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9

Cat Cross Their Graves

Cora Lee didn't move. She might have been molded into a frieze. The color of her face was no longer warm cafe au lait, but that of gray cardboard. Had she dug out a snake? Disturbed a rattlesnake? Or uncovered one of those huge potato bugs with the vicious pincers?

Slowly Cora Lee reached down, her hesitant, wary hand hovering above something hidden from Charlie's view in the turned earth.

"Cora Lee?"

Cora Lee glanced up, then down again, staring at the earth before her.

"Cora Lee?"

Cora Lee looked up, focusing on Charlie, her face twisted, her dark eyes frightened and helpless. Her mouth moved in a soft, begging way, but no sound came. Down the row, Mavity was equally still, watching them. After what seemed hours, Cora Lee whispered, "In the storm, all the bodies floated up."

Charlie rose and stepped closer.

Where Cora Lee had dug the soil away, she could see dark bones. Bare bones, stained by earth. The bones of a hand. A small human hand. A child's hand.

Charlie had spent countless hours in art school drawing human bones, human hands. This was not an animal paw that might be mistaken for human, not a raccoon or a possum. She knew a child's hand when she saw it.

A child's hand, the fingers all in place as if the hand had been securely embedded in older, harder soil, allowing the loose, wet dirt above to come away. The stained bones were woven through with the little pale roots of the weeds. She could see the wrist bones, but the arm was still hidden by earth-if there was an arm. Cora Lee's trowel lay abandoned atop the turned soil. Charlie wanted to pick it up and pull the dirt away, free the poor creature if indeed a body was buried there. Call Max. Don't touch anything. Call him now.

Cora Lee's thin, lovely face was crumpled with such distress that Charlie rose and gripped her arms, gently helping her up. She stood with her arms around Cora Lee, the frightened woman shivering against her. Charlie didn't know what Cora Lee meant by bodies floating up, but Cora Lee was far more terrified than seemed reasonable. Charlie reached into her pocket for her cell phone, then drew her hand back and looked at Mavity.

"Go in the house, Mavity. Call nine-one-one. Tell them we need a detective up here; tell them what we found." Mavity, too, was pale. She needed to do something, to take some action.

As the little wrinkled woman hurried away, the back of her white uniform stained with earth, Charlie held Cora Lee close. Cora Lee was not a weak person; last summer when she'd been attacked in the alley behind the charity shop and so badly hurt, when she'd spent that long time in the hospital, she had been as stoic and strong as rock.

This little hand had brought back something that touched Cora Lee in a way Charlie did not understand. Leading Cora Lee up to the picnic table, Charlie got her to sit down, and poured her the last of the lukewarm coffee from the thermos. They waited, not speaking, until Mavity came out again. She was scowling, her wrinkles multiplied, her fists clenched with annoyance. "Dispatcher had to go through the whole routine of what to do. I told her you were here, Charlie. That you already know what to do." Turning, saying nothing more, she picked up the thermos and went back in the house.

She returned in only a few moments with a fresh thermos of coffee and clean mugs on a tray. Mavity's response to any calamity was to keep busy. And even as Mavity poured coffee, they heard the police radio, heard the unit patrol pull into the drive. To Charlie, that harsh static cutting through the still morning was as reassuring as a hug. Eagerly she watched the corner of the house as hard shoes clicked on the concrete, coming around the side.

But it wasn't Max; she knew his step. Officer Brennan swung into view coming down the overgrown walk, his high forehead catching the light, his generous stomach bulging over his uniform trousers. Brennan nodded to her. Charlie rose and led him down the yard to the lower flower beds.

She was standing with Brennan, describing how Cora Lee had found the hand, when she saw Dulcie leap from the neighbor's roof to a tree, and back down, dropping into the tall grass. At the little cat's questioning look, Charlie glanced down at the excavation. At Charlie's questioning look, Dulcie twitched her whiskers and flicked her ears. Dulcie had not found the kit. Quietly Dulcie approached the flower bed.

When she saw the hand, her ears went back and her eyes grew huge and black, the way a cat's eyes get when it is afraid or feels threatened, and Dulcie's rumbling growl shocked Charlie. Officer Brennan spun around, waving a threatening hand at her.

"Get out of here, cat! What the hell do you want? Cat's worse than a dog! Dig the bones right up! Get out, get away!"

"She didn't do anything," Charlie snapped. "She's just curious. She won't hurt anything!"

"More than curious," Brennan growled. "Cat'll dig up the bones and carry them off!" He stared at Charlie strangely. "How do you think the captain would like that?" When he raised his hand, Charlie snatched Dulcie up in her arms. Dulcie didn't resist, but she was still growling, her enraged glare turned on Brennan. Charlie moved away from him quickly. What had gotten into Brennan? She'd never seen him so grouchy.

For that matter, what was with Dulcie? This wasn't the little cat's usual crime-scene behavior. Dulcie and Joe Grey always stayed out of sight, they had no desire to stir questions among the law. Surely the little tabby would not be so bold around Max or the detectives. Neither cat wanted to be seen near a crime scene, nor did they want paw prints or cat hairs fouling the evidence.

In Charlie's arms, Dulcie seemed to shake herself. More cars were pulling in, the slam of car doors, the multiplied cacophony of police radios. Brennan was still looking surly as Detective Davis came down the drive, her hard shoes clicking on the concrete, three officers behind her. Exchanging a comfortable look with Charlie, Juana Davis moved carefully along the weedy path where Brennan indicated that he had already walked.

Juana Davis was in her fifties, a stocky Latina with a usually bland expression and a keen mind. She had been on the force since long before Max became captain. She was pushing retirement but not looking forward to it. Though few detectives wore a uniform, Davis preferred to do so. Maybe she felt that the uniform gave her more status, more clout-not that she needed it. Davis was a skilled and capable officer. Or maybe she thought black made her look thinner. Dressed in regulation jacket, skirt, and black oxfords, she stood a few minutes looking around the yard, seeing every detail. She studied the hand, the heaps of earth around it. She looked up at Charlie to ask the usual questions. Who had found the hand? Who was present? Would Charlie ask them to remain until they could be questioned? Then she readied her camera and got to work. First the immediate scene from a standing position, before she knelt to take close-ups. She looked up briefly when the chief arrived.

Max moved down the yard, giving Charlie a glance and a solemn wink. Staying to the broken, weedy walk, he didn't speak or stop. Standing at the edge of the flower bed, above Juana, he studied Cora Lee's excavation, the small, frail bones, the piles of earth and weeds. And Charlie studied Max, taking comfort in his tall, lean frame, his sun-weathered face, his thin, capable hands, and the hard breadth of his shoulders. Max Harper, particularly in uniform, made her feel so safe-and always made her heart skip.

Max stood studying the little hand, then stepped back out of Juana's way. Behind them, Brennan and two other officers moved around the edge of the yard stringing yellow crime-scene tape. Everyone present would be asking the same questions. How long had the hand been buried? Was there a full body lying beneath the earth, or only the lone hand? Who was the victim? How old? Boy or girl? If a child was buried here, where had that child come from? How long dead? How many years alone beneath the cold earth? How many years had a report on this lost child been filed away, inactive? Where were the grieving parents, presumably suffering their loss without knowledge of the death, or closure?

Shivering, Charlie returned to the picnic table to sit beside Cora Lee. She looked up as Mavity returned balancing a tray with cocoa and fresh coffee cake and another pot of coffee, enough for an army. Not only was keeping busy a comfort to Mavity, she considered warm beverages and rich food a comfort for everyone in times of need. Charlie guessed she was no different, though, as she reached greedily when Mavity passed the tray, taking enough for herself and for Dulcie. Cora Lee took nothing, she simply squeezed Charlie's hand in her cold one. Charlie poured hot cocoa for her and put the piece of coffee cake before her, hoping the sugar would help strengthen Cora Lee's shaky, chilled spirit.


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