It was a Sunday morning in November, 400 miles north of anywhere, and through the window of a converted apple barn, the silhouette of a cat could be seen batting at falling leaves.
Yum Yum paused in her business long enough to inspect the car rolling up the driveway and determine that it wasn't worth any more of her consideration, and then she was back at it, lowering herself into a crouch and whipping her tail back and forth before launching herself towards a fluttering leaf on the other side of the glass.
"Someday," Qwilleran said, crossing the room to pet her, "you are going to catch one, and you're going to be sorely disappointed."
"Nnow," she told him, arching her back and stretching.
"I know you don't believe me," he replied. "But a leaf would not make for a very tasty treat." He left her there to continue her stalking, and Koko followed him to the door, winding around his legs and looking up expectantly. "Ah," Qwilleran said, looking down at him. "You heard the magic word, didn't you? I didn't mean you were getting a treat," he clarified.
"Yow!" Koko insisted, but Qwilleran brushed past him to open the door, releasing a gust of wind into the entryway.
"Brisk out there," he said, holding the door open for Polly Duncan to bluster her way inside, scarf flapping, cheeks pink from the cold.
"There'll be snow before long," she agreed, earning herself a low grumble of annoyance from Qwilleran as she leaned in to drop a kiss on his cheek.
"Not before I get moved back into the Village, thank you," he said.
"When are you planning on relocating, dear?" she asked. "It's nearly that time, you know."
He took her coat from her, shaking out the chill as Koko paraded around her in circles. "Soon," he replied. "There's been so much to cover at work lately that I haven't had much time for packing. Once the gala is over next week, Riker will dial back his coverage, and the cats and I can think about moving." Koko joined Yum Yum under the table, grumbling slightly. "Hush, you," Qwilleran told him sternly. "Just because you two are covered in nice fur coats doesn't mean the rest of us would be comfortable here." He turned back to Polly. "Mulled cider?" he offered, gesturing towards the kitchen, and she smiled gratefully. "How are the plans for the gala coming, anyway?" he asked. "Any further ridiculous requests from the board?"
"Not this week," she replied, taking a seat in the kitchen area. "And it's just as well. This event is going to be the death of me, I swear."
"I should hope not," Qwill replied with mock concern, ladling cider into two mugs and placing one in front of Polly. "My cats would never accept it if Bootsie came to stay."
"Yow!" Koko put in from under the coffee table.
Polly's smile at that was thin and tired, and Yum Yum extracted herself to pad into the kitchen and rub up against Polly's legs. Polly reached down to pet her distractedly. "The Historical Society has such high hopes for this exhibit, you know. Homer and his team have spent nearly a year sifting through all the most important and interesting artifacts from the county's history. It's going to be something to see, once it all comes together. And the fact that it's all going on tour before settling in such a prestigious museum Down Below – it's all so exciting." She sighed, wrapping her fingers around the mug. "And exhausting."
He reached to pat her hand soothingly. "Only a week more," he pointed out. "By next Sunday, the gala will be over, the exhibit will be proudly on display in the library, and a week after that it will be shipped off to Lockmaster and out of your hair."
"It really is an excellent opportunity for people to learn about our community, and to raise money for so many events and services. We're lucky the museum approached us with such a generous offer." She eyed him. "You're sure the K Fund didn't have anything to do with this?"
He shrugged and held up his hands. "You know me," he said, "I'm hands off the whole operation. But from what I hear, it's all due to how much our tourism revenue has skyrocketed recently. People are flocking to Moose County, and the folks Down Below are starting to wonder why."
She sighed. "I do hope we make a good impression."
"I think it would be practically impossible for you to do otherwise," Qwill told her.
Talk moved on from the gala to other local events, and they passed a quiet morning together, relocating back to the living room, lingering over mugs of cider and a pair of good books, Yum Yum dozing contentedly on Polly's lap.
A few nights later, Qwill woke in the night to the sound of the telephone, quickly followed by the skitter of alarmed cats, and he dragged himself out of bed, grumbling.
"Hello?" he said gruffly into the receiver, and was instantly awake at the distress he heard in Polly's voice.
"Oh, Qwill, I'm so glad you answered," she said. "There's been a fire at the library!"
"Not the special collection?" he said hopefully, and the sad little noise she let out was answer enough.
"I haven't been over to check yet, but Andy was the one who called me, and he said only a few items were destroyed. The alarms are very sensitive, you know, and they went off nearly as soon as it started. The fire's not even the strange part, though," she said, and he huffed into his moustache.
"Oh?" he asked.
"The fire crew reported seeing someone running off towards the woods when they arrived. They think it might have been arson! Can you imagine? Burning pieces of history like that. Whoever it was should be ashamed of themselves."
"Don't go anywhere, Polly," Qwill said. "I'll come and get you, and we can go over to the library together to talk to Andy."
"Oh Qwill," she sighed. "It's just awful. What are we going to do about the gala? We can't possibly hold it while they're doing repairs."
He patted his moustache. "Why don't you move the collection here?" he asked. "I'll make some calls tomorrow regarding the relocation, and the gala can go off as planned."
"Oh, would you?" Polly asked. "Darling, that would be wonderful!"
"It would probably be best for someone to be keeping an eye on it," he said, "and the cats do love a chance to show off for company." Yum Yum slunk into the room as if on cue, and yelled for attention. He reached down to scratch her between the ears. "Get dressed and meet me downstairs," Qwill said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Thank you," Polly said fervently, and hung up.
"Arson at the library, hmm?" Qwill said to the cats, and they looked at him with tails twitching. "Never a dull moment in this town, is there?"
The town turned out for the moving of the special collection from the damaged library to the apple barn, and the next evening, Qwill's home was teeming with Moose County citizens, hauling boxes, directing placement, and replacing his furniture with display cases.
Roger had donated his truck to the cause in exchange for the okay to do a piece on the relocation for the paper, and he and Junior were unloading it efficiently as Qwill carefully directed the removal of his personal effects to less public areas of the house.
"Good of you to come, Junior," he said, directing him towards the far corner with the table he was carrying.
"Jodi's a Friend of the Library," Junior explained. "She's out of town visiting her folks with the little guy, but as soon as she heard what happened, she called and insisted I come help out in her place."
"We really do appreciate it," Polly said, helping him unfold the table and set it upright. "This would have taken so much longer with just the staff."
"Nonsense, Polly," Mildred said, from where she and Arch were assembling a case by the entryway. "We wouldn't leave all of this to you. You've done so much already."
Polly sighed. "I just don't understand who would do such a thing."
"Maybe it was an accident," Roger said comfortingly, patting her on the shoulder on his way by, but he and Qwill exchanged the look of newspapermen on the trail of a story.
"How are the cats going to be with all of this, Qwill?" Mildred asked. "No one in this house likes to eat paper, do they?"
"Their interest in books tends more towards rubbing their cheeks on them than tearing out pages, luckily, but we should take a careful inventory before everyone leaves. Yum Yum is in the habit of making off with small objects if they're not held down."
The assembly went smoothly, and before long, the first floor of the apple barn looked like a first rate museum, the displays reassembled tastefully around the room, a bar set up by the doorway, and Qwill and Polly were alone with the cats, who were making their way gingerly between the cases, sniffing carefully.
"I think it looks even better here," Polly said, sounding more like herself, and Qwill smiled at her.
"It is a stunning collection," he agreed. "The artwork really brings it all together." He gestured to the paintings hung between the display cases. "Was it all done by the same artist?"
Polly nodded. "It was a series she had started before the collection was announced, surrounding the history of the county, and she added a few more pieces once she knew some of the articles we were including. It really brings the idea to life, doesn't it?"
"Quite nicely," Qwill agreed. "Will she be at the gala? I'd like to pay my compliments."
"She will," Polly said. "Homer insisted on it. He was just thrilled, when he saw what she had done." She yawned, and Qwill nodded to the kitchen.
"Some cider before you go?" he asked invitingly.
"That would be lovely, dear," she replied.
When they emerged from the kitchen a while later, relaxed and chatting, they were met by the sight of Yum Yum perched atop the highest case in the middle of the room.
"Well, aren't you the queen of the library?" Qwill asked. She squinted her eyes at him, looking smug, and was still there after he had seen Polly out, shut off the lights, and headed upstairs for bed.
The night of the gala came crisp and clear, and Polly arrived early for setup and fussing. The cats stole away to the second floor, their tails hanging off the balcony and twitching whenever anyone said something relevant to their interests. By the time the guests started arriving, the sun had set, and the barn was lit with a pleasant glow from the inside, like a beacon in the woods.
"Everything looks lovely, Polly," Mildred said, sweeping in on Arch's arm, and Polly beamed. "I'm so glad the weather held out and we didn't get any - "
"Don't you dare say the S word," Qwill interrupted. "She's been worrying for days."
He made the rounds of the room, watching Polly hold court, in her element, talking to the guests about things she loved, using her charm on library donors with ease. Homer beckoned him over towards the bar at one point, and he crossed to greet the old man warmly.
"This is Jillian Davies," he said, gesturing to the young lady by his side. "The artist that Polly tells me you were asking about."
"You do fine work," Qwill said, introducing himself, and she smiled graciously.
"Thank you," she said. "There's something really beautiful about Moose County, and I was hoping to capture it as best I could."
"I find it to be quite successful," he assured her. "Your paintings add a lot to the collection."
"Don't tell anyone," Homer said, lowering his voice, "but she's from Lockmaster."
"No one will hear it from me," Qwill assured. "In fact," he leaned in towards her confidentially. "I'll let you in on a secret of my own. I'm from – " he shifted his eyes around to make sure no one was listening – "Down Below."
She gave a playful gasp. "Heavens, no!"
He nodded soberly. "A great tragedy, I know. It's a wonder they haven't run me out on the rails."
"Well, I hear some people find your column entertaining," she allowed, and added with a twinkle in her eye, "and I suppose the fortune doesn't hurt."
"Sly one, this one," Qwill said to Homer, and they chatted pleasantly for a few more moments before Polly called him over to introduce him to the visiting museum folks from Down Below.
The party was winding down by the time the excitement happened, and Qwill had almost started to believe that they had pulled the event off admirably, when the power went out abruptly, plunging the room into darkness. There were a couple of distinct crashes that sounded like display cases toppling to the ground, and Qwill booked it towards the kitchen, calling out, "Nobody move!"
He returned with an electric lantern from under the sink, holding it up to cast a dim glow around the room. Two of the cases near the center of the room had collapsed, their contents shattered across the floor, one of Jillian's paintings ripped clean through by a piece of shelving.
He felt a lurch as his eyes met Polly's, to find that she was in tears.
"Better pull out that inventory," he said, and crossed the room to comfort her.
It was a subdued crowd that filed out of the apple barn that night. Andy Brodie remained with Qwill and Polly to clean up and inspect the damage, but no clues were found in the wreckage of the cases as to whether the incident was accidental or not. An electric crew got the lights back on shortly after the guests had departed, but even the additional lighting provided no further hints.
Many of the items were broken beyond repair, but in the case of the maps and artwork, only the frames that held them were damaged. Polly gathered them carefully, making note of which ones needed frame repair or replacement. They sat together in the kitchen afterwards, Andy pouring himself a scotch from the bar, Polly drinking tea, and they talked in subdued tones about what a lovely night it had been, aside from the obvious.
Brodie left late, and Polly left later, so by the time Qwill was alone with the cats, he was more or less exhausted. They made their way daintily downstairs as the door closed behind Polly, Yum Yum circling the place where her favorite shelf was now lying in pieces. She looked up at Qwill reproachfully.
"Don't look at me," he told her. "You're the one who can see in the dark, you tell me what happened. I note that you two have been conspicuously absent all night."
"Yow," Koko replied, leaping up onto the bar to inspect the place where the cheese tray had been.
"What, no ideas from either of you?" he asked, and they blinked at him in unison. He sighed. "Fine, fine. Let's have a snack and go to bed."
"Yow!" Koko repeated at the mention of a snack, and Yum Yum looked up with interest as Qwill headed into the kitchen, calling "Cheese!" over his shoulder. He watched them enjoy their treat, thinking over the events of the night, but he went to bed with no new ideas, puzzling over the clues until he fell asleep.
He woke up to the sounds of someone batting something around his room, and sat up yelling "No!" before he was even awake.
When he blinked his eyes open slowly, it was Yum Yum peering at him from the floor beside the bed, where she was wrestling with a crumpled piece of paper. "No," he said again, more gently this time, and reached down to pry the page from her claws. He unfolded it carefully, then frowned down at her.
"You," he said sternly, "are a little thief. Don't you think Polly has had enough trouble this week, without you making off with her maps like they're covered in catnip?"
Yum Yum blinked up at him innocently, and licked a paw.
He sighed, swinging his legs out of bed. "Well, I suppose I'm awake now," he said. He shuffled downstairs with the map tucked into his bathrobe, and started a pot of coffee on his way towards the pile of salvaged items that Polly had left on the kitchen table the previous night. He shuffled through it carefully, looking for where the map had been retrieved from, and halfway through the pile he stopped, stared, and turned to Yum Yum, who was perched on the chair next to him, looking smug.
"You little devil," he said, and reached out to ruffle her fur. "Do you have any idea what this means?"
He picked up the phone and dialed Polly immediately. "You're going to want to get over here," he said without preamble. "And you might want to call Homer, too."
"So, Lockmaster's been playing the long con," Brodie confirmed, settling down across the table from Qwill with a scotch in his hand that evening. "And if it weren't for your dumb cat, I don't know that anyone would have figured it out."
"She's not dumb," Polly objected, and Brodie shrugged.
"I was distinguishing her from his smart cat."
"She's the smart cat today," Qwill pointed out.
"Regardless," Brodie continued. "It looks like someone tried to replace the map - first at the library, and actually did start the fire by accident - it was caused by a wiring mishap in the security system, probably set off when they tried to break in - and then later here at the barn. Except that time, I think your cat had beaten them to it, and they had to place to forgery without being able to retrieve the original."
"And you know who was behind it?" Polly prompted.
"We don't know who the brains of the operation were yet," Brodie said, "but we have the forger in custody, so it's only a matter of time." He looked over at Qwill. "I suppose you can make a guess as to the perpetrator of the forgery."
"The artist," Qwill replied, patting his moustache. "My guess is that someone saw the remarkable job she did on the painting that was hanging near this display, showing a very similar map, and recruited her for a job."
Brodie nodded. "Right in one," he said. "And as for motive, well..."
Qwill nodded. There was only one discrepancy on the map, a very small one, involving the property line of one piece of land - one piece of land that made the difference between Moose County being Lockmaster's less wealthy neighbor, and being a strong competitor for the most prosperous county in their part of the state. "Lockmaster was making a play to get their hands on the Klingenschoen fortune."
"I'm sure as soon as the collection was in their hands, someone was going to make a 'shattering discovery,'" Polly said, sounding disgusted. "I'm so glad that Yum Yum was there to save the day." She turned to pet the cat, but she had disappeared.
When they adjourned to the living room a while later, they found her, perched atop the tallest remaining shelf and surveying her kingdom, purring ferociously. She blinked at them once, then delicately reached out to deliberately bat a book to the floor, looking utterly pleased with herself.