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4

No jets landed at the Pickax airport. There was no VIP lounge in the terrninal — not even a cigarette machine for nervous passengers. Moose County travelers were grateful to have shelter and a few chairs.

While waiting for Mrs. Cobb's plane, Qwilleran recalled that much of his education about antiques had come from the Cobbs' establishment when he was covering the "junk beat" for the Daily Fluxion. What he remembered of the lady herself was a composite of bustling exuberance, plump knees, and two pairs of eyeglasses dangling from ribbons around her neck.

When she stepped off the plane in her travel-weary pink pantsuit, he found her thinner and somewhat subdued, and her glasses had new frames studded with rhinestones.

"Oh, Mr. Qwilleran, how good to see you!" she cried. "What lovely weather you have here! It's suffocating in the city, Isn't this a quaint airport!" "Everything's quaint in Pickax, Mrs. Cobb, Do you have luggage?" "Only this carryon. It's all I need for an overnight." "You're welcome to stay longer, you know." "Oh, thank you, Mr. Qwilleran, but I have to go back tomorrow to close the deal with Mrs. Riker. She's going to live in your old apartment over the shop." "She is going to live there?" Qwilleran repeated, "What about her husband? What about their house in the suburbs?" "Didn't you know? She's getting a divorce." "I had lunch with Arch a few days ago, and he didn't say a word about it… but I remember he looked troubled, I wonder what happened." "I'll let him tell you the story," Mrs. Cobb said, and she pursed her lips with finality.

On a relentlessly straight highway they drove across the lonely landscape of Moose County — through evergreen forests and rockbound wasteland, past abandoned mines and unnatural hillocks that had once been slag heaps.

"Very rocky," Mrs. Cobb observed.

"Pickax is built almost entirely of stone," said Qwilleran.

"Is it really? Tell me about your house. Is it sumptuous?" "It's a big chunk of fieldstone three stories high, I call it Alcatraz Provincial," he began. "All the rooms are huge, The foyer would make a good roller rink if we took up the Oriental rugs… Every bedroom has a canopied bed and its own sitting room, dressing room, and bath… There's an English pub in the basement, and the top floor was supposed to be a ballroom, but it was never finished… The kitchen is so big you have to walk a mile to prepare a meal, It includes a butler's pantry, a food storage room, a laundry, a half bath, and a walk-in broom closet. The whole service area, as well as the solarium, is floored in square tiles of red quarry stone." "Any ghosts?" Mrs. Cobb asked with some of the old twinkle in her eyes, "Every old house should have a ghost.

Maybe you remember the one we had on Zwinger Street. She never materialized, but she moved things around in the middle of the night. She was very prankish." "I remember her very well," Qwilleran said. "She put salt shakers in your bedroom slippers." He also remembered that her ghostly pranks were an ongoing practical joke that C. C. Cobb had played on his gullible wife.

"How's Koko?" she asked.

"He's fine. He's taking piano lessons." "Oh, Mr. Qwilleran," she laughed. "I never know whether to believe what you say." They approached Pickax via Goodwinter Boulevard, lined with the stately stone houses that wealthy mining pioneers had built in the heyday of the city. Then came Main Street, the circular park, and the majestic K mansion.

Mrs. Cobb gave a little scream." Is this it? Oh! Oh! I want the job!" "You don't know how much it pays," Qwilleran said. "Neither do I." "I don't care. I want the job." When they entered the foyer, the amber walls were glowing and the brass-and-crystal chandelier was sparkling.

The furnishings looked almost self-consciously pedigreed.

"Why, it's like a museum!" "It's a little rich for my taste," Qwilleran admitted, "but everything is the real thing, and I have respect for it." "I could do a real museum catalogue for you. That rosewood-and-ormolu console is Louis XV, and I'll bet it's a signed piece. The clock is a Burnap — brass works, moonphase, late eighteenth." "Are you ready for the dining room?" Qwilleran switched on the twenty-four electric candles mounted on two staghorn chandeliers. It was a dark room, richly paneled, and the furniture was massive.

"Linenfold paneling!" Mrs. Cobb gasped. "Austrian chandeliers! The furniture is German, of course." "That's the original furniture," Qwilleran said, "before the Klingenschoens became serious collectors and switched to French and English." When they crossed the foyer to the drawing room, she stared in awed silence. Chandeliers festooned with crystal were ablaze in the afternoon sun. Mellowed with age, the red walls made a handsome background for oil paintings in extravagant frames: French landscapes, Italian saints, English noblemen, and one full-length, life-size portrait of an 1880 beauty with bustle and parasol. On the far wall a collection of Chinese porcelains filled the shelves in two lofty arched niches.

"I think I'm going to faint," Mrs. Cobb said.

"You should rest for a while," Qwilleran suggested. "There are four suites upstairs, each done in a different period.

I'll bring your overnight bag up to the French suite in a few minutes." While she climbed the stairs in a daze, he dashed off a note to his friend Down Below.

Dear Arch, Mrs. Cobb just broke the bad news. I don't need to tell you how terrible I feel about it. Why don't you take a week off and fly up here? It'll be a change of scene, and we can talk.

Qwill

He was addressing the envelope when he heard cries of alarm upstairs. "What are they doing? What are they doing?" Mrs. Cobb carne rushing down the stairs, babbling incoherently, and he ran to meet her.

"That truck in the back drive!" she cried. "I looked out the window. They're stealing things from the garage. Stop them!

Stop them!" "Don't get excited, Mrs. Cobb," Qwilleran said. "This isn't Zwinger Street. Those are porters from the design studio, cleaning out the junk before we redecorate." "It's not junk! Stop them!" They both hurried to the garage, where a truck was being loaded with rolled rugs, an old mattress, and odds and ends of furniture.

"That's a Hunzinger!" Mrs. Cobb shouted, pointing to an odd-looking folding chair. "And that's a real Shaker rocker!" She rushed about — from an early trestle table to a Connecticut dower chest to a Pennsylvania German schrank.

Qwilleran stopped the porters. "Take it all back except the mattress. Put everything in one of the garage stalls until we can sort it out." Mrs. Cobb was weak with shock and excitement. "What a narrow escape," she said, over a cup of tea. "You know, there was a period when Americana wasn't appreciated. These people must have moved their heirlooms to the garage when they bought their French and English antiques. It's strange that your decorator didn't recognize their current value." Maybe she did, Qwilleran thought. Later in the afternoon he conducted the prospective housekeeper on a walking tour of downtown Pickax. "How do you like the French suite?" he asked.

"I've never seen anything so grand! There's a Norman bonnet-top armoire that must be early eighteenth century!" Hesitantly she added, "If I come to work here, would you mind if I did a few appraisals for other people on the side?" "Not at all. You can even open a tearoom in the basement and tell fortunes." "Oh, Mr. Qwilleran, you're such a joker." Downtown Pickax was a panorama of imitation Scottish castles, Spanish fortresses, and Cotswold cottages. "All real stone," he pointed out, "but somehow it looks fake, like a bad movie set." They passed Amanda's studio (pure Dickens) and the offices of the Pickax Picayune (early monastery). Then he steered her into the office (Heidelberg influence) of Goodwinter and Goodwinter.

The junior partner was conferring with a client but consented to step out of her private office for a moment.

Qwilleran said, "I want to introduce Iris Cobb. I've convinced her to move up here from Down Below and manage our household. Mrs. Cobb, this is Penelope Goodwinter, attorney for the estate." "Pleased to meet you," said the housekeeper, extending her hand. Penelope, glancing at the rhinestone-studded I glasses, was a fraction of a second slow in shaking hands: and saying, "How nice." Qwilleran went on. "Mrs. Cobb is not only experienced in household management, but she's a licensed appraiser and will catalogue the collection for us." His former landlady beamed, and Penelope said, "Oh, really? We must discuss salary, of course. When do you wish to start your employment, Mrs. Cobb?" "Well, I'm flying home tomorrow, and I'll drive up here in my van as soon as I pack my reference books." "I suggest," the attorney said, "that you defer your arrival until your apartment is redecorated. At present it's in deplorable condition." "No problem," Qwilleran interjected. "Mrs. Cobb will have the French suite in the house. I plan to fix up the garage apartment for myself." The attorney's reaction started with shock, faded into disapproval, and recovered enough to muster a half smile. "I hope you will both be comfortable. Let us talk about terms and contracts tomorrow." "I'm taking Mrs. Cobb to dinner at the Old Stone Mill tonight," Qwilleran said. "Would you care to join us?" "Thank you. Thank you so much, but I have a previous engagement. And now… if you will excuse me…" "Oh my!" Mrs. Cobb said afterward. "She's a very smart dresser, isn't she? I didn't know they had clothes like that in Pickax." Qwilleran reported the incident to Melinda Goodwinter after putting the housekeeper on the plane the next day. The young doctor with green eyes and long eyelashes telephoned to invite him to dinner.

"My treat," she said. "I'd like to take you to Otto's Tasty Eats." "Never heard of it. How's the food?" "Ghastly, but there's lots of it. It's a family restaurant — no liquor — and you can sit in the smoking section or the screaming section, depending on whether you want to ruin your lungs or your eardrums." "You make the invitation irresistible, Melinda." "To tell the truth, I have an ulterior motive. I want to see your house. I've never seen the interior. The Klingenschoens and the Goodwinters weren't on the same wavelength socially. Could you meet me at Otto's at six-fifteen? I'll reserve a booth." At the appointed hour Qwilleran was wedging his green economy-model car into the crowded parking lot when Melinda pulled up in a silver convertible.

"When are you going to buy a gold-plated Rolls?" she greeted him.

"Do I look like a sheikh? Don't let the moustache mislead you." "You really made a hit when you proposed giving away your money," she said. "There's a rumor that Pickax will be renamed Qwillville. All the women in Moose County will be chasing you, but remember — I found you first." Otto's Tasty Eats occupied a former warehouse in the industrial area of Pickax. The wrinkled carpet suggested old army blankets. Long institutional tables — at least an acre of them — were covered with sheets of stiff white paper. Lights glared. Noise reverberated. Customers flocked in by the hundreds.

In the center of the room was a veritable shrine to gluttony: twelve-gallon crocks of watery soup, bushels of tom iceberg lettuce, mountains of fried chicken and fried fish, tubs of reconstituted mashed potatoes, and a dessert table that was a sea of white froth masquerading as whipped cream.

"Do you come here often?" Qwilleran asked.

"Only when I entertain supercilious urban types." Overstuffed diners were making three or four trips to the buffet, but Melinda insisted on ordering from the menu and having table service.

"I don't imagine," Qwilleran said, "that your cousins from the law office are frequent diners at Otto's Tasty Eats." He described the meeting between the attorney and Mrs. Cobb. "Penelope was a trifle perturbed when I told her the housekeeper would occupy the French suite and I'd live over the garage." Melinda's green eyes brimmed with merriment. "She probably went into shock. She and Alex are the last of the hard- line Goodwinter snobs. They consider themselves the superior branch of the family. Did you know that Penny is the one with brains? Alex is just a tiresome bore with an inflated ego, and yet she defers to him as if he were the mastermind." "He's a good-looking guy. Is he involved in politics? He seems to go to Washington a lot." "Well, it's like this," Melinda explained. "There's a lot of Old Money in Moose County, and Alex steers campaign donations to friendly pols. He loves the importance it gives him in the Capitol and at Washington parties. Have you met any other Goodwinters?" "Junior at the newspaper, for one. He's a bright kid, and he majored in journalism, but he's wasted at the Picayune. It looks like an antebellum weekly. I told him he's got to get the classified ads off the front page." "I hear that cousin Amanda is going to redecorate your garage apartment. Did she kick you in the shins or just call you a twelve-letter word?" "I don't understand how that woman stays in business. She has the personality of a hedgehog." "She has a captive clientele. There's no other decorator within four hundred miles." They could talk freely. Their booth was an island of privacy in a maelstrom of ear-splitting noise. The animated conversation of happy diners and the excited shrieks of children bounced off the steel girders and concrete walls, and the din was augmented by the Tasty Eats custom of pounding the table with knife handles to express satisfaction with the food.

The waiter was deferential. Melinda was not only a Goodwinter; she was a doctor. He brought a lighted candle to the table-a red stub in a smoky glass left over from Christmas. He persuaded the kitchen to broil two orders of pickerel without breading, and he found a few robust leaves of spinach to add to the sickly salad greens.

Qwilleran said to Melinda, "I wish you would do me a favor and explain the Goodwinter mystique." "It's simple," she said. "We've been here for five generations. My great-great-grandfather was an engineer and surveyor. His four sons made fortunes in the mines. Most speculators grabbed their money and went to live abroad, so their daughters could marry titles, but the Goodwinters stayed here, always in business or the professions." "Too bad none of them ever opened a good restaurant. Are there any black sheep in the family?" "Occasionally, but they're always persuaded to move to Mexico or change their name." "Change it to Mull, I suppose." Melinda gave him an inquiring glance. "You've heard about the Mulls? That's an unfortunate social problem. They worked in the mines a hundred years ago, and their descendants have lived on public assistance for the last three generations. They lack motivation-drop out of school — can't find jobs." "Where did they emigrate from originally?" "I don't know, but they were miners when the pay was a dollar and a half a day. They worked with candles in their caps and had to buy their own candles from the company store. The miners were exploited by the companies and by the saloons. You can read about it in the public library." "Did any of the Mulls ever break out of the rut?" "The young ones often leave town, and no one ever hears about them again — or cares. There's a lot of poverty and unemployment here. Also a lot of inherited wealth. Have you noticed the cashmeres at Scottie's Men's Store and the rocks at Diamond Jim's Jewelry? Moose County also has more private planes per capita than any other county in the state." "What are they used for?" "Mostly convenience. Commercial airlines have to route passengers in roundabout ways through hub cities. My dad flew his own plane before he became diabetic. Alex Goodwinter has a plane. The Lanspeaks have two — his and hers." Melinda bribed the waiter to find some fresh fruit for dessert, and after coffee Qwilleran said, "Let's go to my place. I'd like to show you my graffiti." Melinda brightened, and she batted her long lashes. "The evening begins to show promise." They drove both cars to the K mansion, and she asked if she might park the silver convertible in the garage. "It would be recognized in the driveway," she explained, "and people would talk." "Melinda, haven't you heard? This is the last quarter of the twentieth century." "Yes, but this is Pickax," she said with raised eyebrows.

"Sorry." When Qwilleran escorted his guest upstairs to the servants' quarters, she walked into the jungle of daisies in a state of bedazzlement. "Ye gods! This is stupendous! Who did it?" "A former housemaid. One of the Mulls. Worked for Amanda before she came here." "Oh; that one! I guess she was a one-woman disaster at the studio. Amanda fired her for pilfering." "After doing these murals she left town," Qwilleran said. "I hope she found a way to use her talent." "It's really fantastic! It's hard to believe it was done by Daisy Mull." "Daisy?" Qwilleran echoed in astonishment. "Did you: say Daisy Mull?" A melody ran through his mind, and he wondered if he should mention it. Previously he had hinted to Melinda about Koko's extrasensory perception, but a piano-playing cat seemed too radical a concept to share even with a broadminded M.D.

"You've never met Koko and Yum Yum," he said. "Let's go over to the house." When he conducted his guest into the amber-toned foyer, she gazed in wonder. "I had no idea the Klingenschoens owned such fabulous things!" "Penelope knew. Didn't she ever tell you?" "Penelope would consider it gossip." "The rosewood-and-ormolu console is Louis XV," Qwilleran mentioned with authority. "The clock is a Burnap. Koko is usually sitting on the staircase to screen arriving visitors, but this is his night off." Melinda commented on everything. The sculptured plaster ceilings looked like icing on a wedding cake. The life-size marble figures of Adam and Eve in the solarium had a posture defect caused by a calcium deficiency, she said. The Staffordshire dogs in the breakfast room were good examples of concomitant convergent strabismus.

"Want to see the service area?" Qwilleran asked. "The cats often hang out in the kitchen." Yum Yum was lounging on her blue cushion on top of the refrigerator, and Melinda stroked her fur adoringly. "Softer than ermine," she said.

Koko was conspicuously absent, however. "He could be upstairs, sleeping in the middle of a ten-thousand-dollar four- poster-bed," Qwilleran said. "He has fine taste. Let's go up and see." While he hunted for the cat, Melinda inspected the suites furnished in French, Biedermeier, Empire, and Chippendale.

Koko was not to be found.

Qwilleran was beginning to show his nervousness. "I don't know where he can be. Let's check the library. He likes to sleep on the bookshelves." He ran downstairs, followed by Melinda, but there was no sign of the cat in any of his favorite places — not behind the biographies, not between the volumes of Shakespeare, not on top of the atlas.

"Then he's got to be in the basement." The English pub had been imported from London, paneling and all, and it was a gloomy subterranean hideaway." They turned on all the lights and searched the bar, the backbar, and the shadows.

No Koko!


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