomed to being rejected, and his reaction was distinctly negative. Recently the two women had discovered a mutual interest: They often went birdwatching with binoculars and notebooks on the banks of the Ittibittiwassee River or in the wetlands near Purple Point.

Furthermore, the well-groomed, well-dressed Irma was influencing Polly to wear brighter colors and touch up her graying hair.

"You're looking especially young and attractive tonight," he remarked as they sipped their aperitifs.

"Soon you'll be joining the Theatre Club and playing ingenue roles." "Not likely," she said with her musical laugh.

"But did you hear that the club is doing Macbeth in September?" "That's a surprise!" "Why? It's a highly dramatic play with witches, ghosts, swordplay, a sleepwalker, and some ghastly murders, and it has plenty to say about temptation, human failure, spiritual evil, and compulsive ambition." "But according to superstition, it brings bad luck to the company that stages it." "No one around here is aware of that, so don't enlighten them," Polly advised.

"Of course, it's almost certain that Larry will play the title role." "He'll have to grow a beard again. He won't like that.

Who's directing?" "A new man in town, Dwight Somers, who's taken a position with XYZ Enterprises. He's had theatre experience and is said to be very nice.

Auditions have been announced, and it's rumored that Dr. Melinda is going to read for Lady Macbeth." The Pickax library was a major listening post in the local grapevine.

Qwilleran wanted to ask: Have you seen Melinda? ... How does she look?

... They say she's changed a lot. He deemed it wise, however, not to exhibit that much interest, so he asked casually, "Would she be any good in that role?" "Quite possibly. I saw her at Dr. Hal's funeral and thought she was looking... much older. The Goodwinter face--long and narrow, you know--has a tendency to look haggard. It doesn't age well." They ordered jellied watercress consomme and grilled swordfish with pineapple-jalapeno salsa, and Qwilleran asked, "What's the surprise you have for me tonight?" "Well!" she began with evident relish.

"Irma and I had dinner one night while you were away, and we were talking about Scotland. She went to art school there and still has connections, whom she visits frequently.

I mentioned that I've always wanted to see Macbeth country, and that started a train of thought. Why not organize a group tour of Scottish Isles and Highlands, with a percentage of the tour cost going to the Senior Care Facility, tax deductible?" "Sounds okay.

Who'd manage it?" "Irma is plotting the itinerary, and she'll make the reservations and act as tour guide." "Is she experienced at handling group tours?" "No. But she's in charge of the volunteer program at the facility, and she's a natural leader, well organized, and certainly knowledgeable about Scotland, especially the Western Isles and Highlands." "How will you travel in Scotland?" "By chartered minibus. The Lanspeaks and the Comptons have signed up, and Irma and I will share a room. The price of the tour is based on double occupancy, but singles are available." Qwilleran said to himself, It's a good idea for Polly to leave the country until the prowler threat blows over.

"You'll like the Highlands. I spent my honeymoon there. As I recall, the food wasn't very good, but that was quite a long time ago, and when you're a newlywed, who cares? ... Would you like me to feed Bootsie while you're away?" She regarded him hopefully.

"We were thinking... that you might... join the tour." The suggestion caught him off-guard, and he stared into space for a few moments before answering.

"How long is the trip? I've never left the cats for more than a couple of days. Who'd take care of them?" "Is there someone you could trust to move into your barn for two weeks?

My sister-in-law is going to stay with Bootsie." Qwilleran stroked his moustache with uncertainty.

"I don't know.

I'll have to think about it. But whatever I decide, the K Foundation will match whatever you raise for the Senior Facility. Will it be advertised?" "Irma says it's better to make it invitational to ensure a compatible group. We'll go in late August when the heather is in bloom. The tour will start in Glasgow and end in Edinburgh." "Glasgow?" Qwilleran echoed with interest.

"I've been reading about the Charles Rennie Mackintosh revival in Glasgow. My mother was a Mackintosh, you know." Polly knew, having heard it a hundred times, but she asked sweetly, "Do you think you might be related to him?" "I know nothing about my maternal ancestors except that one of them was either a stagecoach driver who was killed by a highwayman, or a highwayman who was hanged for murdering a stagecoach driver. As for Charles Rennie Mackintosh, I know only that he pioneered modern design a hundred years ago, and he sounds like an interesting character." "If you wish to extend your time in Glasgow, you can do that," Polly said encouragingly.

"Carol and Larry will go early and see a few plays in London." "Okay, sign me up for a single," he said.

"I'll find a cat-sitter. Lori Bamba would be perfect, but she has kids, and they'd fall off the balconies. The barn was designed for cats and adults." The soup course arrived, and they savored it in silence as they thought about the forthcoming adventure. When the swordfish was served, Qwilleran said, "I've heard a rumor about Irma Hasselrich, although not from a reliable source. Perhaps you could set me straight." Polly stiffened noticeably.

"What have you heard?

And from whom?" "I protect my sources," he said, "but the story is that she shot a man twenty-odd years ago and was charged with murder, but the Hasselriches bribed the judge to let her off without a sentence." Drawing a deep breath of exasperation, Polly replied, "Like most gossip in Pickax, it's only ten percent accurate. The motive for the shooting was what we now call date rape. In court, Hasselrich defended his daughter brilliantly. The jury found her guilty of manslaughter but recommended leniency, and the judge was more understanding than most jurists at that time; he gave her probation, plus an order to do three years of community service... Does that answer your question?" Detecting annoyance in the curt explanation, he said, "I'm sorry. I simply repeated what I had heard.

" More softly Polly said, "After completing her community service, Irma went on to devote her life to volunteer work. She'll do anything for charity! She's raised tons of money for good causes." "Quite admirable," Qwilleran murmured, but it crossed his mind that "anything" was a strong and suspect word. He ordered strawberry pie for dessert, and Polly toyed with a small dish of lime sorbet. She had eaten only half of everything that was served.

"I'm watching my diet," she explained.

"I've lost a few pounds. Does it show?" "You're looking healthy and beautiful," he replied.

"Don't get too skinny." After dessert they went to her apartment for coffee, and then did some reading aloud. They read two acts of Macbeth while Bootsie sniffed Qwilleran's trouser legs with distaste. It was late when Qwilleran returned to the apple barn, and two indignant Siamese met him at the door. Sensing that he had been associating with another cat, they walked away with a lofty display of superiority.

"Come off it, you guys!" he rebuked them.

"I have news for you. I'm taking a trip to Scotland, and you're not going!" "Yowl" Koko scolded him.

"That's right. You're staying here!" "Not-not-now!" shrieked Yum Yum.

"And you're not going, either!"

Two

The day following his evening with Polly, Qwilleran regretted his impulsive decision to go to Scotland and leave the Siamese for two weeks. As he brushed their silky coats-- Yum Yum with hindlegs splayed like a Duncan Phyfe table, and Koko with tail in a stiff Hogarth curve--he thought of canceling his reservation, but an inner voice deterred him, saying: You're a two-hundred-pound man, and you're allowing yourself to be enslaved by eighteen pounds of cat!

That evening he was reading aloud with the female cuddling contentedly on his lap and the male perched on the arm of his chair, when the telephone rang. ...


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The Cat Who Wasn't ThereCat Who Wasnt There
Lilian Jackson Braun