It was late October, and Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere, was in danger of being wiped off the map. In the grip of a record-breaking drought, towns and farms and forests could be reduced to ashes overnightgiven a single spark and a high wind. Volunteer firefighters were on round-the-clock alert, and the congregations of fourteen churches prayed for snow. Not rain. Snow! Winter always began with a three-day blizzard, called the Big One, that buried everything under snow drifting to ten feet. So the good folk of Moose County waxed their snow shovels, bought antifreeze and earmuffs, stockpiled bottled water and flashlight batteriesand prayed.
Late one evening, in a condominium northeast of Pickax City, the county seat, a cat sat on a windowsill, stretching his neck, raising his nose, and sniffing. The man watching him thought, He smells a skunk. They had recently moved to the wooded area with its new sights, new sounds, new smells.
He went outdoors to investigate and found no sign of a skunk. It was a calm, quiet nightuntil the whoop of a police siren shattered the silence, followed by the honk-honk of a fire truck speeding south on a distant highway. The noise stopped abruptly as the emergency vehicles reached their destination. Reassured that another wildfire was under control, he went back indoors.
The cat was lapping water from his bowl. It was remarkable that he had smelled smoke three miles away, on a night without a breeze, and with the window closed. But Kao K'o Kung, was a remarkable cat! They had moved to a condominium in Indian Village for the winter: two Siamese and their personal valet, Jim Qwilleran. He also wrote a twice-weekly column for the local paper, the Moose County Something. Now middle-aged, he had been a prizewinning crime reporter for metropolitan newspapers Down Below, as the rest of the United States was known to Moose County. Odd circumstances had brought him to the north country with his two housemates, both adopted after crises in their nine lives.
Kao K'o Kung, familiarly known as Koko, was a sleek, stalwart male with amazing intelligence and intuition. Yum Yum was smaller, softer, and sweeter. Both had the pale fawn fur with seal brown "points" typical of the breed, and their brown masks were accented with shockingly blue eyes. While the female was adored for her dainty walk and kittenish ways, the male was admired for his masterful whiskerssixty instead of the usual forty-eight.
By coincidence, Qwilleran was noted for his luxuriant pepper-and-salt moustache. It appeared at the head of his "Qwill Pen" column every Tuesday and Friday and was recognized everywhere he went, A well-built six-foot-two, he was seen walking around town, riding a bicycle, dining in restaurants, and covering his beat. But he had claims to fame other than the unorthodox spelling of his name and the magnificence of his moustache. Fate had made him the heir to the vast Klingenschoen fortune, and he was the richest man in the northeast central United States. Turning his wealth over to a foundation for philanthropic purposes helped to endear him to the citizens of Moose County.
After the smoke-sniffing episode, Qwilleran gave the Siamese their bedtime treat and conducted them to their comfortable room on the balcony, turning on their TV without the sound, to lull them to sleep. Then he sprawled in a large chair and read news magazines until it was time for the midnight news on WPKX: "A brushfire on Chipmunk Road near the Big B minesite has been extinguished by volunteer firefighters from Kennebeck. When they arrived on the scene, the flames were creeping toward the shafthouse, one of ten in the county recently designated as historic places. `Motorists driving on country roads are once more reminded not to toss cigarettes out the car window,' said a spokesman for the sheriff's department. `Roadside weeds and forest underbrush are dry as tinder.' This is the third such fire in a week."
From The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, by Lilian Jackson Braun, Lillian Jackson Braun. © January 29, 2001 , Lilian Jackson Braun, Lillian Jackson Braun used by permission.
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