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24

Cat Cross Their Graves

Joe approached the cottage behind the old house, concealed beneath overgrown bushes, padding through a morass of rotting leaves. The whole yard smelled of rot and mildew. Keeping out of sight, he watched Max Harper, standing on the cottage porch talking with a hefty woman in a red muumuu. Landlady. She was rattling off a list of complaints about her tenant. On the gravelly parking space before the cottage stood a black Ford sedan and a blue Plymouth. He could smell the faintest whiff of exhaust, as if a car had left within the past hour. The front door stood open. The landlady was so frowsy she matched the cottage exactly, and matched what Joe could see of the grim interior. He'd seen her around the village. Had Harper gotten a search warrant, just on Kit's phone tip? That would be unusual.

But if the landlady invited him inside, that was another matter; he could search then. And indeed, in a moment Dallas Garza emerged from within the cottage as if perhaps he had finished a search. Joe listened to Harper wrap up the conversation, to the effect that if her tenant returned she was to call him, and that he had just a little more checking to do; the old doll seemed fine with that. Waddling down the steps, she headed for the larger house and disappeared inside. Joe watched Harper and Garza walk along the foundation and kneel before the first of two ventilation grids.

Producing an electric drill that he'd shoved into his belt beside his black holstered radio, Garza removed four screws from the grill and pulled off the rusty grid, revealing a hole large enough for a small terrier. The detective looked up at Max. Max Harper smiled. "Be my guest."

Garza gave Harper a patient look, and pulled on a pair of worn work gloves. Lying down on his belly in the mud and wet leaves, he reached in through the hole. Pushing in and twisting, he felt around blindly, probably even with the gloves, praying he didn't disturb one of the more deadly varieties of poisonous spiders for which California was known. The bite of a brown recluse would dissolve the flesh from within like ice melting in a warm kitchen.

"Not a damn thing," he grumbled, adding a Spanish expletive. Groping farther into the darkness for whatever evidence the phantom snitch had found or deposited, he twisted onto his back to explore above him among the floor joists. Harper, standing over him, was highly entertained-as was Joe Grey. As Garza searched, he had to be wondering about protruding rusty nails as well as unfriendly spiders. After some moments, he withdrew from the underpinnings of the house and stood up. Scowling at Harper, he moved to the other vent and knelt again.

Removing the second grid from its frame, he lay down again reaching, groping and searching up among the floor joists until suddenly he shot out of the hole.

Swinging to a standing position, grinning, he clutched in his gloved hands a pair of large brown envelopes. Handing them to Harper, he was just replacing and screwing down the vent grids when Harper's radio squawked. Max picked up and listened.

Then, "No, just watch it. Put a man on it. With luck, maybe he'll come back for it." He glanced at Garza. "The Honda's parked up on Drake, behind a vacant house."

Garza looked pleased. Harper nodded toward his truck, perhaps not wanting to attract further attention from the neighbors and morning joggers. And as Garza followed the chief to his Chevy pickup, Joe, in a swift but maybe foolish move, sped behind them.

At the moment they opened their doors and thus were turned away, he slipped up like a flying gray shadow into the open truck bed. Onto the cold, hard metal floor. Sliding between an old saddle blanket and a fifty-pound bag of dog kibble, Joe braced himself as Harper started the engine. Likely the chief was heading back to the station, to his office where they could examine the contents with added privacy. Very good. In Harper's comfortable office, a cat wouldn't freeze his tail. The sea wind scudding into the truck bed felt like an arctic blizzard.

Getting soft, Joe thought as Harper eased the truck around the corner and down a block. But then the chief parked again, in a red zone beneath the branches of a Monterey pine. Joe, hearing him rattle one of the envelopes, wondered if he dared rear up for a look through the back window.

Sure he could. Right in line with the rearview mirror.

Glancing overhead at the spreading branches of the pine, he slipped up real quiet onto the metal roof of the cab, keeping away from the back window, out of sight behind the wide metal post, then up onto an overhanging branch. Its foliage was thick and concealing. But the branch was so limber that it rocked and swayed under his weight, dragging across the door frame and roof, alerting the two cops like a gunshot. Garza stuck his head out, glaring up into the tree and up and down the sidewalk. Cops never rode with their windows up, even in freezing weather. Their inferior human hearing, impeded by the thick glass, might block all manner of sounds they should hear, from a faint cry for help to a distant car crash to a muffled gunshot. Perched precariously above Garza, Joe was barely out of sight as the detective scanned the tree. Squeezing his eyes shut and tucking his white nose down, he was perched so unsteadily that he thought any minute he'd be forced to take a flying leap. He held his breath until Garza ducked back inside the cab.

"Probably a squirrel."

Harper grunted, opened the envelopes, and produced a third brown envelope from behind the seat. Removing from this a sheaf of clear plastic folders, he opened the first envelope and carefully shook out its contents. Using tweezers, he inserted each piece of paper into a plastic folder before they examined it.

From among the pine needles, the tomcat peered down at the old, yellowed newspaper clippings of strangers, and at the brighter magazine pictures and photographs of Patty Rose. Fidgeting, Joe edged this way and that on the branch, trying to see better. Were they going to go through the entire contents sitting out here in the cold? The officers were silent for some time, passing the plastic sleeves back and forth. The newspaper pages were creased where they'd been folded, and darkly discolored with age. Considering that feline eyesight was superior to that of humans, Joe wondered just how much facial detail the officers were able to discern in those old newspaper photographs. All were of the same four men, though. Three were in profile to the camera, one facing it. It was certainly not a posed shot. In fact, it was so casually candid that it might have been taken without their knowledge. The one man facing the camera full on was a head shorter than the others.

The chief glanced at Garza. "Fenner. Little creep should have burned long ago." Then he smiled. "Fenner turns out to be our man, you can chalk up one more for the snitch."

"Makes you feel pretty lame," Garza said. "Some civilian comes up with this stuff, we don't even know who she is."

"They," Harper said. "I'm pretty sure the guy and the gal work together. And don't knock it." His thin, sun-lined face was thoughtful. "Weird as it is, so far they've been a hundred percent. So far," he said thoughtfully, "they've produced information that we had no authority to look for. No reason for a warrant. Stuff we might have found farther down the line, or might not. Might never have had cause to search for."

"Some of that stuff," Garza said, "who knows how they knew about it? That's what's weird. That's what gives me the willies."

Harper said nothing more. Above the officers' heads, Joe Grey peered hard at the old, yellowed newspaper. Even in the blurred clipping, Fenner's face looked sour and pinched; not an appealing fellow. After some minutes, Harper said, "Guy on the left, Kendall Border. I remember him from that San Diego case two years before L.A. And Craig Vernon, Patty's son-in-law, he was on death row for three years before he died."

Watching a mouse hole for hours was nothing compared to Joe's tension of the moment. He was so wired with questions that every muscle twitched. Edging closer along the frail branch, he watched Harper tilt the paper to the light.

"Those are the four," Harper said. "The great guru and his disciples." In the truck, the two men crowded shoulder to shoulder, reading, as Joe teetered on the thin branch above them.

"There were eight or nine women in the group," Harper said. "L.A. couldn't make any of them. Guess the men did the dirty work."

Dallas examined the last clipping, and looked up at Harper. "Mighty damned strange the snitch found these; I have way too many questions about this woman."

Max shrugged. "You can get used to anything if it works. "

"So what does she… what do they get out of it?"

Max shrugged again. "Ego trip. Moral satisfaction, the thrill of the hunt, who knows? Maybe they're a couple of frustrated cops?"

Garza grinned, shook his head, and let the subject drop. He opened the truck door. "I'll get on the computer, get started on Fenner; hope L.A. kept good files."

As Garza swung out of the truck and headed up the street, Joe backed up the branch to a more solid perch, and sat thinking. Kit had tracked this guy, all alone. Had made his car, and had surely moved the evidence from inside that shack to where the cops could find it, in case the landlady wasn't home or didn't want to let them in. Fenner was as good as behind bars, Joe thought, thanks to the kit.

It remained to be seen if this might wrap up the other deaths as well, the little unmarked graves. Might. Might not. But plenty was falling into place, making Joe smile. Falling into place as neat as a mouse into waiting claws. Backing down the trunk to the sidewalk, into the stinking exhaust from Harper's pickup as the chief headed for the station, the tomcat took off to find Dulcie. To bring Dulcie up to speed, and then to find and praise the kit-if the little tattercoat wasn't already feeling too high to reach. Knowing Lucinda and Pedric, Kit was probably getting all the extravagant praise she could handle.


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