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7

Cat Cross Their Graves

Dulcie had that same sick feeling about the missing tortoiseshell that Wilma or Clyde must feel when she and Joe were gone for several days; surely it was the same uneasy worry that filled her now. They had looked everywhere for the kit; no one knew where else to look.

And she felt edgy about Joe, too. A dozen times last night as they searched for the kit, she'd wanted to tell him the secret that lay between them, tell him where she'd been going for the past two weeks. But every time she started to mention Lori, she reminded herself that she had, in her own heart, promised the child. That when Lori whispered, "You won't tell anyone, Dulcie," she had, by her purring and cuddling, really promised Lori, just as much as if she had whispered, "I'll never say a word."

Now, agonizing, all she did was get her mind in a muddle. She went into the library at last, not through Lori's secretly unlocked basement window, but through the open front door. As library cat, she had as much business padding in through the main entrance as had the head librarian-and there had been times in the past, with another head librarian, when Dulcie had been more welcome. Her appearance in the library always generated smiles and greetings and pets, and today was no different. Except that she made quick work of the petting and cuddling, only pretending to linger. Purring and winding around the patrons' reaching hands, she sidled toward the stairs in an oblique dance until she was able to disappear among the stacks. And in an instant she was down the steps and into the basement workroom.

She had been visiting the runaway child for nearly two weeks, but she still hadn't learned much about her. Lori's casual, disjointed remarks were only frustrating. And how maddening were their one-sided conversations, when Dulcie had to remain mute, when she couldn't ask questions.

She'd fared no better listening to conversations around the library and watching the daily paper. She heard nothing about a runaway child, and no missing child was reported anywhere near Molena Point. No mention on the local radio station or TV And surely the Molena Point Gazette would jump on that kind of story.

Certainly there was no recent police report; she would have heard about that from Wilma or Charlie or Clyde-from Max Harper's own wife and his two closest friends. Max had grown up with Clyde; they were like brothers, brothers who had indulged in a good deal of beer drinking and bar fights during their young days on the rodeo circuit, Dulcie thought, smiling. It always amused her, and amazed her, to imagine either of the two men crouched atop the chute, settling down onto the back of a bull as the gate was opened; to imagine them riding the lunging, twisting, hard-landing bulls. Though she didn't like to think of the end of the ride, of the terrible, lunging horned danger, when they were on the ground once more.

In the basement, two librarians were working on a book order, sitting at the big, scarred worktable. The room was cool, its concrete walls emitting a perpetual chill that on a hot day was delightful, but was not so pleasant in the winter. Both ladies were wearing heavy sweaters. Dulcie, leaping onto an empty table, lay down between the stacks of new books where a slant of watery sunlight seeped in through a basement window. Five basement windows opened into deep wells that were cut into the sidewalk. All but one was securely locked, although all of them appeared to be locked. Settling down for a light nap, waiting for a chance to get in to Lori, Dulcie sleepily watched the librarian at the computer preparing orders. She was worn out, what with keeping Lori's secret from Joe and with worry over the kit.

Well, she could do nothing about Joe at the moment; he would just have to sulk. And they'd have to trust the kit. Just as she herself wanted Wilma to trust her and not always to be calling her and hovering. Kit was a big cat now; she would have to take care of herself.

But the worst of her tiredness came from her pain over Patty's death. Patty Rose, who would have hurt no one. No one… She was nearly asleep when the two librarians rose from their desks, picked up their purses, and headed for the stairs to go to lunch. She waited for some time, to be sure they didn't come back, hadn't forgotten anything. When neither hurried back down the stairs, she squeezed behind the small bookcase; there was barely room between it and the wall.

She didn't try to shove the bricks aside to reveal Lori's hidden entryway. Instead, pawing at the loose heat vent, she reared up, pushing the swinging grid aside. Crawling up and in, scrambling through where the big plastic pipe had fallen away from its connection, she entered the hidden part of the basement.

She had always known that grid was loose, hanging by one rusty screw, the other three screws not secure in the soft, old plaster. Long ago she had sniffed around there for mice but had never found fresh scent. She was more likely to find the occasional unwary mouse in the workroom itself, drawn by a candy bar left in a desk drawer, or upstairs among the books and the reading-room couches, both of which offered delightful nesting material for a mouse family. While she had long ago eradicated the main populations of library mice, an occasional optimistic newcomer would venture in, only to find itself summarily dispatched and on its way to mouse heaven.

Slipping in, pausing in the darkness, sniffing child scent and the sharp aroma of peanut butter, she dropped to the cold concrete floor. The cement-walled room was so dark that even a cat had to squeeze her eyes closed for a moment before she could see anything at all. But she could hear the child's slow, even breathing.

It still dismayed her that, all these years, she hadn't a clue that this room was here. She had assumed that behind the vent was just crawl space, dirt and foundation and spiders. Apparently the library's drainage system was well constructed, because the little basement room had remained dry even during this winter's heavy rains. The floor beneath her paws was dry as dust, though icy cold. And there was no faintest scent of mildew. Moving by the thin light that seeped through the vent behind her, she approached the sleeping child.

Lori lay curled up on her old sun pad, which maybe Lori's mother had once used. She had pulled her thin blanket tight around her as if to shut out the tiniest finger of cold, and had spread her windbreaker over that. For a long while, Dulcie stood watching Lori nap, her little hand under her cheek, her brown hair tangled across the stained old pillow.

Lori had moved into the hidden room surprisingly well equipped: the thin little pad, the old blanket, the backpack on the floor beside her with its canned provisions-though the pack was thinner now. Dulcie thought the child had brought as much food as she had been able to carry, but it wouldn't last much longer. Whatever the reason for her running away, and wherever she had come from, this little girl wasn't playing games. The puzzle was, if no one had reported a child missing, and if no one was looking for her, did she not have a family? That hardly seemed possible. Where, then, had she come from?

Or was someone searching secretly for her, someone who did not want to go to the police, who wanted to remain unknown? And why? Because they had hurt her, or meant to harm her? The child woke suddenly and sat up, startled, knowing someone was in the room. But then, staring into the darkness, she saw Dulcie. Catching her breath with pleasure, she put out her arms. Her voice was a whisper.

"Dulcie? You mustn't let them see you come in here." She glanced warily toward the workroom. "You mustn't let them know. Maybe they're at lunch? Oh," she said, shivering, "I wish you could understand. No one must find me! I wish I could make you understand."

But I do understand, Dulcie thought. I wish I could speak, I wish we could talk. Who would find you? Where do you come from and what are you afraid of? Leaping onto the blanket, Dulcie curled up close to Lori, basking in Lori's warmth, breathing in her little-girl scent-and wishing not only that she dared speak, but that she could share this child with Joe Grey. She longed to tell Joe about Lori, to discuss the child with him. Longed for Joe to help her come up with some answers. But she didn't dare, not until she knew who or what Lori was hiding from.

Because what if Joe, thinking only to help, placed one of his anonymous phone calls to Captain Harper about a lost child, a runaway child? And Harper came and scooped Lori up? What if, in the eyes of the law, Lori must be returned to the person she had run from? Sometimes the police could do little but what the legal statutes told them to do.

The Molena Point police were Joe's friends, Joe believed those officers could do no harm. In relying on the men he admired, the tomcat could be as hardheaded as any street cop. If he decided that Captain Harper should find Lori, no matter what Dulcie said, the tomcat would take the matter to the chief.

When Joe Grey got stubborn, got his claws into a matter, no one could turn him aside-and once Lori had been returned to whoever was her legal guardian, the law might not be able to protect her.

Dulcie stayed with the child for a long time, curled up close to her on the thin mat with the blanket wrapped around the two of them. With her thick tabby fur, Dulcie was really too warm, but the child clung to her as if she were starved for warmth. When at last Lori dozed, Dulcie slept, too, for a little while, then woke and lay wondering.

She knew that Lori slept during part of the day and then prowled the library late at night feasting on the books, as Dulcie herself often did. She had to smile at the way the child lugged books through the hole in the wall. Lori reminded Dulcie of herself when, slipping through her cat door late at night into the closed library, she would paw a book down from the shelves onto a reading table, paw open the pages, and read into the small hours, lose herself to the world around her as she wandered through even more fascinating worlds.

When Lori ran away, she had brought with her, besides her bedding and food and her little flashlight, a battery-operated lamp of the kind sensible humans kept for power outages. Each time before turning it on, Lori would check the loose bricks in the wall, which she kept to block her makeshift door. Making sure she could see no light between them, she would carefully hang her jacket over the roughly closed opening, anchoring it on the rough bricks. And all the while she would listen for any sound from the other side. Even at night she did this, to make sure no one was out there working late, who could catch a glimpse of light in the wall where there should be none.

Now, sighing, Lori snuggled even closer. It must be hard for a child to hide in this cold place all alone. For a kid of maybe twelve, Lori was amazingly disciplined.

But Lori was a reader; her world and experience had expanded her thinking far beyond the here-and-now everyday world she occupied. There was no question that she was a bright child. Dulcie had seen adult nonfiction books on every subject from model trains and miniature dollhouses to a history of Molena Point and one on the various breeds of dogs. All were books that, if any patron asked for them, would be recorded by the librarians as missing, but then would be found a few days later. Dulcie liked best that three Narnia books were stacked neatly against the wall, that Lori loved C. S. Lewis and his magical world-that not everything in Lori's life centered around fear, but still could embrace wonder.

Lori woke, whispering into Dulcie's fur, "He was there when I went out this morning, Dulcie. It wasn't hardly light yet. I don't think he saw me; I slipped back through the window real quick and slid it closed."

Who was there? Who are you hiding from?

In the dark, the child looked intently at Dulcie. "Was he looking for me?" She shivered. "If he'd seen me, he'd of followed me.

"But he couldn't of seen me, he was looking straight ahead, driving." She squeezed Dulcie tight. "How long can I stay here, though? My food is nearly gone." She stared hard at Dulcie. "And then what? I try to ration it, but I sure get hungry."

Dulcie reached a soft paw to touch Lori's cheek. There were no marks on the child as if she'd been beaten, as if whoever she was talking about had hurt her. No scars or bruises. But certainly Lori was scared.

"Mama would say, 'Go to a grown-up,' someone I can trust. A grown-up to help me." In the darkness, she shivered. "Who? There aren't no grown-ups I trust. Not those child-welfare people." Dulcie found it interesting that, though Lori was a voracious reader, her English sometimes faltered. She had lived way out in the country, in the south, since she was six. Maybe in that rural area, such usage was natural. Dulcie nuzzled Lori's cheek, purring. But she looked up when she heard voices beyond the wall, heard the two librarians on the stairs, coming down, and she leaped away, toward the heat vent.

"Dulcie?" Lori whispered.

But Dulcie was into the air duct and through it and slipping out from behind the bookcase as the two women entered, taking off their coats. Yawning and stretching, she looked up at them blearily and wandered away under the tables, where she lay down to roll and wash her paw.

And the moment they settled to work she trotted away again, up the stairs, and raced across the reading room before someone wanted to pet her. She was out the front door and around the corner, up a bougainvillea vine, moving eagerly to the rooftops. There she investigated every cranny between the peaks and chimneys, every high balcony and little penthouse window, searching for the kit's scent, hoping maybe Kit was headed home or had come to look for her, in the library. Or maybe, worn out from her unknown journey, had stopped in some unlikely place for a nap.

Padding through stark noon shadows and shafts of sunlight, Dulcie had searched the roofs for maybe ten blocks, slipping along the gutters looking down at the busy streets and into the trees and little yards. She was just above her favorite fish cafe, sniffing the good smells, when a police car turned down the street below her, moving as fast as it dared on the busy street, but without a siren. A second unit sped by, and a third. Something was happening; the officers' sleek white cars moved together as purposefully as three hunting sharks. Quickly she followed, running across the roofs, over and around peaks, keeping the cars in sight as they slid through traffic. They were heading up into the hills; she was going to lose them. Curiosity drove her faster. As she crossed the roof of the police department, below her another car left the station and instead of following farther, she scorched up the courthouse tower, where she could watch from its open parapet, from the highest lookout in the village.

Crouched on the high, open rail of the parapet, she watched the five cars turn onto a street that led high up into the hills. The senior ladies' street? Yes, the street of her four retired friends, of the house the ladies had bought together for their retirement, the tall old house that they were slowly renovating.

But that didn't mean anything, there were lots of houses on that street, including their friend Genelle Yardley's home. Stretching as tall as she could on the wall of the parapet, balancing on the narrow bricks, she counted the streets and the blocks, counted the rooftops. And she caught her breath, dropped down to the brick paving, and leaped down the tower's winding stairs hitting every fourth step, then took off across the roofs. As she raced across oak limbs and more rooftops, icy fingers crawled up her spine. That was the seniors' house, where the police units had turned in, the home of Cora Lee and Mavity and their two housemates. What was happening? What was wrong?


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