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20

Cat Cross Their Graves

Insistent fingers of icy dawn wind crept through the thinnest crack beneath the closed tearoom door, and across the pine floor, and rattled the windows; but bright flames snapped on the stone hearth, pressing back the dark, reflecting across the little table that was set before the fireplace. The welcome blaze warmed the faces of Detective Garza and dark-haired Dorothy Street, and warmed the gray tomcat, too, where he crouched above them, unseen, atop the tallest china cabinet. Firelight danced across the brightly flowered curtains and braided rugs, across the hand-rubbed blue walls and the flowery-papered walls, turning the small room into a retreat as cozy as a quilted cat basket. The brown wicker tables and wicker chairs gave the tearoom a homey charm that, Joe knew, Dulcie had always loved, an ambience that, until the tomcat had known Dulcie, he would never have thought about. Before both cats' perceptions warped so inexplicably into a vastly wider view of the world, he'd had no eye for beauty, homey or otherwise.

Peering down at the two lone occupants of the quiet tearoom, he commanded, as well, a clear view through the leaded windows to the lighted patio and gardens and across them to the far wing of the inn. To the third-floor windows of the Greenlaws' penthouse. But the kit's bay window remained empty, nothing but cushions leaning against the glass, no dark little shadow to tell him the kit had come home.

Below him, Dallas Garza poured sugar in his coffee, his muscled bulk and square shoulders dwarfing the slight woman. Dorothy Street was maybe in her early forties. As far as Joe could tell, she wore no makeup. She had short, dark hair curling casually around her face as if she had given it a swipe or two with the brush, then let it find its own way. She was delicately built, fine boned. A pretty, athletic-looking woman whose jeans and sweatshirt gave off the cool aroma of salty sea and pine boughs, scents that must have clung to her clothes even during her absence. She looked up when a waiter came through the door of the little kitchen, a thin, gray-haired man bearing a tray of fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls. As he set down the tray, Dorothy laid her hand on his for a moment in a gesture of mutual grieving for Patty. Patty's employees had been more than friends, they had been like family. After a moment, the waiter left, quietly shutting the door, proffering the needed privacy.

Dorothy's eyes were red, and she clutched a damp tissue. A packet of tissues lay in her lap. Garza, beneath his relaxed demeanor, was tense and watchful. The smell of sugar and cinnamon made Joe lick his whiskers. Dorothy took a cinnamon roll and split and buttered it. They had been talking about Dorothy's long friendship with Patty, since Dorothy was a little girl.

"Her daughter, Marlie, used to baby-sit me," Dorothy said, "when she was in college. West L.A. was nicer then." She looked at Dallas intently. "There was a man hanging around the inn, Detective Garza, for a few days before I left. I feel terrible about him, now. That I didn't call you, call the station. Something about him bothered me. Patty was aware of him, and I asked her about him. She said she'd keep an eye on him.

She said nothing more. Left something unsaid, I thought. That wasn't like her, to be less than open with me.

"She said at first that she hadn't seen him. When I pressed her, she said she guessed maybe she had seen him, that she hadn't paid much attention. She wanted to let it drop, didn't want to talk about him. I said nothing more.

"Now I wish I'd checked on him myself. Do you know who he was? Did anyone see him that night? A really small man, like a boy." She cupped her hands around her warm coffee cup. "I guess that's why he didn't really frighten me, because he was so small. I could-if that's the man who shot her, I might have prevented what happened." She looked up at Garza. "She might be alive if I hadn't let that pass."

Garza sat waiting for her to collect herself. At last she leaned forward, still cradling her cup. "After I saw him, I kept wondering about that terrible time in L.A. It was the only time in Patty's life that there was any ugliness. Until now."

Garza was quiet. Not, Joe knew, simply from courtesy, from wanting to give Dorothy time and space. If the interviewer was silent, didn't respond, the interviewee experienced a powerful need to keep talking, a natural compulsion to fill the empty spaces.

"How much do you know about that time in L.A., Detective Garza? About what happened to Patty's grandchild, and then to her daughter?"

"The child's father was convicted for the murder?"

Dorothy nodded. "Yes, and for some of the other Sepulveda church killings." She pushed back her short hair. Despite her healthy good looks, there were smudges under her eyes, and stress lines creased her forehead. "The murders filled the L.A. papers. Patty always found it hard to talk about it. But then sometimes she needed to talk."

Listening to Dorothy's version, Joe glanced out through the window, watching for the kit. Nothing in the third-floor window had changed, except that the sky was growing lighter so that it reflected a silver sheen across the glass. Not only had Patty helped Marlie get out of L.A. after the trial, after Craig Vernon was convicted, but she continued to have Vernon's friends watched. She thought that Craig might send someone to hurt Marlie. She didn't want him to know where Marlie had gone, didn't want anyone snooping around.

"Patty was headed for France, on a short film shoot. When Marlie was safely out of the country, Patty flew on to Paris. She… It was all she could do to finish that film, the hardest thing she ever did. Marlie had insisted she go, had convinced her it would look better, might draw off anyone who meant to follow Marlie. They tried to make it look as if Marlie had gone with her mother, a plane reservation in Marlie's name, a double for Marlie, a film stand-in.

"Marlie's little boy had been just six, and so very bright. He… I loved that little boy. Those last weeks before… before he died, he'd started avoiding his father. Didn't want to be alone with Craig, was nervous and cross with him. That was what first puzzled, then alerted, Marlie."

Dallas poured fresh coffee for them from the carafe the waiter had left.

"That was what had prompted Patty to first hire a private investigator, have Craig followed. That was how they found out about the boarded-up church, the meetings there. The other people who slipped inside, same faces every night. The investigator never did see a child, only adults, but in the preceding weeks, several children had gone missing.

"Patty always felt that if she hadn't had Craig followed, he might not have taken Conner there, that Conner and Marlie might both still be alive, that it all might have turned out differently." Dorothy folded her hands together as if trying to keep them still. She was quiet for a moment, looking at Garza. "Think how that made Patty feel, that she had failed them."

Crouched atop the china cabinet, Joe Grey thought about those murders, and about the small graves in the seniors' backyard. The L.A. children were apparently all exceptionally bright. As were all the missing children in the reports from the Seattle area. But, cases thirty years apart, more than a generation apart, what did that mean? That was stretching for it, to assume that those thirty-year-old L.A. murders could have any connection with the two bodies in the seniors' garden. And yet…

"Silly," Dorothy said, "but I had the feeling, even when I was so young, that Fenner wanted those children dead out of some kind of, oh, jealous resentment. Some sick rage that, when I watched him during the trial, I really thought I felt. I went to part of the trial, against my mother's wishes; she thought that was terrible. Well, my feeling was just a child's reaction. He had killed Conner, and I loved Conner. The whole thing affected me terribly. I was only about ten, but I had such a sense of evil about those events. I thought, not just from what happened but from watching Fenner, that I was seeing pure, dark evil." She lifted her cup in both hands, looking up at Garza.

Caught in Dorothy Street's description, Joe stared almost unaware across the patio at the empty windows where still no small shadow looked out, no lamp was lit against the dim morning. Above the penthouse the dawn sky was as gray as the stormy sea. When he heard scrabbling on the roof above the tearoom, he thought at first it was leaves or twigs blowing.

This wing of the inn, tearoom, dining room, and kitchens, was just one story, its sloping red tile roof a handy route that the cats often took when crossing the village. When the sound came again, a hard thud, then sharp scrabbling on the tiles, Joe stared hard up at the ceiling. The next moment, he saw through the window a dark small shape race across the garden and up a bougainvillea trellis and in through the Greenlaws' third-floor window. Her fluffy tail lashing, she disappeared inside. Joe's heart was thudding so hard with relief, it felt like kettledrums. She was home. The damn cat was home. He stared around the tearoom searching for a phone, looked off toward the little kitchen pantry trying to remember if he'd ever seen a phone in there. He wanted to call Dulcie, to tell Dulcie.


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