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Authors: Lilian Jackson Braun

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The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts

BOOK: The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts
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THE CAT WHO TALKED TO GHOSTS

LILIAN JACKSON BRAUN

 

-1-

JIM QWILLERAN IS a very rich man—the richest individual in Moose County, to be exact. Moose County, as everyone knows, claims to be 400 miles north of everywhere, a remote rockbound outpost comfortably distant from the crime, traffic, and pollution of densely populated urban areas to the south. The natives have a chauvinistic scorn for what they call Down Below.

Before Qwilleran inherited his enormous wealth he had been a journalist Down Below, covering the crime beat on major newspapers for twenty-five years. His name (spelled with the unconventional Qw) and his photograph (distinguished by a luxuriant moustache) were known to millions. Then, at the uneasy age of fifty, he became heir to the Klingenschoen fortune and retired to Moose County.

Currently he lives quite simply in Pickax City, the county seat (population: 3,000), sharing a modest bachelor apartment with two Siamese cats, writing a column for the local newspaper, driving an energy-efficient car, dating a librarian, and ignoring the fact that he owns half of Moose County and a substantial chunk of New Jersey. The tall husky man with a prominent moustache is frequently seen riding a bicycle in Pickax, dining in restaurants, and going into the secondhand bookstore. He reads much, and although his mournful eyes and drooping moustache give his countenance an aspect of sadness, he has found contentment.

Not surprisingly Qwilleran has retained his interest in crime, possessing a natural curiosity and a journalist's cynicism that can scent misdoing like a cat sniffing a mouse. Recently he was haunted by private suspicions following an incident that others accepted as a whim of fate. The initial circumstances are best related in his own words. He recorded the following on tape shortly after his midnight ride to North Middle Hummock:

I knew the telephone was about to ring. I knew it a full ten seconds before it interrupted the first act of Otello. It was a Sunday night in early October, and I was in my pajamas, taking it easy, listening to an opera cassette that Polly Duncan had brought me from England. The Siamese also were taking it easy, although not necessarily listening. Koko was on the coffee table, sitting tall and swaying slightly, with a glazed expression in his slanted blue eyes. Opera puts him in a trance. Yum Yum was curled up on my lap with her paws covering her ears—a feline commentary on Verdi, no doubt. I'm not a great opera-lover myself, but Polly is trying to convert me, and I admit that Verdi's Otello is powerful stuff.

Suddenly, during the tense build-up to the drunken brawl scene, Yum Yum's body stiffened and her toes contracted. At the same instant Koko's eyes opened wide and his ears pointed toward the telephone. Ten seconds later... it rang.

I consulted my watch. In Pickax not many persons venture to call after midnight.

"Yes?" I answered brusquely, expecting to hear a befuddled voice asking for Nadine or Doreen or Chlorine against an obbligato of late-night bar hubbub. Or the caller might say abruptly, "Whoozis?" In that case I would say grandly, "Whom are you calling, sir?" And he would hang up immediately without even an expletive. Of all the four-letter words I know, the speediest turn-off in such circumstances is whom.

It was no barfly on the line, however. It sounded like Iris Cobb, although her voice—usually so cheerful—had a distinct tremor that worried me. "Sorry to call so late, Mr. Q, but I'm... terribly upset."

"What's the trouble?" I asked quickly.

"I'm hearing... strange noises in the house," she said with a whimper.

Mrs. Cobb lived alone in an old farmhouse rather far out in the country, where noise is an uncommon factor and any slight sound is magnified at night. The thumps and clicks from a furnace or electric pump, for example, can be unnerving, and a loose shutter banging against the house can drive one up the wall.

"Does it sound," I asked, "like a mechanical problem or something loose on the outside of the house?"

"No... no... not like that," she said in a distracted way as if listening. "There! I just heard it again!"

"What kind of noise, Mrs. Cobb?" My curiosity was aroused at that point.

She hesitated before replying timidly, "It's frightening! Sort of... unearthly!"

How should I react? Mrs. Cobb had always thought it amusing to have a resident ghost in an old house, but tonight her voice expressed abject terror. "Could you describe the sounds specifically?"

"It's like knocking in the walls... rattling... moaning... and sometimes a scream."

I ran a questioning hand over my moustache, which always perks up at moments like this. It was October, and Moose County likes to celebrate Halloween for the entire month. Already there were pumpkins on every front porch and ghostly white sheets hanging from trees. The pranksters might be getting an early start—perhaps some kids from the nearby town of Chipmunk, which is noted for its rowdies. "You should call the police," I advised her calmly. "Tell them you suspect prowlers."

"I called them the night before last," she said, "and everything was quiet when the sheriff got here. It was embarassing.”

"How long has this been going on? I mean, when did you first hear mysterious sounds?"

"About two weeks ago. At first it was just knocking—now and then—not very loud."

Her voice was more controlled now, and I thought the best course was to keep her on the line. She might talk herself out of her fears. "Have you mentioned the situation to anyone around there?" I asked.

"Well... yes. I told the people who live at the end of the lane, but they didn't take it seriously."

"How about reporting it to Larry or Mr. Tibbitt?"

"Somehow I didn't want to do that."

  "Why not?"

"Well... in the daylight, Mr. Q, when the sun is shining and everything, I feel foolish talking about it. I don't want them to think I'm cracking up."

That was understandable. "I suppose you keep the floodlights turned on in the yard after dark."

"Oh, yes, always! And I keep peeking outside, but there's nothing there. It seems to be coming from inside the house."

"I agree it's a puzzling situation, Mrs. Cobb," I said, trying to appear interested and helpful but not apprehensive. "Why don't you jump in your car and drive over to Indian Village and spend the night with Susan? Then we'll investigate in the morning. There's sure to be some logical explanation."

"Oh, I couldn't!" she said with a faltering cry. "My car's in the barn, and I'm afraid to go out there. Oh, Mr. Q, I don't know what to do!... Oh, my God! There it goes again!" Her words ended with a shriek that made my flesh creep. "There's something outside the window!"

"Get hold of yourself, Mrs. Cobb," I said firmly. "I'll pick you up and take you to Indian Village. Call Susan and tell her you'll be there. Pack a bag. I'll see you in twenty minutes. And drink some warm milk, Mrs. Cobb."

I pulled on pants and a sweater over my pajamas, grabbed the car keys and a jacket, and bolted out of the apartment, half stumbling over a cat who happened to be in the way. Mrs. Cobb had a health problem, and the noises might very well be imaginary, the result of taking medication, but that made them no less terrifying.

The farmhouse in North Middle Hummock was thirty minutes away, but I made it in twenty. Fortunately there was no traffic. This was late Sunday night, and all of Moose County was at home, asleep in front of the TV.

The old paving stones of Main Street, wet from a recent shower, glistened like a night scene in a suspense movie, and I barreled through the three blocks of downtown Pickax at sixty-five and ran the town's one-and-only red light. At the city limits the streetlights ended. There was no moon, and it was hellishly dark on the country roads. This had been a mining region in the nineteenth century. Now the highway is bordered with abandoned mineshafts, rotting shafthouses, and red Danger signs, but on this moonless night they were obliterated by the darkness.

I drove with my country-brights, following the yellow line and watching for the Dimsdale Diner, a lonely landmark that stays open all night. Its lights glimmered faintly through dirty windows, identifying the intersection where I had to turn onto Ittibittiwassee Road. There the highway was straight and smooth. I pushed up to eighty-five.

Beyond the Old Plank Bridge the route became winding and hilly, and I slowed to a cautious sixty-five, thinking about this woman who was depending on me tonight. Poor Mrs. Cobb had survived more than her share of tragedies. A few years ago, when I lived Down Below and wrote for the Daily Fluxion, she was my landlady. I rented a furnished room over her antique shop in a blighted part of the city. After the murder of her husband she sold the shop and moved to Pickax, where she applied her expertise to museum work. Now she was resident manager of the Goodwinter Farmhouse Museum, living in one wing of the historic building.

It was not surprising that she phoned me in her desperation. We were good friends, although in a formal sort of way, always addressing each other as "Mrs. Cobb" and “Mr. Q." I suspected that she would like a closer relationship, but she was not my type. I admired her as a businesswoman and an expert on antiques, but she played the clinging vine where men were concerned, and it could be cloying. She also played the witch in the kitchen. I'll admit to being a pushover for her pot roast and coconut cake, and the Siamese would commit murder for her meatloaf.

So here I was, speeding out to North Middle Hummock in my pajamas to rescue a helpless female in distress. For a brief moment it crossed my mind that her agonized phone call might be a ploy to get me out there in the middle of the night. Ever since inheriting all that damned Klingenschoen money I've been wary of friendly females. And ever since Mrs. Cobb arrived in Pickax with her vanload of cookbooks and her worshipful attitude, I've been on my guard. I enjoy a good meal and have always considered her a great cook, but she wore too much pink and too many ruffles—not to mention those eyeglasses with rhinestone-studded frames. Besides, I was involved with Polly Duncan, who was intelligent, cultivated, stimulating, loving... and jealous.

Hunting for North Middle Hummock in the dark was literally going-it-blind. It had been a thriving community in the old days when the mines were operating, but economic disaster after World War I had reduced it to a ghost town, a pile of rubble overgrown with weeds and totally invisible on a moonless night. With no streetlights and no visible landmarks, all trees and bushes looked alike. Finally my headlights picked out the white rail fence of the Fugtree farm, and I gave three cheers for white paint. After another dark stretch there was a white-painted cottage with a flickering light in the window; someone was watching TV. The cottage marked the entrance to Black Creek Lane, and the lane dead-ended at the Goodwinter place. I felt a flood of relief.

Mrs. Cobb had inherited the historic Goodwinter farmhouse from Herb Hackpole, her third husband, after a shockingly brief marriage. She immediately sold it to the Historical Society for use as a museum—sold it for one dollar! She was that kind of person, good-hearted and incredibly generous.

As I drove down the gravel lane I noticed that the Goodwinter farmyard, which should have been floodlighted, was in darkness. So was the house. Power failures are common in Moose County... and yet, I remembered seeing lights ,in the Fugtree farmhouse, and someone was watching TV in the cottage up at the comer. I felt a tingling sensation on my upper lip.

Driving around to the west side of the sprawling farmhouse, I parked with the headlights beamed on the entrance to the manager's apartment and took a flashlight from the glove compartment. First I banged the brass knocker, and when there was no answer I tried the door and was not surprised to find it unlocked. That's customary in Moose County. Flashing my light around the entrance hall I found a wall switch and flipped it experimentally, still thinking the power might be cut off. Unexpectedly the hall fixture responded—and on went four electric candles in an iron chandelier.

"Mrs. Cobb!" I called. "It's Qwilleran!"

There was no answer, nor was there any knocking or rattling or moaning. Certainly no screaming. In fact, the rooms were disturbingly silent. An archway at the left led to the parlor, and its antique furnishings were illuminated as soon as I found the wall switch. Why, I asked myself, had this frightened woman turned out all the lights? The roots of my moustache were sending me anxiety signals: Sometimes I wish it were less sensitive.

Across the hall the bedroom door was standing open, and there was an overnight case on the bed, partly packed. The bathroom door was closed. "Mrs. Cobb!" I called again. Somewhat reluctantly I opened the bathroom door and steeled myself to look in the stall shower.

Still calling her name, I continued down the hall to the old-fashioned kitchen with its fireplace and big dining table and pine cabinets. I flipped on the lights, and in that instant my instincts told me what I would find. There was a milk carton on the kitchen counter, and on the floor was a sprawled figure in a pink skirt and pink sweater, the eyes staring, the round face painfully contorted. There were no signs of life.

BOOK: The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts
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