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4

Cat Cross Their Graves

The room was musty and dim. She peered out from under the far end of the bed, watching him. He picked up the box and returned to the car; she heard him making noises as if loading it into the seat. In the dim room, dirty curtains were closed across three small windows, one window on each of three walls. On the fourth wall, through the open door to a bathroom, she could smell the stink of black mold. The window curtains must once have been bright plaid but were now a faded grid of colors as sickly as scrub rags. What kind of landlord would rent a place like this? There was no accounting for humans. Above her the dirty, dark ceiling absorbed what little light came in. Thin cobwebs clung to the dark old rafters, and the boards above them were crude and rough, as she'd see in some old garage.

Overlaying the other sour odors was the smell of stale food. The worn linoleum beneath her paws was so dirty that, when she crossed the room, grit and sticky stuff had pressed into her pads. She hated licking that gunk away. Where the linoleum had worn through, the fibers were filled with goo, like old ketchup.

A small, rusted cookstove stood in one corner between a dirty little refrigerator and a sink that was fixed to the wall with no cabinet or counter, its rusty plumbing hanging out underneath. A wooden table next to the sink was piled with cardboard boxes.

There was no closet. Next to the bed, five big nails had been driven into the wall. Some limp shirts and a tan windbreaker hung from these. She wondered if the bigger house, in front, was any cleaner. What a strange, forlorn place to find in this village, where most of the cottages were pampered and painted and their gardens lovingly tended. Maybe Lucinda was right, maybe some folks didn't want to do a thing to their property- just wait, and sell at inflated prices. Make a killing and move on. Strange, Kit thought, how some humans loved beauty and tried to make things nice, while others clung to ugliness.

She'd learned a lot since she left the band of ferals. When she was a little kitten, all she'd seen of humans were people's abandoned cars left to rust along the back roads, dirty streets, and garbage-strewn alleys. She hadn't understood until later that her band of strays had kept warily to the ugliest places, where humans expected them to be, where they were less likely to be chased or captured.

Hearing him outside at the car, clattering and walking around on the gravel, she slipped out from under the bed and leaped up on the table, peering into the boxes. One contained crookedly folded underclothes, and packs of letters and papers shoved in beside them. Another box held his dirty laundry. Phew. And two smaller boxes overflowed with empty beer cans. He was coming back, the grinding of gravel, the scuffing of his shoes up the steps. She flew under the bed.

Coming in, he slammed the door behind him and moved directly to the table, his rubber soles squeaking-something about the way he twisted his foot, she thought. She crept out as far as she dared, watched him set down a brown paper bag. He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a can of beer, and popped the lid. He picked up the box of laundry, tucked it under his arm, and left again, swilling beer, slamming and locking the door; she heard the bolt slide home. She listened, as nervous as a cornered mouse, as he started the Honda. Listened to it back out the gravel drive. As it turned onto the street, bits of gravel crunched under its wheels against the blacktop. What a strange man. He kills a woman, apparently follows her for weeks and then murders her, and now he's, what? Going to the laundromat? Taking out the garbage and doing his laundry? As Lucinda once said of someone, his mind was wired wrong. Drug dealers, thieves, killers. Not wired up right, Lucinda said. She listened to the car head away to the south but she remained still and shivering, more and more frightened by his strangeness.

When at last she came out from under the bed again and leaped onto the table, she looked into the bag. Yes, groceries. Peanut butter, bread, soup. As if he planned to stay awhile? Did he think no one would look for him? Or did he want them to look, did he want to be caught? Or was this food to take with him when he left, when he belatedly ran? She pawed into the cartons of clothes and papers hoping to find something that the law would want, something that could give the cops a handle, the way Joe said.

Nosing through the jumble of papers and jockey shorts and paperback books, she found, at the bottom of the second box, two big brown envelopes like magazines came in. Because he had sealed them closed, she wanted to see inside. Gripping them in her teeth, she pulled them off the table, dropping down with them, dragging them under the bed through a haze of dust to the back wall.

Crouching, she clawed the flaps open as neatly as she could, which wasn't very neat at all. When she shoved her nose in, her nostrils tickled with the smell of old newspapers. Slipping her paw inside, she was more careful now as she pulled out the contents and spread it in the dust.

There were three yellowed newspaper photographs, fuzzy and unclear, and a tangle of newspaper clippings. The photos were dull pictures of four men standing before a building. In all three pictures, the small man stood at the end, like some wizened-up child who had been made to stand next to his elders. The names in the short captions were Harold Timmons, Kendall Border, Craig Vernon, Irving Fenner. If they were in order, left to right, then the man she had followed was Irving Fenner. The columns below the pictures told about a series of murders in Los Angeles. There were no dates but the clippings were old, dry and brittle. Scanning the text as Lucinda or Wilma would have done, she went cold and still; she crouched unmoving, her paw half lifted, her eyes black and huge. Patty's name was there. In the article. And something about Patty's dead daughter, Marlie Rose Vernon.

This was about the murder of Marlie and her little boy. About Marlie's husband, Craig Vernon, who had been convicted of killing their child. Kit knew the story from Lucinda. The article said that Irving Fenner was an accessory to the murder.

Kit stared at the clippings and stared. After a long time she pawed them back into the envelope, her paw unsteady and damp with fear.

The second, fatter envelope was filled with glossy photographs, real professional portraits that made Kit catch her breath. Glossy magazine stories, too, with big colored pictures. Every photograph and every magazine picture was of Patty Rose when the famous actress was young and very beautiful indeed, her blue eyes huge, her short blond hair curling around her face. Pictures of Patty in elegant clothes, Patty in all kinds of scenes from her movies, all with other famous actors. Pictures of Patty singing with Stan Kenton, with Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, with all the famous bands that Wilma liked to listen to; Wilma and Lucinda had wonderful collections of Patty's old music.

In each picture, Patty's smile was the same that Kit knew, a smile filled with joy, as if nothing bad could happen in the world. In each picture, someone had punched a small, round hole in the paper-through Patty's forehead. A hole like a bullet hole.

Kit sat for a long time, shaking all over. Thinking about Patty, hurting bad inside, like huge hands crushing her. As she huddled there miserable and terrified and lost, she heard, outside and far away, a faint voice calling, calling her. A voice garbled in the wind but one she loved so dearly. She longed to cry out. Oh, she needed Lucinda. She longed to run out-if she could get out. Run to Lucinda where she would be loved and safe.

But she didn't cry out, and she didn't try to get out-not yet.

Pawing the pictures back into their envelope, she left a mark on one from her dirty pad. Trying to lick the page clean, she only smeared it. She didn't like to contaminate the evidence; that's what Joe would call it. Max Harper would need these, they might help very much to convict Irving Fenner.

Closing both envelopes as best she could after clawing them open so raggedly, she heard Lucinda calling her again, and this time Lucinda was closer, so close that it was all Kit could do not to leap to the window and claw at it, claw at the door and yowl.

And why not? She had the evidence, amazing and valuable evidence. If Lucinda came now, if Lucinda could let her out now…

But how could she, if the door was locked, if the windows were locked?

Snatching the two envelopes in her teeth, she dragged them just to the concealing edge of the crooked bedspread. Heavy to drag, they would be cumbersome indeed to carry. Once, she had helped Joe Grey carry a similar brown envelope for blocks across the village. Such a big, bulging package that it had taken the two of them together to pull it all the way to Joe's house and inside, and get it up the stairs.

Joe wasn't here to help her now, no one was. You are alone, my dear, she thought primly, as Lucinda or Wilma might say. You are on your own.

Leaving the envelopes out of sight beneath the edge of the bedspread, she leaped up at the knob of the front door knowing very well the door was locked; she could see the thrown dead bolt. She didn't hear Lucinda now. Had she gone on, searching in another direction? Moving farther away, along the dark street? Leaping up the door again and again, she fought the bolt until her paws were bleeding; at last she turned away and tried the windows.

All three windows were locked and were probably stuck, too. They were filled with ancient paint in the cracks, paint chipped off in layers of gray, cream, white, each layer thick between the sill and window. What did people do for fresh air? Even if she could have turned the round brass locks, she doubted these windows would open for anything less than a crowbar in human hands.

Was Lucinda carrying her cell phone? Inspired, Kit searched the room for a phone. She had long ago learned, from Joe Grey, how to paw in a number; and she had learned from the wild band she ran with how to remember stories, numbers, whatever she chose. When she was running with the wild ferals, the only joy she knew was their tales of the ancient speaking cats, the Celtic cats, and she had absorbed those delights word for fascinating word.

Finding no phone, circling frantically, she stared up at the ceiling. There was no way out, and no phone, and she could feel a yowl starting deep inside. She heard the car again, he was back, skidding to a gravelly stop. The car door creaked open, then slammed; he scrunched across the drive. As he squeaked up the steps she snatched the envelopes in her teeth and, hauling them, made for the bathroom. She didn't panic until she was inside. There, trapped in that tiny space, she went shaky.

The front door banged open. She stared helplessly around her, then pawed frantically at the two little doors under the sink, pawed and pulled until she fought one open. He was coming, his footsteps crossing the hard, gritty floor. Dragging the envelopes into the dank, moldy space, she pulled the door closed with her claws, her heart pounding so hard she thought it would burst.

The oilcloth beneath her paws was sticky but it was encouragingly loose, curling up at one corner. She'd barely pulled it back when he barged into the bathroom flinging the door wide. She crouched, shivering. If he opened the cupboard door, she'd go for his face. His feet scuffled on the other side of the cabinet, inches from her. Carefully pawing the oilcloth farther up, she slipped the envelopes under. Above her, he used the toilet and flushed, then turned on the water of the basin.

Working fast beneath the sound of running water, she smoothed the oilcloth over the envelopes. The wood beneath was black with rot, so soft that shards of wood came loose in her claws. Crouching atop the lumpy oilcloth, she watched the cabinet door.

But there was nothing under there for him to reach in for, not even scouring powder-not that he seemed to feel a need for cleaning products. She crouched there for what seemed hours, listening to the pipes groan. When she put her nose to the hot water pipe, it burned her. He must be shaving. She heard him brush his teeth. The water went on and off several times. She longed to hear Lucinda calling her again, even from far away, longed just to hear her friend's voice. He was rummaging around in the medicine cabinet. She felt so tired, so very hungry and thirsty. Her paws were beginning to sweat, and the cabinet walls seemed closer, the space growing smaller. She listened to him rummaging around. What was he doing? Why didn't he leave, what was taking him so long? She began to tremble with the panic of being shut in, trapped in that dark closed place. She wanted out! Wanted out now!

Panting, she told herself that she lay atop something so valuable, atop the very evidence that might fry Patty's killer. Told herself she had what the cops needed, that she would get out, that she would get the envelopes out of there. But all she could really think of was that she was locked in, caged, trapped in this dark, close cupboard in this horrible old house and that maybe, for her, there was no way out. Huddled atop the envelopes panting and shivering, she was scared out of her little cat mind.


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