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25

Cat Cross Their Graves

Juana Davis set the deli bag on her desk, filled her coffeepot, and switched it on. Glancing through a stack of fresh memos and reports, she signed three routine forms requesting information, returned four phone calls, which she kept as brief as possible, signed three requests to the DA. Shoving the rest of the stack aside, she carried the forms and requests up to the dispatcher. Returning to her office, she poured a mug of coffee, added creamer and sugar, and shut the door.

Placing the new stack of faxes on a tilted holder for easy reading, she opened the deli bag and unwrapped her breakfast sandwich. Eating Jolly's bacon, cheese, and egg on sourdough, she studied the more detailed background reports that had just come in on five of the missing children in the Seattle area.

Benjamin Alden was only seven. He had skipped the second grade. The two color pictures of Benjamin showed a freckled, redheaded little boy with a tooth missing in a wide grin. He was so advanced in arithmetic and English that he did not belong in third grade, either, but the school had been reluctant to let him skip another grade so soon, afraid this would create a social misfit. The kid didn't look to Juana like a misfit. Just full of high jinks, maybe. He had the same devilish twinkle as her own boys when they were small.

Benjamin's mother had transferred him to a private Catholic school in Seattle where he could advance at his own speed. She told the investigator that she had never pushed the child, that he ate up arithmetic and English grammar the way other kids did puzzles. Benjamin disappeared from the play yard of his new school around three P.M. during his third week in attendance. School had just let out. The other kids had waited for the bus or for their parents. No one saw Benjamin leave or saw him with anyone. His backpack and school books were on the steps when his mother arrived to pick him up. She searched the school and grounds for him, asked a few children. Drove home again watching the streets, checked the house and neighbors, then called the police. Police waived the requisite time of delay before the child was declared missing. Benjamin was not the first child to disappear that fall.

Officers found the fresh prints of a man's shoes in the woods that bordered the schoolyard, and signs of a struggle where the prints went deeper and were churned up. Police made casts of the prints, including the cast of a partial that turned out to match Benjamin's shoe size.

In the days preceding the disappearance, no one had seen anyone watching or following Benjamin. The child had not seemed disturbed about anything. After his disappearance, there were no phone calls or letters. No communication. Tracking dogs found a trail across the woods, which ended at the street. No one had seen a car parked there. Tire marks were photographed. Police had not turned up any suspects.

Juana finished her breakfast, which now tasted like cardboard, and swilled more coffee. Nancy Barker of Eugene was nine; she was in the fifth grade, two grades ahead of her peers. She excelled in gymnastics and world history. She was the youngest child on the elementary school's history debating team. She had disappeared from a sleep-over with five other girls at approximately two in the morning. Her friends, asleep all around her, heard nothing. No child woke. In the morning, the window was open and Nancy was gone. The girls were to go swimming that morning at a neighborhood pool. Nancy's overnight bag with a change of clothes and her bathing suit was missing. This was found later in an irrigation ditch north of Eugene. All the girls at the sleepover were neighborhood children, all from her school. Her absence was discovered about six A.M.

Police found traces of acepromazine, a tranquilizer used for animals, on her pillow, and on the carpet flecks of grass that matched the lawn. There were no fingerprints other than those of the girls and the sleep-over family. No one saw a car, no neighbors heard or saw anything. No one heard a dog bark. The family dog, who slept in the fenced yard, and three dogs on the same street had been tranquilized. There were no follow-up sightings of the child. There was no request for ransom.

Juana rose to refill her coffee mug. Unusually bright children and no request for ransom. A dangerous nutcase; dangerous, irreparably twisted. If these were the children found in the senior ladies' garden, they had to consider that the killer had lived in or near Molena Point. She sat looking at the reports, wondering. Could he have lived in the house that now belonged to the seniors? She had already been through the old tax records, she had the names of the two previous owners. That took her back twenty years. There was no record of the tenants; most of those rentals were illegal. All such small illegal apartments, termed granny flats, were presumably kept for family members. She planned to talk with the neighbors this morning. Rising, she was headed out, had stopped at the dispatcher's counter when Garza and Harper came in, the chief carrying a couple of full-size brown envelopes and both of them wearing smug grins.

"Come on," Harper told her, and moved down the hall to Garza's office. Davis followed. Garza sat down at his desk and booted up the computer. Davis and Harper stood in the doorway. Both the chief and Dallas were still grinning. Harper said, "Those old L.A. cases, when Patty's grandchild was murdered?"

Juana nodded.

Harper opened the two brown envelopes, shook the contents out on the desk. She looked down at the newspaper clippings, read them, picked up the photographs. Patty, young and smiling. Looked again at the small man in the clippings, then was grinning like the two of them. Like the cat that ate the canary.

"Sick," she said. "Those poor, bright children. All five, way ahead in school." She picked up one of the old newspaper photographs of Irving Fenner.

Harper said, "We have Fenner's car. He's staying in a rental cottage. Envelopes were under the foundation."

Juana looked at him. "The snitch?"

Harper nodded. "Landlady says Fenner was there last night, at least she heard him come in. Place reeks of booze. And there's more," he said, frowning. "You had breakfast?"

She nodded.

Harper picked up a single doughnut from beside Garza's empty coffeepot, stared at it, entombed in its plastic wrap, and tapped it on the desk. It sounded like a rock. Picking up Garza's phone, he asked Mabel to call Jolly's, see if they could send over some breakfast. He looked at Juana. "Anything from Hyden this morning?"

She shook her head.

He told Mabel, "If Hyden or Anderson calls, put them through."

Juana went down the hall, brought back her pot of fresh coffee. Pouring three mugs, she settled across from the chief in one of Dallas's two worn leather chairs. Reaching to Dallas's desk for the news clippings, she began to read them as Dallas set in motion retrieval of the files from L.A.

Searching for Dulcie, Joe found not the smallest scent of his tabby lady, no hint of a trail until, giving up and heading for the seniors' backyard, he stopped suddenly, sniffing the black iron grill work of a wrought-iron gate.

Yes, Dulcie had gone in there, sometime early this morning; had leaped through the gate into Genelle Yardley's garden. And a child had gone in, too, a little girl. He caught Cora Lee's scent, and then he found Dulcie's second trail, very fresh, coming out again. He followed it up the street toward the seniors' house, and it vanished up a jasmine vine two doors away. When, staring up at the rooftops, he didn't see her, he trotted into the seniors' garden, down the cracked driveway, and around the house. Looking around for her, he approached the tent that had been erected over the dig; he preferred thinking of this crime scene as a dig. He'd never before felt this revulsion at a scene of human death. He didn't see Dulcie. Approaching the tent, he could hear the two scientists inside, softly digging. And a faint swishing sound that told him they were brushing earth from the buried bones.

The first child had been taken away, so he guessed they were still working on the second. Sticking his nose under the canvas, hunched low beneath its heavy folds, he peered at Dr. Anderson's thin, denim-clad posterior where the scientist knelt brushing away earth with a small paintbrush. Joe tried to see around him. Looked like they'd found a third grave. Slipping out and moving farther to the side, peering under again, he could see that two little skeletons lay there. The one that was still here from last night, after the first body was taken away, and now a new victim. Most of the child's side had been uncovered. Anderson was brushing soil from the leg and the little foot. Hyden crouched just a few feet away also using a small paintbrush, removing loose soil from the child's shoulder. This body was smaller than the others. Compared to the heft of the two grown men, it seemed as frail as a baby mouse.

Joe had seldom seen a baby mouse clearly before he gulped it-until recently. The last nest of baby mice he'd encountered, he had turned away, leaving them. Leaving them to grow big, he told himself. Sensible game management, more for later. He did not acknowledge the more compassionate, human side of his nature, except to snarl at his own foolishness and tell himself he was getting soft. Now, when suddenly something pressed against his flank, he went rigid.

A breath tickled his ear.

He turned his head slowly, so not to attract the doctors' attention. Even though he was crouched behind them, he still felt as conspicuous as an elephant in a fishbowl; and these guys were not fond of cats. As he turned, Dulcie's green eyes met his so intently that he had a sharp memory flash of the first time he'd ever seen her. Her green gaze was just as wide then, and intent. That moment when they'd first met, the gleam in her eyes had turned him giddy; it was at that instant that he fell head over paws in love.

Now her little pink mouth curved up in the same secret smile, that smile that still turned him helpless. She nuzzled his shoulder, but then gave him a very businesslike stare, and backed out from under the tent.

He followed her toward the far bushes where they wouldn't be heard. Beneath a bottlebrush bush, they crouched together in the chill shadows. Her voice was faint, but tense with excitement. "Did you check at the PD? Are the reports in yet on those old cases? Any fix on when these children died?"

"You're in a hell of a swivet. What…?"

She didn't answer him, but plunged on, her tail lashing, her paws shifting, her ears and whiskers rigid. "What about the old case files? Surely by this time they-"

"What, Dulcie?"

Her eyes blazed.

"The reports are coming in," Joe said patiently. "I don't think these forensics guys'll have any kind of fix on the dates until they do the lab work. What, Dulcie? What do you have?"

"Were there missing cases, say, around six to eight years ago?"

"Yes. Quite a few." He stared hard at her. "What?"

She was dancing from paw to paw, her green eyes like searchlights, nearly exploding with excitement. "Children from the Pacific Northwest? Seattle? Tacoma?" She was so wired that her tail lashed against the twiggy bushes like a high-powered weed eater.

"Yes, that area."

"Did he kill those children, and then run?"

"Did who kill them? Slow down." He glared at her until she calmed, slowed her lashing tail, and turned away to wash.

Sitting with her back to him, she had a thorough wash before she was cool again, before she turned to look at him once more. "Lori has been to visit Genelle Yardley," she said. "To the old lady's house."

"I know that. I caught your scent, coming up the hill. And a little girl's scent."

"Lori. She went up there to find out about her pa. Find out why he was so mean to her, why he locked her in."

"You're saying her pa killed those children?"

"No. Let me finish."

"And what could an old woman-"

"Genelle Yardley worked for him, Joe. For years and years. She was his office manager. She didn't know why he'd turned so strange. But she and Lori hit it off right away."

Impatiently, Joe chewed at his left-front claws, pulling off the loose sheaths, leaving the claws bright and knife-sharp.

"Joe, they were so… Genelle said Lori's pa turned peculiar after his brother went away." She looked at him smugly. "Hal Reed went away suddenly, six years ago. Never came back. Story was, Hal moved to Seattle, to spend his time fishing."

"You're saying Lori's uncle killed those children, then left? Come on, Dulcie. Why-"

She hissed at him, her ears back, her tail lashing. "Just listen, Joe. Lori found his billfold, Hal's billfold with his driver's license and credit cards. And with it, his favorite belt and a gold ring that Lori says he always wore. Found them in her pa's garage, in a box of old clothes. She has them," Dulcie said, "in the library basement, in her backpack. Why would he go away and leave his billfold and driver's license and credit cards?"

"Why, indeed," Joe said, licking her ear. "Very nice, Dulcie. You had an interesting morning. And what else might be found hidden in Jack Reed's house?"

"Exactly," she said softly, and gave him a sly smile. And the cats rose together and slipped out of the bushes. They were galloping up the cracked drive, their minds on tossing Jack Reed's house, when a startled "Whoa!" from down inside the tent stopped them as if they'd been snatched back by their tails. Alan Hyden's voice was so excited, the cats nearly fell over each other racing back to the tent.

"Hand me the camera," Hyden said. "Get Harper or Garza on the phone."

Dulcie, because she had no white on her face, slid under first to look. She was there for only an instant, just her striped haunches visible, her striped tail twitching. She backed out suddenly from under the canvas, whirled around wild eyed, and fled for the bushes. Alarmed, Joe raced close beside her.

Peering out, they didn't breathe. Joe wanted to scorch away, but Dulcie remained frozen, watching as Hyden stepped out the tent door and began to circle the big canvas shelter, studying the ground and the surrounding bushes. As Hyden approached their hiding place, his footsteps squished though the wet leaves, his trouser legs rattling the branches as he knelt to examine Joe's paw print in the mud. Leave it to a forensics detective. At his approach, they backed deeper in, pressing hard against the heavy branches. Crouched to run, both cats told themselves, So what? What if he sees us? We're cats! Cats creep around under bushes all the time. What's the big deal? We're hunting. So we looked under the tent, so we're nosy. So cats are nosy!

But Hyden did not like cats, did not want cats anywhere near to contaminate his work. Who knew what he would do? They kept their eyes squeezed shut, and their pale parts hidden, Joe knotted so tightly into a gray ball that he felt like a hedgehog. They listened for some time to Hyden poking around and under the bushes. At last he turned away, parting the shrubs farther on, making Dulcie smile. Had the great cat god once again given them a little help? Or was Alan Hyden, despite his superior professional reputation, beginning to need glasses?

Hyden stood for a moment in the garden looking down into the ravine before he returned to the tent. Watching him, Dulcie wondered if he was more concerned about paw prints among the evidence, or about some cat making off with the bones. Some feral cat, or a neighbor's cat leaving chew marks on the bones, marks the anthropologist would have to sort out and account for. In a few minutes, both men came out and began pounding additional stakes around the edges of the canvas. The cats listened to Hyden call the station, leaving a message for either Harper or Garza, an urgent message that gave no information, just said to be in touch ASAP; a message that made the cats glance at each other, wondering if they should risk another look under the flap.

"What did you see?" Joe asked.

"Nothing! He was in the way. But they sure were excited."

"Come on, let's try again for a look."

"It's too risky," Dulcie said. "These guys' minds are way too inquisitive. You can find out later, at the station." And, their own inquisitive minds totally frustrated, they slipped away at last to Jack Reed's house for a quiet break-and-enter.


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