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18

Cat Cross Their Graves

The tortoiseshell kit woke to a harsh beam of light in her face; it brought her straight up, stiff and rigid, hissing and ready to fight, a light swinging in through a grate in the darkness above her, and the sound of a car, too, very close. Backing away, she didn't know where to run, didn't know where she was.

But then she smelled sour dirt, saw the loose dirt piled up, and remembered she'd been digging. Her paws hurt bad and were caked with damp soil and blood. She'd slept in the hole she'd dug; her fur was filled with dirt and smelled of sour dirt. Quickly she scrambled out, listening to the car outside scrunching on gravel, then heard the engine die. Fenner had come back. Now she might get out. Rearing up against the vent, she peered out into the yard, listening.

She couldn't see the car for bushes. She heard the car door open, then slam closed. His footsteps crossed the gravel and started up the steps above her. The front door creaked open. He pounded across the room toward the bed and makeshift kitchen. Abandoning the hole, she scorched through blackness beneath the house, hurting her lacerated paws on the rubble.

Pausing beneath the hole in the bathroom floor, she listened, licking the grit from her hurt pads and washing the caked blood away. Her ears cocked to catch every sound above her, she listened to Irving Fenner move about near the makeshift kitchen. When he paused there, and did not enter the bathroom, she crouched to leap up through the hole. But first she looked for the gun, just to make sure. The space had been empty when she fetched the envelopes. She would not want to tangle with that gun.

But the dank space was still empty. Swinging herself up, she dug all her claws into the rough timber and hung there, then scrambled up beneath the sink.

She heard him in the bedroom dragging something heavy across the room. He was muttering and laughing. Was someone with him? He laughed once, very loud, a crazy cackle, and moved across toward the chair in the corner, that old upholstered chair.

He must have left whatever it was in the chair, because when he moved back across the room he wasn't dragging it. She heard the bed creak, as if he'd sat down. Heard one shoe drop, then the other. She thought he'd lain down, but then he rose again, walking softly now, without his shoes.

He moved to the table; she heard glass clink against glass, then he set something down. In a minute she could smell liquor, its nose-tingling scent drifting in to her. Then softly he moved back to the bed.

His sudden voice came so clearly it shocked her. "You better sleep while you can. Lessons start early. If you do well, I might let you go home." Kit heard a little creak, as if he'd lain down, a thunk as if he'd set something on the floor. Maybe his glass, or a bottle. Who was there with him? If he was drunk, maybe he'd sleep.

She waited a long time. All was silent above her. She heard no sound from the corner, no sound from the bed. Shivering, and so very thirsty and hungry, she thought about water in the sink. Maybe she could turn on a tap-if he slept deeply, and if it was the kind of handle she could move.

At long last, she heard his soft snoring. Pushing out through the cupboard door, she hopped noiselessly to the sink counter and peered into the basin.

Talk about filthy! Stains she didn't want to identify, and grease. Long, black hairs, and short bits of black hair mixed with smears of shaving cream. Enough to make any cat lose her thirst.

But the handle was the lever kind. Pawing at it, she managed a small stream of water. Tilting her head, she drank the running water as best she could, wetting her whiskers and fur, unwilling to drink where the water settled in that mess. When she felt satisfied, she dropped down on silent paws, made sure he was still snoring, then nosed open the bathroom door.

She peered past the table legs to the bed. A faint haze of light from a pale night sky seeped in through the dirty windows. He lay sprawled on top the covers with the bottom part of the spread pulled up over his legs. And there was someone else in the room, a warmth, a presence, someone in the chair. A darkness curled up in the dark chair, in the darkest corner.

Encouraged by his steady snoring, she moved warily under the table and past the bed toward the lump in the chair. Sneaking across the room, belly to floor, she thought about the envelopes. If something happened to her, if she never got out, if he woke and caught her, the evidence she'd so carefully hidden would never be found. Who would think to look under the house, inside the vent, to feel around the joists for two brown envelopes jammed up under the floor among the spiderwebs and soggy insulation?

Oh, how sad. Captain Harper and Detective Garza might never have the pictures, and maybe Irving Fenner would go free, would never pay for Patty's death. She had to tell the captain- but if Fenner killed her here, or this unknown person in the chair killed her, the law would never find those pictures and clippings. The gun was another matter. She didn't know where it was. And likely the law would need a warrant for that. She turned to look back at the bed, wondering if the gun was on him, maybe in his pocket. Then she crept closer to the silent presence in the dim chair-and now she could smell fear, sharp and quick. She could smell the person, too: A child! A little girl! The kit reared up tall, looking. He'd brought a child here? Had kidnapped a child? She could see the child now all huddled up, and as she dropped down and moved toward the chair, she heard a muffled gulp. Then silence. Rising up again on her hind paws, she wanted to whisper, Don't be afraid. And she could say nothing.

Lori hoped it was a cat creeping across the floor and not some other creature; the way this place smelled it could be a rat or anything. She drew her feet up as best she could, being tied like they were. Outside the dirty windows the sky was milky with clouds but not much light came in around the drawn drapes. The animal drew closer. Had some wild animal got in? Unable to move much, she could only watch, she couldn't kick or fight back. The idea of rats scared her bad. The kids in one of the foster homes said there were rats, and she'd seen big rat droppings. They said if a rat bit you, you died. They'd threatened to catch one and put it in her bed but she'd run away before they did.

It was coming. A silent shadow slipping toward her. She wouldn't scream. It reared up, looking at her-and she saw it clearly. A cat. It was only a cat. Letting out her breath, chewing at the tight, dirty handkerchief that bound her mouth, she thought at first it was Dulcie.

But it had a fluffy tail, not smooth like Dulcie's striped tail. Long, dark fur. It leaped to the chair arm, looked right into her face, then dropped into her lap, heavy and bold. And purring.

She couldn't pet it or touch it. It stared at the ropes that bound her arms, and it bent its head over her arm.

It began to chew. To chew the rope. Lori couldn't believe what she was watching, she felt her heart lift in wonderment. The cat had the rope right in its teeth, its teeth pressing against her skin but not hurting her. It chewed ever so carefully. Chewed and gnawed the rope, and all the time its purr rippling and singing really bold. And its furry warmth pressing against her. The cat smelled of sour earth but she didn't care. Watching it gnaw on the rope, she thought of magical animals. In Narnia, in the fairy tales, in "Cinderella." She thought of the mice nibbling the lion's bonds and she wanted to laugh out loud.

But those were stories. That didn't happen in real life.

Except, it was happening.

She wondered if she'd wanted someone to help her so much, she'd made up a dream. She'd been so scared all night since he grabbed her on the hill and tied her up and hoisted her in his car and made her have a lesson. An algebra lesson in the middle of the night in that cold, stinking car, and that was what scared her most. A school lesson, with her tied up. A flashlight and a workbook and he said they were in school and that he was a teacher and his eyes were crazy, all black and strange. A grown man playing school. What did he want? Why did he force her to answer questions? Said that if she answered all of them right, he'd let her go, but she knew he wouldn't-yet she hoped he might. And then he'd brought her here, drunk in the car swigging on that bottle. From the time he'd first caught her, he'd stunk of booze. Well, maybe it was the booze that made him sleep.

And then the cat came.

She still thought maybe she was imagining the cat, that there was no cat, that maybe he'd drugged her, given her a shot when he tied her up and she didn't feel it and she really was imagining the cat.

Except, the cat had chewed nearly through the rope. When she twisted her arm back, the rope gave and flew apart. Swallowing, she jerked her arm free.

Quickly she got the ropes off, around her body, her legs. She was free. She jerked the handkerchief down from her face. Free! She could breathe! The cat stared up at her once and leaped from her lap and went straight to the door.

Lori didn't tell herself she was imagining anything. She slipped to the door shaking so much she could hardly grab the knob. So scared she thought she'd throw up. She turned the dead bolt real careful, turned the doorknob ever so slow, not to make a sound, and eased the door open.

The cat flew out between her feet, and Lori flew out after it. They were free. Free, together. Out in the cold black night free. She was certain, then, that the cat had been trapped in there, too.

Turning, silently she closed the door before the cold breath of night woke him. And they ran, away through the night, Lori on tiptoe on the gravelly rough walk, then faster when she hit the sidewalk. She ran straight back to the hills, but the cat swerved away in the other direction, seemed to know exactly where it wanted to go. How did you thank a cat, when it maybe saved your life? But, oh, she was free. Racing through the empty village and uphill in the cold night, running so hard she was warm, then sweating, she fled as fast as she could toward Genelle Yardley's house. She knew no other living person to go to. She couldn't go back to the library, he knew where she'd been, she was sure of it. She needed to be with someone, she needed a grown-up, bad. Running and running, she knew that what had happened was impossible. But that it had happened, that a cat had saved her, that a little cat had chewed her ropes and freed her.


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