Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Between the hills and sea, the white shore stretched away scattered with black boulders, and down to her right, the village rooftops shone with shafts of sunlight striking between dark smears of cypress and pine. Could Patty Rose, wherever she
was now, still glimpse this lovely land? Might Patty from her ethereal realm crave a last look at the dimension she had left behind?
Or did she no longer care, now that she moved in a far more fascinating realm?
Or was Patty simply gone? Was there nothing more?
Charlie didn't believe that.
Coming into the village, slowing among the cottages, she watched the streets and rooftops for Kit, trying not to let Wilma's distress eat at her. Maybe Joe and Dulcie were right, that Kit would show up in her own time, sassy and wondering what all the fuss was about.
But it wasn't only the missing kit that made her edgy about the cats. She was puzzled by Joe and Dulcie, too. For nearly two weeks, they had been acting so strangely. Wilma said Dulcie had hardly been home, that when she was home, she was silent and remote. Or nervous and completely distracted. And Clyde said Joe was cross as a tiger, that the tomcat was so bad tempered he sometimes wouldn't talk at all, would just hiss at Clyde and stalk away.
Clyde thought Joe's anger was because of Dulcie's preoccupation; and Clyde, with Joe's grouchy silence, had become just as bad tempered himself. A pair of surly housemates snarling at each other and at their friendsâuntil last night. Then all minor concerns, it seemed to Charlie, had been put into proper perspective.
And as she'd descended the winter hills, Charlie had had the feeling that it all was connected: the kit's disappearance, Dulcie's secrecy, and Joe's distress
somehow all linked togetherâand that those puzzling situations had a bearing on Patty's murder. She had no idea how that could be, but she couldn't shake the thought.
rouched in the dark cabinet beneath the bathroom
sink, Kit listened. Irving Fenner, having brushed his teeth and presumably shaved, seemed to have crouched down himself, just outside the cabinet door. She heard the faint hush of fabric against the sink cabinet as he knelt, imagined him reaching for the door. Two unlike creatures facing each other on either side of the thin wood barrier. He was totally still. Her heart pounded so hard it shook her whole body.
She heard his hand brush the door. The door creaked, and the left-hand side swung out as she slid, silent and fast, behind the other door. He had to hear her heart pounding, had to smell her fear as she pressed into the corner, into the deepest dark.
He reached in as she watched through slitted eyes. His hand passed just inches from her face. He reached back, thrust his hand straight back to the drainpipe that hung down in a rusty gooseneck
curve. His face was so close to her she could have shredded it. She was deeply tempted. He was half turned away, a perfect target, his forehead and shoulder pressed against the edge of the cabinet, so close that she had to draw back to keep from touching him. His arm smelled sour, of old sweat, of soap caught in the swarthy hairs, of sleep. Reaching down, he slipped his hand into the hole where the pipe went through, where the black wood had rotted. Forced his hand down inside, his hairy wrist knocking off additional flecks of soft wood, some falling away beneath the house.
Leaning in, feeling around inside the hole, he drew out a package. It was about the size of a shoe, a strangely shaped package wrapped in brown paper. Its smell nearly made her cry out. Gun oil. The package smelled of gun oil, the same smell as Captain Harper's regulation automatic and as the guns the detectives carried. The same smell as the .38 that Wilma kept in her night table against a possible but unpleasant contact with some bitter ex-parolee; the gun that Wilma took up to the range once a month so she wouldn't be out of practice, then cleaned with gun oil at her little workbench in the garage, a tawny, nose-twitching scent. Kit remained stone still as he backed out with the package and shoved the cabinet door closed.
She listened to his footsteps cross the room. Listened as the front door opened and then closed. Listened to his footsteps on the gravel, then the car door open and slam, and the car start and pull away. What was all the coming and going? Her paws were slick with sweat. Her heart pounded like trapped birds
flapping in her chest; she felt too weak to run away and too terrified to remain where she was. She was trapped in this house and there might be no way out.
Except, there was the underhouse, the crawl space, if she could get down there. Tasting the stink of mold and rotting wood, she nosed at the hole where the pipe went through. There was always a way, always. Kit did not take well to defeat; she did not believe in defeat.
She wondered if the gun had been used to kill Patty, and if it held his fingerprints. Wondered, if ballistics had that gun, would they find the proof the law needed to convict that man?
The little hole beneath the sink would take her a long time to dig out and get through. Backing out from under the sink, leaving the envelopes hidden, she stood in the middle of the dark little room looking around her. Leaping to the sink, she tried the bathroom window, but it was as thick with paint as the others. She tried the front door again, leaping up, snatching at the knob that would move the bolt, that was too small to get her claws around. Her paws started bleeding again. If she had more leverage, if she could get up higherâ¦
Stalking a wooden chair, she set her shoulder against it and pushed, heading toward the front door.
The chair didn't slide along the floor, but fell over onto its back. She shoved again, throwing all her weight against its side, edging it slowly across the floor. Its journey was much too loud, a sliding scrunching that made her skin twitch with fear. But at last she had it across. Pushing it against the door, she stood on its side and worked at the knob with
both paws. Desperate now, ever more frantic at being closed in, she grew angry enough to try to claw through the wood itself.
When the knob wouldn't move, she gave up at last and returned, defeated, to the bathroom, leaving the overturned chair behind her and her faint, bloody paw prints on the dirty floor. Maybe Fenner wouldn't notice the paw prints.
But he sure would notice the chair. Going back, she tried her best to right it. She pawed and fought until she'd slipped her front paw under, and then her shoulder. It was a light chair; she guessed that was why it had fallen. A small ladderback. Maybe if sheâ¦
Crouched with her shoulder beneath it, slowly she reared up, pressing it with her shoulder. When it was as high as she could reach, she grabbed it between the slats and lifted higher. Lifted, rearing up as high as she could. And when she gave it a little push, up it went, rocking back and forth, threatening to fall again.
Catching it in her paws, she steadied it until it stopped rocking and stood as it had before. She gave it a lovely loud purr, and returned to the bathroom, her tail lashing.
She didn't like to think what would happen if the cops were to search this place, after they had the evidence, and found her blood and paw prints. There would be hell to payâshe had no idea how she would explain such a thing to Joe Grey. She licked her paws trying to stop the bleeding, but the damage was already done. Pushing into the tiny bathroom, she immediately felt so caged that she wanted to race
out again. It was very hard indeed to press into the dark cupboard beneath the sink.
Clawing at the hole beneath the drain, pawing and tearing the rotted wood away, she could feel the niche where he had tucked the gun. A little space, back on top of a floor joist. She dug and dug, dug at the rotting sides of the hole until her paws were nearly raw. Until, at last, she had a hole big enough to slip through.
Bellying in, she hung halfway through the crumbling wood, peering around into the blackness below her. The underhouse space stretched away to the front of the cottage, and was maybe three times as tall as a cat, tall enough for a large dog to walk around in without crouchingâthough he would scrape his back on the floor joists and pipes and wires running through. Away in the far walls, three small louvered vents let in faint light through their grids. The space smelled of wet mold and rat droppings.
Hanging farther down inside, her round, furry butt planted on the cabinet floor above, her hind paws braced against the edges of the rotting floor, she stared through the black, cobwebby crawl space to those far bits of dust-filtered sunlight and let loose with her hind paws and dropped down, landing on the sour earth and the scattered bits of rotted wood.
Ears and whiskers back, and carrying her tail low, she padded beneath the cobwebs, brushing over rusty nails and pieces of ragged screening or wire. According to human myth, cats loved dark, hidden places. Well, certainly in her younger days, before she knew better, she'd been drawn to mysterious caves, but not like this place. The caves in her wild
dreams led to wonderful underneath realms to be discoveredânot to a dark, stinking underhouse strewn with rusty nails. Easing through the black, cobwebby labyrinth of cement supports and cast-iron pipes and hanging electrical wires, she approached the vent that would face the front yard, and stood sniffing in the good, fresh air. She could smell green grass and pine trees, and from somewhere the lingering aroma of someone's breakfast of bacon and hot maple syrup. Rearing up, she hooked her claws in the vent grid and pulled.
She pulled harder. Bracing with her hind paws, she jerked and jerked, backing and fighting until she feared she'd tear a claw out. Giving up at last, and muttering softly, she went to try the vent nearer the drive.
She had no better luck with that vent. Crossing through the darkness and the spider curtains, she tried the last one; she fought until not only her paws but both forelegs hurt, then gave up, backing away, her tail limp and her head hanging. A little whimper of defeat escaped her. She was trapped in this prison of a house. Greedily she sniffed the small wisp of fresh air that filtered in through the dirty grid, the scent of pine trees and green bushes. And, she couldn't help it, staring out at the open, free world that she could no longer reach, the kit howled.
But at last she quieted and turned resolutely away, and headed back to the crawl hole and the bathroom to retrieve the envelopes, to get them out before he returned. What if he came back and reached in again, and happened to flip the oilcloth back? What if he found them?
So? What was he going to think?
She didn't know what he'd think; she couldn't imagine. But he'd tear the place apart looking for whoever had been there. And, searching, what if he found her paw prints? What would he think then?
Dulcie would say she was losing her grip, would tell her to get hold of herself. What was he supposed to think? That a talking cat had taken his envelopes? She tried very hard to calm her shivering nerves as she hooked her claws in the rotting wood of the hole and crouched to leap up, prepared to retrieve the clippings and pictures. Prepared to get out of there somehow, and tip the cops about Kendall Border and Craig Vernon and Harold Timmons, whoever those men were. Tip the cops that Irving Fenner had indeed been connected to Patty Rose. Irving Fenner, who had watched Patty, and who had shot a bullet hole into each of Patty's picturesâIrving Fenner, who had killed her dear Patty Rose?
Entering the village, Charlie called Wilma on her cell phone, touching the button for her aunt's number. Wilma didn't answer. Turning down Ocean, Charlie watched the streets, among the feet of the locals and tourists, looking for the kit. She saw no one searching for Kit. But then, as she approached the library, she saw a dark little shape in the garden of the shop next door. With a surge of excitement she touched the brakes and pulled over.
But it was Dulcie, there by the building next to the library, not the tortoiseshell kit. Dulcie, prowling along through the front garden as if she was searching for Kit. When the dark tabby turned away, mov
ing down the little lane between the buildings, Charlie didn't call out to her.
Dulcie had been hanging around that building a lot lately. It and the library stood close together; they were of the same Mediterranean style, same white walls and faded red-tile roofs, and had been built at the same time. They had once been part of an estate that included servants' quarters, carriage houses, stables, and outbuildings. This building now housed an exclusive men's clothing shop, with an apartment behind it and a larger apartment above. Its basement, if she recalled correctly, had once run beneath both buildings, and the narrow walk between the two buildings had been a passageway for delivery carts. Dulcie, as Molena Point's library cat, considered all adjacent gardens her personal territory, off-limits to the other village cats whether she chose to hunt there or not.
The three rentals in the smaller, two-story structure had produced a comfortable income for Genelle Yardley since she'd retired. Genelle's family had, years ago, given the larger building to the library foundation. Just recently, Charlie understood, Genelle had put her rental building in trust for the library as well, for when she diedâand Genelle was dying. The party that Patty had been planning for Genelle was, in fact, a final good-bye. A gesture that could only be understood in light of the two women's long and sympathetic friendship.
So much death,
Not a happy way to start the new year.
Though Genelle's approach to death showed an amazingly matter-of-fact attitude. Quite methodi
cally, Genelle had updated her trust to her satisfaction and had put all her personal and financial affairs in good order. She had left a nice sum of money to Patty's children's home, and Genelle's gift of her building to the library would, indeed, be well used. The library was so cramped for space that the librarians, including Charlie's aunt Wilma, had to discard far more out-of-date books than they cared to, to make room for the new books that were needed or were in demand.
Genelle was only in her sixties, young to leave this world; Charlie realized that fact ever more sharply with each of her own approaching birthdays, though she was only half Genelle's age. She supposed Genelle's matter-of-fact approach to death was in character with Genelle's practical turn of mind and organized thoughts, which had made her a very efficient business manager for Vincent and Reed Electrical before her retirement, and certainly she had managed her own inherited money judiciously.
Charlie watched Dulcie vanish, down at the end of the alley, and wondered again what this little tabby, of such special intelligence, was hiding. Wondered if it had to do with the lane itself or with the garden of the rental building, where Wilma had often seen her prowling lately. When Wilma had asked Dulcie what was so fascinating there, Dulcie's green eyes had widened with innocence.
“Mice,” Dulcie had said, staring up at her housemate as if Wilma shouldn't have to ask. “I can smell mice inside that building and I can hear them.” Charlie and Wilma had been sitting in Wilma's blue-and-white kitchen, at the kitchen table, Charlie and
Wilma having coffee, Dulcie in her own chair enjoying a bowl of milk, and all three of them eating Wilma's homemade sticky buns. Dulcie said, “Maybe mice that were driven inside by the rain. Succulent little mice, Wilma. They smell lovely. But there's no way to get inside, no way to get at them.”
Wilma had just looked at Dulcie. “You and Joe seldom hunt mice; you much prefer to go up the hills and kill jackrabbitsâa catch, as Joe puts it, that you can get your teeth into. And,” Wilma had said pointedly, “I notice that you're not hunting with Joe much these days.”
Dulcie had lashed her tail with such annoyance that Charlie almost choked hiding her laughter.