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Cat Cross Their Graves

Up the Molena Point hills where the village cottages stood crowded together, and their back gardens ended abruptly at the lip of the wild canyon, a row of graves lay hidden. Concealed beneath tangled weeds and sprawling overgrown geraniums, there was no stone to mark the bodies. No one to remember they were there save one villager, who kept an uneasy silence. Who nursed a vigil of dread against the day the earth would again be disturbed and the truth revealed. On winter evenings the shadow of the tall, old house struck down across the graves like a long black arrow, and from the canyon below, errant winds sang to the small, dead children.

There had been no reports for a dozen years of unexplained disappearances along the central California coast, not even of some little kid straying off to turn up at suppertime hungry and dirty and unharmed. Nor did the three cats who hunted these gardens know what lay beneath their hurrying paws. Though as they trotted down into the canyon to slaughter wood rats, leaping across the tangled flower beds, sometimes tabby Dulcie would pause to look around her, puzzled, her skin rippling with an icy chill. And once the tortoiseshell kit stopped stone still as she crossed the neglected flower bed, her yellow eyes growing huge. She muttered about a shadow swiftly vanishing, a child with flaxen hair. But this kit was given to fancies. Joe Grey had glanced at her, annoyed. The gray tom was quite aware that female cats were full of wild notions, particularly the tattercoat kit and her flights of fancy.

For many years the graves had remained hidden, the bodies abandoned and alone, and thus they waited undiscovered on this chill February night. The village of Molena Point was awash with icy, sloughing rain and shaken by winds that whipped off the surging sea to rattle the oak trees and scour the village rooftops. But beneath the heavy oaks and the solid shingles and thick clay tiles, within scattered cottages, sitting rooms were warm, lamps glowed and hearth fires burned, and all was safe and right. But many cottages stood dark. For despite the storm, it seemed half the village had ventured out, to crowd into Molena Point Little Theater for the week-long Patty Rose Film Festival. There, though the stage was empty, the darkened theater was filled to capacity. Though no footlights shone and there was no painted backdrop to describe some enchanted world and no live actors to beguile the audience, not a seat was vacant.

Before the silent crowd, the silver screen had been lowered into place from the high, dark ceiling, and on it a classic film rolled, a black-and-white musical romance from a simpler, kinder era. Old love songs filled the hall, and old memories for those who had endured the painful years of World War II, when Patty's films had offered welcome escape from the disruptions of young lives, from the wrenching partings of lovers.

For six nights, Molena Point Little Theater audiences had been transported, by Hollywood's magic, back to that gentler time before X-ratings were necessary and audiences had to sit through too much carnage, too much hate, and the obligatory bedroom scene. The Patty Rose Film Festival had drawn all the village back into that bright world when their own Patty was young and vibrant and beautiful, riding the crest of her stardom.

Every showing was sold out and many seats had been sold again at scalpers' prices. On opening night Patty herself, now eighty-some, had appeared to welcome her friends; it was a small village, close and in many ways an extended family. Patty Rose was family; the blond actress was still as slim and charming as when her photographs graced every marquee and magazine in the country. She still wore her golden hair bobbed, in the style famous during those years, even if the color was added; her tilted nose and delighted smile still enthralled her fans. To her friends, she was still as beautiful.

When Patty retired from the screen at age fifty and moved to Molena Point, she could have secluded herself as many stars do, perhaps on a large acreage up in Molena Valley where a celebrity could retain her privacy. She had, instead, bought Otter Pine Inn, in the heart of the village, and moved into one of its third-floor penthouses, had gone quietly about her everyday business until people quit gawking and sensibly refrained from asking for autographs. She loved the village; she walked the beach, she mingled at the coffee shop, she played with the village dogs. She soon headed up charity causes, ran benefits, gave generously of her time and her money.

Two years ago she had bought an old historic mansion in need of repair, had fixed it up and turned it into a home for orphaned children. "Orphans' home" was an outdated term but Patty liked it and used it. The children were happy, they were clean and healthy, they were well fed and well educated. Eighty-two percent of the children went on to graduate from college. Patty's friends understood that the home helped, a little bit, to fill the dark irreparable void left by the death of Patty's daughter and grandson. Between her civic projects and the children's home, and running the inn, Patty left herself little time for grieving.

She took deep pleasure in making the inn hospitable. Otter Pine Inn was famous for its cuisine, for its handsome and comfortable accommodations, and for the friendly pampering of its guests. It was famous indeed for the care that Patty extended to travelers' pets. There are not so many hotels across the nation where one's cats and dogs are welcome. Otter Pine Inn offered each animal velvet cushions by a window, a special menu of meaty treats, and free access to the inn's dining patio when accompanied by a human. Sculptures of cats and dogs graced the patio gardens, and Charlie Harper's animal drawings hung in the inn's tearoom and restaurant. Police captain Max Harper had been Patty's friend from the time she arrived in Molena Point, long before he met and married Charlie.

When Patty first saw Charlie's animal drawings, she swore that Charlie made some of her cats seem almost human, made them look as if they could speak. Patty Rose was perceptive in her observations, but in the matter of the three cats who lived with three of her good friends, Patty had no idea of the real truth. As for the cats, Joe Grey and Kit and Dulcie kept their own counsel.

Now in the darkened theater, as the last teary scenes drew to a close, Charlie leaned against Max's shoulder, blowing her nose. On her other side, Ryan Flannery reached for a tissue from the box the two women had tucked between them. Patty's films might be musicals, but the love interest provided enough cliff-hanging anxiety to bring every woman in the audience to tears. Over Charlie's bright-red hair and Ryan's dark, short bob, Max Harper glanced across at Clyde with that amused, tolerant look that only two males can share. Women-they always cried at a romantic movie, squeezed out the tears like water from a sponge. Charlie cut Max a look and wiped her tears; but as she wept at the final scenes, she looked up suddenly and paused, and her tears were forgotten. A chill touched Charlie, a tremor of fear. She stared up at the screen, at Patty, and a fascination of horror slid through her, an icy tremor that held her still and afraid, a rush of fear that came out of nowhere, so powerfully that she trembled and squeezed Max's hand. He looked down at her, frowning, and drew her close. "What?"

"I don't know." She shook her head. "Nothing. It… it's gone." She looked up again at Patty, at the twenty-year-old Patty Rose deep into the love scene, and tried to lose herself again in the movie.

But the sense of dread remained, a feeling of regret so vivid that she was jolted completely out of the story. A sense of wrongness and danger that made her grip Max's hand more tightly. He drew her closer, uneasy himself now, and puzzled.

Patty really hadn't been herself these last weeks, and that had concerned Charlie. Patty was usually either all business or cutting loose, laughing with her friends, singing her old songs and making fun of herself, hamming it up. Whatever Patty did, she was completely in the moment, giving of herself fully. But these last weeks she had seemed distracted, drawn away and quiet, her attention wandering so, that sometimes you had to repeat what you said to her. Charlie had glimpsed her several times looking off across the inn's gardens or out through its wrought-iron gates to the street as if her thoughts were indeed very far away, and her gamin face much too serious.

Now, as Charlie frowned over Patty's distraction, and the crowd in the theater was caught in the last tearful moments of Patty's love story, Patty Rose was out in the storm crossing the inn's softly lit patio.

Pulling her wrap close around her against the cold wind, she headed through the blowing garden for the closed tearoom.

The shifting shadows were familiar enough, the tile roofs, the dark, shivering bushes no different than on any windy night. The black tearoom windows rippling with wind reflected only blowing bushes and tossing trees and the long wing of the inn itself, and the guests' lighted windows. Then the dark, uneasy glass caught her own reflection as she moved quickly down the brick walk through the shifting montage of garden and dark panes, heading for the tearoom's small auxiliary kitchen. She meant to make herself a cup of cocoa, to sit for a while in the empty tearoom and get herself centered. Put down the silly sense of invasion that had followed her the past week.

When Charlie shivered again, Max squeezed her shoulder. She looked up at him and tried to smile. His lean, leathery good looks eased her, his steadiness reassured her. The deep lines down his cheeks were smile lines, the tightness of his jaw reserved for less pleasant citizens than his redheaded bride. She leaned into his hard shoulder, rubbing her cheek against his sport coat; he had worn the cashmere jacket she liked, over a dark turtleneck and faded jeans. He had bought their tickets for all six showings mostly to please her, but she knew he was enjoying Patty's films. She snuggled close, trying to pay attention as the last scene played out. Wadding up her tissues and stuffing them in her purse, she pushed away whatever foolish imagining had gripped her; but she was so engrossed in her own thoughts that when Max reached into his pocket to answer his vibrating cell phone, she was startled. The dispatcher knew not to buzz him here. Not unless the matter was truly urgent.

As he lifted the phone from his belt, the chill touched her again. As he punched in the single digit for the station, sirens began to scream across the village, patrol cars and then the more hysterical wailing of a rescue unit. Max rose at once and quietly left the theater, was gone so fast she had no time to speak to him.

Watching his retreating back, she felt Ryan's hand on her arm- and the chill returned, making her tremble, cold and uncertain. She could not remember ever having had that sudden lost, frightened sensation minutes before the sirens screamed. When Ryan took her hand, she rose helplessly and followed him and Clyde out the side exit, ahead of the departing crowd.

Ten minutes before the sirens blasted, the tortoiseshell kit awoke just as startled as Charlie, just as eerily scared. When the sirens jerked her up from her tangle of cushions on her third-floor window seat, she immediately pressed her nose against the cold, dark glass.

The time was near midnight. Above the village roofs and chimneys, above the black pools of wind-tossed trees, the distant stars burned icy and remote. Impossible worlds, it seemed to Kit, spinning in a vastness that no one could comprehend. Beyond the inn's enclosing walls, a haze of light from the village shops shifted in the wind as indistinct as blowing gauze; against that pale smear, the black pools of trees rattled and shook. She stared down past the lower balconies to the inn's blowing gardens and patio, softly lit but deserted. What had waked her?

Nothing moved on the patio but the puppets of the wind. She heard no faintest sound.

She and Lucinda and Pedric had been at Otter Pine Inn since before Christmas, enjoying the most luxurious holiday the kit had ever imagined. Over the hush of the wind, from deeper within the darkened suite, through the open bedroom door, she could hear Lucinda's and Pedric's soft breathing. The old couple slept so deeply. Lucinda had told her, laughing, that that was the result of a good conscience. The kit, staring down through the bay window to the courtyard and sprawling gardens, studied the windows of the bar and the dining room and the tearoom.

The tearoom was closed and dark at this hour, and the faintly lit dining room looked deserted; she thought it was about to close. No one came out of the bar, and its soft lights and black-smoked windows were too dark to see much. No one was returning through the wrought-iron gate from the street, ready to settle in for the night. As she pressed her nose harder to the glass, her whiskers and ears sharply pricked, her every sense was alert.

Otter Pine Inn occupied nearly a full block near the center of the village, just a short stroll from Ocean Avenue. Its wrought-iron gates, its three wings that formed a U, and its creamy stucco walls surrounded winding brick walks and bright winter blooms. The roofs of the inn were red tile, mossy in the shady places, slick and precarious under the paws, slick all over when they were wet.

There were four third-floor penthouses. Patty Rose's suite was at the back. Kit and Lucinda and Pedric had a front suite overlooking the patio and the front gate. In one of the other two penthouses this weekend were a young couple with three cocker spaniels, in the other a family with two children and a Great Dane, a dog the kit avoided, but only because she didn't know him. The cockers were more her size; she could easily bloody them if the need arose. Or she could terrorize them for amusement, if she liked. If Lucinda didn't catch her at it. Since before Christmas, Kit had enjoyed such a lovely time with her adopted family. The three of them had indulged in all manner of holiday and post-holiday pleasures-concerts, plays, long walks, and amazing gourmet delights.

Though for the concerts, she had to endure one of those abominable soft-sided doggie carriers with its little screened window. Of course, she could open the stupid thing from inside with a flick of her paw, but the embarrassment of being in it was almost too much. She was, after all, not a toy poodle! Lucinda laughed at her and made sure she had little snacks in there, but Lucinda really did understand. And their reunion was so amazing, after Kit had painfully mourned her dear old couple's death. When the TV newscasts had reported the terrible wreck that destroyed the Greenlaws' RV while the elderly couple was traveling down the coast, all their friends had believed them dead. The kit never really believed that. Then when no bodies were found in the burned wreckage, hope began to touch them all. And when Lucinda herself called to say they were alive, Kit had nearly flown out of her skin with joy. Now, to have her beloved adopted family back from the grave, as it were, was a never-ending wonder to the small tortoiseshell.

Settling into Otter Pine Inn for the holiday, visiting with their friend Patty Rose, the kit had every possible luxury-her own cushioned window seat, her own hand-painted Dalton china dinner service, and anything at all that she cared to order from the inn's gourmet kitchen or from attentive waiters on the dining patio. Now, twitching an ear, she listened harder. Had she heard, on the instant of waking, angry human voices?

Below, the bar's lights went brighter, and three yawning couples emerged, maybe the last customers, heading for their rooms. Molena Point was not a late-hour town; even the tourists turned in early, many to rise at dawn for a walk with their dogs or a run along the white-sand beach. The shore in the morning was overrun with wet, sandy dogs running insanely and barking at nothing.

Now in the bar, the lights blazed and she could see the waiters starting to clean up, wiping the tables; the cleaning staff would arrive soon to sweep and scrub. The smell of rain came sharply through a thin crack around the side of her window. She could hear voices now, hushed and angry, an argument from somewhere beyond the dining room. Maybe from the stairs that led down to the parking garage? She hated that garage; the vast concrete basement made her shiver with unease; she didn't like to go there. When she was little she had thought that caves and caverns were wonderful places, peopled with amazing and mythical beings. Now those grim, echoing hollows frightened her. Angrier and louder the voices came, though maybe too faint for a human to hear. Burning with curiosity and a strange sense of dread, she pressed at the glass of the side window with an impatient paw until it opened.

Yes, a man and a woman arguing. She didn't recognize the man, but the woman was Patty Rose; she had never heard Patty so angry. Impatiently Kit pushed against the screen. The way the echoes bounced and fell, she thought they were on the stairwell down to the garage, their words deflected by the inn's plastered walls. Patty's tone was hot and accusing, but the way the man was snapping back, Kit could make no sense of their words. She was pawing at the screen's latch when three sharp reports barked between the walls, echoing and reverberating across the patio. Slashing hard down the screen, she ripped a jagged hole.

Behind her she heard Lucinda thump out of bed. Before the agile old lady could stop her, Kit forced through the screen tearing out hanks of her fur and dropped to the second-floor balcony. Below her, doors banged open, people were running and shouting. She heard a tiny click as Lucinda snatched up the bedside phone, heard Lucinda alert the dispatcher as, likely, a dozen people were trying to do.

"Three shots, that's all I know," Lucinda said as Kit slipped beneath the rail. "Yes, shots, my dear," the old woman said testily. "That was not a backfire. I know gunshots when I hear them. And there was no smallest sound of a car engine."

Kit dropped onto the back of a bench and into a bed of cyclamens. Racing across the brick walk and through the taller flowers, she listened for the shooter running, but all she heard was her own fur brushing through the foliage. As she skirted a bed of geraniums, her nose tingled at the flowers' smell where she crushed them.

Strange, the stairwell that led down to the parking garage was dark, the little lights along the steps had been turned off. As she reached the top of the stairs, she heard running below, the faintest footsteps fast descending: soft shoes heading for the parking basement. She caught a whiff of geranium mixed with the sharp iron smell of blood, heard the squeak of rubber soles on concrete.

On the dark stairs, a body lay sprawled head down. Staring at the mutilated woman, Kit glimpsed, far below, a running shadow disappear through blackness into the garage. But Kit's attention, her whole being, was centered on the dead woman.

Patty Rose lay tumbled, unnaturally twisted down the concrete steps, her white silk dressing gown slick with blood. Her face was turned away but was reflected in the steel hood of the recessed light: bloody, distorted. The smell of blood filled Kit's nose; she could taste the heavy smell. Sirens screamed closer, muffled by the wind and by the walls of the buildings. Heart pounding, she crept down the steps to Patty. The sirens grew louder, coming fast. Trying not to look at Patty's poor torn face, Kit reached out her nose searching for breath. And knowing there would be none. Police cars careened around the building, slamming on their brakes. Then silence. Car doors slammed and the night was filled with the static of police radios, with the dispatcher's voice, with footsteps pounding across the patio above her, cops running down the stairs; and Kit ran, pelting down into darkness.

Crouched far down the steps in blackness, she smelled Patty's blood as strong as if it was on her own whiskers. Her tail was between her legs, her whole being felt shrunken.

Patty Rose had held Kit on her lap and loved and petted her, Patty had shared tea with her and fed her bits of shortbread all buttery warm, Patty had talked so softly to her. This kind woman had talked and talked to her and had never known that Kit could have answered her.

That seemed terrible now, that Patty had never known. Patty Rose would have been thrilled. Kit wished she could talk to her now, that she could tell Patty she loved her.

Below her she heard another scuffle of footsteps near the door to the parking garage, a faint squeak as of rubber soles on concrete, and then, from the far side of the garage, the cops surging down the two ramps and inside. Kit stood on the dark steps alone, heartbroken and shivering.

Oh, she longed for Joe Grey and Dulcie to be there with her, for the strength of the big gray tomcat and for tabby Dulcie's mothering. She knew she was nearly a full-grown cat, but right now all she wanted was to push close between the two bigger cats, like a lost kitten.

Joe Grey and Dulcie, and their human friends, had cared for Kit ever since she left the wild bunch she had run with. Always picked on, she hadn't had the courage to leave until she met Joe and Dulcie, and Lucinda and Pedric. Oh, then her life had so changed. To find two speaking cats like herself, and to find humans who understood-that had been an amazing time.

But right now this minute, she ached just to feel Dulcie's nose against her ear, to hear Dulcie and Joe Grey tell her that everything would be all right-she longed, most of all, for this terrible thing to have never happened, for Patty Rose to be alive and unharmed.

Above her, two medics knelt over Patty's poor bloody body. Kit's nose was sour with the smell of death. Far below, she could hear the faint scuffs and voices as the officers searched. Strange, she'd heard no car screeching out to escape. Was the killer hidden among the parked cars or under them? Or ducked down in a car, thinking the cops would miss him? She imagined him creeping out later through the confusion of police cars and rescue vehicles and somehow eluding them. Was that possible? Oh, the officers would find him, they must find him!

But if they didn't catch him, Kit thought… she knew something about that man that the law didn't know.

Racing down, she hit the bottom step and fled into the garage dodging a confusion of swinging spotlights, the officers' torches burning leaping paths through the blackness. Crouching in shadow under a small black car, she listened, paws slick with sweat.

At last she began to creep along between the cars, scenting the concrete, seeking the smell of crushed geranium-and listening for the sound of softer shoes slipping away accompanied by that telltale little squeak, that chirp of rubber against concrete.

Shirley Rousseau Murphy Cat Cross Their Graves | Cat Cross Their Graves | cледующая глава