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28

Cat Cross Their Graves

In the children's reading room, Lori had concealed herself as best she could, tucked up among the pillows at the end of the window seat. Story hour was over. She had fetched a book from the shelves and was pretending to read, holding the book in front of her face, glancing out the library window every few minutes watching for the beetle man. The children's librarian was right there at the desk, and another librarian at the circulation desk, two more in the reference room, so she felt safe enough. Ms. Wahl did not come looking for her, and no one said anything to her. She guessed Ms. Wahl didn't really care about what Cora Lee had said, or hadn't believed Cora Lee. Being a grown-up didn't automatically make you real smart, or turn you into a nice person.

Beyond the glass, the library's peaceful garden made a strange contrast with the turmoil in her mind, with the dark shadow of the beetle man, and with worry over what had taken Cora Lee away. Then, when she did read a few pages, the pictures in her head of Harry Potter were equally dark, all among the gloomy caverns.

And when she looked up suddenly, she saw him. The beetle man, standing across the street. Standing inside the door of the china shop, his back to her, standing in shadow and talking with someone inside.

Pressing deeper among the bright pillows, she was mostly hidden behind the wall where it met the window. She could see him gesturing, his hands making stiff movements. She didn't know whether to slip away again, out of the library, to run again, or to stay where she was. Stay here and watch him, see what he would do. It would be worse not to see him, not know where he was. He was waiting for her to come out; why else would he be there in a china shop?

Mama would always stop at a china shop window and stand dreaming, setting in her mind some lovely pattern of plates and silver, imagining them laid out on an embroidered cloth. She and Mama, they ate their meals on Melmac and flowered oilcloth-pretty oilcloth, though, and pale-yellow Melmac. But not china and linen like Mama loved. Their silverware was from the Greenville Woolworth's. He was coming out, turning to look straight across to the library window. Cringing deeper into the cushions, she was telling herself she was safer here, when she saw Pa. Saw his white truck coming around the corner. "Vincent and Reed" on the side. Pa driving real slow, looking out at the street. "Oh!" she said aloud, sucking in her breath.

The librarian looked up, startled. Lori smiled quickly and held up the thick copy of Harry Potter. "I'm sorry," she mouthed in silence. The librarian smiled at her and nodded-she was the children's librarian, she loved Harry Potter, too. She understood how you could get caught up in that world and forget your own. How you could get lost in a world so you just shouted out when you didn't mean to.

Out on the street, Pa had slammed on his brakes and swung out of the pickup, right in the middle of the street with all the cars stopped behind him. Pa ran across, Pa, tall and thin, reaching and grabbing the beetle man by the shoulders, swinging him around.

The beetle man fought him, trying to get away. Pa had on his dark uniform jacket with the red-and-white "Vincent and Reed" emblem on the pocket, his brown hair slicked down under his baseball cap. He shook the beetle man, shouting at him so violently that people crossed the street to get away. Any minute, someone would call the cops. Pa's anger scared her, and excited her, too. Pressing hard against the glass, she watched him shove the smaller man into the cab of his white truck, Pa still shouting in his face as if threatening him. Pa slammed the truck door. The man cowered, crouching down as Pa went around the front, watching him, and swung into the driver's seat. Pa pulled away in a chirp of tires. In a moment they were gone, turning away at the next corner.

Pulling the pillows closer around her, she felt hot, then ice cold. She wanted with all her heart to believe that Pa had come to find her and protect her.

But why would he care, after he'd kept her a prisoner? If Pa hated the beetle man, he hated her, too. He didn't care for no one. She longed to be down in her cave alone but she couldn't go there now in the middle of the day. When she looked back across the street, she saw a cat on the roof of the china shop. Dulcie?

But no, it wasn't Dulcie. A little dark cat, though. This cat had long fur and was darker than Dulcie, with a huge fluffy tail lashing, really comical. It stared down from the gutter, looking after Pa's truck.

It was the cat that had saved her, had chewed her ropes and freed her. Sliding off the window seat, she wanted to run out to it. She was safe now from the beetle man and from Pa, she felt suddenly so free she wanted to race into the street shouting and spinning cartwheels, she could run across to the little cat, she could race away up the street, free.

But first she had to get her backpack, in case she might not come back. She didn't think about what Pa might be doing to the beetle man, she didn't want to know. She waited until the children's librarian rose and headed for the reference room, then she crossed to the stairs. Hurrying down the half flight to the basement, she paused beside the workroom door, looking in, making up an excuse to go in there, feeling bolder than she ever had.

There was only one librarian, with her back to Lori. Lori watched her, puzzled, then alarmed.

The thin, blond woman had pulled the little bookcase aside and was sweeping up bits of broken brick scattered across the floor. Lori watched her edge the bookcase out farther and peer around it. Where Lori had always fit the bricks neatly into the hole, now they stuck out all ragged, with big gaps, bricks every which way. Someone had been there, someone…

Had the beetle man come here last night, before he found her? Come in through the basement window, through her window? He must have followed her, known she was hiding in the library. Then had come in at night in the dark after she left, thinking to find her alone in the middle of the night. To find her where, if she cried out, there would be no one to hear her? That thought filled her with a fear far deeper than when he tied her up and locked her in that house.

That time, he hadn't touched her in a bad way. And she'd thought there might be neighbors close, thought if she had to, she could yell. Had thought if she could escape she could come back here to the library, to her own hiding place, and be safe. But all the time, it wasn't safe? All the time, he'd known about the basement?

And there in the beetle man's room, tied up in that chair, she'd been more mad than scared. Deep, cold angry, Mama would say. But now she was only scared, now that he'd found her cave she was real scared. He knew her one last secret, her one secret place to hide.

As the blond woman finished sweeping and started to turn, Lori drew away into the shadows and fled, nipped silently up the stairs and out. Leaving her hideaway for the last time. Leaving her backpack, her blanket, Uncle Hal's billfold. Now she daren't come back. If the beetle man knew where she'd hidden, maybe Pa knew, too. And Pa would come looking. Even if Pa did mean to save her from the beetle man, she still couldn't go home with him, not and be locked up again. Sick with the pounding of her heart, she fled away through the village and into the hills knowing where she must go, the only place she had to go, the only place to put her trust.

Padding down Jack Reed's hall, their noses filled with the sour, musty smell of the boarded-up house, their ears swiveling at every tiny creak that was probably only a house noise, the two cats pressed in through the first door. A small, dim bedroom hardly big enough to hold a little girl's delicately carved ivory-colored bed, neatly made up with a faded pink spread, a little matching desk and chair, and a narrow chest of drawers. The windows, covered on the outside with plywood and darkened with grime, were veiled within by dingy lace curtains hanging limp and tired. They had been lovely once. Lori's mother had taken great care to make a pretty room for the child, but now, with the thick dust, and the boarded-over windows, how grim it was. Windows were the eyes of a house; windows should be bright, should look out with joy on the world. But the eyes of this house, turned inward, were as sightless as if squeezed closed in shame. She watched Joe leap to the sill and put his nose to the glass, inspecting the nails in the plywood. He dropped down again, disgusted, and headed for the hall and the next door. "We'll come back," Joe said, nervously moving on, looking intently for a way out, trotting into each room to check the windows. They had entered this house gambling that somewhere there would be a route of quick escape. Now they'd better find it.

The next room was just as tiny a cubicle. No lace curtains here. Faded plaid draperies and, again, plywood covering the dirty glass. A scarred oak desk nearly filled the room, one of those ancient government-surplus models from World War II that, Wilma said, were beginning to go for respectable prices. On the walls hung cheap landscape reproductions that Dulcie imagined a budget-conscious young homemaker might have picked up cheap from the discount table at Kmart. The pale rectangles between the pictures, where other frames had been removed, were more interesting than what had been left.

"Maybe he removed family pictures," Dulcie said. "Pictures of Lori and her mother? Because he didn't want to be reminded of them? Strange, though, to hang landscapes and family photographs all mixed up." Joe shrugged. He wasn't into the subtler aspects of interior design.

The third and largest was the master bedroom, Jack's bedroom now. Dusty and neglected, the pitiful remnants of female occupancy were depressing: a pretty three-sided mirror over a wicker dressing table, and a little wicker chair, all thick with dust grimed into the white woven surface. A picture of red poppies on the wall beside the mirror, perfectly positioned between two pale, bare rectangles. In the drawers a comb, hair curlers, a faded valentine excessively sentimental and signed "Jack." Four pairs of delicate, lace-edged silk panties that perhaps Natalie had thought would not be in keeping with her new life. The bed was unmade, the sheets and blanket tossed half on the floor, the white sheets yellowed and smelling sourly of sleep. The stacks of newspapers and dog-eared paperback books near the door leaned drunkenly against a cardboard box filled with electricians' catalogs. Joe stopped, in his search for an escape, to fight open the top dresser drawer, pulling the knob with his front paws while bracing his hind paws against the lower drawer. Dulcie, growing more concerned about a way out, headed for the kitchen.

There, leaping up on the kitchen counter, she pawed at the window. It, too, was nailed closed and boarded over. The man was crazy as a rabid coon. When, trotting into the musty bathroom to try the smaller window, she found it just as immovable, a cold panic filled Dulcie. Padding nervously to the living room, she paused in the archway, looking.

Grim. The tired upholstered couch and matching chair and scarred end tables looked as if they had been recently hauled in and plunked down with no thought to arrangement or comfort. This couldn't be how Lori's mother had left her home. The fireplace smelled of old, wet ashes. On the bookshelves that flanked the fireplace, a few cheap paperback books lay bent and bedraggled, their yellowed pages dog-eared, their cheap covers filmed with dust. The two small windows above the bookcases were as heavily boarded over as the others.

But in this room she could smell the scents of more recent human occupancy-male sweat, unwashed hair, stale beer and cheese. The old, faded easy chair directly across from the TV was creased with use, its ottoman standing at an angle as if someone had just risen and left the room. She prowled tensely, all her instincts keeping her ready to run or fade under the nearest chair.

On the end table by the easy chair lay the remote, its buttons dust free from use, but the spaces between the buttons sticky with grime. Last night's newspaper lay crumpled on the floor beside the chair, on top of it an empty cup smelling of stale coffee. She imagined Jack sitting here hour after hour mindlessly watching TV, shutting his child out of his life, effectively abandoning her.

The coffee table and two small end tables held no accessory. She imagined small figurines arranged on the coffee table, little porcelain boxes or ashtrays, delicate treasures in keeping with the little group of oval-framed flower prints that remained on the wall at one end of the couch. The other three walls were decorated with a variety of oval and rectangular blanks where the small floral print of the wallpaper was brighter. The woman's touch had been removed; the house was a shell. On the lower shelf of one end table, a little white-and-pink vase stood forgotten. When Dulcie stuck her nose in, it smelled of sour, evaporated water and wet, decayed leaves. At the bottom, in a thick brown residue, lay three dried-up flower stems.

She prowled the windowsills peering out at the solidly nailed plywood. She checked the bathroom and kitchen windows again, then approached a door at the end of the kitchen that must lead to the garage. Sniffing underneath, she breathed in the damp smell of sour, musty boxes and old clothes. Leaping at the knob, she swung and kicked.

Beneath her swinging weight, the knob turned. She kicked against the molding and, to her amazement, the door swung into the room, creaking with rusty complaint, carrying her with it. Not locked at all! Jack had grown careless since Lori ran away. Dropping down, she leaped down the two steps into the garage, into the musty stink.

The concrete floor was icy beneath her paws. She considered the smelly boxes piled against the walls, with their contents spilling out. Atop one box lay an abandoned toaster and an old hot plate caked with grease. Leaping onto the workbench among a clutter of string and rope, three six-packs of beer, and scattered tools, she reared up to paw at the window with its new glass.

It was locked, as well as nailed shut. She dropped down to the floor again and studied the side door, but it was secured by a dead bolt, she could see the metal through the crack. Staring above her, she considered the electric garage-door opener that was mounted on the center of the ceiling. The usual small metal box with its long metal track. Lori said Jack had disconnected it.

Now that Lori was gone, was it working again? Had he reconnected it, after Lori left? But why would he? It wasn't like he could park in there. Caught apparently in deep depression or something worse, why would he even remember the garage door?

Just below the light switch beside the inner door was the little button that should operate the mechanism. No trick at all, with the cardboard boxes piled against the wall, to reach the button and press it. Leaping atop the stacked boxes, she crouched until they stopped teetering, then pressed.

Nothing. Not even a click to indicate a flow of electricity. She pressed the button three more times, bruising her paw. She was about to drop down again when she thought to scan the ceiling directly above her.

And there it was, in the smooth ceiling. A second attic door, leading to the space above the garage, a rectangle of plywood set into a wooden molding.

The other attic door had been loose, Jack Reed knew Lori couldn't get out through the attic, so why would he nail this one shut? And she could see no new nails at the edges. Maybe Reed had even taken cruel pleasure in imagining Lori climbing unsteadily up onto the flimsy cardboard boxes, reaching up, straining to move the plywood and climb through-only to discover that the crawl space led nowhere. That, after searching among the dark and the spiders, there was, after all, no way out. And Dulcie hated Jack Reed. If he had appeared before her just now, she would have leaped in his face clawing and biting.

Instead, she leaped up as powerfully as she could, striking the door with her front paws. She felt it give before she dropped back, and she saw a little line of unpainted wood where it had shifted position. She leaped again, and again it moved, leaving a wider crack. Apparently this one had no hinges. Crouched atop the musty boxes, waiting for her skipping heart to slow, she leaped and pushed it one more time, opening a crack as big as her paw.

Certain that they could get through, she dropped down again, feeling relieved and smug, and returned to find Joe.

He was still in Jack Reed's bedroom, pawing into the stacks of newspapers and paperback books and catalogs. She knew better than to ask what he was looking for; neither cat knew. Glancing at Joe, she padded past him to search through a pile of Reed's folded jeans, patting at the pockets and slipping her paw in.

All the pockets were empty. Together they searched Jack's dresser drawers, working as efficiently as any pair of thieves, then investigated the high closet shelf. They snooped along in the dark beneath Jack's hanging clothes and prowled among his shoes and heavy work boots. They searched under the bed among the dust mice and peered up at the cheap flat bedsprings, poking their paws in among them. They found nothing. Coming out again to study the electric plugs above the baseboards, they reared up to sniff at those possible hiding places. The lack of opposing thumbs, their inability to use a screwdriver to remove a switch plate or pry off a fascia board, was maddening. In their attempt to detect some hollowed-out secret cache, and not knowing what kind of evidence they were looking for, they could only sniff those suspicious areas and thump them with a paw, listening to the faint, empty echo.

But a cache of what? Drugs? Weapons? What were they looking for? If Jack had killed his brother, he hadn't taken much care with Hal's billfold and belt and ring. Why would he be careful about hiding anything else? Moving on to Lori's dark little room, with its one small, boarded-up window, again Dulcie imagined Lori as a prisoner there, locked inside her own house. She imagined the child curled up on her bed reading the fairy tales that stood on her bookshelf. Perhaps in her imagination trying to invent an exciting adventure story to cloak her father's mistreatment.

Except that Lori, despite her love of fantasy, or perhaps because of it, was at heart a true realist.

Feeling enraged for and weepy about Lori, she watched Joe fight open the top drawer of the little chest. Leaping onto the chest to look, she waited while he opened each of the three drawers in turn. The first yielded only the child's tattered T-shirts, some little socks, one with a hole in the heel, and two pairs of jeans so small that Lori must long ago have outgrown them. The other two drawers offered little more. A nightie, a heavy sweater, some spelling and arithmetic papers that were graded A or B.

But then in the bookcase, on the bottom shelf beneath a stack of oversize picture books, three shoe boxes were lined up. Nosing the books aside, they pawed the lids off.

The first held an old rag doll, a tiny battered teddy bear no bigger than a newborn kitten, and the picture of a woman who was surely Lori's mother. Natalie Reed, it said on the back. She had dark brown hair like her daughter, and the same huge dark eyes. Beneath the picture, wrapped with tissue paper, were a faded cotton apron printed with blue flowers and a dime-store strand of pearls with a flimsy bit of bent wire for a clasp. Was this Natalie's legacy to her daughter? Was this all that Lori had left from Natalie Reed's life?

But Lori herself was Natalie's legacy. In Lori, Natalie Reed had created, with her love and caring and teaching, a treasure of great value, a treasure to be cherished.

In the second box was a small album, the kind with old-fashioned black pages. Joe, lifting the pages one at a time with his claws, adeptly flipped them. Pausing before four photographs arranged on a single page, he let out a chittering hunting cry, raucous and loud. His yellow eyes had grown huge, his muscled crouch over the pictures as predatory as a stalking lion. "Voila, Dulcie! Look at this! Wait until Harper and Garza see this!" He stared at her, all sparks and fire, his paw pressing on the page. "Talk about the heart of the matter! Talk about cracking the case!" Shifting from paw to paw, the tomcat rumbled with crazy purrs. "I think," Joe said, hardly able to be still, "I think we just cracked both cases!"


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