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Cat Cross Their Graves

Stretched across the dispatcher's out box, his hind legs sticking out, Joe woke blearily. Beyond the glass doors, the big front parking lot was alive with headlights. Cars were pulling in, officers coming on for last watch. Private vehicles, and half a dozen police units, as well, returning from late watch. He yawned heavily. He could hear, out behind the building, several units leaving the smaller, fenced-in parking area that was reserved for official cars. Cold blasts of air ruffled his fur as officers trooped in by twos and threes. Retracting his hind paws and licking one pad, he sat up in the box yawning. But when Max Harper swung in, Joe leaped down to a shelf beneath Mabel's counter. Mabel glanced at him sharply. Looking up, he yawned in her face and curled up for another nap as if the commotion had disturbed him.

But, listening to officers joking with Harper as they moved down the hall, Joe dropped to the floor and followed, pausing outside the squad room. Harper was saying, " Brown and Wrigley will be posted. You have a be-on-the-lookout for a man Lucinda Greenlaw saw hanging around the inn." Harper described the small man, the same description that would appear in the be-on-the-lookout notice. He gave them some particulars on the murder, and on the bullets that had killed Patty. "Likely a small caliber," he said. "Could be a twenty-two." He filled the officers in on the child's grave. "Hyden and Anderson are down from Sacramento, may still be working. About an hour ago, they uncovered a second body" In the hall, Joe's ears pricked up sharply and he edged nearer the door. " child about the same age," Harper said.

A young rookie asked about the gender of the children, and how they'd died.

"Hard to tell what sex," Harper said. "May never know. First child died, apparently, from a blow to the head. Second body, they've only uncovered a leg and part of the torso so far."

There were a couple more questions, the chief discussed half a dozen more situations, and the officers filed out, heading for their units. Joe imagined them settling into the cold, black leather seats of their squad cars, their holstered guns and handcuffs and all the equipment they must wear pressing into their butts and backs, imagined them moving about into just the right worn position to get comfortable, some of them balancing coffee mugs. Imagined the late watch revving their adrenaline along with their engines, heading out on patrol not knowing whether they might have to use their handguns, might get shot tonight or have to shoot-or spend the shift bored out of their skulls.

They would be watching for Patty's killer, though. Smiling, Joe trotted on down the hall and into Max Harper's dark office, just beating Harper and Garza there. When they came in, he was curled up in the bookcase between two volumes of the California civil code. He watched Garza dump water in Harper's coffeepot and drop in a prepacked filter. He liked the scent of coffee, it spoke to him of camaraderie, easy friendship-and of ready information.

Harper, tossing the three stacks of faxes and printouts on his desk, eased into his leather chair. The chief looked tired. Garza poured their coffee and picked up a set of the printouts. From the shelf, Joe had a fine view of Harper's desk. On top the stack was the chart that Mabel had prepared.

Garza didn't glance up into the bookshelves, but the detective knew he was there. A change in Garza's body language and movement connected him to Joe almost as if he had looked straight up at the tomcat. Setting his coffee mug on the low table, he settled into the leather easy chair. And Joe settled down more comfortably among the books, thinking about the second body.

The officers were not surprised by the second grave. Nor was Joe. Nothing surprised a cop, and Joe had acquired much the same view of the world. That first grave had never really seemed like the cover-up for, say, a single accidental death. His natural tomcat cynicism, honed by close association with law enforcement, had left him expecting more bodies.

Now, with so many old, unsolved cases concentrated all in one area of the Northwest, his imagination had already jumped ahead to what he imagined Hyden and Anderson might yet find, and he shivered.

Though that preconception was not always wise police work, it was the way the tomcat operated; so far, it had worked for him. He looked around the office, waiting for Harper to flip through a stack of unrelated papers that had been left on his desk, checking for anything urgent, before he got down to the subject at hand. Joe liked Harper's new office, he liked seeing the chief in a more comfortable environment. With the building's renovation, the old, open squad room with its tangle of desks and noise and constant hustle was no more. The chief had had only a scarred old desk at the back of the busy, forty-by-forty-foot space, a habitat as spartan as that of a prison guard's.

Now Harper and his two detectives had private offices, and all the officers had much-improved facilities. A more efficient report-writing room, an updated firing range in the basement, a larger and better-appointed coffee room. And thanks to Charlie, Harper's own office was a welcome retreat, with its brown leather couch and matching chair and an oriental rug, all of which had been wedding presents from Charlie, items not considered essential by those city officials who spent the taxpayers' money- though some of them hadn't stinted on their own offices.

But the city had sprung for a new walnut desk for Max, and walnut bookcases, as well, unwittingly providing a convenient though unofficial satellite office, as it were, for certain feline operatives.

Charlie's framed drawings of Max's buckskin gelding hung on the pale walls, lending a handsome finishing touch to the room. Joe was sure that, if not for Charlie's influence, Max would have moved into his new digs with the old battered desk that looked like some World War II government reject, the government-issue, service-grade vinyl-tile floor, and his dented and mismatched file cabinets. Max would likely have brought in a couple of hard chairs for visitors, and been perfectly happy with bare walls to look at-if the chief ever had time to simply look at the walls.

Below him, Max studied the faxes. "This one in Half Moon Bay is the only one in California."

"Sure doesn't fall in with the rest," Garza said. "Newer, too. Two years."

Juana Davis came in, poured herself a cup of coffee, picked up the other stack of copies from Harper's desk, and sat down on the leather couch. Placing her coffee cup on the end table, she slipped off her shoes. "Hyden and Anderson all tucked in?" Juana yawned, looking as if she meant to head for home, too, very shortly.

"When I left," Harper said, "they were still at it. They've uncovered a second body."

Davis nodded, as if she was not surprised. She looked at the chart, remarked on the Santa Cruz case, then was quiet, studying the comparisons. Joe could see Max's copy clearly, over the chief's left shoulder. Mabel had laid it out in three time periods, giving not only date and place but the barest facts as well. For Joe, this was far more legible than the computer screen where, too often, the lights bounced and reflected. From the preliminary forensics information on the new grave, some of these cases were way too old.

In two instances, twenty years ago, the suspected abductor had been a father who did not have custody and was never apprehended. Fifteen years ago, a missing Oregon child was later found, washed up from the ocean. The time frame of the other cases, where children hadn't been found, ran in three batches. The oldest three cases were children who had disappeared nearly fifty years ago. That seemed monstrous to Joe, that those cases had not been solved after half a century and, most likely, never would be. Their parents were dead and gone, their siblings growing old.

Seven cases in the Pacific Northwest had occurred between six and eight years ago. That would fit Hyden's guess on this time of death. Those children had lived in an area that ran from Tacoma to Seattle. All had disappeared from schoolyards or from playgrounds near their own schools. None had been found. "Full cases on the way?" Davis asked. Harper nodded.

In the largest group of missing children, the bodies had been found; that was some thirty years ago, again not a match. But the officers knew this case, and read with deep interest, making Joe frown. Looking for some connection? Those deaths had occurred in the L.A. area, from 1971 to 1974. All twelve children were found in 1974. Harper looked up at Davis and Garza. "You knew that Patty Rose's grandson was one of them."

The officers nodded. From the report, the bodies had been buried in the walls of a condemned and boarded-up church that was waiting to be torn down. Four men were subsequently arrested. A Kendall Border and a Craig Vernon of Norwalk, a Harold Timmons of L.A., and an Irving Fenner of Glendale. The children were between the ages of four and seven, all from the greater L.A. area.

Harper said, "Patty's daughter, the little boy's mother, was killed soon afterward in what appeared to be a one-car wreck. Car went over a cliff, up in Canada. No one could ever prove it was other than an accident." Harper had that intense, bird-dog look on his face that rang all kinds of alarms for Joe.

"Craig Vernon, the child's father, got murder one, as did Border. Both were put to death. There was not enough evidence to convict Timmons or Fenner for murder. Timmons got fifteen on circumstantial evidence, Fenner twenty-five, same charge.

"They were members of a small, pseudo-religious cult led by Fenner. They met three or four times a week, without city permission, in the condemned church. Over the years, Patty told me quite a bit.

"Marlie and Craig Vernon had been married about seven years. They both worked in the film industry, Marlie as a secretary, Craig in the script department of MGM. He started staying out late, not telling Marlie where he'd been. She had the usual suspicions, that it was another woman. But then he began to look at and treat their little boy strangely. Asking him a lot of questions. Acting, Patty said, more like the child's psychiatrist than his father. That's the way she put it.

"When children in the L.A. area began to disappear, Marlie grew uneasy. Started putting things together-Craig's actions, the newspaper stories. By the time she grew sufficiently alarmed to do anything, to report Craig, it was too late." Harper shuffled the papers on his desk. "The sitter usually left at five and Craig would be there with the boy until Marlie got home around six-thirty.

"She got home from work on a Friday night, both Craig and the boy were gone. When Craig got home around midnight, she'd already called the police. He said he'd left around four, had to run some errands. Said he left the boy with the sitter, paid her extra to stay late.

"Sitter testified that she'd left at the usual time, that Craig was there, no discussion of her staying later, that nothing had seemed any different than usual." When Harper moved his chair, Joe slipped along the bookcase so he could still see the reports.

"There were five additional cult members who were never tied directly to the murders. Timmons came out in 1990. The cult leader, Fenner, came out on parole in 1997. Two years later he was back inside on a molesting accusation, got out again just a few months ago."

"What was the cult?" Davis asked. "Another sick religion like Manson's?"

"Fenner started out as a schoolteacher," Harper said. "Misfit, apparently. Lost his position at several schools, never made tenure. After that he worked as a social worker in a dozen cities under different names, forged credentials. Sure as hell, if we looked at it, we'd find missing children in those areas. And find he was gathering disciples, even then. A pretty sick religion, from what Patty told me. Fenner believed that unusually bright children were put here by the devil. Sent by the devil to destroy the world."

Davis shook her head. "How were they supposed to do that?"

"Take over corporations, political groups. Slowly build up their own rule that would destroy mankind."

"Too many bad trips," Garza said. "Or maybe the bright kids in his classes got the best of him."

Harper shrugged. "He thought if he could rid the world of all the brighter-than-average children, he could bring about universal peace."

Davis looked sickened. She shuffled through the reports, scanning them, then looked up. "Patty Rose testified against Vernon."

Harper nodded. "She didn't like to talk about the trial. It was Marlie's testimony that really incriminated Craig, and, apparently, Fenner. Patty believed Marlie was killed because of her testimony-Patty said her own testimony didn't amount to anything, that she didn't have much to tell." Harper frowned. "Patty never described Fenner to me.

"I never asked her much about that time, just let her talk, vent when she wanted to." He bent to the reports again, as did Davis and Garza. Behind Harper, Joe lay down, drooping his paws over the edge of the shelf. The be-on-the-lookout message would have gone on the computer as soon as Lucinda told Harper about the small man, and would have been read over the radio to officers on patrol. The fact that Fenner hadn't been picked up likely meant he was long gone-if that man was Fenner. And if he did kill Patty, why would he hang around?

This line of thinking was a real long shot. That case was thirty years old. And yet

After a few minutes, Davis rose. "I'll get on the computer, get a description from L.A. Run Timmons and Fenner through NCI, see if there's anything else. The little man Lucinda saw We get a match, that'll give us enough for a warrant." Davis headed out the door, her midnight sleepiness gone, her dark eyes keen.

On the bookshelf, Joe lay thinking. Until ballistics was in, no one was going to know anything about the weapon. Only that Patty had been killed with soft-nosed bullets, probably small caliber, two lodged in the head, one in her throat. With this ammo, there really wasn't much likelihood of identifying the weapon; that lead would spread out like a mushroom. The officers had found no casings. Curling deeper among the books, the tomcat closed his eyes, as if set for a long nap. He could hear Juana Davis down the hall in her office, talking. Maybe on the phone to NCI? Sometimes Davis liked to place a call rather than go through the computer. As Harper and Garza rose, moving toward the door, the chief's phone buzzed. He nodded to Garza to wait.

Half sitting on his desk, Harper picked up. He was just inches from where Joe lay. Joe could hear the deep timbre of the male dispatcher's voice-Mabel had gone home at shift change. "She is?" Harper said. "When did she get in? Tell her Yes, that should be fine. Hold on." He glanced at Garza. "Patty's secretary just landed, she's calling from the terminal. You want to talk with her first thing in the morning?" He handed the phone across to Garza.

Joe listened as Garza was put through to Patty's secretary; the detective made an appointment for seven the next morning. "No, not a bit too early. Yes, the tearoom's fine. At that hour, we'll have it to ourselves." The tearoom of Otter Pine Inn, which wouldn't be open until midafternoon, might offer, Joe thought, a less traumatic environment than Patty's suite or office, where Dorothy had spent so much time with her employer and friend.

"No," Garza said gently into the phone. "Apparently she didn't. She died in just a few seconds, she couldn't have felt pain for more than an instant." They talked for a few moments longer, Garza quiet and attentive, asking about Dorothy's new grandchild. Beside him, Harper waited.

"Tired," Garza said when he'd hung up. "And hurting. Sounded wrung out. She tried to talk about Patty, but she couldn't say much.

"Said her daughter had a long labor, fourteen hours. A little girl, seven pounds. They named her Patty. Patty Rose Street Anderson. Dorothy plans to go back down, help take care of the baby if she can get the preliminary work on Patty's affairs in order, put her assistant in charge."

Harper nodded. "She worked for Patty, what? Over twenty years. Patty was her daughter's godmother." He looked at Garza without expression. "You did check that Dorothy was in L.A.?"

"Talked with the daughter's doctor around dinnertime. Dorothy was there all yesterday, last night, and the night before. He heard her calling her travel agent after she was notified of the murder, making plane reservations. You plan to be there in the morning?"

Harper shook his head. "She'll be more comfortable one-on-one."

A quiet, private interview, Joe thought. Just Detective Garza and Dorothy Street-and one gray tomcat dozing among the shadows.

Garza moved down the hall toward his own office. Harper, turning off the light, headed up the hall for the front door. In the dark behind the two men, Joe Grey dropped from the bookshelves to Harper's desk.

He'd meant to trot on out, but now he paused.

He could hear Harper speak to the dispatcher on his way out, then heard the front door open and close. Lifting a silent paw, Joe knocked the headset off Harper's phone, selected Harper's private line, which didn't go through the switchboard, and with squinched-up paw punched in a number.

The phone rang and rang. Wilma didn't answer. He heard Harper's truck pull out. Cutting off the call, he tried Lucinda.

She answered muzzily, coming out of a deep sleep.

"It's me," he said carefully. "Has Kit come home?"

"Not home yet," Lucinda said after a moment, only slowly realizing it was Joe Grey. "We're worn out." She sounded sad, flat, both discouraged and angry. "The middle of the night, alone in places she shouldn't be. We've walked the streets everywhere, called and called her. Pedric's so hoarse he can hardly talk. We've been into every alley and yard. Where is she, Joe? Why is it that she's always, always into trouble!"

Joe's heart sank at her desolation. But he had to smile, too, at Lucinda's temper. Even if it was only anger to hide her fear and worry. And the old lady was right, Kit did gravitate toward trouble. A brand of trouble that made everyone despair-yet made them love her all the more.

"So headstrong," Lucinda said. "Look for her, Joe. We'll be out again as soon as it's light."

Pushing the headset back onto Harper's phone, Joe thought how simple life had been before the kit arrived in Molena Point with her insatiable curiosity and all four paws taking her where she shouldn't be.

He didn't remind himself that Kit had been a great help to the law in a number of cases. He only remembered that several times she'd nearly gotten herself hurt or killed. Now he told himself she was all right, that she was out there somewhere in the night having a ball while all her friends were sick with distress over her. Damn cat, Joe thought, just as on other occasions Clyde or Wilma had thought the same of him and Dulcie.

He left Harper's office and the department stubbornly determined to hit the sidewalks and roofs again to search for Kit-yet certain that if he didn't get another hour's sleep, he'd drop on the spot like a limp cat skin. That short nap on the dispatcher's desk had only left him yawning. Heavy with worry and exhaustion, Joe headed home, dragging his poor, tired paws.

| Cat Cross Their Graves | c