Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
She tried to slow down, tried to be coherent. She told Joe what she had found and where, and the names of the four men in the clipping, and where she had hidden the envelopes. “Captain Harper said he was on his way.”
Joe nodded. “So is Garza, he just left the tearoom.” He was about to race away, when she raised a paw.
“The worst thing was the little girlâ¦”
“I chewed her ropes through like in that fairy tale and we got out all right and she ran andâ”
don't know, Joe. I don't know her name, I couldn't
to her. She got out with me,
opened the door, I couldn't, and we both ran in different directions.”
“How old was she?”
Kit thought about this. “Maybe eleven or twelve, I guess. Brown hair.”
Had this guy gone into the library and found Lori? Was this the guy she was hiding from? Patty Rose's killer, and not her own father? He didn't know what to think; this wasn't making sense. He nosed the kit's ear by way of thanks, and glanced toward the patio and the Greenlaws' table. “Your breakfast's getting cold,” he said softly. And as Kit raced away to her eggs Benedict, Joe scorched out of the patio fast, his own stomach as empty as a drum. Taking to the rooftops, he headed across the village. His own breakfast seemed eons ago. Well before dawn, Clyde had fixed him a memorable omelet, tossing in some leftover salami and a slice of goat cheese, a delicacy to which Ryan had introduced their householdâone of the benefits of a new woman in Clyde's life.
Joe was beyond suggesting that Clyde marry his current romantic interest. He'd done that with Charlie, and Charlie ended up with Max, though they were all three still the best of friends. But Joe was through with matchmaking, Clyde and Ryan would have to work out their own scenario. Which was at present more platonic than wildly romantic, but he
guessed they had their moments. Just in case, Joe was careful about returning home late at night through his rooftop cat door.
He came down from the roofs just up the block from the brown-shingled cottage Kit had described. It stood back from the street behind the two-story house and some crowding pine and cypress trees. Joe had wondered about that house; who would let even a rental look so decrepit in this high-priced market? The place had a lurking, secretive air, as unappealing as the set for an old horror film. Max Harper's Chevy pickup was parked at the curb. Across the street, facing the other direction, was Dallas Garza's Ford. Joe paused beneath a tangle of overgrown oleander bushes, observing a scene that made him smile.
oe approached the cottage behind the old house,
concealed beneath overgrown bushes, padding through a morass of rotting leaves. The whole yard smelled of rot and mildew. Keeping out of sight, he watched Max Harper, standing on the cottage porch talking with a hefty woman in a red muumuu. Landlady. She was rattling off a list of complaints about her tenant. On the gravelly parking space before the cottage stood a black Ford sedan and a blue Plymouth. He could smell the faintest whiff of exhaust, as if a car had left within the past hour. The front door stood open. The landlady was so frowsy she matched the cottage exactly, and matched what Joe could see of the grim interior. He'd seen her around the village. Had Harper gotten a search warrant, just on Kit's phone tip? That would be unusual.
But if the landlady invited him inside, that was another matter; he could search then. And indeed, in a moment Dallas Garza emerged from within the cot
tage as if perhaps he had finished a search. Joe listened to Harper wrap up the conversation, to the effect that if her tenant returned she was to call him, and that he had just a little more checking to do; the old doll seemed fine with that. Waddling down the steps, she headed for the larger house and disappeared inside. Joe watched Harper and Garza walk along the foundation and kneel before the first of two ventilation grids.
Producing an electric drill that he'd shoved into his belt beside his black holstered radio, Garza removed four screws from the grill and pulled off the rusty grid, revealing a hole large enough for a small terrier. The detective looked up at Max. Max Harper smiled. “Be my guest.”
Garza gave Harper a patient look, and pulled on a pair of worn work gloves. Lying down on his belly in the mud and wet leaves, he reached in through the hole. Pushing in and twisting, he felt around blindly, probably even with the gloves, praying he didn't disturb one of the more deadly varieties of poisonous spiders for which California was known. The bite of a brown recluse would dissolve the flesh from within like ice melting in a warm kitchen.
“Not a damn thing,” he grumbled, adding a Spanish expletive. Groping farther into the darkness for whatever evidence the phantom snitch had found or deposited, he twisted onto his back to explore above him among the floor joists. Harper, standing over him, was highly entertainedâas was Joe Grey. As Garza searched, he had to be wondering about protruding rusty nails as well as unfriendly spiders. After some moments, he withdrew from the under
pinnings of the house and stood up. Scowling at Harper, he moved to the other vent and knelt again.
Removing the second grid from its frame, he lay down again reaching, groping and searching up among the floor joists until suddenly he shot out of the hole.
Swinging to a standing position, grinning, he clutched in his gloved hands a pair of large brown envelopes. Handing them to Harper, he was just replacing and screwing down the vent grids when Harper's radio squawked. Max picked up and listened. Then, “No, just watch it. Put a man on it. With luck, maybe he'll come back for it.” He glanced at Garza. “The Honda's parked up on Drake, behind a vacant house.”
Garza looked pleased. Harper nodded toward his truck, perhaps not wanting to attract further attention from the neighbors and morning joggers. And as Garza followed the chief to his Chevy pickup, Joe, in a swift but maybe foolish move, sped behind them.
At the moment they opened their doors and thus were turned away, he slipped up like a flying gray shadow into the open truck bed. Onto the cold, hard metal floor. Sliding between an old saddle blanket and a fifty-pound bag of dog kibble, Joe braced himself as Harper started the engine. Likely the chief was heading back to the station, to his office where they could examine the contents with added privacy. Very good. In Harper's comfortable office, a cat wouldn't freeze his tail. The sea wind scudding into the truck bed felt like an arctic blizzard.
Getting soft, Joe thought as Harper eased the truck around the corner and down a block. But then the
chief parked again, in a red zone beneath the branches of a Monterey pine. Joe, hearing him rattle one of the envelopes, wondered if he dared rear up for a look through the back window.
Sure he could. Right in line with the rearview mirror.
Glancing overhead at the spreading branches of the pine, he slipped up real quiet onto the metal roof of the cab, keeping away from the back window, out of sight behind the wide metal post, then up onto an overhanging branch. Its foliage was thick and concealing. But the branch was so limber that it rocked and swayed under his weight, dragging across the door frame and roof, alerting the two cops like a gunshot. Garza stuck his head out, glaring up into the tree and up and down the sidewalk. Cops never rode with their windows up, even in freezing weather. Their inferior human hearing, impeded by the thick glass, might block all manner of sounds they should hear, from a faint cry for help to a distant car crash to a muffled gunshot. Perched precariously above Garza, Joe was barely out of sight as the detective scanned the tree. Squeezing his eyes shut and tucking his white nose down, he was perched so unsteadily that he thought any minute he'd be forced to take a flying leap. He held his breath until Garza ducked back inside the cab.
“Probably a squirrel.”
Harper grunted, opened the envelopes, and produced a third brown envelope from behind the seat. Removing from this a sheaf of clear plastic folders, he opened the first envelope and carefully shook out its contents. Using tweezers, he inserted each
piece of paper into a plastic folder before they examined it.
From among the pine needles, the tomcat peered down at the old, yellowed newspaper clippings of strangers, and at the brighter magazine pictures and photographs of Patty Rose. Fidgeting, Joe edged this way and that on the branch, trying to see better. Were they going to go through the entire contents sitting out here in the cold? The officers were silent for some time, passing the plastic sleeves back and forth. The newspaper pages were creased where they'd been folded, and darkly discolored with age. Considering that feline eyesight was superior to that of humans, Joe wondered just how much facial detail the officers were able to discern in those old newspaper photographs. All were of the same four men, though. Three were in profile to the camera, one facing it. It was certainly not a posed shot. In fact, it was so casually candid that it might have been taken without their knowledge. The one man facing the camera full on was a head shorter than the others.
The chief glanced at Garza. “Fenner. Little creep should have burned long ago.” Then he smiled. “Fenner turns out to be our man, you can chalk up one more for the snitch.”
“Makes you feel pretty lame,” Garza said. “Some civilian comes up with this stuff, we don't even know who she is.”
“They,” Harper said. “I'm pretty sure the guy and the gal work together. And don't knock it.” His thin, sun-lined face was thoughtful. “Weird as it is, so far they've been a hundred percent. So far,” he said thoughtfully, “they've produced information that we
had no authority to look for. No reason for a warrant. Stuff we might have found farther down the line, or might not. Might never have had cause to search for.”
“Some of that stuff,” Garza said, “who knows how they knew about it? That's what's weird. That's what gives me the willies.”
Harper said nothing more. Above the officers' heads, Joe Grey peered hard at the old, yellowed newspaper. Even in the blurred clipping, Fenner's face looked sour and pinched; not an appealing fellow. After some minutes, Harper said, “Guy on the left, Kendall Border. I remember him from that San Diego case two years before L.A. And Craig Vernon, Patty's son-in-law, he was on death row for three years before he died.”
Watching a mouse hole for hours was nothing compared to Joe's tension of the moment. He was so wired with questions that every muscle twitched. Edging closer along the frail branch, he watched Harper tilt the paper to the light.
“Those are the four,” Harper said. “The great guru and his disciples.” In the truck, the two men crowded shoulder to shoulder, reading, as Joe teetered on the thin branch above them.
“There were eight or nine women in the group,” Harper said. “L.A. couldn't make any of them. Guess the men did the dirty work.”
Dallas examined the last clipping, and looked up at Harper. “Mighty damned strange the snitch found these; I have way too many questions about this woman.”
Max shrugged. “You can get used to anything if it works. “
“So what does sheâ¦what do they get out of it?”
Max shrugged again. “Ego trip. Moral satisfaction, the thrill of the hunt, who knows? Maybe they're a couple of frustrated cops?”
Garza grinned, shook his head, and let the subject drop. He opened the truck door. “I'll get on the computer, get started on Fenner; hope L.A. kept good files.”
As Garza swung out of the truck and headed up the street, Joe backed up the branch to a more solid perch, and sat thinking. Kit had tracked this guy, all alone. Had made his car, and had surely moved the evidence from inside that shack to where the cops could find it, in case the landlady wasn't home or didn't want to let them in. Fenner was as good as behind bars, Joe thought, thanks to the kit.
It remained to be seen if this might wrap up the other deaths as well, the little unmarked graves. Might. Might not. But plenty was falling into place, making Joe smile. Falling into place as neat as a mouse into waiting claws. Backing down the trunk to the sidewalk, into the stinking exhaust from Harper's pickup as the chief headed for the station, the tomcat took off to find Dulcie. To bring Dulcie up to speed, and then to find and praise the kitâif the little tattercoat wasn't already feeling too high to reach. Knowing Lucinda and Pedric, Kit was probably getting all the extravagant praise she could handle.
uana Davis set the deli bag on her desk, filled her
coffeepot, and switched it on. Glancing through a stack of fresh memos and reports, she signed three routine forms requesting information, returned four phone calls, which she kept as brief as possible, signed three requests to the DA. Shoving the rest of the stack aside, she carried the forms and requests up to the dispatcher. Returning to her office, she poured a mug of coffee, added creamer and sugar, and shut the door.
Placing the new stack of faxes on a tilted holder for easy reading, she opened the deli bag and unwrapped her breakfast sandwich. Eating Jolly's bacon, cheese, and egg on sourdough, she studied the more detailed background reports that had just come in on five of the missing children in the Seattle area.
Benjamin Alden was only seven. He had skipped the second grade. The two color pictures of Benjamin showed a freckled, redheaded little boy with a
tooth missing in a wide grin. He was so advanced in arithmetic and English that he did not belong in third grade, either, but the school had been reluctant to let him skip another grade so soon, afraid this would create a social misfit. The kid didn't look to Juana like a misfit. Just full of high jinks, maybe. He had the same devilish twinkle as her own boys when they were small.
Benjamin's mother had transferred him to a private Catholic school in Seattle where he could advance at his own speed. She told the investigator that she had never pushed the child, that he ate up arithmetic and English grammar the way other kids did puzzles. Benjamin disappeared from the play yard of his new school around three
during his third week in attendance. School had just let out. The other kids had waited for the bus or for their parents. No one saw Benjamin leave or saw him with anyone. His backpack and school books were on the steps when his mother arrived to pick him up. She searched the school and grounds for him, asked a few children. Drove home again watching the streets, checked the house and neighbors, then called the police. Police waived the requisite time of delay before the child was declared missing. Benjamin was not the first child to disappear that fall.
Officers found the fresh prints of a man's shoes in the woods that bordered the schoolyard, and signs of a struggle where the prints went deeper and were churned up. Police made casts of the prints, including the cast of a partial that turned out to match Benjamin's shoe size.
In the days preceding the disappearance, no one
had seen anyone watching or following Benjamin. The child had not seemed disturbed about anything. After his disappearance, there were no phone calls or letters. No communication. Tracking dogs found a trail across the woods, which ended at the street. No one had seen a car parked there. Tire marks were photographed. Police had not turned up any suspects.
Juana finished her breakfast, which now tasted like cardboard, and swilled more coffee. Nancy Barker of Eugene was nine; she was in the fifth grade, two grades ahead of her peers. She excelled in gymnastics and world history. She was the youngest child on the elementary school's history debating team. She had disappeared from a sleep-over with five other girls at approximately two in the morning. Her friends, asleep all around her, heard nothing. No child woke. In the morning, the window was open and Nancy was gone. The girls were to go swimming that morning at a neighborhood pool. Nancy's overnight bag with a change of clothes and her bathing suit was missing. This was found later in an irrigation ditch north of Eugene. All the girls at the sleepover were neighborhood children, all from her school. Her absence was discovered about six
Police found traces of acepromazine, a tranquilizer used for animals, on her pillow, and on the carpet flecks of grass that matched the lawn. There were no fingerprints other than those of the girls and the sleep-over family. No one saw a car, no neighbors heard or saw anything. No one heard a dog bark. The family dog, who slept in the fenced yard, and three dogs on the same street had been tranquilized. There
were no follow-up sightings of the child. There was no request for ransom.
Juana rose to refill her coffee mug. Unusually bright children and no request for ransom. A dangerous nutcase; dangerous, irreparably twisted. If these were the children found in the senior ladies' garden, they had to consider that the killer had lived in or near Molena Point. She sat looking at the reports, wondering. Could he have lived in the house that now belonged to the seniors? She had already been through the old tax records, she had the names of the two previous owners. That took her back twenty years. There was no record of the tenants; most of those rentals were illegal. All such small illegal apartments, termed granny flats, were presumably kept for family members. She planned to talk with the neighbors this morning. Rising, she was headed out, had stopped at the dispatcher's counter when Garza and Harper came in, the chief carrying a couple of full-size brown envelopes and both of them wearing smug grins.
“Come on,” Harper told her, and moved down the hall to Garza's office. Davis followed. Garza sat down at his desk and booted up the computer. Davis and Harper stood in the doorway. Both the chief and Dallas were still grinning. Harper said, “Those old L.A. cases, when Patty's grandchild was murdered?”
Harper opened the two brown envelopes, shook the contents out on the desk. She looked down at the newspaper clippings, read them, picked up the photographs. Patty, young and smiling. Looked again at
the small man in the clippings, then was grinning like the two of them. Like the cat that ate the canary.
“Sick,” she said. “Those poor, bright children. All five, way ahead in school.” She picked up one of the old newspaper photographs of Irving Fenner.
Harper said, “We have Fenner's car. He's staying in a rental cottage. Envelopes were under the foundation.”
Juana looked at him. “The snitch?”
Harper nodded. “Landlady says Fenner was there last night, at least she heard him come in. Place reeks of booze. And there's more,” he said, frowning. “You had breakfast?”
Harper picked up a single doughnut from beside Garza's empty coffeepot, stared at it, entombed in its plastic wrap, and tapped it on the desk. It sounded like a rock. Picking up Garza's phone, he asked Mabel to call Jolly's, see if they could send over some breakfast. He looked at Juana. “Anything from Hyden this morning?”
She shook her head.
He told Mabel, “If Hyden or Anderson calls, put them through.”
Juana went down the hall, brought back her pot of fresh coffee. Pouring three mugs, she settled across from the chief in one of Dallas's two worn leather chairs. Reaching to Dallas's desk for the news clippings, she began to read them as Dallas set in motion retrieval of the files from L.A.
Searching for Dulcie, Joe found not the smallest scent of his tabby lady, no hint of a trail until, giving up and heading for the seniors' backyard, he stopped suddenly, sniffing the black iron grill work of a wrought-iron gate.
Yes, Dulcie had gone in there, sometime early this morning; had leaped through the gate into Genelle Yardley's garden. And a child had gone in, too, a little girl. He caught Cora Lee's scent, and then he found Dulcie's second trail, very fresh, coming out again. He followed it up the street toward the seniors' house, and it vanished up a jasmine vine two doors away. When, staring up at the rooftops, he didn't see her, he trotted into the seniors' garden, down the cracked driveway, and around the house. Looking around for her, he approached the tent that had been erected over the dig; he preferred thinking of this crime scene as a dig. He'd never before felt this revulsion at a scene of human death. He didn't see Dulcie. Approaching the tent, he could hear the two scientists inside, softly digging. And a faint swishing sound that told him they were brushing earth from the buried bones.
The first child had been taken away, so he guessed they were still working on the second. Sticking his nose under the canvas, hunched low beneath its heavy folds, he peered at Dr. Anderson's thin, denim-clad posterior where the scientist knelt brushing away earth with a small paintbrush. Joe tried to see around him. Looked like they'd found a third grave. Slipping out and moving farther to the side, peering under again, he could see that two little skeletons lay there. The one that was still here from
last night, after the first body was taken away, and now a new victim. Most of the child's side had been uncovered; Anderson was brushing soil from the leg and the little foot. Hyden crouched just a few feet away also using a small paintbrush, removing loose soil from the child's shoulder. This body was smaller than the others. Compared to the heft of the two grown men, it seemed as frail as a baby mouse.
Joe had seldom seen a baby mouse clearly before he gulped itâuntil recently. The last nest of baby mice he'd encountered, he had turned away, leaving them. Leaving them to grow big, he told himself. Sensible game management, more for later. He did not acknowledge the more compassionate, human side of his nature, except to snarl at his own foolishness and tell himself he was getting soft. Now, when suddenly something pressed against his flank, he went rigid.
A breath tickled his ear.
He turned his head slowly, so not to attract the doctors' attention. Even though he was crouched behind them, he still felt as conspicuous as an elephant in a fishbowl; and these guys were not fond of cats. As he turned, Dulcie's green eyes met his so intently that he had a sharp memory flash of the first time he'd ever seen her. Her green gaze was just as wide then, and intent. That moment when they'd first met, the gleam in her eyes had turned him giddy; it was at that instant that he fell head over paws in love.
Now her little pink mouth curved up in the same secret smile, that smile that still turned him helpless. She nuzzled his shoulder, but then gave him a very businesslike stare, and backed out from under the tent.
He followed her toward the far bushes where they wouldn't be heard. Beneath a bottlebrush bush, they crouched together in the chill shadows. Her voice was faint, but tense with excitement. “Did you check at the PD? Are the reports in yet on those old cases? Any fix on when these children died?”
“You're in a hell of a swivet. Whatâ¦?”
She didn't answer him, but plunged on, her tail lashing, her paws shifting, her ears and whiskers rigid. “What about the old case files? Surely by this time theyâ”
Her eyes blazed.
“The reports are coming in,” Joe said patiently. “I don't think these forensics guys'll have any kind of fix on the dates until they do the lab work.
What do you have?”
“Were there missing cases, say, around six to eight years ago?”
“Yes. Quite a few.” He stared hard at her.
She was dancing from paw to paw, her green eyes like searchlights, nearly exploding with excitement. “Children from the Pacific Northwest?
She was so wired that her tail lashed against the twiggy bushes like a high-powered weed eater.
“Yes, that area.”
kill those children, and then run?”
“Did who kill them? Slow down.” He glared at her until she calmed, slowed her lashing tail, and turned away to wash.
Sitting with her back to him, she had a thorough wash before she was cool again, before she turned to look at him once more. “Lori has been to visit Genelle Yardley,” she said. “To the old lady's house.”
“I know that. I caught your scent, coming up the hill. And a little girl's scent.”
“Lori. She went up there to find out about her pa. Find out why he was so mean to her, why he locked her in.”
“You're saying her pa killed those children?”
“No. Let me finish.”
“And what could an old womanâ”
“Genelle Yardley worked for him, Joe. For years and years. She was his office manager. She didn't know why he'd turned so strange. But she and Lori hit it off right away.”
Impatiently, Joe chewed at his left-front claws, pulling off the loose sheaths, leaving the claws bright and knife-sharp.
“Joe, they were soâ¦Genelle said Lori's pa turned peculiar after his brother went away.” She looked at him smugly. “Hal Reed went away suddenly, six years ago. Never came back. Story was, Hal moved to Seattle, to spend his time fishing.”
“You're saying Lori's uncle killed those children, then left? Come on, Dulcie. Whyâ”
She hissed at him, her ears back, her tail lashing. “Just listen, Joe. Lori found his billfold, Hal's billfold with his driver's license and credit cards. And with it, his favorite belt and a gold ring that Lori says he always wore. Found them in her pa's garage, in a box of old clothes. She has them,” Dulcie said, “in
the library basement, in her backpack. Why would he go away and leave his billfold and driver's license and credit cards?”
“Why, indeed,” Joe said, licking her ear. “Very nice, Dulcie. You had an interesting morning. And what else might be found hidden in Jack Reed's house?”
“Exactly,” she said softly, and gave him a sly smile. And the cats rose together and slipped out of the bushes. They were galloping up the cracked drive, their minds on tossing Jack Reed's house, when a startled
from down inside the tent stopped them as if they'd been snatched back by their tails. Alan Hyden's voice was so excited, the cats nearly fell over each other racing back to the tent.
“Hand me the camera,” Hyden said. “Get Harper or Garza on the phone.”
Dulcie, because she had no white on her face, slid under first to look. She was there for only an instant, just her striped haunches visible, her striped tail twitching. She backed out suddenly from under the canvas, whirled around wild eyed, and fled for the bushes. Alarmed, Joe raced close beside her.