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Cat Cross Their Graves

Above the courthouse tower the clouds moved away; the full force of moonlight washed down across the parapet, caressing the two cats, etching Dulcie's black and brown stripes like a black ink drawing. She lay licking her paw, watching Joe, her ears back in a thoughtful frown but trying to remain silent, letting Joe come to his own conclusion.

"Maybe you're right about Harper," he said at last. "If we tell the cops about the child, they'll have little choice, they're bound by law to call child welfare-if the kid's really all alone, if there's no family." He studied Dulcie, his yellow eyes narrowed and appraising. "But Wilma's retired, she's a free agent, she's not beholden to the law. She can do as she pleases."

"But what would she do? You know how she feels about help from the proper officials, she's all for it."

"Maybe. But she isn't stupid. She knows how twisted some of those agencies can be. You get one bad apple"

Dulcie shrugged. "I suppose. So frustrating that I can't ask Lori questions. That I can only hope she tells me more. I don't know why she doesn't want anything to do with child welfare. And the man she talks about, she just says he. I don't know if someone's stalking her, or if the man is family. I tried to find her last name in the library database for library cardholders, for children's cards with the first name Lori. Took me all night, those computers are so temperamental. Why don't they make a steadier machine, one that doesn't go off in a hundred directions?"

"A cat-friendly computer."

"Exactly. Someone ought to write to Bill Gates. Well, there's no library card for Lori, not one Molena Point child named Lori in the system." She told him how she had discovered Lori in the first place, when the scent of peanut butter and jelly drew her across the library basement to the bricked-up wall behind a little bookcase.

"It was late, after the library closed, ten days ago. That's where I've been. She gets so lonely, especially at night. And it's dark in there all day. It took a lot of resolve for the kid to hide there, and I think it takes a lot more to stay."

Her green eyes were big with concern. "She's not playing, Joe. She's made a safe little home for herself; she's thought it all out. She keeps her toothbrush and extra clothes and a bedroll in her backpack, and hides it in a rough niche in the wall-I think she must have dug the loose bricks out herself, maybe with a pair of scissors from the workroom. There are bits of concrete scattered on the floor, which she's pushed into a heap. And the hole where she enters her little basement, she fits loose bricks back into that really carefully."

Dulcie smiled, her pale whiskers gleaming in the moonlight. "She does her laundry in the ladies' room after the library closes at night, hangs it in her basement from the rough, sticking-out bricks. Folds and hides the dried clothes when she wakes up in the morning, before the library opens, her little socks and panties, or a blouse, afraid someone might move the bricks and look in.

"It's hard," Dulcie said, "with librarians working just on the other side of the wall. Hard to stay there in the dark and cold, alone. To only come out at night and early in the morning to use the bathroom and get books. She has everything she needs, though. And she never lets herself look seedy, never misses brushing her teeth, combing her hair, keeping her clothes fresh. She took a little lamp from the library storeroom, and she has a big tin can she empties at night to use as a makeshift bathroom in the daytime. Most children wouldn't do all that. There's an electric plug in there, but her lamp is the battery kind. Maybe the room was part of the library basement once or of the basement across the alley."

Joe frowned but said nothing.

"That room is underneath the alley, it has to be. I think it must have once joined the basement of the other building."

"Why would someone build-"

"It was originally all one house, in the 1800s. Gardens, stables, a carriage house. A little estate that filled the whole block. I found pictures in a history of Molena Point. The alley was a carriageway between the big house and the servants' quarters, where those apartments and the men's shop are now. Genelle Yardley's parents deeded the main house to the village for a library, but kept the servants' building for rentals. Genelle has lived partly on that income since her husband died and she retired.

"Somewhere along the way, the lane became a paved service alley. Maybe it was then that the basement beneath was walled off. Maybe something to do with ownership or property rights. Or the weight of the garbage trucks on top of the basement, who knows."

"You did a lot of research."

"I wanted to know where that room came from. And where it might once have led." She looked up past the little parapet roof at the slowly dropping moon. "I wanted to know if there might be another way in or out of there, but there doesn't seem to be." Talking about Lori made her sad. Lori, with her little heart-shaped face and the way her mouth tilted up at the corners, and her dark, huge eyes. Dulcie always wanted to touch her with a soft paw, rub her face against Lori and purr. When Lori's tears came, Dulcie had to snuggle close; and when the child pressed her face into Dulcie's fur, Dulcie licked her shining brown hair. "Somehow," Dulcie said, "she got hold of someone's library card, maybe stole it. With that she can open the card lock to the women's bathroom. She brought a flashlight with her, and even extra batteries, and she has a little battery-operated clock. And she knows that library, Joe. Knows her way around.

"Why has no one missed her?" Dulcie asked. "We'd have heard, if someone was looking for a lost child. When she slips outside, in the early morning before it's light, sneaks out through the basement window, she makes sure no one is on the street or sitting in a car. Makes sure no police car's parked around the corner.

"She's really skittery; she startles if anything moves, stays in the shadows against the buildings. She must crave getting out. Every couple of days, she goes to walk the shore and drop her little bag of trash and wet paper towels in the public garbage cans."

"And you follow her."

Dulcie twitched her ear. "The child's as clever as a cat herself."

"The streets are lonely that time of morning, Dulcie. Have you thought about someone grabbing her? Even in Molena Point-"

"I'd rake and bite so hard he'd never grab another child." Dulcie cut him a fierce green-eyed look. "The real problem is, Lori's little stash of canned food won't last much longer. Maybe another three or four days. I don't know if she has any money to slip out and buy more, or if she'd dare go in the market in broad daylight. It's so frustrating not to know who she's hiding from, not to know what happened to her."

"Maybe she has no one, maybe her parents are dead. A homeless child?"

"She doesn't look homeless. There've been no reports of a homeless person found dead. And why suddenly move into the library? To get out of the cold and rain? But I don't know. It doesn't add up. And if someone died recently in the village, a neighbor or school official would report that the child was alone. Everyone would be looking for her."

"Maybe she ran away from home, and her parents think she'll get over it and come back?"

"After nearly two weeks? What kind of parents wouldn't report her missing?"

Joe shrugged. "The kind you know are out there. The no-good ones." He looked hard at her. "So why didn't you trust me enough to tell me?"

"I didn't trust you not to go to the law."

"That's not saying much."

"It's saying a lot. It's saying you think like a cop, Joe. That you'd start checking Captain Harper's desk for fliers on a lost child, watching the computers, listening to every conversation."

Joe shrugged. "The whole department will be looking now, with a body to identify. Checking the files for lost children."

"They'll be checking old cases, not recent ones."

"And the kit? Why didn't you tell the kit?"

She widened her eyes, and Joe grinned. Of course she wouldn't tell the kit-Kit would be right down there in the basement making up to Lori, so fascinated that she would find it hard not to speak to the child. Or to blurt out Lori's business to some trusted human.

"Anyway," Dulcie said, "before Patty's murder, Kit was too busy playing grand lady, living like a queen in her penthouse, letting Lucinda and Pedric spoil her. And now," she said, "now"

"She'll turn up, Dulcie. Kit always turns up." But he leaped restlessly to the brick rail again, pacing, peering down at the moonlit streets for a small, dark feline shape hurrying along, and studying the darkly pooled treetops and shadows. Dulcie, leaping up to join him, wished with all her heart that Kit was at that moment safe in the penthouse, still being spoiled rotten, listening to Lucinda's favorite Dixieland jazz records and ordering outrageous delicacies from room service.

"So what happens," Joe said, "when Lori runs out of food? You plan to deliver takeout through the basement window?"

She looked at him bleakly.

"I'll keep my mouth shut, Dulcie," the tomcat said with unusual constraint. "I do promise. It's your call. But where do we go from here?"

She smiled and nuzzled him, purring and loving him. "I don't know where. Don't know where to go from here."

Joe licked his shoulder, then turned his yellow gaze on her. "You wouldn't consider asking for help? Someone who won't go to the law or to Harper."

Dulcie drew away, alarmed. "Who? Not Charlie, she's Harper's wife, we can't burden her. And Kate Osborne's out of the picture, moving up to Seattle. And Clyde, besides being Harper's best friend, really does think too much like a cop. And right now, Lucinda and Pedric are way too worried about the kit; I don't feel like putting anything more on them. So who?"

"But you've always trusted Wilma."

She licked her paw. "I know. I'm ashamed not to trust her this time."

"And it would be natural for her to discover Lori's hiding place," Joe said, "working in the library. Dulcie, Wilma won't blow the whistle. Wilma raised you from a kitten, she's your best friend."

"You're my best friend. Wilma's second best." She sat thinking. "But maybe you're right. Maybe she always does listen. Pays attention to me, to what I think."

Joe studied again the angles and planes that tumbled below them, the jumble of rooftops and trees and balconies, and he dropped down to the parapet beside her. "You do what you think best. Meanwhile, I'll just nose around the department, see if there are any recent fliers on runaway children." And before she could reply, he was racing away down the tower's spiraling stairs, heading for the PD.

She watched him from the rail. He was burning to get his teeth into the files on those old unsolved cases. He was a racing streak as he rounded each curve of the stairs, appearing, then vanishing until he burst out across the courthouse roof and into the oak tree above Molena Point PD. There she lost him as he scrabbled down the thick trunk; she glimpsed him for a second as he dropped to the sidewalk twisting in midair to crouch before the glass door. And even before the door was unlocked from within by the cat-friendly dispatcher, Dulcie herself was gone, racing down the brick steps to the icy sidewalk, heading out to search for Kit. As she watched the shadows and circled, peering into crevices, looking for the tattercoat, the courthouse clock struck midnight; she was glad they'd left the tower, the chimes were hellishly loud when you were right on top of them. In her search this time, she looked for silent little unmoving forms, and prayed she wouldn't find one.

Turning to retrace an elusive scent, stopping to explore the blackness beneath steps and porches, she didn't dare call the kit. Even in the middle of the night, who knew when some human might be out late, or standing sleepless at an open window? Or someone homeless asleep in a dark niche, who would wake to hear a cat shouting in his face. Her eyes burned into the night, searching silently, her ears rigid, the delicate antennae of her whiskers following every twist of air.

And as Dulcie fretted and worried, not four blocks away the kit lay curled up beneath the old rental house, sound asleep beside the hole she had dug. The hole to freedom that she had only half finished. Exhausted and thirsty, feeling weak from lack of supper, she slept deeply. She had no notion that both Joe and Dulcie were so near, Joe approaching Molena Point PD, and Dulcie just a few blocks away quietly looking for her.

| Cat Cross Their Graves | c