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11

Cat Cross Their Graves

Dulcie couldn’t stand, any longer, the painful chill that separated her from Joe. Dropping from the picnic bench to the ragged grass, she started down the garden. She had never meant to hurt him; she was only keeping a secret she felt bound to keep. Trotting down through the rough grass, she crouched beside the low retaining wall just below where Joe stood brazenly watching the coroner photograph the little hand. Dr. Bern and every cop there was aware of Joe; they were all poised to chase him away.

Was it something about Joe's bold attitude that kept them from shouting at him again or carrying him, clawing, out of the yard? If someone tried that, she thought, smiling, all hell would break loose. She couldn't believe Joe was doing this. What was wrong with him? Slipping up onto the wall beside him, she crouched close. Was his nervy defiance the result of his anger with her?

But as much as she loved Joe, she wasn't going to lay his problems on her own back. She was doing what she had to do about Lori, what she felt was right. When Joe turned to look at her, his yellow eyes fiery with challenge, she gave him a long, steady look in return. His stupid tomcat rage wasn't going to cow her.

Joe stared, then returned his attention to the coroner. Had she seen a twitch of amusement, a willingness to make up? But she'd have to make the first gesture, Dulcie knew. Below them, John Bern worked with a teaspoon and a tiny, soft paintbrush, removing fragments of earth from the little bones. And then, working with tweezers, he pulled away thin, evasive roots and lifted any tiny fragments of unidentified debris.

Carefully Bern removed a bit of rotting cloth from the soil, then picked out what looked like a dirt-encrusted button. At intervals he stopped to take pictures, shooting close-ups from every angle. Both Dulcie and Joe, held by the scene, nearly forgot their differences. Bern, while waiting for the forensics people, was doing more than Dulcie had expected. Twice as he worked, the cats listened as he spoke on his cell phone with Drs. Hyden and Anderson, eager to follow their wishes. Apparently the two were on the road already, heading down from Sacramento. Had this discovery sparked an unusual eagerness in the two forensic anthropologists, to send them so quickly on their way? With the seeming age of the little hand, this grave might, for many investigators, mark the possible end to a long and discouraging search.

Within half an hour, Bern had freed the child's lower arm, digging so slowly that Dulcie wanted to yowl with impatience. The arm was so frail and so entangled with roots that it had to be a touchy job. It was so darkly stained by the earth in which it had lain that it seemed almost fused with the ground. Bern tried once, carefully, to remove it, but then he left it in place. He continued slowly removing the softer soil around it, fragment by tiny fragment, until he reached the little shoulder.

Despite the heavy rains that had wet the garden, the deeper earth was not sodden but only damp. As if the rainwater had drained quickly through the topsoil and, perhaps forming rivulets through the lower clay, had run off between the timbers of the retaining wall to the canyon below. Joe lay with his front paws tucked over the edge of the wall, so fascinated with Bern's work he seemed to have forgotten that the doctor might look up any minute. When he did remember, he jerked up quickly, turning to lick his shoulder. He looked straight at Dulcie, too, but now his look was gentler. She softened her own gaze, and lifted a paw to him.

Below them, Dr. Bern had uncovered the child's shoulder bone, working so slowly, Dulcie thought she'd explode from impatience. Both cats waited, unmoving, as inch by excruciating inch Bern's excavation revealed the child's head and, much later, the little upper torso. Bern's face and high forehead were slick with sweat, not from heavy digging but from tension. Twice more he talked with Dr. Hyden, following the anthropologist's instructions. The cats stared down at the child's rib cage, at the delicate bones, at the little thin neck bone and the child's fragile skull, and the friction between them, the foolish misunderstanding, seemed pointless. Except, when Dulcie thought of Lori's unnamed fears, she saw too sharply the shadow of Lori superimposed over those little bones.

She started when she heard Wilma's voice, and turned to look back up the garden. Wilma was leaving, telling Cora Lee and Mavity, loud enough for Dulcie to hear, that she was going to look again for "that runaway cat, help Lucinda and Pedric look. That kit will be the undoing of us all." Glancing down the garden, Wilma gave Dulcie a reassuring look, then was gone. Dulcie heard her car door slam, heard her pulling away.

It was perhaps four hours later, when the little body was fully revealed, that Hyden and Anderson arrived. The cats heard their car pull in, heard two doors slam and a trunk open, then close. The first softer light of evening was falling, not dark yet but softening, and though the wind had died to a whisper, it had turned colder. The two men came around the house, pausing to speak with Dallas Garza.

Hyden was tall, very thin, with brown receding hair. His long, smooth face seemed filled with quiet patience. He wore loose, faded jeans, a limp khaki shirt, and high-top tennis shoes. He carried a black leather camera bag. James Anderson was shorter, very square, with coal-black hair, and with his deep, vivid coloring and high cheekbones, looked like he might have American Indian blood. He was dressed in a faded blue jumpsuit that had seen many launderings, and he wore leather sandals over white crew socks. He carried a small canvas bag that he set carefully on top the wooden retaining wall. At their arrival, Dulcie and Joe had moved away from the dig-these two didn't look like they would tolerate cats in the way. They had a good enough view from the bushes without incurring any more wrath.

The men stood studying the body. Hyden talked with John Bern for some time, asking questions and making notes, while Anderson took pictures. Kneeling close to the bones, he shot just a few inches away, apparently aiming at the surrounding as much as the body, working so close Dulcie thought he must have a special lens. It was some time later that the coroner took his leave and the two anthropologists began, with painstaking care, to remove the frail bones from their grave. Fascinated, the cats didn't think of leaving, of missing the smallest detail. The day was nearly gone, and officers were bringing lights and drop cords from the squad cars, and two large canvas bundles.

The cats watched Hyden and Anderson place the bones, one by one, in a long wooden box like a coffin, carefully packing each in folds of clean, soft paper. As horrifying as was this child's grave, Dulcie was heartened by the care with which the doctors handled the little skeleton, exhibiting not only skill and precision but respect for this little human who had so violently lost its life. She looked with distaste at the head wound that had possibly killed the child, though there could have been any number of soft flesh wounds that the doctors would never find. They watched as four officers erected two long tents over the site, and two more officers set up the spotlights on tall poles, running a hundred-foot drop cord into the lower apartment of the seniors' house. Dulcie looked at Joe and laid her paw on his.

"I have to talk to you. I couldn't tell you before. But now… with that little grave… Now I have to tell you." Her mutter was so low that no human could hear. Joe looked at her and twitched an ear, and for nearly the first time in two weeks, the two cats were easy with each other. Moving close together, they left the bushes and made their way up the garden, through the falling dark. And as they padded away from the seniors' house, they watched every shadow, listened to every tiniest sound, searching for the kit. They glanced back only once, down at the lower garden where the spotlights shone bright within the tents.

"Will they work all night?" Dulcie asked.

"Maybe. There could be more bodies, those guys are feverish to find out."

"What kind of person would murder a little child?"

"Maybe there is just the one child, maybe it wasn't a murder, maybe an accident, and whoever caused it panicked. Buried the child and ran."

"Maybe," Dulcie said doubtfully. And she took off through the tangled neighborhood gardens, then scrambled up a vine to the rooftops, Joe racing close beside her. And they headed, without discussing the matter, for the courthouse tower, where, from its high platform, they could see nearly all of the village.


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