The middle-aged man pushing the broom and righting the chairs would have been recognized anywhere in three counties as James Mackintosh Qwilleran. He had a pepper-and-salt moustache of magnificent proportions, and his photo appeared at the head of the "Qwill Pen" column every Tuesday and Friday. He had been a highly regarded journalist in major cities around the country; then he inherited the vast Klingenschoen fortune based in Moose County and he relocated in the north country. Furthermore, for reasons of his own, he had turned the inheritance over to a philanthropic institution. The Klingenschoen Foundation, popularly called the K Fund, was masterminded by experts in Chicago, where Qwilleran was recognized as the richest man in the northeast central United States. Around Pickax he was Mr. Q.
Eventually Lois returned from the kitchen, carrying two orders of apple pie and a coffee server; forks, napkins, and mugs were in her apron pockets. They sat in a booth near the kitchen pass-through, so she could shout reminders to the woman who cooked dinner. Lois herself would wait on tables, take the money, and serve as moderator of the free-for-all talk show carried on among the tables.
"Well, Mr. Q," she began, "you missed a good chinfest this afternoon. Everybody's excited about the movie star comin' to town. Do you think she'll come in here to eat?"
Still suspecting a Lockmaster trick, he replied evasively, "Just because she's lived in Hollywood for fifty years, it doesn't make her a movie star. She could be a bookkeeper or policewoman or bank president."
Whatever she is, he thought, she must be loaded--to buy a house on Pleasant Street.
Lois shouted at the pass-through, "Effie! Don't forget to thaw the cranberry sauce!... Funny thing, though, Mr. Q--nobody remembers a Thackeray family in these parts."
Facetiously he said, "It would be interesting to know if she's related to William Makepeace Thackeray."
"Don't know anybody of that name. Who is he?"
"A writer, but he hasn't done anything recently."
She yelled, "And, Effie! Throw some garlic powder in the mashed potatoes!"
Qwilleran said, "Sounds delicious. I'd like to take a turkey dinner home in a box."
Lois yelled, "Effie! Fix a box for Mr. Q--and put in some dark meat for his kitties."
"By the way," he said, "what's all the action in the next block? All those trucks coming and going."
"They're movin' out!" she said. "Good riddance! It don't make sense to have a place like that downtown."
He waited for his "box" and walked to the corner of Church and Pine streets, where large cartons were being loaded into trucks and carted away. According to the logos on the cartons they were refrigerators, washers and dryers, kitchen ranges, and television sets.
He said to the man directing the loading, "Either you're moving out, or you've sold a lot of appliances this week."
"We got a new building on Sandpit Road--steel barn with real loading dock. Plenty of room for trucks."
The edifice they were vacating was a huge stone hulk, wedged between storefronts of more recent vintage. That meant it was more than a century old, dating back to the days when the county's quarries were going full blast and Pickax was being built as the City of Stone. It was the first time he had scrutinized it. There were no windows in the side walls, and the front entrance had been boarded up. Qwilleran crossed the street and appreciated the design for the first time: Four columns were part of the architecture, topped by a pediment and the simple words inscribed in the stone: opera house.
Then he realized that the smaller buildings on either side had been vacated also. Something was happening in downtown Pickax!
Qwilleran went home to his converted apple barn, which was as old as the opera house. It occupied a wooded area on the outskirts of town--octagonal, forty feet high, with fieldstone foundation and weathered wood shingles for siding. As he drove into the barnyard two alert cats were watching excitedly in the kitchen window. They were sleek Siamese with pale fawn bodies and seal-brown masks and ears, long slender legs, and whiplike tails. And they had startlingly blue eyes.
From The Cat Who Brought Down the House by Lilian Jackson Braun, Copyright © 2003 Lilian Jackson Braun, published by The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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