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Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

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BOOK: Cat Cross Their Graves
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C
ora Lee didn't move. She might have been
molded into a frieze. The color of her face was no longer warm café 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 patrol unit 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 over
grown 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.

“T
he bodies floating away…,” Cora Lee said,
“the sight of that little hand brought it all back, from when we were children.”

“You needn't talk about something painful,” Charlie said, putting her arm around Cora Lee where they sat at the picnic table.

Dulcie, crouching low on the bench, peered around Charlie, watching Cora Lee. She had never seen her friend so distressed. What had happened in her childhood?
Let her talk, Charlie, I want to hear this.
She knew that Cora Lee had grown up in New Orleans, on the Mississippi delta. She remembered Cora Lee telling about the vast city cemetery where, as a child, she would sneak inside the gate with her friends and race, terrified and screaming, among the rows of concrete boxes that all stood aboveground. Because of the shallow water table, no grave could be dug, no corpse could be buried; there they all stood, rows of granite and marble boxes with the dead inside.

“One year, we had a terrible flood,” Cora Lee said now. “The water rose so high, the caskets were washed out from under their raised tombs. Some coffins broke open and released the corpses, to float away down the streets of the city.” She looked up at Charlie. “That's what I saw when I uncovered that little hand. I saw again those helpless, gruesome bodies floating, floating away, that had so terrified me.”

Charlie didn't take her eyes from Cora Lee's. She squeezed Cora Lee's hand in her own freckled hand.

“And then,” Cora Lee said, “a year after the flood, Kathy's bones…” She looked devastated. “My best friend…We were nine, we played together, were constantly together. Like sisters. She disappeared one night, three days before her tenth birthday.

“Her bedroom window was broken, the jagged pieces of glass scattered on the ground, and there was blood on her blanket. No note, no phone call. She was simply gone. It wasn't as if her family had much money, to pay a fancy ransom. There was never a request for ransom. It took two years for the police to find her. They found…”

Cora Lee swallowed, and put her other hand on Charlie's, in a hard grip. “They found Kathy's bones washed up from a shallow grave in someone's garden. That,” Cora Lee said, “that came back to me, too, this morning, seeing those newspaper pictures again. Pictures of her little bones. My mother hid the paper, but you can't hide something like that, it was everywhere, Kathy's bones strewn across a tiny yard in the French Quarter.” Cora Lee turned away, but Charlie drew her close again. After a moment, Cora Lee leaned her face against Charlie's shoulder.

“I thought that life in the French Quarter had toughened me.” She looked down the garden, and was quiet. “I guess it didn't.” She said nothing more. Beside them, Dulcie felt cold and sick, distressed not only for Cora Lee, but also for that long-ago dead child. And for the child who might be buried here, in the garden. And she was suddenly frightened for Lori, for the living child.
Can that be why Lori's hiding? Because she knows something about that grave down there? Because someone wants to keep her quiet? Oh, but this is only coincidence…

Sitting rigid on the picnic bench close to Charlie, Dulcie didn't know what to think or what to do about Lori, but now, suddenly she was afraid to do nothing. Should she take Lori's story to Captain Harper? An anonymous message such as she and Joe often managed, to tip the cops? She knew she could trust Harper—but trust him to do what? To follow the law, as he was sworn and committed to do? If there was something badly wrong in Lori's home, and if Lori had no other family, Harper might have no choice but to petition the court to send Lori to child welfare—where Lori seemed afraid to go.

Watching the three officers drive their metal stakes into the lawn and string the last line of tape, she wondered how many miles of yellow tape she and Joe had seen strung in such a way, around some grisly scene. No crime scene they had yet encountered had been like this, with the shocking impact of that one small hand, a hand that seemed to reach out so beseechingly, like the victim in a nightmare come alive.

When another car arrived and Detective Garza came around the corner of the house, Dulcie felt an added sense of security and strength, much the way a cat feels when all her family is at home. They were here now, the chief and both detectives, and they would make things right.

Garza looked tired, his square, smooth face drawn into deep, serious planes, his dark eyes studying the cluster of officers as he moved down the garden. He walked slowly, looking everywhere, taking in every detail. He was still dressed in the sport coat and slacks he'd worn to the theater the night before, the slacks wrinkled; and his jaw was dark with stubble. Had he not been home at all, had he not slept? He moved to where Max Harper stood at the end of the garden watching Juana photograph the scene.

Garza studied the hand and looked up at Harper. “I finished up with the last witnesses. Not much more of value. Nine people heard the shots, no one saw a damn thing. Except one of the inn's guests we had waiting. Said she saw a man running out through the side entrance to the patio, but she was vague about whether it was before or after the shots. Couldn't describe him. I'll talk with her again.

“Besides Lucinda Greenlaw, two more witnesses say they've seen a man hanging around the inn. Small man, much like Lucinda described. Lucinda thought he might be watching Patty, but said he was casual, laid-back, so meek and harmless looking she thought maybe he was a fan. She knew Patty had seen him, that Patty didn't seem concerned. She never asked Patty, and Patty never mentioned him.”

He looked at Max. “I'd like to use the newspaper, let the
Gazette
run a clip. See if anyone coming out of the theater last night saw him. Four blocks from the inn; he could've doubled over there, strolled out with the crowd. Someone might remember a car, or where he was headed.”

As the two officers stood talking, watching Detective Davis at work, Dulcie wondered if Davis would take this case, and leave Garza with Patty's murder. She'd observed the department long enough to know that the two detectives meshed like clockwork, that Harper seldom told them what to do. When Captain Harper motioned to Charlie, Charlie went down to join him. Dulcie was tensed to leap down and follow quietly through the weeds, when she saw Wilma coming around the side of the house leading Susan Brittain's standard poodle and dalmatian.

Rearing up on the bench, her paws on the table, Dulcie looked questioningly at Wilma. Wilma shook her head.
No Kit. Nothing.
Dulcie's tall, silver-haired housemate studied the yard full of uniforms only briefly, then she hurried the big dogs inside the house, getting them out of the way. Lamb, the chocolate standard poodle, looked around with dignity at the action, but the young dalmatian pranced and huffed and pulled, wanting to join the fun. Dulcie imagined Wilma inside wiping paws and offering doggie treats; but Wilma was soon out again, having settled the dogs, probably where they could watch the action. Wilma sat down at the picnic table, between Mavity and Cora Lee. Apparently, she already knew what had happened.

Stepping into Wilma's lap, Dulcie stood looking over the top of the table, watching the officers at work. Wilma's faded jeans and sweatshirt smelled of dog and of the juniper she'd brushed in passing the overgrown neighborhood bushes. Dulcie could hear the dogs inside the nearest empty apartment, probably jockeying for position at the sliding door, with both noses pressed against the glass. She heard a car door slam out in front, but this time no police radio. In a moment the coroner, John Bern, come around the house.

Bern was a slight, bald man, his head as shiny as a clean supper bowl. His face was thin, fine boned. He wore rimless glasses that reflected glancing light. He was dressed in tan chinos, Dockers, and a pristine white lab coat buttoned over a bright-red polo shirt. He paused to speak with Captain Harper, then approached the dirt excavation to study the small, skeletal hand and to ask Juana the usual obligatory questions: had anything been removed or touched, that sort of thing, expecting Juana to answer in the negative. He made a few notes in a spiral binder, then adjusted his camera and began to take his own set of pictures. He took maybe two dozen shots very close up, then stepped away for longer angles, then turned to speak with Harper.

“We'll want a forensic pathologist on this, Max. I'd prefer a forensic anthropologist. I'd like to get Hyden down here. Meantime, I can do some preliminary digging.”

Harper moved around so the noon sun was not directly in his face. “I have a call in for Hyden. We sure
don't want to ship the bones to Sacramento if we can help it. If Hyden's not available, we'll try for Anderson—maybe luck out and get them both.” Alan Hyden and James Anderson worked out of Sacramento. Dulcie supposed that, even if they left the state capital at once, the drive would take maybe four hours.

“I have a tent on the way,” Max said. “We could be getting more rain, and there are coyotes in the canyon. We'll put guards on the site, of course.” It was at this moment—as if additional assistance might be needed—that Joe Grey strolled on the scene.

Dulcie considered with interest the gray tomcat's bold entrance as, in plain sight, he sauntered across the cop-filled yard exhibiting all the casual authority of a high-ranking police detective. The tomcat made no effort to hide himself, and this was not Joe's usual mode of operation. In fact, why were neither of them taking their usual secretive approach? Her own attitude puzzled her nearly as much as Joe's brazen entrance.

Was it because there was such a crowd in the yard—cops, the senior ladies, Charlie and Wilma? But last night, even in that crowd, they had made some effort to keep out of sight. Or was it because this was a much more bucolic scene, the weedy yard, the open, wild canyon, where a cat would not seem out of place? A slower scene, too, and less frenetic. And because there was no hurried urgency, because a murder hadn't
just
happened.

But even so, she thought, watching Joe, half annoyed and half amused, even if
she
had let herself be
seen,
she
hadn't swaggered. His in-your-face behavior around the cops was not in anyone's best interest.

Yet there he was, tramping across the weedy grass, as bold as the detectives and taking in every detail—the crime-scene tape, the little hand, the coroner at his work. Strolling across the yard, Joe turned and looked up toward the picnic table, looked right at her, then moved on down the garden ignoring her. Well, he hadn't found the kit, then. If he had, he'd be up there letting her know about it, no matter how miffed he was. Strolling on down across the trampled grass, he looked as if she didn't exist.

Padding boldly beneath the yellow barrier, he picked his way with disdainful paws along the length of the retaining wall. Every movement, every line of his sleek gray body challenged the officers to chase him away, though he knew very well that if he took one step off that retaining wall, Dr. Bern and every cop within sight was going to shout and throw things, and that someone would snatch him up in swift eviction. Dallas Garza and Juana Davis stared at Joe. Dr. Bern waved his arms and rattled a paper bag at him. Coolly Joe looked back at them, and sat down to study the little hand in its earthy excavation.

Dulcie watched him until he rose at last and moved on down the wall of railroad ties and stretched out along the top. Joe's questions would be the same as hers, as everyone's, questions that couldn't be answered until forensics had done its work. Questions that couldn't be answered completely until Harper and the detectives had obtained countless old, dead files, until they had examined
whatever unresolved cases of missing children lay half forgotten among California's law-enforcement records.

When the answers did surface, Dulcie thought, she'd like to be lying on the dispatcher's counter beside Joe, reading the computer printouts or fax dispatches. She wanted to share with Joe, she didn't like this cold treatment.

He'd been fine last night as they searched for Kit, fine when she left him saying she'd just prowl the library, make sure the kit wasn't in there, that she'd be out again within the hour and would keep searching—a bold lie she wasn't proud of as she'd headed down to see Lori. She wanted so badly to tell Joe about Lori. She longed for Joe to gallop up the yard right now, leap on the picnic bench beside her, and give her a whisker kiss, let her know he was sorry for being angry.

But the tabby cat had to laugh at herself.
She
wanted
Joe
to say he was sorry!
She
wanted Joe to say he was sorry because
she
had lied to him? Because she was keeping secrets from him? She knew she was being totally unreasonable.

If she wanted Joe to forgive her, she would have to grovel.

And groveling was not in her nature.

What human said the road to hell was paved with good intentions? She guessed, if humans could make a mess with their good intentions, so could a cat.

But now, knowing that Joe hadn't found the kit, she grew edgy again worrying about the missing tattercoat. This, and her unease about Lori after the discovery of what could be a child's grave, made her
want to claw the plank table. She began to fidget and scratch nonexistent fleas, drawing a surprised frown from Wilma.

 

Contrary to popular human belief, all cats do not love, or gravitate to, dark, enclosed places. Not when that confining crawl space smells like an old sewer and is strewn with jagged rubble. Having scrambled back among the pipes and floor joists that formed the underside of the rental cottage, Kit was clawing to get back up through the rotted hole in the bathroom floor when she remembered about search warrants. Remembered Joe Grey's admonishment regarding the laws surrounding police work.

BOOK: Cat Cross Their Graves
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