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33

Cat Cross Their Graves

"What will happen to Lori Reed?" Lucinda asked after supper, as the little party crowded around the warming blaze in Clyde's living room. "If Jack Reed gets life, or the death sentence, does she have anyone else?"

"No other family," Wilma said. "And I don't think the child will tolerate being sucked back into the welfare system." This statement from Wilma drew startled looks. "But," Wilma said, "I don't think she'll have to; I think Cora Lee would be delighted to give Lori a home."

"What kind of sentence is Reed likely to get?" Lucinda said.

Wilma shook her head, as did Max and Dallas. There was no telling, given the circumstances. "Anything from ten years," Harper said, "for manslaughter, to life for two counts of second-degree murder."

"How's Lori taking it?" Charlie said.

"Stoic," Wilma said. "Quiet. She's with Cora Lee now, but when Genelle is out of the hospital, Lori wants to stay with her." Wilma had chosen to sit just beside the hearth, in Joe's personal, clawed chair that Clyde had covered with a blanket for the occasion. "Lori knows the whole story," Wilma said. "Hal's fishing trips, the L.A. murders. But she seems all right about it; she's a strong child."

Max settled back into the leather couch, close to Charlie. "Patty would be pleased to know Fenner's dead, that her daughter and grandchild are, to some degree, vindicated.

"Maybe she knows," Lucinda said. Full of supper, Lucinda and Pedric had cozied down together on the leather love seat, while Ryan and Clyde and Dallas sat on floor pillows before the hearth. Detective Davis had curled up at the end of the couch, next to Charlie, pulling off her shoes, tucking her feet under.

Harper shook his head. "Twisted, bitter people, all with some kind of vendetta against society-against children. The idea that children with superior intelligence are against God's law. Crazy as a pet coon. And that guy was teaching elementary school. First school let him go in the middle of the first semester; that was in Orange County. He moved up north to Redding, started again as if he was just out of graduate school. All forged degrees. Lasted a full semester before they dumped him. DA's been on the phone all afternoon talking with school districts. Fenner's background fell through the cracks until a school in San Bernardino began to ask questions, did some checking. That's when he moved to Denver, changed his name, went to work for children's services, another string of forged degrees and references. No one checked. They needed help, and he sounded too good to question.

"There, four children disappeared from outlying towns. Never found. Investigating officer looked at Fenner but dismissed him. These kids weren't on Fenner's caseload, and they seemed to have no connection to children's services. Officer had no real reason to investigate Fenner. And with no bodies, no blood work, no lab… Fenner remained in Denver for another two years, then we lose track of him.

"Now Denver is looking at those cases again, pulling those old files. Next we know of him so far, he's in L.A. Marlie's husband, Craig, gets involved with him." Max had told them over dinner about the L.A. case. "Stories filled the front page for weeks." When Harper glanced idly up at the bookcase, Joe slit his eyes nearly closed and laid his chin on his paws, as if dozing. Dulcie had curled up next to Joe, her eyes closed. Kit faked a yawn, but at the back of the bookcase her tail was twitching with interest.

"The L.A. bodies were found early on a Sunday morning, someone had seen a light in the church the night before, inside the boarded-up windows. Called the police. L.A. checked it out and left, but were back the next morning. Twelve children buried together in the wall of the church, Conner among them. His shirt was gone, and his shoes. He'd died of strangulation."

Atop the bookcase, Kit nuzzled closer to Dulcie and Joe.

"When Hal got out of prison, Jack thought that if he got him away from L.A. and into their own business, he'd straighten out, forget his crazy notions. When he realized Hal hadn't forgotten, he was wild with fear of what Hal would do. And he didn't know where Fenner was. Prosecution couldn't make Fenner, not one of his followers would testify-not for the murders, not for influencing them, or for any involvement with the cult. Refused to say he was the cult leader. Every one of them protected Fenner right down to the end. Best the DA could do was accessory, based on circumstantial evidence.

"Dorothy Street was about ten at the time of the murders, a family friend. After Marlie was killed, I think that in many ways Dorothy took her place for Patty. Patty badly needed someone.

"When Fenner was released, Patty knew but didn't think he'd come here. Parole department in L.A. is grossly overworked. Even if he'd failed to report, they might have had no reason to believe he would head up here, after Patty." Max finished his coffee, set his cup on the coffee table, and put his arm around Charlie, drawing her close.

Lucinda said, "If they proved that Harold Timmons-Hal Reed-killed one of the L.A. children, why did he get only a few years?"

"They didn't prove that Timmons killed any of the children; no one in that group would testify against another. Only Craig Vernon and Kendall Border got murder one, through fingerprint identification."

Pedric said, "So when Harold Timmons had done his time, he and his brother, Jules, moved up the coast to Molena Point and changed their names to Hal and Jack Reed."

Harper nodded. "Jack thought Hal would be all right if he could keep him away from groups like that, that he'd be okay without Fenner. I guess he was, for a while.

"Jack met Natalie, married her. Two years later, they had Lori. Jack says he really believed Hal had thrown himself into the business and was through with anything related to offbeat religions-but said he kept a close eye on him.

"Several years after they started the business, Hal started going salmon fishing up around Seattle and Tacoma, at first booking trips with a local travel group. Jack thought that was good for Hal, a different kind of interest, and he encouraged it.

"Hal wasn't living with Jack and Natalie then, but in a small apartment a few blocks over-the house the senior ladies now own. When Lori was not quite six, Jack went over there one night during a bad storm. All the electricity in the village was out. One of their customers had a flood, wet wires, a mess, wanted someone to get that part of the building cut off before the power came back on. Jack needed some help, and when he couldn't reach Hal on the phone, he went over to see if he was home yet from Seattle.

"He found Hal out in back digging in the garden. He shone his flashlight on Hal, and on a child's mutilated body. Jack said he grabbed the shovel from Hal, hit him and hit him, just beat him and wouldn't stop.

"When he finally did stop, he stood in the pouring rain staring at Hal and at the dead child. He knelt by Hal, by his dead brother." Max looked around at his friends, leathery face drawn into lines of sadness. "Jack stood there awhile, then buried Hal, and buried the child."

The three cats, atop the bookcase, were as still as stone, imagining the grisly scene.

"He didn't know if there were other graves. Thought there must be, but said he didn't want to know. He went home and threw up. For about a week, he couldn't keep any food down, didn't sleep, wouldn't talk to Natalie. That was the beginning of his strangeness, his fear and depression. He began to worry about Lori. If she went down the street to play, she had to tell him exactly where she was going, who she'd be with, which yard. He'd always ask if she'd talked to any strangers-had begun to worry that Fenner was somewhere near. He checked with L.A. probation and parole, learned that Fenner wasn't out yet and when they expected he would be. And all the time, he was eaten up by guilt, guilt that he hadn't suspected Hal, that a child, maybe more, had died. Guilt that he'd killed his brother. He began to buy the Tacoma and Seattle papers, and soon knew there was more than one missing child.

"He knew he could ease the parents, that he could put an end to their uncertainty. But he did nothing. And as Fenner's release time drew near, Jack was consumed by fear for Lori. He knew if he told police where to find the missing children, they'd find Hal as well. Not only would Jack go to prison, he imagined that Fenner would hear about the case, figure out why Jack had killed Hal, and that as vindictive as Fenner was, he'd be sure to come after Lori. Also, four of the L.A. cult members had not been charged; they were on the street and Jack worried that Hal might have been involved with them in Seattle, that they might come after Lori, too, as retribution for Hal's death.

"When Fenner was released, Jack says he was a basket case, eaten up with fear. Didn't want to go out in the evening and leave Lori with a sitter, didn't want Lori to go to school. Natalie insisted on school, but Jack insisted that Lori had to be driven and picked up, nothing after school, no playing with friends.

"When Natalie lost patience with this, she left him, taking the child with her. It was about then that Fenner went back to jail on another charge.

"When Natalie died six years later of cancer, Lori was sent to a dozen foster homes before she told her caseworker she had a father. Shortly after she gets back to Molena Point, Fenner is out again. Jack thought he saw him once, in the village, and that's when he boarded up the house.

"This was about three weeks before Fenner killed Patty. As unstable as Jack had become, he may have saved Lori. But then, about a week after Jack boarded up the windows, Lori ran away. Hid in the library basement."

Joe glanced at Dulcie. You found her, his look said. You helped her, Dulcie. Below them, Lucinda wiped away a tear. "Fenner might have been a mental case," she said, "but he was also pure evil."

"Jack has Fenner's letters to Hal, from prison," Max said. "Hal had told him Lori was extra bright. Hal grinding his own ax, I guess. Getting back at Jack for whatever imagined reason, or maybe to impress Fenner."

No one asked how the department had known that Jack had found Fenner. Everyone present was either law enforcement, so knew Harper had received a tip, or if not with the department, then was conversant with other information regarding certain anonymous sources.

But Harper looked around at his friends and frowned. "We have a witness," he said, and he waited.

No one said anything.

"Witness who heard Jack and Fenner arguing on the street, saw Jack rough up Fenner and shove him in his truck. A young woman," Harper said, studying each of his civilian friends. He looked at Clyde, at Wilma, at Lucinda, at Dallas's niece Ryan. He glanced down at Charlie. "A witness who, I'm sure, will refuse to come forward."

Davis said, "These two snitches are starting to make me nervous."

Harper looked at her. "A lot of cases won, Juana. A lot of convictions." He leaned back, stretching out his long legs. "And however this plays out for Jack Reed, he seems easier in his mind."

"So many deaths," Lucinda said.

"Patty fought Fenner's kind in her own way," Harper said. "Most of Patty's holdings go to enlarge her children's shelter and add an accelerated school. Her trust will set up a scholarship system where any child who is bored in school and unchallenged can come there to learn, tuition free." He looked at Lucinda and Pedric, at Wilma. "I've told Jack there are several people who want to take Lori, give her a home in case he gets a long sentence. He'll be arraigned in a day or two. After that, until the trial, he'll be out on bail, under electronic home confinement. The judge was very understanding about setting that up. Lori can be with him during that time.

"Who knows, he may get a short sentence and parole. Meantime, Cora Lee French is there for her. Cora Lee spoke to me this afternoon. Cora Lee loves that child."

"We haven't had dessert," Ryan said, swiping at a tear as she rose and moved toward the kitchen. But Max pulled Charlie up from the couch and headed out the front door.

"Hey," Charlie said. "I want dessert."

"Don't worry, you won't miss dessert."

She let herself be guided outside and down the steps, to the drive. Behind them, everyone crowded out onto the porch, but Clyde moved quickly past them, to flip the canvas cover off the hidden vehicle.

Charlie looked at Clyde, puzzled. She stared at the shiny new red Blazer. "This doesn't need restoring. This is your new project?"

Clyde smiled. Max stood watching her. A card was stuck under the windshield wiper. She removed it and opened it, then looked up at Max. " 'Happy early birthday'? What-"

"It arrived early." He handed her the key.

Clyde, watching them, was almost as pleased as Max. He and Max had considered a four-year-old Jaguar convertible trade-in, a vehicle that both men had greatly admired. Maybe during a light moment, Max had imagined himself tooling around the village in Charlie's flashy Jaguar. But both admitted that Charlie couldn't haul her paintings or half a dozen bales of hay or two big dogs or extra housecleaning equipment in a Jag convertible. Then Clyde had found the two-year-old Chevy Blazer that, while not quite politically correct, got good gas mileage and gave Charlie ample hauling space.

Charlie spent the next half hour hugging Max, examining the car inside and out, and ended up bawling on his shoulder. The three cats, crouched on the porch, had to shut their mouths tight to keep from laughing. Their loud purrs did attract several glances. It was only later, alone in the kitchen, that Charlie tweaked Joe's ear and stroked Kit and Dulcie. "You knew!" she whispered. "All three of you. You little stool pigeons knew, but you never once let on! How can you be such snitches, but you never say a word to me!"

Joe looked up at Charlie, his yellow eyes innocent and round. Kit lashed her tail and smiled. Dulcie said softly, "But it wasn't really a secret at all, everyone knew. Ryan and Dallas. Wilma. Lucinda and Pedric. Davis, the entire department. Everyone knew but you, Charlie."


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