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26

Cat Cross Their Graves

Looking out at the bright morning, Charlie switched on the coffeepot. Standing beside her at the counter, Ryan cut a coffee cake she'd brought for their morning break, from Jolly's Deli, a confection of dates, pecans, and honey. "That'll put on the pounds," Charlie said. "Not at all. Work it off by the end of the day." "Maybe you will." Charlie took an experimental bite, and closed her eyes with pleasure. "That is purely sinful. I have to save some for Max, he didn't eat breakfast. He got a call before we were up; I guess we slept in, a little. He left right away, didn't say what it was." She glanced at Ryan uneasily. "Just-another message where the informer won't give a name." She reached to pour the coffee. "Guess I shouldn't knock it, that pair is good. It was the fe-the woman's voice this time."

Ryan took four plates from the cupboard, doling out generous slices of coffee cake. She looked Charlie over, laughing. "You used to be a redhead. There's so much Sheetrock dust in your hair, you've gone prematurely gray." Charlie's green T-shirt, too, was white with dust. Reaching up, she felt the grit on her face. "Are my freckles gone?"


"Almost. I like you better with."

Turning on the tap, Charlie ducked her face under and scrubbed. She was glad she'd covered the kitchen floor with a tarp to keep from tracking the white dust; it got into everything. She'd been sanding the taped and mudded Sheetrock intently for two hours, needing to keep working, to do something after Max left. She'd skipped her own breakfast and gotten right to work, her mind filled with the kit.

Had that been the kit who called this morning, after she was safely home? Or had it been Dulcie? Max said it was a woman, that was all. "Gotta go. Damned snitch-claims to have a lead. Some kind of evidence." Hanging up, he'd called Dallas on his cell, given him directions to some cottage in the heart of the village, then taken off. He'd been cross, the snitch always made him cross, Charlie thought, smiling. But he'd been wired, too, with a satisfied excitement.

She hated lying to Max, keeping secrets from him that, in her mind, amounted to the same thing as lying. Though it did amuse her that he hadn't a clue who his informants were. And it surely amused the cats. But now she stood seeing again Patty Rose lying dead, imagining the blaze of the firing gun as Patty must have seen it in the last seconds of her life. And then seeing the little graves, too, and wondering if there was any place in the world where ugliness no longer happened. Since yesterday when Cora Lee uncovered that little hand she kept imagining the faces of those children, and of their frantic parents.

Setting down her coffee cup so hard she nearly broke it, she watched Ryan carry coffee cake in to Scotty and Dillon. It was Saturday, and young Dillon Thurwell worked every weekend. Though the child had arrived for work this morning so silent and pale that Charlie had thought she was sick. Dillon had gotten right to work, though. No one said anything about the graves, but maybe Dillon had seen the morning paper, maybe the death of those children had upset her.

Charlie had wanted to speak to her about the tea party for Genelle Yardley, to make sure Dillon would join them. It seemed barbaric, to go ahead with such a celebration. But when Dorothy Street called last night, she'd assured them Patty would want them to, that the tea party was Patty's final gesture of friendship for Genelle. That if Patty was anything, she was hardheaded, that Dorothy wouldn't be surprised to see Patty's ghost striding across the inn's patio giving orders for the tea, telling the staff exactly what to serve and where everyone was to be seated. Charlie looked up at Ryan. "I've never been to a proper tea."

Ryan shook her head. "Nor I. Would you call this high tea?"

Charlie shrugged. "I haven't the vaguest. It can be what we want, now that it's smaller, just close friends."

"Whatever, we're going to make it lovely for Genelle. What are you wearing?"

"Something warm. Maybe that paisley cashmere sweater, and that smashing India necklace Max bought me. And a long wool skirt and boots. You think Dillon really will go? Patty so wanted her to."

Dillon had said several times that she wasn't going to any tea party. Ryan told her she was going. That, as Dillon's boss, she required it. Dillon said that was a lot of horse hockey. Of course Ryan hadn't wanted to go either; she viewed afternoon tea with as much disdain as did Dillon, but she hadn't expressed that opinion in front of the fourteen-year-old. "The experience will do you good. Maybe you'll learn some manners."

Dillon had looked hard at Ryan. "I have manners, when I care to use them." They had been working at the back of the house, tearing out a wall. "You'll have to put on a skirt for a tea party," Dillon had told Ryan. "You'll have to put on panty hose, you'll have to get all cleaned up."

"So? That won't kill either of us. That old woman is dying. This is something she's looked forward to, a lovely, cozy tea among her friends, at an elegant inn. The only element missing will be Patty, and she'll be there in spirit. You can at least be there in person, Dillon, and put on a happy face."

"You are so sentimental. How can Patty be there in spirit, after some guy blew her away! Besides, I don't even know Genelle. You hardly know her. Why should-"

"You knew Patty, and Patty liked you, though I don't know why. Patty wanted you there, Dillon."

"I don't see-"

Ryan's look had silenced Dillon, that fierce green-eyed stare that came from growing up around cops. Charlie, who had been sitting on a sawhorse among the torn-out walls, had watched the two, highly amused. But she'd kept her mouth shut. The thirty-something contractor and the quicksilver girl had been going at each other like this since before Christmas, when Dillon, who had fallen into shoplifting and running with a bad crowd, had made the mistake of sassing Ryan.

Ryan Flannery, cop's kid, excellent carpenter, crack shot, was not intimidated by a sassy fourteen-year-old. She had thrown Dillon's challenge back in her face, told Dillon to straighten up. And Ryan had offered her a job.

Dillon had sneered at the suggestion of working for Ryan, but a month later she was doing just that, as carpenter's apprentice. Working over Christmas vacation. She had dropped the truant, thieving girls she was running with and was getting her act together.

Dillon's sea change was, however, not entirely Ryan's doing. Dillon had straightened up quickly, too, when her mother began to put her own life back together after a more-than-foolish affair. Now, finishing her coffee cake and wishing for more but not taking it, Charlie rose. Rinsing her plate and cup, she headed back to work. Her mind was too full this morning, full of fear and death. She needed to drown her thoughts in the simple routine of sanding Sheetrock, put life to rest for an hour or two and get herself centered.

Lori left Genelle Yardley's with Cora Lee, her stomach full of pancakes and bacon, and her mind in a turmoil of questions. Had she done right to tell Ms. Yardley about Uncle Hal's billfold? She was certain the old lady would keep her secret, but what if she didn't? What if Genelle Yardley went straight to the police after all and they arrested Pa because Uncle Hal was gone? Arrested Pa for murder} She didn't want to think that word, Pa wouldn't do that. There had to be another explanation. Uncle Hal was his brother.

Genelle Yardley said there might be any number of reasons that Pa had Uncle Hal's billfold and belt and ring. But Lori could tell that she really didn't believe that. And why, when Genelle first read the newspaper about the little graves, did she glance at Lori and go so quiet?

Sitting in the car beside Cora Lee, they were halfway down the hill, almost to the first shops, when she thought she saw the little man, but he was turned away, she couldn't be sure; he was standing in the doorway of the village grocery. She glanced at Cora Lee, but said nothing, just looked straight ahead watching the streets, praying she was wrong. Cora Lee turned toward the library looking for a parking place, and let out a little yip of pleasure.

"All right!" Cora Lee said, pulling into a twenty-minute green zone just in front of the library. "The parking gods are with us." Cora Lee laughed, and winked at her, and they got out. "I'm going to take you inside," Cora Lee said softly. "You can get your things."

Lori's anger flared. "You said-"

"I didn't say I'd bring you back to stay." Cora Lee took her hand. "I won't leave you here, Lori. It's dangerous. Do you understand that I can't leave you with no one to help you, that I'd be sick with fear, and so would Genelle?"

"But you-"

"I did not promise to leave you here. Think back to what I said-only that I'd bring you down."

Lori stared, scowling. But Cora Lee was right, she spoke truly. That was all she had said.

"Come on, then, let's get your things."

Lori didn't like standing out in the open, and she did feel safer with Cora Lee as they hurried up the stone walk through the library garden. Together they slipped in through the big double doors, and headed down the stairs to the lower floor. They had turned toward the basement workroom when Lori glanced behind her, up to the main floor, and saw him.

He stood just at the top of the half flight of stairs, near the circulation desk. Catching her breath, she drew back into the stacks pulling Cora Lee with her. Cora Lee looked at him, and her eyes widened. "You're afraid, Lori. Of that man."

Lori nodded.

"Go into the ladies' room. Quick. You have your card? Wait for me." Cora Lee's dark eyes were steady on hers. "Whatever this is, I'll get rid of him. Wait there for me, and don't unlock the door. Promise me!"

Lori nodded. "I promise."

Cora Lee gave her a gentle shove toward the door of the ladies' room, and watched while Lori fished her card from her pocket; she didn't start up the stairs until Lori had slipped into the ladies' room. Lori peered out as Cora Lee moved away, then locked the door and leaned against it, listening.

She could hear little through the thick door and walls. What would Cora Lee do? She waited for a long time. She washed her face, then brushed her hair with her fingers. She brushed her teeth with soap and her finger. There was no soft knock to say that Cora Lee was back. She put down the toilet lid and sat on it. She thought about Mama, and about Pa. Thought about Genelle all alone in that big house. Where was Cora Lee? She had to get her things, she didn't want to leave Uncle Hal's billfold in the basement, in her pack. She drank water from her cupped hands, and then at last she unlocked the door and cracked it open.

Peering out, she heard Cora Lee talking to someone, heard the end of Cora Lee's words, but couldn't see her, up beyond the steps. " must be there, I can't stay. Oh, this is dreadful. Where is Wilma? Where is Ms. Getz?"

"She comes in late today. Noon. Sometimes she comes in earlier to do some things on her own time, but" It was that Ms. Wahl, a dumpy, bossy little woman who was always hushing everyone and thought that children should be allowed to read only stupid baby books.

"Please, Nora. Please There's a little girl in the ladies' room. Lori. Please, before you do anything else, go get her, keep her with you. Don't let her leave the library; I'll be back for her." Cora Lee sounded like she was holding the woman by the shoulders, trying to get her full attention. "Lori could be in danger, do you understand? Tell Wilma, the minute she comes in. See that Lori stays with her." They were moving away now; the woman said something Lori couldn't make out, her voice soft and faint; they were beyond the steps, among other voices. When Lori slipped farther out to look, she saw Cora Lee hurrying away out the door.

What was wrong? Something was very wrong. Was it Genelle? Was she worse? Oh, it mustn't be Genelle, and she hoped it was nothing bad for Cora Lee. She wondered what time it was. If it was coffee-break time, maybe the workroom would be empty, maybe she could slip in before that Ms. Wahl started looking for her. What had happened, to take Cora Lee away like that? She didn't like that Ms. Wahl, she didn't like being passed around, either, from one grown-up to another. She was headed along beside the stacks, for the workroom door, when she saw him again, up on the main floor. As if he had been waiting for Cora Lee to leave?

Ducking between the stacks, she saw Ms. Wahl turn away from the stairs and walk right past him. Trembling, Lori looked around her. Would he dare grab her in here? She could yell, or run to Ms. Wahl. But what could that rabbity little woman do? And now Ms. Wahl was gone again, and he was coming down. The soft sound of his shoes and a little squeak every few steps, rubber against the hard steps. Lori knew she could make a scene, bring everyone running.

Right. And someone would call the cops. And the cops would call Pa. She turned and fled, racing through the stacks and up the back stairs, her heart pounding hard. Stay here in the library, she thought, don't go out! But she was too afraid to stay. Racing past the circulation desk to the front door, she burst out across the garden and dodged across the street between cars. Slipping into a narrow walkway between two shops, she fled down the little lane and around the back into a courtyard. Then through a shop of model trains and out its front door to the next street. Across that, across another street, another courtyard, running, running until she was among the cottages on the south side of the village. Ducking through the bushes along the side of a tall stucco house, she fled into its backyard praying there wasn't a fence.

Finding only bushes, she scrambled through into the next yard, bloodying her legs and arms and tearing her shirt. Dodging into the shadows beside a little shed, she paused to stare in through its open door.

Clay pots, bags of fertilizer, garden tools, a bucket. She could hide in there, pull the door closed and maybe lock it.

Yes, and be trapped there.

Slipping out again, she pushed the door shut. Maybe he'd think she was in there, waste a few minutes looking.

Zigzagging through a tangle of trees and bushes, she raced for the next street and the next; and she heard him behind her, running. Making for the next block, she doubled back toward the shops where there were people. A snapping sound behind her, like a branch breaking. Dodging between houses, she crawled under a porch, squeezed back under the steps and out of sight. The street before her was busy with traffic, and lined with parked cars. He was coming, his feet squinching the wet leaves.

Slipping out from under the porch again, she fled between the parked cars and into the middle of the street. Running down the street between the two lanes of slow-moving cars, he didn't dare grab her. Horns honked. A woman yelled at her to get out of the street. She couldn't hear, in the traffic, if he was behind her. She was across Ocean again. What did he want? Dodging between the northbound line of cars, she ducked into the brick-paved alley behind the deli. Swerving around the little benches and potted trees, she startled a group of cats and they scattered everywhere, some into the street, some up a vine. He was still coming, running, his footsteps squeak, squeak, squeaking on the pavement. She considered the wooden trellis. Would it hold her? Racing past the closed back door where the cats had been gathered, she leaped at the frail trellis slats and climbed fast.

But he swerved into the alley, lunging for the trellis. Grabbed her foot, jerked so hard she fell. At the same instant the door was flung open and a fat man appeared. Round, shiny face, round, smooth head, and dressed all in white. He stood, startled, staring. The small man froze in place holding her, his face all sharp lines and dark stubble. "Keen." That was Mama's word. Keen with hate. Why? Through the open door, the shop smelled of spice and sugar, cinnamon, hot cheese browning in ovens. The small man stared past her at the round man. When the round man grabbed for Fenner, as if he'd squish him, Fenner twitched and backed away, dragging her; then he dropped her and ran, pelting through the alley and into the street. Her heart was pounding so hard she wanted to throw up. She stood with her head down until the feeling passed.

When she looked up, the man in white took her hand. "Come into the deli. I'll call the police."

"No! Oh, no!"

"The deli's safe enough."

"Please. Don't call anyone."

"I All right." He looked surprised, but he didn't fuss like most grown-ups. He led her inside, into a big bright room filled with little tables and wire chairs, long windows all facing the street. A tall counter along the back with a glass front was crowded with cakes and pies and roast beef and sliced ham and salads.

He led her to a table in the corner, away from the windows. Sitting down, she stared out at the sidewalk but didn't see the small man. Only cars moving, and tourists, some with dogs on leashes, and locals going to work in jeans and sweatshirts. The round man disappeared into the back. There were people at three of the tables. Two women in jeans drinking coffee and eating something that smelled of bacon and onions and cheese, three men in sport coats and jeans, and a young pale woman drinking tea and reading a paperback book. They all glanced up at her and then turned politely away. The round man returned with a glass of milk and a slice of cake. She wasn't hungry but when she started to eat she devoured everything-the cake was carrot like Mama made, and the milk was cold and good. Maybe she was making up for lost meals. When she had finished, the fat man sat down across from her.

"I'm George Jolly, this is my shop," he said with pride. "You know that man?"

"No! I He just He just chased me."

"I thought maybe you didn't want to get him in trouble."

She shook her head. "I just I don't want the police."

"Okay. But shall I call someone else? Your mother? To come and take you home, safe?"

My mother's dead. Mama can't take me home. "I'll be all right now." She knew she was being foolish. Mama would scold her for being so foolish. He could call Cora Lee. When she first got in the car, Cora Lee had slipped a piece of paper into Lori's pocket, with her house phone and cell phone numbers. Now, when Lori hesitated, he said, "Who should I call?'

She shook her head. "No one. He won't dare follow me again, not in the middle of the village, with so many tourists and cars."

He started to speak.

"I'll be fine. Some weirdo, that's all. When when I've gone, you could call the police then, if you want. Tell them what he looked like."

"I can do that," George Jolly said, brightening.

"Just don't tell them what I look like."

Mr. Jolly grinned at her. "He looked like a little, hard beetle, all angles and as if he had a hard shell."

Lori grinned back at him. "That's exactly what he looked like! Hard, beady eyes, too, like a beetle." Like a beetle you'd find in the garden that the kids in Greenville liked to squish under their boots to hear it pop. She rose and took George Jolly's hand. "Thank you," she said softly. She left Jolly's Deli telling him she'd be fine, but the minute she was on the street she was scared again. That cold, falling feeling again, in the pit of her stomach.

She could go to Genelle's, but the library was closer. Hurrying along the street among window-shopping grownups, she wanted, now, only to get back into her cave.

And she knew something more about the beetle man. She knew, now, she'd seen this man when she was little. It was the same man, she was sure. He came in the schoolyard when she was six. In the second grade. In the schoolyard, standing inside the fence by the drinking fountain. They were playing kickball. Every time she ran near him, he watched her. He was there again the next day. She was eating lunch alone on a bench, reading. He sat down next to her and asked her what grade she was in and could he see her arithmetic and spelling papers that she had in her backpack. She stared at him and ran, back into the building. She'd called Mama, and Mama came for her. Mama didn't know who he was. That day had scared them both.

Uncle Hal always wanted to see her schoolwork, too. Or wanted her to play numbers games and do puzzles. At first she'd liked that. But Pa would make him stop, Pa didn't like those games. And that made Mama mad. Mama said, "What's wrong with her being smart? Why are you so set against a girl being smart? What if she were a boy?" Pa said it wouldn't make no difference, and then they'd fight and she, Lori, would go in her room and turn on her little radio loud and read a fairy tale that ended up happy.

Now, hurrying along the sidewalk staying in a crowd of people, she looked across at a shop window where a shadow moved, then jerked away suddenly behind the china and glassware. Fenner? She stopped for only an instant to look, but now there was nothing. Two women inside; she saw no one else. Hurrying across the library garden and in through the library's front door, she glanced back at the street. When she didn't see him, she slipped into the children's room.

The librarian was starting story hour. He didn't dare come here, among the children. She sat down on a floor cushion beside the crowded window seat, leaned against its cushioned edge beside the dangling feet of a four-year-old who was in turn snuggled up to an older child. She looked at the kind face of the librarian and listened to her quiet voice, and slowly she let the story take her away, saw the goats and the mountain and the grandfather and let the story become real, let the ugliness fade away until it was gone. Almost gone. He couldn't get her here, not in this safe place.


| Cat Cross Their Graves | c