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2

Cat Cross Their Graves

When sirens careening through the night woke the village, the most curious or adventuresome residents threw on whatever clothes were handy and followed, running through the streets to form an unwanted crowd, so many unruly onlookers that they had to be forcibly kept in check by half a dozen busy officers; the more considerate folk sat by their open windows tuning their radios to the local station, or stood in their miniscule front gardens asking their neighbors what was happening.

In the village library, which should have been empty at two in the morning, the racket jerked a little girl sharply from her troubled sleep. She sat up flinging herself off her thin mattress and against the cement wall, scrambling like a terrified animal. The sirens screamed overhead nearly above her, heavy vehicles thundering down the street as if they were right on top the basement. Sounded like the rumbling engines were coming down at her. In the tiny, hidden basement, she wondered if she would die crushed by trucks and by fallen concrete.

She didn't flick on her little flashlight, she was afraid to.

There was no window into her hiding place, no one could see her, but still she was afraid. Was there a fire somewhere near? She pulled the thin blanket tighter around her. The basement was always cold. A damp cold, Mama would say. She missed Mama terrible bad.

She hadn't run away until Pa boarded up the kitchen window, long after he'd nailed plywood over the other windows and locked the doors with key bolts that she couldn't open. When he covered the kitchen window, too, she knew she couldn't stay there anymore. He'd nailed that plywood on after the neighbor saw her looking out, a big, bony, nosy woman, saw her at the window and came over to ask him if she was sick and why wasn't she in school. That's when Pa found her footprint on the tile counter where she'd climbed up to see if she could unlock the window, where she forgot to wipe away the waffle mark of her jogging shoes. He told the neighbor she was home with the flu but afterward when the neighbor was gone, he was white and silent, and he locked her in the bathroom all night. She didn't know what was wrong with Pa except he didn't love her anymore and wasn't like that when she was little.

She was six when he'd started yelling at her and locking her in the house and wouldn't listen to Mama, and that was when Mama packed a suitcase and the two of them slipped away after he went to work and drove clear across the country to North Carolina to live. Where Pa wouldn't never think to look. They'd lived in Greenville for five years.

After Mama died and the social workers put her in foster homes one after another and she kept running away, that was when she told them she had a father in California, and they sent her back.

She'd thought he'd be different, anyway better than foster homes. But then she was sorry. Pa didn't hurt her like some of the kids had told her about, but he kept her like an animal in a cage, and the cage seemed smaller every day. She was afraid to call the social worker, though, call the number they gave her, she didn't like social workers.

The rumbling had stopped, the sirens were fainter. Lying in the dark listening to them move away, she hugged herself. She wished she had another blanket. She imagined growing old in this basement, living her whole life here and no one knowing. She thought that over the years everyone must have forgotten this small space behind the library's basement workroom, the way it had been walled off to itself. It was just a cubbyhole with rough concrete calls, not smooth walls like the workroom, and it wasn't as big as their little bathroom at home. She'd known about it since she was six, though. She'd found it when Mama worked in the library; she'd used to come in here to play, slip in behind the bookcase and no one knew.

Now it wasn't play anymore.

She only had enough food for another week. The welfare woman took her money, that Mama gave her. The welfare woman in Greenville, with the big nose, said she'd keep it for her but she never gave it back. Twenty dollars Mama gave her, and Pa never gave her even a nickel.

Now when she ran out of cans to open she'd have to go out in the dark and steal food from the back of restaurants like the homeless did.

Well, she guessed she was homeless now, too.

Or in a kind of prison.

Except, Mama would say, This isn't a prison, you're here by your own choosing, Lori. You can leave when you want, no one is making you stay here.

But where would she go?

Mama wouldn't tell her to go back to Pa; Mama hadn't stayed, had she? But Mama wasn't here to tell her where to go, where to hide.

Well, she was done with the welfare people and the foster homes. The other kids said the homes were out for blood, took in kids just to make money. The more kids the foster homes got, the more money they made. Didn't matter to them if you had to sleep on the floor, ten to a room, what did they care? She'd heard plenty from the older kids. She wondered where those sirens were going, wondered what those cops were like, out in the night with their sticks and guns, wondered what they'd do with a runaway child.

Call child welfare? Call Pa? No, she wasn't going to the cops. She curled up shivering on the thin mat, pulled the blanket tighter, and snuggled into the old, stained pillow. As hard as she hugged herself she couldn't get warm and she couldn't go back to sleep.

Joe Grey and Dulcie crouched out of the way among a tangle of ferns as officers' feet raced past them, the cops' hard black shoes thundering on the brick walk. Within the lacy foliage, Dulcie's dark tabby stripes rendered her nearly invisible. Joe Grey's pewter coat was the color of the shadows; his white markings among the lacy fronds might be mistaken for bits of blown paper. Both cats' eyes burned with interest-though there was an unusual unease between them. They were not snuggled close. They sat apart, and they had not, as was usual, raced onto the patio together. Joe had been hunting. Dulcie had been home in bed with Wilma as her housemate read aloud. Neither cat was in the best mood. As the officers crowded around the stairs to the garage, Joe glanced at Dulcie, stiff and wary.

For nearly two weeks, they had hardly spoken. Joe didn't know what was wrong with Dulcie, and he certainly wasn't asking. If she didn't want to talk, that was her problem. When, among the village rooftops or gardens, he happened on her by accident, he remained as aloof as she. Tonight, racing onto the inn's patio from different directions, they had eyed each other like strangers, Dulcie's stance defensive, Joe swallowing back a hiss.

Yet now as officers moved down the stairwell toward an objective the cats couldn't see, both slipped quickly through the garden to look, glancing shyly at each other. Beyond them across the patio two uniforms guarded the inn's front gate, and two more strung the traditional yellow tape against the gawking crowd that had gathered even on this rainy night. Dulcie glanced at Joe. Padding closer, she gently touched her nose to his. "Where's Kit?" she said softly. "Is she down here in the middle already?"

Joe glanced, scowling, up at Kit's third-floor window. The lights were on but Kit was not in sight. The side window was open and he could see a rip in the screen. He turned to study the shadows around the stairwell, but he saw no gleam of yellow eyes. Dulcie, rearing up, scanned the windows, too. "The screen's torn. Maybe Lucinda tried to keep her in."

Fat chance, Joe thought.

When Dulcie nuzzled him, he didn't respond. She gave him a sideways look. She could imagine Kit leaping down the roof to the balcony, down again-at the sirens' call, she thought, amused. She slipped closer to Joe, who had shifted away, and this time he didn't move. He was watching Ryan and Clyde, who had come in before the tape was strung, and watching Lucinda and Pedric hurrying down the stairs from their penthouse, the tall elderly couple pulling on their jackets. Softly, Lucinda was calling the kit. Both she and Pedric looked worried.

The stairwell was mobbed now with uniforms, the flash of police torches reflecting up from below projecting gigantic shadows up along the stucco walls. The lights beside the descending steps, which marched down to the garage, and the garage lights below, had been extinguished. Joe wondered if the killer had disconnected them, or if perhaps a gunshot had shorted them out.

Was Kit down there in the stairwell, below the crowd of officers? Or maybe above them, peering over from the deep shadows of the balcony that ran above the stairs? Looking along the balcony, Joe searched for her but saw no gleam of yellow eyes. He glanced at Dulcie, and his look softened. For a moment the two cats were close again, of one mind, their noses filled with the smell of death. Sliding into the bushes at the top of the steps, staring down among the flashing torch lights, both cats froze.

Patty Rose lay below them, her white satin robe bloodstained, her face brutally torn. Dulcie was so shocked she felt her supper come up, her mouth fill with bile. Joe's ears were back flat to his head, his whiskers laid flat, his eyes burning like yellow fire.

Detective Garza knelt beside Patty, feeling for a pulse. The cats knew there could be no pulse. When at last Garza rose and backed off, the medics knelt over her trying for a pulse, too, trying to stop the bleeding, trying to start her heart beating again. They worked for a long time before they rose and turned away. Beside Dulcie, Joe's face seemed suddenly thinner, his whole body smaller and limp. Shivering, the tomcat nosed at her. She looked at him helplessly, read in his eyes exactly what he felt- as if all that was good in life had vanished, as if the negative forces of the world had suddenly won. Never had either cat imagined Patty Rose murdered. Such wanton violence to someone so good, so innocent of malice, filled them with defeat. Crouching with Joe above the stairs, Dulcie watched Detective Garza unpack his cameras.

Peering from behind several uniforms' dark trouser legs, shuttering their eyes against the bright strobe lights, the two cats watched Dallas Garza begin to shoot the scene. The big, square-faced Latino was dressed in soft jeans and a wrinkled blue T-shirt, as if he had grabbed the first clothes at hand. He wore scuffed tennis shoes but no socks. His short, dark hair was uncombed. His tanned jaw was darkened by a day's growth of shadowy whiskers, and set with a cop's controlled anger at this death of a good friend. As he stood above the body, Garza's dark, solemn eyes searched every inch of the stairwell as he decided where to shoot, making sure he missed nothing. Some of his close-ups were made more difficult by the steep flight of steps, some were assisted by the dropping angles. When he had shot a roll of film, he began to set up additional lights to eliminate shadows, to do it all again. The two cats fled to the concrete walkway above the stairwell.

Crouching there on the cold cement, tasting the smell of death, they tried not to look down directly at Patty, but the lights brutally illuminated her. Sickened, Dulcie couldn't help but imagine a grisly film shoot, macabre and shocking. A horrifying farewell for a great star, a surreal and disgusting final drama too much like the sickest of human culture.

She watched Captain Harper and the coroner approach the stairs through the crowd of officers. At the top of the steps, the two men paused, waiting for Garza to finish so Dr. Bern could examine the body before taking it to the morgue. There, the final bits of fiber and debris would be removed from Patty's clothes and body. She would be examined for all manner of trauma and of course for bullets. Samples would be taken before her body was tagged and locked away in a cold metal drawer. The cats knew the drill. They had attended more murder scenes than some of the rookies present. But that didn't make this death easier.

Certainly Captain Harper looked sick, so stricken that Joe wanted to put out a paw to him. The tall, thin chief watched the procedures in silence, his lined face pale and grim. Watched Garza finish photographing the body and surroundings and wind back the film of the old, reliable Rolleiflex camera, then shoot a few minutes of video, moving up and down the stairs. When he started toward the walkway above, the cats melted into the deepest shadows, Joe hiding his face and chest and paws by curling into a furry ball.

When Garza seemed sure he'd missed no shot, he tucked the cameras into his black leather bag, then knelt and began lifting samples, picking up small bits of debris with tweezers, and using a small soft brush to sweep the tiniest flecks into evidence bags. Garza had been with Molena Point for just a year, since Max Harper hired him away from San Francisco PD, a change that Garza had been more than happy to make. Leaving behind him too many years of big-city crime, he had moved into his family's vacation cottage at the north side of the village, a small old hillside cottage they jokingly called the Garza/Flannery estate. At about the same time Dallas left San Francisco, his niece, Ryan, after a painful divorce had also relocated from the city, to start her new construction company in Molena Point.

As the cats crouched among the flowers watching Garza, they heard a woman start across the patio behind them, coming from the front gate, her hard-soled walk quick and decisive. They didn't need to look, they knew Detective Davis's step. Juana Davis crossed and stood at the top of the stairs beside Dr. Bern, studying the body, watching Detective Garza collect evidence on the steps below. The case seemed to be Garza's call, but maybe both detectives would work this one, as they sometimes did. The cats could imagine the hours of interrogation as Harper and his two detectives questioned all the many hotel employees and guests. At last a stretcher was carried down the steps, Dr. Bern supervising the lifting and securing of the body, and Patty Rose was taken away.

Garza studied the crime scene and photographed the area beneath where she had lain, then lifted some samples. When at long last he turned off the strobe lights, when the stairwell was once more in darkness, the cats dropped down onto the concrete steps, well below where the two detectives stood talking.

"Was she alone?" Davis asked, puzzled. "Alone on the back stairs in the middle of the night? In her nightie?"

Garza shrugged. "You know she was famous for that, getting a snack in the middle of the night, raiding the tearoom pantry."

Davis nodded. "Never could understand how she kept her figure. Patty's… she's slim as a girl." Davis had a problem with weight; she was squarely built and, despite lengthy workout routines, the burgers and fries all went to fat.

"Harper's photographing and printing the pantry The door was open, the light on."

Davis glanced toward the tearoom. "He need help?"

"He took a rookie to lift prints. Cameron, she's good with that." Jane Cameron had been on the force just a month, having come straight from San Jose PD, where she'd served her apprenticeship after graduating from San Jose State.

"Where's Dorothy?" Davis said, looking back to where a small group of employees had gathered, kept in check by Officer Brennan. Dorothy Street was Patty's personal secretary. Davis glanced up to the narrow balcony that ran above the stairs. The dim, chill walkway, even in the daytime, gave no hint of the sunny apartments to which it led. At intervals beneath the concrete roof, the five doors were closed. No one had come out or gone in while the cats were there. Yellow crime-scene tape closed the doors now. Each door opened to a large and comfortable room reserved for members of the hotel staff. The cats, when they prowled the garden behind that wing, always peered in through the wide glass doors at the spacious residences. Dorothy Street had a two-room apartment down at the end. "She should have heard the shots," Davis said, studying the closed doors.

Garza shook his head. "She's in L.A. Flew down last week; her daughter's having her first baby. Max called the number she gave the staff." He handed Davis a slip of paper. "First one is the daughter's home number. No answer. You want to try the hospital?"

Davis nodded. "You've gone over Patty's suite?"

"Not yet. We've secured both doors."

Again the cats heard Lucinda calling the kit, her voice harsh with worry. "How long has she been gone?" Dulcie whispered.

Joe shrugged, and Dulcie began to fidget. "She can't have followed the killer?"

Joe's yellow eyes burned. "She can't?" Both cats rose and began to sniff along the concrete, seeking the kit's scent. The two detectives were discussing the witnesses. "… get their preliminary statements tonight," Garza was saying. "Bartender and two barmaids, ten customers, four kitchen staff. Dining room closes at ten. No other guest so far has come forward. I'll take the bar group. You want the kitchen staff?"

Davis nodded. The officers would, the cats knew, question each witness individually, keep them from talking among themselves. When witnesses started comparing what they remembered-thought they remembered-everything got garbled. With a little imagination, the pop of a beer can opening could turn into the sound of a gunshot.

"Maybe Max will take a few," Garza said. "We might get a couple hours' sleep before breakfast."

"Right now I'd settle for breakfast," Davis said wistfully.

"Finish questioning your bunch, maybe they'll fry you an egg"

Listening to Garza and Davis, the cats grew increasingly uneasy about Kit. It wasn't like her not to be on the scene. Prowling the balcony, they picked up no scent of the tortoiseshell. Lucinda was still calling her. They looked at each other and forgot their differences.

"You want to catch the interviews?" Joe said, knowing she would not. They could read the interview reports on the dispatcher's desk at the station or in one of the detectives' offices. A cat lolling on a cop's desk was not unusual at Molena Point PD, Joe and Dulcie had long ago seen to that.

The urgency of the moment was to find the kit, and neither cat could pick up her scent. Joe was so concerned that he'd almost forgotten his anger with Dulcie; he glanced at her now with speculation.

Well, he wasn't asking questions. And he wasn't sneaking around following her, he wasn't lowering himself to that. If she wanted privacy, that was her affair-but she couldn't keep a secret forever.

It was the possibility of another tomcat that worried him. He had checked for the scent of a strange tom around the village, and had found none, nor had he detected the scent of another cat on Dulcie. But what was so sacrosanct that she couldn't share it?

Uncomfortable beneath Joe's stare, Dulcie put her nose to the concrete again. She hated keeping secrets from him, she considered that the same as lying, and she wanted to share every aspect of life with Joe. But she couldn't tell him this. Leaping down from the concrete walk to the steps below, she landed on a spot far beyond the chalk marks where Patty's body had lain. Moving on down, scenting for the kit, she couldn't smell much over the sharp stink of death. She was shaky with shock and grief. Now that the harsh strobe lights had been removed, the shadows leading down to the parking garage were thick and black, even to her eyes. She sensed Joe behind her, felt him brush against her, and in darkness they moved down together toward the bottom of the stairs.

Had Kit come down here before the police arrived? All alone, trying to sort through the smells of blood, shoe polish, and scorched dust from the harsh spotlights, through the smell of camera equipment and gunpowder. There was black fingerprinting powder on every surface. They didn't want that stuff on them. Not only did it taste bad, but their respective housemates would pitch a royal fit. Joe could just hear Clyde. "Stuff's hell to get off, Joe. Can't you think about these things? And do you have to have your nose into every damn crime scene?"

As the cats slipped into the black garage, they would have been nearly invisible except for the snowy gleam of Joe's white nose and his white chest and paws. His disembodied white markings moved beside Dulcie like tiny white ghosts. The garage stank of cigar smoke, of hair cream, of various scents that could belong to anyone. They could find no trail of the kit. Padding between the cold wheels of cars that had been parked there all night, they kept their noses to the concrete like a pair of tracking hounds.

Back and forth they quartered the garage, under and around the cars. They caught whiffs of cops they knew, little air trails of human scent-shoe polish, aftershave, tobacco-swirled with the automotive stinks until, mixed by the sucking wind that swept through the garage, all became mucked together like an overdone stew, and nothing of value remained. When, after an hour they had found no trace of the kit, they left the garage feeling decidedly cranky. Trotting up the short drive, they slowly circled the block-long building, then padded in beneath the yellow crime-scene tape, where the wrought-iron gate stood open. The gate did not smell of the kit, nothing smelled of the kit, all was a mishmash of too many human scents. Stopping among the patio flowers, they stared up at the Greenlaws' windows.

The kit was not looking out; they saw no figure, no movement within. The one light was burning, as before. The patio was silent except for the faintest murmer of voices from the tearoom and dining room, and the soft crackle of a police radio turned low. And then, from across the gardens, they heard Lucinda calling again. Softly calling and calling the kit. Calling for a cat who might, by this time, be very far away and deep into trouble.


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