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А Б В Г Д Е Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Э Ю Я


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12

Cat Cross Their Graves

Galloping across the peaks and shingles, swerving to the edges of the roofs, the cats peered over, searching the darkening streets for the kit. Dodging between stone chimneys and roof gardens, they scanned the alleys and the courtyards below them. They saw no cats at all, not one. Skirting third-floor penthouses with their tiled stairways and jutting dormers, they peered into windows blinded by drawn curtains or revealing empty rooms. They gained the narrow steps that spiraled up the courthouse tower, raced up thinking that they might, from the tower's high parapet, see Kit, a small speck on the streets or roofs below.

In this California village where occasional earthquakes were a given, only a few buildings rose over two stories. The taller clock tower was a singular exception; it provided for the cats, and for space-loving villagers and bold tourists, a dramatic view of the small village. Who knew how safe the tower was, how well it could withstand a really hard temblor? Such matters did not bother a feline; a cat could usually detect a shake some minutes before it hit, long enough to race down to solid earth again.

Now, circling ever higher through the deepening evening, Joe glanced back at Dulcie and looked down longingly at the red tile roof of Molena Point PD, almost directly below them. In the brightening light of the early half-moon, the department beckoned to Joe, distracted him from Dulcie's problem and even from searching for the kit. Fixed on Max Harper's domain, he wondered if the fax machine was already spitting out electronic information, or if the dispatcher's computer was feeding her data from long-dead files, buried intelligence that would provide Max Harper and Dallas Garza, and Joe himself, access to the lives of missing children-and perhaps of that one dead child.

Gaining the parapet, the two cats leaped from its open piazza to the top of the brick rail, five stories above the streets. Crouched on the rail, they watched the moon-washed clouds above them, and the car lights below flicking in and out beneath the pine and cypress trees. Scanning the ever-changing shadows of the rooftops, their gazes sought any small, dark shape racing or lurking, but half Joe's attention remained on Molena Point PD. On the files from across the western states and from archived FBI records that, combined with information the forensics team would develop, was all they would have to identify the small victim. Though Dulcie didn't see how, in this very old case, she and Joe could be of help. Even if the department was able to identify the child, this wasn't the kind of murder where a cat could track a suspect or toss his house. This killer was years gone, could be dead himself.

But, she thought, Lori was not an old, unsolved case. And she looked with speculation at Joe. She felt so strongly that Lori needed them now, needed their help now-if they knew how to help her, without stirring up trouble for the child.

Stretching along the top of the brick rail, in the slanting moonlight, she studied Joe, then studied the stark shadows below among the peaks and chimneys, the pale rivers of the streets, the dark pools of the crowding trees. The world below seemed totally empty of cats. From the other side of the parapet, Joe looked across at her, his gray coat gleaming silver in the moonlight, the white strip down his nose squeezed into a frown, his yellow eyes narrowed with impatience. "So, spill it, Dulcie. You've been as closemouthed as a crooked cop."

Dulcie looked at him, her tail twitching with nerves. "If I tell you, this is our secret. You won't tell anyone? Not Clyde, not Wilma or Charlie?" She wished with all her heart that the kit was there, so she could tell her, too.

"This can't be about the grave," Joe said, "about the dead child. So is it about Patty Rose? But why…?"

Dropping down to the parapet, Dulcie stared up at him as he began to pace the rail, spinning back and forth on the thin barrier five stories above the roofs, his white paws seeming at every step to slide away into the night. He knew she hated that, hated when he indulged in fancy footwork on the edge of space.

"Come down and I'll tell you. Come down now."

Smiling, Joe paused on the edge, moonlight catching along his muscled shoulder.

"Come down, please. I promise I'll tell you if you won't grandstand."

He glared at her, but then he dropped to the bricks, a whiskery leer on his face.

"But you have to promise not-"

"I don't have to promise anything. Don't play games, Dulcie!" He crouched to leap up again.

She moved in front of him, stood nose to nose with him, her body drawn up tall, her paw lifted and her claws out, as sharp as razors. "If you want to hear, you'll promise not to bring Harper or the detectives into this, or any human. Not until we know the whole story."

Joe waited, his ears back, his whiskers tight to his tomcat cheeks, his yellow eyes wide with challenge.

"Promise?"

"Tentatively," he snarled, more a predatory growl than consent.

"I found a child, Joe. A little girl hiding in the library basement, in a walled-off part like a cave. She's around twelve, and so determined to keep herself hidden. She has food, a blanket, everything. But so alone."

"So why couldn't you tell me that? Where did she come from? How long has she been there? If she's run away, we'll have to-"

"That's why I didn't tell you. Because you'd say we have to tell Harper, that we have to drag in the law. Harper will only call county welfare to take care of her. That's what the law has to do. And I think that's part of the problem, I think she's afraid of someone in child welfare."

"Then tell Wilma. If you tell her the kid's afraid of someone in the juvenile system-"

"Joe, Wilma is service oriented. Family services, alcohol rehab, drug rehab, job placement. She depended on them all when she was a probation and parole officer." Dulcie lashed her tail with frustration; Joe looked back at her, his yellow eyes slowly softening. "Tell me about her, Dulcie. Tell me why she's locked herself in there; it has to be like a prison. Tell me why she's afraid."

But while Dulcie and Joe talked about Lori in her self-imposed confinement, the child was turning handsprings in the moonlight. Giddy with a few minutes of stolen freedom, she didn't guess that she might soon take fate into her own hands, might set in motion her own salvation.

Tonight she had waited, as she did every night in her black concrete hole, until the front door thudded closed for the last time and she heard its heavy bolt lock slide home. Until the last muffled sound faded, of library patrons and staff moving away down the walk and across the garden. She never felt safe until the library closed and everyone had gone, until nothing larger than the library cat could get in. Then, she had two choices. Some nights she just lit her little lamp and curled up under her blanket to read. Some nights she ran through the empty rooms and did cartwheels and laughed out loud, celebrating her freedom.

Tonight she went up into the children's room because she had finished the fourth book of Narnia and wanted the next one. She always hated finishing, no matter how many times she read them.

Moving the bricks and slipping out through the hole, she had pushed aside the little bookcase, leaving the space open for a quick return. Clutching her flashlight, she had hurried up the stairs. The library was hers, the big, empty, moonlit rooms were hers, all the thousands of books were hers. Lori had not the wildest idea that the library cat often had exactly the same thought. No notion that tabby Dulcie coveted the books as she did. That, like Lori, the library cat reveled in the fact that she could read whatever she chose, that she could read all night if she wanted.

Though if Lori ever discovered Dulcie's true nature, she would have no trouble believing. She was only twelve, and she was a reader. Despite her ugly brushes with the adult world, Lori's capacity for wonder had not yet been crippled; she was too strong for that. The powerful life-giving acknowledgment of wonder, that life force that should carry a child on through adulthood had not been twisted by the adults of the world. In Lori's case, maybe it never would be; she was a stubborn child.

In the main reading room she turned off her little flashlight and shoved it in her jeans pocket. Moving across the carpet, she stretched up in the moonlight and danced; she turned handsprings swimming through wavering fingers of light thrown by the wind through the tall windows. She was filled with wild, giddy freedom; she ran, she shouted softly in a breathy mock of a shout. She attempted backflips and collapsed giggling, fell over giggling, rolling on the carpet as wild with release as any caged young creature, celebrating the only freedom she was able to gain. Handspringing between the stacks and whirling across the reading room between the long tables, surrounded by thousands of books, Lori thought of Mama saying, "Be happy, Lori." Oh, Mama would laugh at her, Mama would love that she had hidden here, taking charge of her own life. Mama said you had to be a problem solver if you wanted to survive.

When Pa turned so strange, Mama did what she could for him, she talked to doctors and she got help from the county. But when nothing helped, when Pa started to lock Lori in the house, Mama waited until he left for work, then packed them up and they were out of there, heading for Greenville. She wished Mama was here to read with her. The first time she'd stepped into Narnia she was really little and Mama read to her, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she wished Mama was here now, to share it. To love her and hold her, the two of them wrapped in Mama's quilt, wished they could talk and talk like they used to do. Moving across to the big, soft chairs by the fireplace, she took the Molena Point Gazette from its shelf because Mama always read the paper and Lori didn't like to miss Snoopy or Mutts. The everyday funnies in this paper were in color just like on Sunday. Kneeling on the chair, she hunkered over the table. She liked "For Better or Worse," too, but sometimes that one made her feel lonely. How would it be to have brothers and sisters, to be a big family all together with so much going on all the time and a father who loved you? The page opposite the comics always had a boring list of notices like charity events and dance recitals, but Lori read everything-pill bottles, cereal boxes. Now, in last week's paper, she was reading about a boy at a beach barbecue who thought he could walk on coals when another article caught her eye. She grew very still. The name "Vincent and Reed Electrical Contractors" held her; the name was twice mentioned and that made her feel both proud and lost.

Tea to Be Held for Genelle Yardley

A tea will be held on Wednesday at Otter Pine Inn to honor Genelle Yardley on her sixty-sixth birthday. The tea will be hosted by Friends of the Library and by actress Patty Rose, in the inn's charming tearoom. Ms. Yardley has recently placed into trust for Molena Point Library her commercial building next door to the library. On her death, this will provide for a new children's wing and an enlarged reference collection. For many years, Ms. Yardley was known for her storytelling, for charming and original children's fantasies set on the central coast. A small edition was published locally. The book has long been out of print and is a collectors' item.

For the last twenty years of her career, Ms. Yardley was office manager for Vincent and Reed Electrical Contractors. She left the firm four years ago. She has continued to write folk tales that she has never sought to publish. She has spent much of her time working with Friends of the Library.

This Genelle Yardley had worked for Vincent and Reed, for Pa's company. She'd worked for them for ever so long, since before Lori herself was born. Lori had heard the librarians talk about a Genelle something, and about a tea party, when she was up in the children's room. One of the librarians said Genelle had something terminal, that meant you were going to die, like Mama. In Greenville, the doctor told the social worker that Mama was terminal; he thought she, Lori, wouldn't know what that meant.

The librarian said Genelle's neighbors would take her to the party, put her folding wheelchair in the car along with her oxygen tank. Mama had had an oxygen tank. Lori guessed that tea party must be something this Genelle wanted very much before she died. Where do you go when you die? Mama, if you're somewhere, can't you tell me? Can't you just give me a sign, like a seagull flying around my head three times when I go out in the dark morning? Or like a seal rising up out of the ocean to look at me in a special way? Something so I'll know there's another place and you're in it?

Or are you too far away to do that?

Or is there nothing? Are you just cold dead, rotting in the ground? But Lori wouldn't let herself think that, she couldn't think that Mama had just stopped being, disappeared into nothing. She had to be somewhere.

And this Genelle Yardley who was going to die like Mama. Was she scared? Had Mama been scared, underneath, and never told her? Or did Mama really know for sure where she was going? But how could anyone know?

And more important right now was the fact that Genelle Yardley knew Pa. She'd worked for Pa, had worked for him a long time. Maybe Genelle Yardley knew what happened to Pa to make him so different all of a sudden. Maybe she knew things that even Mama didn't know?

Did Mama ever go to Genelle Yardley to ask questions? No matter how Mama tried to understand what made Pa change, he would never talk to her, he only shouted at her.

As far as Lori knew, Mama had never gone to any of their friends for help. Mama would have been ashamed to do that.

Sliding down from the chair, Lori headed across the reading room with a whole new plan flaring in her mind. Genelle Yardley knew about Pa. Genelle Yardley knew secrets that she, Lori, needed to find out.

Up the little half flight of seven steps, two at a time, she slipped behind the checkout desk. Shining her flashlight into the shelves beneath the counter, she hauled out the phone book and laid it on the floor. She found a pencil on the desk and a scrap of paper, and knelt on the carpet. Licking the end of the pencil, she found and wrote down Genelle Yardley's address, then turned to the front of the phone book to find the village map. She tried to imagine what Genelle Yardley looked like. She was old. Lori didn't know that people worked until they were over sixty. She wondered if Genelle Yardley had ever been to their house when she, Lori, was little, wondered if she'd ever seen her. She kept wondering if Mama had ever gone to ask that old lady what was wrong with Pa.

Maybe Genelle Yardley didn't know, either. Maybe she couldn't help her, but Lori had to try.

This would be the farthest she'd ever gone from the library since she came to live here like a hobbit in a hole. Like Mr. Baggins, she thought, smiling. Only his hobbit hole was a lot bigger, with all kinds of rooms, and was full of hams and bread and cider that she wished her hideout had, too.

She'd have to go before it got light. Even so, she likely wouldn't get back from Genelle Yardley's house until it was bright morning. She'd have to wait all day, until nine that night, before she could be safe in her cave again.

And she couldn't hang around the library for too long, and draw attention from the librarians. Some of those women might remember her, from when she was little and Mama worked here. And she didn't dare be seen during school hours.

She wrote down the streets that climbed the hills to Genelle Yardley's, wrote where to turn and when to start looking for the number. The house was so high up the hills that it had a number. Those in the village didn't. If someone told another person where they lived, it was like, "Third house on Lincoln north of Fourth." People who lived in the village went to the post office to get their mail.

Going up the hills, she'd have to watch for Pa's truck, out early going to some job. Hide if she saw him. But what worried her was the other man, the man she'd seen standing in the shadows one morning when she went out. She'd seen him later, too, when she slipped out before it was hardly light to walk on the beach. Probably she imagined he was watching her. Probably some homeless man with nowhere to go. Anyway, he was very thin and small, not much taller than she was, and Mama said she was strong for her age. Mama showed her things she could do to get away from someone, things that could hurt a person, so she wasn't very scared of him.

Folding her slip of paper with the streets and address, she flicked off her flashlight and crossed the library to the stairs. As she headed down to the basement, the courthouse clock struck ten-two hours until midnight. She thought to set her alarm for really early, maybe four A.M. No one would see her on the streets then, it would be deep dark. Windy and cold, too. Pa sure wouldn't be out at that hour.

But that man, he'd been out there early, before dawn. She looked out at the moonlight, bright now with the moon right overhead. She could go even earlier; he wouldn't be out in the middle of the night, would he? Maybe no one would. She could hurry up the hills to Genelle Yardley's house and hide in the bushes until the old lady woke up. Until Ms. Yardley turned on a light in the morning or came out to get the paper. If anyone bothered her she'd kick them in the groin, the way Mama taught her.

As Lori bricked herself back into the basement room again and set her little alarm for one in the morning, five blocks away the kit pressed the two brown envelopes up between a floor joist and a plumbing pipe. Secure just inside the vent grid where a cop could reach in, they would not be seen by the casual passerby. Now, with the envelopes safe, the kit circled the underhouse again, frantic to get out. She circled, pawing uselessly at the other two vents, but both were fixed tight to the wall. With screws, she thought. She hooked her claws in but couldn't pull them out.

Studying the concrete foundation, wondering how deep it went, she found a soft place in the dirt where she could smell the old, dry scent of squirrels, where their digging had made the ground soft.

Thanking the little rodents that normally she would eat, she began to excavate the churned earth, kicking dirt behind her like a terrier. Her panic at being trapped was worst of all when she did nothing; she needed to move, it eased her to dig even if she had to dig to China. Listening for his car, she clawed down and down, wondering if he was coming back or if he was gone for good. She thought the time was past midnight. She dug straight down for nearly a foot, fighting the dirt away from the concrete wall, trying to find its bottom, scraping the skin from her paws until they bled again. And still the concrete went deeper.

After a long, long time of digging she found a straight edge to the concrete, where it turned under. Her paws hurt bad. She was very thirsty. And hungry. But the discovery of the bottom of that concrete filled her with terrible joy. Pausing, she thought she would just rest for a little while before she dug on through and up the other side. Soon enough she'd be free, be out of there and free.


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