The harsh lights that had illuminated the patio had been extinguished; only the fainter garden lights remained, sending their soft glow low among the flowers. The tearoom lights were turned up brighter, and the cats could see Dallas Garza inside, beyond the flowered curtains, seated at a little table, talking with one of the waiters. The windows of the dining room, too, were bright where other employees or guests waited their turn. In the garden, two police guards moved back and forth along the walks, one of them yawning, their radios hoarse in the silence. Beneath the maple tree, Lucinda stood beside a wooden bench calling the kit. The thin old woman sounded more angry than pleading. When she saw Joe and Dulcie, she sat down on the bench and put out a hand to them.
Leaping to the bench beside her, Joe Grey crowded close. Dulcie climbed into Lucinda's lap, staring up into the old woman's long, thin face. Dulcie's voice was only a whisper, not audible to the guards above the mumble of their radios. "You've been out searching, out on the streets." It was not a question.
"Where is she?" Lucinda said. "You've been looking, too?"
Dulcie twitched an ear.
Lucinda frowned. "She slashed through the screen. I woke hearing gunshots, very close, three shots. By the time I threw on a robe and went to find Kit, she was gone, the screen torn, her fur caught in the wire." Lucinda went silent, cuddling Dulcie close as an officer wandered past them. Then she looked down at Dulcie and Joe. "We've tramped the village for over an hour, looking for her. Clyde is out there somewhere. Pedric's still looking. I'm worried for him, he's been gone a long time. Did you know that Kit's been watching a stranger? Some tourist, I thought."
The cats' eyes widened.
"She's so secretive. All week, she's been peering out the window at him, watching, and sometimes she would slip out and follow him-though she's never gone long. As if maybe he takes off in a car. A thin man, small. Maybe five feet tall. I don't-"
At Joe's expression, Lucinda stopped. "What, Joe?"
"Black hair," Joe said. "Small hands like a child?"
Lucinda nodded. "No taller than a twelve-year-old." The old woman stared at him, just as Dulcie was staring. "Do you know him? Who is he? I'm terrified of what might have happened to her."
Joe kneaded his claws nervously on the redwood bench. "I only saw him once, don't know who he is. Guy made me edgy as hell." Just thinking about that little man made Joe's fur stiffen with apprehension.
Three nights ago when he saw the small, strange man, he had backed away for no reason and hidden from him, not even ashamed of his cowardice. Maybe it was some subliminal scent, or maybe something in the guy's movements. Whatever, he'd kept his distance.
That was Monday night; it had been raining all night but had finally eased off. Entering Jolly's alley, he had enjoyed a leisurely and solitary midnight feast, finishing up the fresh leftovers George Jolly had set out. Crouching beneath the little roof of the feeding station that Mr. Jolly put out in bad weather, a little decorative structure like a hand-decorated doghouse, Joe had taken his time enjoying his meal, hoping wherever Dulcie was, with her stupid secrets, she was hungry and cold. Jolly's alley was one of Dulcie's favorite places, and Joe had taken perverse delight in going there alone and pigging out on the fine deli offerings, including one of Dulcie's favorites, creamy salmon salad.
He had been sitting beneath the jasmine vine washing salmon off his whiskers when a strange little man passed by, out on the sidewalk. He watched the guy pause and turn back to stand at the mouth of the alley, looking in. Being that the man was silhouetted against the streetlights, Joe could see only that he was short and frail, couldn't see his face. But even his silhouette made Joe's fur stand up, gave him a jolt that he didn't understand but that sent him backing deeper among the shadows.
The stranger had peered in at the potted flowers and shrubs, idly studying the inky recesses beneath the benches and around Joe's concealing vine. Joe, already crouched down, ducked his head to hide the white stripe down his nose, concealing as well his other white markings. Hunched there like a rolled-up porcupine, he had felt icy fear course through him, puzzling but quite real.
Maybe the guy had stirred an ugly memory. Triggered an unpleasant association. Maybe jarred in him some emotion from that other incident in Jolly's alley, three years earlier, when those two men entered and Joe witnessed one kill the other with a crescent wrench. Maybe this little man's appearance reminded him of that singular and shocking moment.
And maybe not. A cat couldn't always account for his fear-driven reactions. But a cat had the sense to pay attention.
Watching the small man, Joe had licked his shoulder, which was wet from the recent rain, and had wondered why this tourist was out in wet weather. A little rain was no big deal to a cat; there were countless niches where one could shelter out of the downpour and lick one's fur dry. But not many tourists walked for pleasure on a rainy night. The man had seemed so interested in the stained-glass doorways of the little out-of-the-way shops that lined the alley that Joe had wondered if he was planning to break in.
Yet his body language had seemed wrong for a break-in, relaxed but not stealthy. Not watchful enough of the street behind him, not attentive enough to the two open ends of the alley.
The stranger was such a small guy. His bones looked as thin as bird bones. His skin was very white, his hair as sooty black as the crows that bedeviled Joe from their clumsy perches among the oak trees. The guy's cheeks were thin and narrow, his pointed chin darkened by black stubble. His pale, child-size hands looked frail and weak. Moving suddenly, he had entered the alley.
Wandering along the narrow brick walk, he glanced without interest at the empty paper plate in its wooden shelter; he looked into the jasmine vine but didn't seem to see Joe, who was still rolled up like a frightened caterpillar. Joe thought the guy was maybe fifty or sixty, he could never be sure about human age. To interpret a person's age from a set of facial features was for Joe a far more difficult science than reading their body language.
The guy's high forehead was feathered by wispy black hairs that lay thinly across his pearly scalp. Thicker hair grew on his thin arms and the backs of his small hands, as if the maker of all living creatures had somehow gotten his wires crossed and put most of the hair in the wrong places. Joe imagined that if this man were to shake hands with a normal-size person, one would hear his bones cracking. The man seemed unfinished. Moving on through the alley, he paused beside a wrought-iron bench. What did he find of such interest in Jolly's alley that he remained standing there, looking? What was he looking at? But then when a car came down the street, its tires swishing on the wet pavement, he headed out of the alley fast, as if he didn't want to be seen there.
Joe looked up at Lucinda, feeling cold. This had to be the same man the kit had been watching. How many child-size men were there? The population of Molena Point wasn't all that big. If Kit had seen him tonight, what had she seen? Joe imagined too clearly the kit's yellow eyes, round and huge with curiosity, with shock at Patty's death-and perhaps with secret knowledge. If Kit had seen the killer, there was no telling where her rage and determination would lead her.
Earlier that night as the detectives and coroner worked over Patty's body, photographing and videotaping, collecting fingerprints and lab samples, and then as Joe and Dulcie and their human friends searched for the kit, Kit moved alone through the windy night tracking Patty's killer. Or, she started out to track him.
Frightened and cold, filled with hatred of the man, she had followed the geranium scent as far as she could, hurrying along the icy concrete, her small body shivering with chill and grief, hurting so for Patty that all her senses seemed numbed. Besides geranium, she had picked up the stink of dirty socks and dog doo, all three mingling in the same gusts of air. As nasty as that was, it made her tracking faster; she galloped along following that wafting sourness, scanning the airy drafts like a small bird dog. His trail led her straight to Molena Point Little Theater.
The movie crowd that had enjoyed Patty's films was just dispersing. Had there been no announcement, then, of Patty's terrible murder? Maybe not. The cops had had enough trouble keeping people out of the inn's patio and away from the crime scene. Maybe they'd encouraged the theater personnel to say nothing, to simply continue with the filmed interviews that followed the movie. The programs were sometimes quite long. That was why Lucinda and Pedric had skipped this one after four nights' running. Drawing back among the bushes at the edge of the sidewalk, Kit watched people hurrying to their cars, or starting to walk home bundled up against the stormy cold. Rearing up on her hind paws trying to see through a forest of human legs, she looked and looked for the man-she could smell him close to her, he'd come here, all right, to mix with the crowd, as if this would this be his alibi, that he was at Patty's movie.
There, she saw him-the small man who had watched Patty, and who carried the scent of the killer. Kit wanted to leap on him and claw him, hurt him as he had hurt Patty. Dulcie said, and even Joe said sometimes, that in the case of human crime it was better for human law to punish the killer. But right now it would be more satisfying to tear at the evil creature as she would at a rat, dismembering it. Racing between hard oxfords and women's high-heeled boots, she slid into the bushes behind him.
Phew. The scent of dog doo laid over geraniums and dirty socks. When the man turned and nearly stepped on her, she spun away. If she were a cop, she could stick a gun in his ribs. So frustrating sometimes, being only a cat. When he moved away through the crowd, she followed, dodging people's feet and drawing surprised and interested looks. She followed him up the sidewalk, swerving and running, falling back behind people then hurrying ahead. After five blocks he got into a car, an old gray Honda parked at the curb a block from the library. Got in and took off, the smell of exhaust choking Kit. She followed the car, running down the middle of the street, until she had to streak for the curb or be crushed, landed pell-mell on the sidewalk, tumbling and scared out of her little cat wits.
The car had vanished, its stink lost among other cars, among the smell of tires and asphalt and diesel. She crouched on the concrete, shivering at having been so close to being hurt, so foolishly close to moving cars, telling herself she must not do that again.
But at last she shook herself and licked her cold paws, then started on in the direction the car had gone, looking ahead for any gray car, hunting stubbornly.
As she searched hopelessly along the endless dark streets, rearing up, scanning the side streets, twice she heard, far behind her, Lucinda calling her. She did not turn back, she kept on even when her friend's voice grew louder, closer. Lucinda would pick her up and hold her and make a fuss over her-and force her to go home. Later as she raced up to the roofs to better see the streets below, she heard Clyde, and then Pedric's low, gruff voice calling and calling her. Obstinately she turned away and kept on searching.
She had watched this man for nearly two weeks as he hung around the inn. She knew he was watching Patty but he'd never seemed threatening, such a small, frail man. Lucinda had seen him once, and they'd thought he might be a fan of Patty's. Now he had turned suddenly into the most terrible of monsters. Kit felt guilty, deeply guilty that neither she nor Lucinda had told anyone about him, and that Lucinda had never asked Patty about him.
Was this man the reason Patty had been distracted? Had she known he was watching her? And all the time, had he been waiting to kill Patty? And Patty herself had told no one. Had she not thought he would attack her? Never dreamed he would shoot her? A deep, terrible remorse filled the kit.
She tried to remember if she had ever seen his car, before tonight. Tried to bring that car clear again, that gray Honda. It was old and battered. A two-door, she thought. She had been so focused on the man and on dodging people's feet that she had not, as Joe or Dulcie would have done, set to memory its license number. Now that omission, too, was a matter of shame.
But she knew that car. And once, coming from along the seashore where she'd been hunting alone in the weedy shoulder above the sand, she'd seen it, she was sure she had. That time, her mind had been so intent on breakfast because she'd caught nothing in the tall grass, not even a mouse, that she'd hardly paid attention.
But now she paid attention. Where? Where had she seen it? Squinching her eyes closed, she made that picture come back to her, that old gray car. Parked. It had been parked way back down a weedy driveway beside a dark-sided, neglected cottage with tall grass in the yard, a cottage half hidden behind a bigger house, not a typical Molena Point cottage, well kept and pretty.
As the first fingers of dawn crept above the eastern hills, that was where Kit headed, to find that house. To that part of the village where, on one of the side streets off Ocean, she'd seen his car.
Padding along trying to remember which street, which block, she doubled back and forth. Where the collie barked? Where the yard seemed always to smell of laundry soap? Around her, dawn lightened the street between the shadowing oak trees, leaving pools of blackness beneath. She was tired, so tired that when at last she saw the gray Honda, she didn't believe it.
But there it stood way at the back behind the bigger house just as she remembered. Why hadn't the man skipped, why wasn't he out on the highway heading for L.A. or San Francisco? He had his nerve, coming back where he must have been staying. She caught his scent, she sniffed again, she swished her tail. She approached warily down the cracked, overgrown walk, staying within the tall grass, past the main house and through the scruffy yard like an overgrown jungle. Both houses were brown-shingled boxes with small, dirty windows. At the side of the cottage on a patch of gravel beside a black Ford sedan and a blue Plymouth stood the gray Honda, its fenders pushing into the rough bushes.
Approaching the steps on silent paws, looking up at the grimy windows, she stalked the cottage. These dark-shingled old buildings didn't look so much like Molena Point as like a pair of deserted houses she'd seen on her travels while running with that wild band of feral cats. He must be renting. Surely he was a visitor; she'd never seen him before he began to hang around Patty. Above her against the brightening dawn sky the roof shakes curled up, warped and black with rot. The boards on the steps warped up at the ends, too, and the narrow wooden porch sagged to the left. The path beneath her paws had run out of paving stones, was now rough dirt and gravel. She padded over to investigate his car.
Its tires were nearly cold, but she could feel the faintest heat lingering around its engine. When she glanced up at the house and saw movement beyond the glass, she crouched down as if hunting mice, sneaked into the bushes lashing her tail as if hot on the track of escaping game. There, deep within the shrubs, she looked out, again studying the window. Now the figure had disappeared inside beyond the murky glass, but then in a minute the door opened.
The little man stood in the doorway looking out, his thin face caught in a shaft of weak light. She wondered again why he hadn't run. He had to know the cops were after him. Did he think he was that clever, mixing with the theater crowd? Did he think the law wouldn't track him? He had very black hair and very white skin, and little, fierce black eyes. His forearms sported as much matted black hair as a mangy dog, a white-skinned sickly dog.
Dropping two bulging garbage bags on the rickety porch, he swung back inside, perhaps for another load. She could smell from the garbage bags the stale odor of old food; an empty can rolled out, crusted with something unpleasant. Crouched and tense, the kit waited. Was this the behavior of a killer, taking out the garbage?
He came out carrying a cardboard box, came down the steps, and headed for the Honda; behind him, he had left the door ajar. The minute he turned to open the trunk of the car, she fled up the steps and across the porch and into the cottage.
But once inside, she saw that there was only the one room, only one door. One path of escape. The other door, which stood open, led to a tiny bathroom. Watching the door behind her, she slipped beneath the bed, her heart thudding. She hadn't been smart to come in here. Should she scorch out before he returned? This man wasn't right; no sane person, no one with any gentleness, would have killed Patty.
Outside, he slammed the trunk and his soft soles crunched across the gravel. Run, Kit. Run. But she didn't run; stubbornly, she backed deeper beneath the bed.