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Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Cat Cross Their Graves

BOOK: Cat Cross Their Graves
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Cat Cross Their Graves

A Joe Grey Mystery

Shirley Rousseau Murphy

To the memory of Phyllis Wright.

To the memory of J.,
and to what might have been.

And with thanks to Peter S. Beagle
*
for allowing Lori to read aloud passages from
his delightful
A Fine and Private Place
,
a book and a voice that I treasure.

*
www.peterbeagle.com

I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that…Ghost against joy. For he had almost been overcome. Somewhere, incalculable ages ago, there must have been gleams of humour and reason in him…But [now] the light that reached him, reached him against his will…he would not accept it.

—C. S. L
EWIS,
The Great Divorce

Contents

1

Up the Molena Point hills where the village cottages stood…

2

When sirens careening through the night woke the village, the…

3

The harsh lights that had illuminated the patio had been…

4

The room was musty and dim. She peered out from…

5

No one knew the kit was trapped in the old…

6

Crouched in the dark cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, Kit…

7

Dulcie had that same sick feeling about the missing tortoiseshell…

8

Half an hour before Dulcie fled across the rooftops following…

9

Cora Lee didn't move. She might have been molded into…

10

“The bodies floating away…,” Cora Lee said, “the sight of…

11

Dulcie couldn't stand, any longer, the painful chill that separated…

12

Galloping across the peaks and shingles, swerving to the edges…

13

Above the courthouse tower the clouds moved away; the full…

14

Pawing at the heavy glass door of Molena Point PD,…

15

Stretched across the dispatcher's out box, his hind legs sticking…

16

By one in the morning the wind had scoured the…

17

Hurrying home across the rooftops, Joe Grey peered down past…

18

The tortoiseshell kit woke to a harsh beam of light…

19

In the black predawn that enfolded the village, Lori slowed…

20

Insistent fingers of icy dawn wind crept through the thinnest…

21

Dulcie was not near anyone's phone, she was crouched in…

22

Leaping in through the third-floor window that Lucinda had left…

23

“When Patty's daughter ran,” Dallas said, “could you tell me…

24

Joe approached the cottage behind the old house, concealed beneath…

25

Juana Davis set the deli bag on her desk, filled…

26

Looking out at the bright morning, Charlie switched on the…

27

Jack Reed's house stood five blocks below the home of…

28

In the children's reading room, Lori had concealed herself as…

29

The minute the weather cleared, Ryan's building crew began to…

30

Slipping into Molena Point PD on the heels of a…

31

“Genelle's asleep,” Wilma Getz said, taking Lori's hand. Lori watched…

32

Jack Reed watched cop cars approach the house from both…

33

“What will happen to Lori Reed?” Lucinda asked after supper,…

34

Lori had never been in a jail or even a…

U
p the Molena Point hills where the village cottages
stood crowded together, and their back gardens ended abruptly at the lip of the wild canyon, a row of graves lay hidden. Concealed beneath tangled weeds and sprawling overgrown geraniums, there was no stone to mark the bodies. No one to remember they were there save one villager, who kept an uneasy silence. Who nursed a vigil of dread against the day the earth would again be disturbed and the truth revealed. On winter evenings the shadow of the tall, old house struck down across the graves like a long black arrow, and from the canyon below, errant winds sang to the small, dead children.

There had been no reports for a dozen years of unexplained disappearances along the central California coast, not even of some little kid straying off to turn up at suppertime hungry and dirty and unharmed. Nor did the three cats who hunted these gardens know what lay beneath their hurrying paws.
Though as they trotted down into the canyon to slaughter wood rats, leaping across the tangled flower beds, sometimes tabby Dulcie would pause to look around her, puzzled, her skin rippling with an icy chill. And once the tortoiseshell kit stopped stone still as she crossed the neglected flower bed, her yellow eyes growing huge. She muttered about a shadow swiftly vanishing, a child with flaxen hair. But this kit was given to fancies. Joe Grey had glanced at her, annoyed. The gray tom was quite aware that female cats were full of wild notions, particularly the tattercoat kit and her flights of fancy.

For many years the graves had remained hidden, the bodies abandoned and alone, and thus they waited undiscovered on this chill February night. The village of Molena Point was awash with icy, sloughing rain and shaken by winds that whipped off the surging sea to rattle the oak trees and scour the village rooftops. But beneath the heavy oaks and the solid shingles and thick clay tiles, within scattered cottages, sitting rooms were warm, lamps glowed and hearth fires burned, and all was safe and right. But many cottages stood dark. For despite the storm, it seemed half the village had ventured out, to crowd into Molena Point Little Theater for the week-long Patty Rose Film Festival. There, though the stage was empty, the darkened theater was filled to capacity. Though no footlights shone and there was no painted backdrop to describe some enchanted world and no live actors to beguile the audience, not a seat was vacant.

Before the silent crowd, the silver screen had been lowered into place from the high, dark ceiling, and
on it a classic film rolled, a black-and-white musical romance from a simpler, kinder era. Old love songs filled the hall, and old memories for those who had endured the painful years of World War II, when Patty's films had offered welcome escape from the disruptions of young lives, from the wrenching partings of lovers.

For six nights, Molena Point Little Theater audiences had been transported, by Hollywood's magic, back to that gentler time before X-ratings were necessary and audiences had to sit through too much carnage, too much hate, and the obligatory bedroom scene. The Patty Rose Film Festival had drawn all the village back into that bright world when their own Patty was young and vibrant and beautiful, riding the crest of her stardom.

Every showing was sold out and many seats had been sold again at scalpers' prices. On opening night Patty herself, now eighty-some, had appeared to welcome her friends; it was a small village, close and in many ways an extended family. Patty Rose was family; the blond actress was still as slim and charming as when her photographs graced every marquee and magazine in the country. She still wore her golden hair bobbed, in the style famous during those years, even if the color was added; her tilted nose and delighted smile still enthralled her fans. To her friends, she was still as beautiful.

When Patty retired from the screen at age fifty and moved to Molena Point, she could have secluded herself as many stars do, perhaps on a large acreage up in Molena Valley where a celebrity could retain her privacy. She had, instead, bought Otter Pine Inn,
in the heart of the village, and moved into one of its third-floor penthouses, had gone quietly about her everyday business until people quit gawking and sensibly refrained from asking for autographs. She loved the village; she walked the beach, she mingled at the coffee shop, she played with the village dogs. She soon headed up charity causes, ran benefits, gave generously of her time and her money.

Two years ago she had bought an old historic mansion in need of repair, had fixed it up and turned it into a home for orphaned children. “Orphans' home” was an outdated term but Patty liked it and used it. The children were happy, they were clean and healthy, they were well fed and well educated. Eighty-two percent of the children went on to graduate from college. Patty's friends understood that the home helped, a little bit, to fill the dark irreparable void left by the death of Patty's daughter and grandson. Between her civic projects and the children's home, and running the inn, Patty left herself little time for grieving.

She took deep pleasure in making the inn hospitable. Otter Pine Inn was famous for its cuisine, for its handsome and comfortable accommodations, and for the friendly pampering of its guests. It was famous indeed for the care that Patty extended to travelers' pets. There are not so many hotels across the nation where one's cats and dogs are welcome. Otter Pine Inn offered each animal velvet cushions by a window, a special menu of meaty treats, and free access to the inn's dining patio when accompanied by a human. Sculptures of cats and dogs graced the patio gardens, and Charlie
Harper's animal drawings hung in the inn's tearoom and restaurant. Police captain Max Harper had been Patty's friend from the time she arrived in Molena Point, long before he met and married Charlie.

When Patty first saw Charlie's animal drawings, she swore that Charlie made some of her cats seem almost human, made them look as if they could speak. Patty Rose was perceptive in her observations, but in the matter of the three cats who lived with three of her good friends, Patty had no idea of the real truth. As for the cats, Joe Grey and Kit and Dulcie kept their own counsel.

Now in the darkened theater, as the last teary scenes drew to a close, Charlie leaned against Max's shoulder, blowing her nose. On her other side, Ryan Flannery reached for a tissue from the box the two women had tucked between them. Patty's films might be musicals, but the love interest provided enough cliff-hanging anxiety to bring every woman in the audience to tears. Over Charlie's bright-red hair and Ryan's dark, short bob, Max Harper glanced across at Clyde with that amused, tolerant look that only two males can share. Women—they always cried at a romantic movie, squeezed out the tears like water from a sponge. Charlie cut Max a look and wiped her tears; but as she wept at the final scenes, she looked up suddenly and paused, and her tears were forgotten. A chill touched Charlie, a tremor of fear. She stared up at the screen, at Patty, and a fascination of horror slid through her, an icy tremor that held her still and afraid, a rush of fear that came out of nowhere, so powerfully that she
trembled and squeezed Max's hand. He looked down at her, frowning, and drew her close. “What?”

“I don't know.” She shook her head. “Nothing. It…it's gone.” She looked up again at Patty, at the twenty-year-old Patty Rose deep into the love scene, and tried to lose herself again in the movie.

But the sense of dread remained, a feeling of regret so vivid that she was jolted completely out of the story. A sense of wrongness and danger that made her grip Max's hand more tightly. He drew her closer, uneasy himself now, and puzzled.

Patty really hadn't been herself these last weeks, and that had concerned Charlie. Patty was usually either all business or cutting loose, laughing with her friends, singing her old songs and making fun of herself, hamming it up. Whatever Patty did, she was completely in the moment, giving of herself fully. But these last weeks she had seemed distracted, drawn away and quiet, her attention wandering so, that sometimes you had to repeat what you said to her. Charlie had glimpsed her several times looking off across the inn's gardens or out through its wrought-iron gates to the street as if her thoughts were indeed very far away, and her gamin face much too serious.

 

Now, as Charlie frowned over Patty's distraction, and the crowd in the theater was caught in the last tearful moments of Patty's love story, Patty Rose was out in the storm crossing the inn's softly lit patio.

Pulling her wrap close around her against the cold wind, she headed through the blowing garden for the
closed tearoom. The shifting shadows were familiar enough, the tile roofs, the dark, shivering bushes no different than on any windy night. The black tearoom windows rippling with wind reflected only blowing bushes and tossing trees and the long wing of the inn itself, and the guests' lighted windows. Then the dark, uneasy glass caught her own reflection as she moved quickly down the brick walk through the shifting montage of garden and dark panes, heading for the tearoom's small auxiliary kitchen. She meant to make herself a cup of cocoa, to sit for a while in the empty tearoom and get herself centered. Put down the silly sense of invasion that had followed her the past week.

 

When Charlie shivered again, Max squeezed her shoulder. She looked up at him and tried to smile. His lean, leathery good looks eased her, his steadiness reassured her. The deep lines down his cheeks were smile lines, the tightness of his jaw reserved for less pleasant citizens than his redheaded bride. She leaned into his hard shoulder, rubbing her cheek against his sport coat; he had worn the cashmere jacket she liked, over a dark turtleneck and faded jeans. He had bought their tickets for all six showings mostly to please her, but she knew he was enjoying Patty's films. She snuggled close, trying to pay attention as the last scene played out. Wadding up her tissues and stuffing them in her purse, she pushed away whatever foolish imagining had gripped her; but she was so engrossed in her own thoughts that when Max reached into his pocket to
answer his vibrating cell phone, she was startled. The dispatcher knew not to buzz him here. Not unless the matter was truly urgent.

As he lifted the phone from his belt, the chill touched her again. As he punched in the single digit for the station, sirens began to scream across the village, patrol cars and then the more hysterical wailing of a rescue unit. Max rose at once and quietly left the theater, was gone so fast she had no time to speak to him. Watching his retreating back, she felt Ryan's hand on her arm—and the chill returned, making her tremble, cold and uncertain. She could not remember ever having had that sudden lost, frightened sensation minutes before the sirens screamed. When Ryan took her hand, she rose helplessly and followed her and Clyde out the side exit, ahead of the departing crowd.

 

Ten minutes before the sirens blasted, the tortoiseshell kit awoke just as startled as Charlie, just as eerily scared. When the sirens jerked her up from her tangle of cushions on her third-floor window seat, she immediately pressed her nose against the cold, dark glass.

The time was near midnight. Above the village roofs and chimneys, above the black pools of wind-tossed trees, the distant stars burned icy and remote. Impossible worlds, it seemed to Kit, spinning in a vastness that no one could comprehend. Beyond the inn's enclosing walls, a haze of light from the village shops shifted in the wind as indistinct as blowing gauze; against that pale smear, the black pools of
trees rattled and shook. She stared down past the lower balconies to the inn's blowing gardens and patio, softly lit but deserted. What had waked her?

Nothing moved on the patio but the puppets of the wind. She heard no faintest sound.

She and Lucinda and Pedric had been at Otter Pine Inn since before Christmas, enjoying the most luxurious holiday the kit had ever imagined. Over the hush of the wind, from deeper within the darkened suite, through the open bedroom door, she could hear Lucinda's and Pedric's soft breathing. The old couple slept so deeply. Lucinda had told her, laughing, that that was the result of a good conscience. The kit, staring down through the bay window to the courtyard and sprawling gardens, studied the windows of the bar and the dining room and the tearoom.

The tearoom was closed and dark at this hour, and the faintly lit dining room looked deserted; she thought it was about to close. No one came out of the bar, and its soft lights and black-smoked windows were too dark to see much. No one was returning through the wrought-iron gate from the street, ready to settle in for the night. As she pressed her nose harder to the glass, her whiskers and ears sharply pricked, her every sense was alert.

Otter Pine Inn occupied nearly a full block near the center of the village, just a short stroll from Ocean Avenue. Its wrought-iron gates, its three wings that formed a U, and its creamy stucco walls surrounded winding brick walks and bright winter blooms. The roofs of the inn were red tile, mossy in the shady places, slick and precarious under the paws, slick all over when they were wet.

There were four third-floor penthouses. Patty Rose's suite was at the back. Kit and Lucinda and Pedric had a front suite overlooking the patio and the front gate. In one of the other two penthouses this weekend were a young couple with three cocker spaniels, in the other a family with two children and a Great Dane, a dog the kit avoided, but only because she didn't know him. The cockers were more her size; she could easily bloody them if the need arose. Or she could terrorize them for amusement, if she liked. If Lucinda didn't catch her at it. Since before Christmas, Kit had enjoyed such a lovely time with her adopted family. The three of them had indulged in all manner of holiday and post-holiday pleasures—concerts, plays, long walks, and amazing gourmet delights.

Though for the concerts, she had to endure one of those abominable soft-sided doggie carriers with its little screened window. Of course, she could open the stupid thing from inside with a flick of her paw, but the embarrassment of being in it was almost too much. She was, after all, not a toy poodle! Lucinda laughed at her and made sure she had little snacks in there, but Lucinda really did understand. And their reunion was so amazing, after Kit had painfully mourned her dear old couple's death. When the TV newscasts had reported the terrible wreck that destroyed the Greenlaws' RV while the elderly couple was traveling down the coast, all their friends had believed them dead. The kit never really believed that. Then when no bodies were found in the burned wreckage, hope began to touch them all. And when Lucinda herself called to say they were alive, Kit had
nearly flown out of her skin with joy. Now, to have her beloved adopted family back from the grave, as it were, was a never-ending wonder to the small tortoiseshell.

BOOK: Cat Cross Their Graves
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