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Cat Cross Their Graves

Jack Reed's house stood five blocks below the home of the senior ladies, and Genelle Yardley's, but seven blocks over the crest of the hill, closer to the sea. The two cats, leaving the seniors' garden and Drs. Hyden and Anderson to their dig, stopped only once, when a yapping terrier chased them. Spinning to face the frenetic animal, they smiled, and Joe Grey lifted an armored paw. The little dog stopped. Dulcie flattened her ears and crouched to spring. The dog backed up a step. Joe's burning yellow eyes and Dulcie's poison-green gaze made the terrier tremble right down to his hard little paws. Tucking his tail between cringing haunches, he moved back three steps more, let out a screeching challenge, then spun around and beat it out of there yipping for human protection.

Enjoying his retreat, the two cats smiled at each other and trotted on through the crowded backyard gardens, their path following the rocky ridge that began in Genelle's garden. An outcropping that ran for half a mile, cresting the hill in a ragged, stony spine. The yards through which it thrust were, for the most part, planted to enhance its sculpted curves. The ridge ended across the street from Jack Reed's bungalow, in an unbuildable jutting shoulder of stone. The cats paused among the boulders. They had seen this house many times, and they had never liked it.

None of these homes had much front yard, and little more backyard. A second row of roofs could be seen close behind them. The house was stark, forbidding, without any of the welcoming air of a beloved retreat, like most of the village cottages. Against the front of the one-story gray frame, with its dull-brown trim, was a line of dead or dying shrubs. The rest of the yard, where there might once have been flower beds, was covered with brick-colored gravel uglier than a parking lot.

The concrete driveway was empty, and Jack's white pickup with its neat side boxes and "Vincent and Reed" logo wasn't parked on the street. The two cats, padding up the concrete drive to avoid the gravel, stood for a moment assessing the windows and vents, looking for the easiest route of entry.

The foundation vents were so big that Lori could have gotten out through there, if ever she'd found a way down from the house above. The cats circled the house, but all seven vents were nailed shut. Slipping along between the bushes, they leaped up to the sill of the garage window and peered in.

No room in there for a vehicle; the place was stacked with cardboard boxes of clothes and other items spilling out, castoffs that looked too old and tired even to give to charity. The window itself was new and clean but nailed shut, a dozen nails angled into the inside molding.

"What kind of man is this?" Joe Grey said irritably.


"All this to lock in one little girl?"


"You think he hurt her?"

"She's never said that, and she talks to me a lot. When Genelle asked her if he'd done anything ugly, any kind of touching, Lori said no. That she'd heard all about those things from the other kids in the foster homes." She turned to look at him, the late-morning light catching across her green eyes and peach-tinted ears. "She's really afraid of going back to those foster places. I think, if she trusted the foster-care people, she would have called them, gotten some help."

"But help from what? What did he do to her?"

She turned on the branch. "He locked her in, Joe! Nailed the windows shut! How would you feel? You detest being locked in! Took her out of school, and she loved school. She was a prisoner!" Leaping from the narrow sill into the oak tree that towered above them, she trotted along a branch to examine an attic vent.

It was stuck tight. She examined the other vent on that side, then leaped to the roof and across it, into another oak. There appeared to be two vents on each side. All were stuck, but no new nails were visible. These vents were too small for a child to get through, and who would fear that a cat might enter or even want to. It was not until they were pawing at the last vent that they were able to rattle the wooden grid.

Pressing harder, then pulling with hooked claws, they loosened the hinges in the rotting frame where it had succumbed to dampness and maybe termites. Digging in harder, Dulcie flung herself backward on the branch, pulling with all her might- just as she would jerk a giant rat from its hole. The grid flew off, nearly taking her with it. In midair, she fought her paw loose, snatching at the branch. Teetering, grabbing for balance, she watched the grid spin away to the ground. She realized only then that Joe had his teeth in her shoulder, a mouthful of fur and skin to keep her steady. Turning, ignoring the pain from his teeth, she gave him a whisker kiss.

Joe released her and leaped to the edge of the hole, peering in. Dulcie edged up beside him. The attic was black and stunk of dead spiders and insects and mouse droppings, filling Dulcie with visions of black-widow spiders and the brown recluse arachnids and surly raccoons waiting in the dark to defend their lair. She wanted no truck with raccoons, better to face tigers. In Molena Point, raccoons were so well protected by the do-gooders of the village that they had grown unnaturally bold. Pet dogs had been attacked in their own yards, and just this winter, raccoons had badly bitten not only several family dogs but two different women, and a child, who tried to rescue their screaming pets. And only a few blocks from the Reed house, she and Joe and Kit had barely escaped a predatory band of raccoons in just such a black attic as this. That escapade had ended with gunshots. Dulcie still woke from nightmares in which she and Joe and Kit had been blown away instead of the raccoons.

"Dulcie?" Crouched on the branch beside her, Joe nosed at her impatiently.

She flicked an ear at him.

"You going to hang there all day? Is there a problem?"

Fixing her back claws in the molding, she gave a tail lash and bolted into the unknown dark, onto a soft surface that gave unpleasantly until she realized it was a matt of dust-embedded fiberglass insulation between two rafters. The faint echo as she scrambled in implied that the attic was empty, she didn't even hear mice, though her nose tickled with the smell of dry mouse droppings and the leavings of generations of squirrels. She was peering around her as Joe landed behind her. "Go on, Dulcie. What is the matter?" He pushed hard against her. She moved on hesitantly, picking her way along a rafter and watching through the blackness for the trapdoor that every house must have to give access to the attic-praying that wasn't nailed shut.

It would be just their luck if Lori's pa was at home after all, lying motionless on the bed below them, as Lori had described.

Morosely staring up at the ceiling just where she and Joe might emerge. This was, after all, the weekend, when most folks didn't work. Maybe he'd loaned his truck to someone.

But, she thought, it was only Saturday. Contractors did often work on Saturday, catching up on an ever more demanding building market. Maybe he was on some extensive job or some difficult old remodel, or maybe, hopefully, deep into a tangle of ancient, frustrating wiring that would take him the better part of the day. She watched Joe leap across the rafters searching for a way down, his white nose, chest, and paws in the blackness seeming disembodied.

"Here," he said softly. "Here it is. Come on, Dulcie, shake a paw."

Leaping after him, she crouched beside him at the edge of the trapdoor. His head was bent over the plywood square, his ears sharply forward, listening to the house below.

When they had listened for some time and had heard nothing, he clawed at the edge of the door. He was able, just barely, to wiggle it in its molding. "Come on, Dulcie." He turned to look at her, his patience wearing thin. "I've never seen you so reluctant."

She'd seldom felt so reluctant. All Lori's unhappiness in this house seemed to have collected like a chill around Dulcie's own heart, and she didn't want to go down there.

Well, the trapdoor was probably bolted, anyway. Padlocked maybe, from the inside. She set her claws in, and on his count of three, she jerked upward.

The door lifted an inch, then dropped back.

Again they listened, Joe as still as a snake about to strike, Dulcie's heart pounding.

When the house remained silent they tried again. With their back paws well under them, and their front claws deeply engaged over the lip of the door, Joe whispered, "One, two, three, heave."

The door flew up-but then dropped back again, forcing some swift paw work to leap clear.

On the next try, they were able to lift it far enough to get their shoulders under it. Cats were not built for this stuff, for using their bodies like wedges. But they heaved, heaved again, and finally with their backs under it, the rest was kitten play. A last heave and the door fell backward onto the rafters. They flew cringing away, out of the sight of anyone below.

But they saw then why the door had given.

"We pulled the hasp out," Joe said, amazed.

Dulcie stared at the softer wood where the hasp had pulled loose. Splinters had flicked off, scattering on the carpet below. When there was no sound, when the house remained as still as death itself, they crouched on the edge, looking down.

Below them down the dim hallway, they could see a living room at one end and next to it a kitchen. Along the hall were four narrow doors that probably led to a bath and three bedrooms. All the doors stood ajar. The rooms beyond were dark. The place reeked of stale air. They could see, inside the door to the farthest bedroom, stacks of newspapers and an unmade bed that even from this distance smelled of unwashed human. Glancing at Dulcie, Joe dropped the eight feet to the worn carpet, his heavy landing causing a muffled thunk. Dulcie, flehming at the smells, dropped down beside him, her legs and shoulders jolted by her landing. And, staring high above her at the attic crawl hole, which was now unreachable, she felt her courage drained away. Without a ladder or a tall piece of furniture, they were not going back out that way. And maybe, with the windows all boarded up, there was no other way out. Crouching on the stained carpet, breathing in the stale smells, Dulcie was filled with the terror of being trapped, unable to escape, a feeling so debilitating that it turned the little tabby cold and weak.

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