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THE TIME was past midnight. Rain beat against Wilma’s shuttered bedroom windows; a fire burned in the red-enameled woodstove, its light flickering across the flowered quilt and the white-wicker furniture. Wilma sat in bed reading, Dulcie curled up beside her.

She had spent the evening at her desk, poring over a map of the U.S., tracking the locations of auto-loan scams across the country, using an NCIC list that Max Harper had printed out for her from the police computer. The report covered the last six months, but the operations that interested her specifically had occurred within the last few weeks.

Her map bristled with pins, but the work had gone slowly, as she had not only to locate the scams, but then to find routes according to dates, marking each route with different colored pins. Some of the trails were circuitous, moving back and forth among half a dozen cities or to several adjoining metropolitan areas.

But one, a line of red pins, delineated a well-defined series of auto-loan scams over the last three weeks- beginning in Greenville, North Carolina, half a day’s drive west of Donegal, the home of the Greenlaw clan, and leading directly across the U.S.-scams that would not have been reported so early on, if not for one fortuitous accident.

When one of the small car dealers, driving a newly purchased BMW home for the weekend, was hit by a delivery truck, the officer who answered the call ran a routine check and came up with the fake registration.

This dealer had bought four cars within a twenty-four hour period; the fake registration made him so uneasy that he asked the police to check on the other three vehicles.

All four cars had come to him with fake paper.

The subsequent investigation spread from one small town to the next; dozens of false registrations were uncovered and reported to NCIC, long before any of the dealers would have been alerted by overdue car payments.

The trail ended at Bakersfield. Police had no record of any suspicious car purchases beyond that point. The perpetrators could have traveled north up the coast or south, or turned back east again.

Wilma’s next step was to phone the car agencies that had been ripped off, compare the MOs with those she’d been dealing with at Beckwhite’s: all had very professional IDs, excellent credit records that checked out with the credit bureaus. These people had to have, within their sophisticated operation, at least one very skilled hacker.

“Presume,” she told Dulcie, laying down her book, “that the Greenlaws were notified of Shamas’s death the morning after the accident, that most of them started out within a few hours, driving across country for Shamas’s funeral. They make their first stop at Greenville, to pick up a little cash. They buy two new BMWs, two Cadillacs and a Buick convertible, all listed by NCIC as sold in Greenville within hours of one another, at three separate dealerships, and all purchased with the maximum loans.

“Half a day’s drive down the road, then, they sell the cars for cash to small, out-of-the-way dealers, or through quickly placed ads in the local paper, give the buyer a forged registration certificate that wouldn’t come to light until they were long gone.

“Maybe thirty thousand apiece,” she told Dulcie. “They pick up maybe a hundred and fifty thousand for walking-around money, for their little jaunt out here to the coast.”

“Not too bad for a few hours’ work,” Dulcie said. “Do you think NCIC could link pigeon drops the same way? Store diversions and shoplifting?”

“No,” Wilma said. “They couldn’t. Only the big stuff is reported, things that might be interstate. Like stolen cars moved from one state to another. The little crimes, if they were reported to anyone beyond a local PD, would go to that state’s crime bureau. You’d have to contact each state, see what might have been logged. The Greenlaws could have worked the local stores all across the country, picking up their groceries and a little loose change-now doing the same here while they wait for the last of the relatives to arrive for the funeral.”

“Very nice,” Dulcie said, “traveling along in their homes on wheels, stealing as they go. Just like Gypsies.”

Wilma sat looking at the little cat, taking that in.

“Have you ever heard of Travelers?” Dulcie said. “Irish Travelers?”

Wilma’s eyes widened.

“In the library books on Gypsies,” Dulcie said, “the Irish Travelers are almost exactly the same. The whole family steals; it’s how they make their living.”

“But all Gypsies aren’t…” Wilma began.

“Not all Gypsies steal, just some clans. I was reading about them late last night-the library is so peaceful at night,” Dulcie said. “Well, not all Irish are Travelers. But the Travelers’ ancestors centuries ago in Ireland- they were tinkers just like the Gypsies. Tinsmiths and peddlers traveling across Ireland in their pony carts, stopping at little farms, trading and doing repairs. According to the books, some of the Travelers would steal anything left lying loose.”

“You’re not turning into a racist?” Wilma said, raising an eyebrow.

“What? Against the Irish?” Dulcie laid her ears back. “Why would I do that? I’m telling you what I read. It’s supposed to be fact. Besides, you’re part Irish. So is Clyde.”

“And how come,” Wilma said, teasing her, “how come you, of all cats, are talking about other folks stealing?”

Dulcie ducked her head. “That was… mostly… before I knew any better.” She looked up at Wilma. “It was never for self-gain. It’s just that… Such lovely little sweaters and scarves and silky things, so pretty and soft…” She looked pleadingly at Wilma, deeply chastened. Wilma grinned at her and stroked her ears, and at last the little cat began to purr.

“But it is a touchy subject,” Wilma told her. “Many people in the East are still bitter about prejudice against the Irish. It started when Irish families came over here during the potato famine-the 1800s-They left Ireland to survive, to make a new start, their whole country was starving, people were starving by the thousands. But when they arrived in this country, there was so much bad feeling about them.”

“Maybe that’s because of the Travelers,” Dulcie said, “because they were stealing.” She licked her paw and looked up at Wilma, filled with a quick, electric energy. “This Fulman that you had on probation, Shamas’s cousin. What were he and Shamas doing in Seattle?”

Wilma’s eyes widened. “For one thing, selling supposedly high-quality machine tools that were really junk. I don’t remember all the details, but it involved a switch-showing the buyer fine merchandise as a sample, then shipping him shoddy stuff. They were paid up front, of course.

“When I checked out his family, through the probation office in Greenville, the information they gave me was that the family was clean. Not a thing on the Fulmans or the Greenlaws.”

“Smooth,” Dulcie said. “And how would you know any different? Most people never think about whole families living that way, their entire lives dedicated to stealing and running scams.”

“My job was to look for these things. And Greenville had to know.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. The books say they’re very law-abiding in their own town.” Dulcie grinned. “Maybe the probation officer was a shirttail cousin.”

Wilma looked at her, torn between laughter and chagrin. “I should have thought about that kind of connection. I’ve always known there were families in San Francisco running roofing scams, asphalt-paving scams, home-repair swindles. It’s their way of life.” Wilma shook her head. “I never put that together with Fulman and Shamas-and it was my business to know.

“I hate to think how this would affect Lucinda if she should find out about Shamas. It would break her heart to know that her husband was a thief and a con artist.”

Dulcie licked her whiskers. “I think she knows. From the things I’ve heard her say to Pedric, and to Charlie, too, I think she knows very well what Shamas was.”

Wilma looked at her quietly.

Dulcie looked intently back at her. “How could Lucinda live with him all those years and not know there was something wrong?”

“You’d be surprised,” Wilma said, “how thoroughly humans can deceive themselves.” She settled deeper into the pillows, sipping her cocoa-and straightened up, nearly spilling it, when they heard above the pounding rain, a thud on the back porch, then the back door creak.

The noise brought Dulcie up rigid, too, her every hair standing straight.

Wilma slid out of bed, snatching up the fire tongs, and Dulcie dropped softly to the floor-then they heard Dulcie’s cat door slap, banging against its metal frame.

“Anyone home?”

Dulcie relaxed. Her fur went flat, her claws drew back into their sheaths. Wilma sighed, and laughed as Joe Grey came swaggering down the hall, his silver coat soaked dark, dripping on the Persian runner. “I was around back, came down the hill, saw the bedroom light. Are those cookies I smell?”

Wilma trailed to the bathroom, snatched up a towel, and tossed it to the bedroom floor. Joe, giving her a sour look, rolled on the terry cloth until he was relatively dry, then leaped to the bed.

“Why are you out in the rain?” Dulcie said. “You weren’t hunting, on a night like this.”

“I took a little jaunt by Cara Ray’s motel, after you said she wasn’t at Lucinda’s for supper.” He licked a few swipes across his shoulder.

Wilma shoved the cookie plate in his direction. He took one in his teeth, crunching it with pleasure, dropping crumbs. The quilt was due for a washing; this was why Wilma liked washable furnishings, so she and the cats could enjoy, and not fuss.

“So what did you see?” Dulcie said. “Was that Sam person there at her motel?”

“No. Nor Cara Ray, either. I nearly drowned climbing up to the roof, nearly broke my neck on those wet, slick shutters, slipping down to Cara Ray’s window. Lucky someone didn’t find me smashed on the pavement below, lying in the gutter broken and my poor cat lungs full of water. All I got for my trouble was a cold bath, and a view of Cara Ray’s messy motel room.

“I waited for maybe an hour, thinking she might bring him back with her, and the rain pounding against the windows like shotgun blasts. Where would they go on a night like this? So damned wet-couldn’t get a claw into anything.”

“You haven’t been home?” Dulcie said.

“I was home for dinner. Why?”

“Clyde didn’t say anything?”

“About what?”

“Clyde was arrested.”

Joe stared at her. Stared at Wilma. “You’re joking. There’s no way Max Harper… Arrested for what? Who would arrest him? In what town? For speeding? Oh, that would-“

“Not for speeding,” Wilma said. “For creating a public nuisance.”

Joe settled down on the quilt, his yellow eyes fixed on Wilma. “What stupid thing has he done now?”

“Selig broke his collar,” Wilma said.

“I told Clyde the pups had been chewing on each other’s collars,” Joe said, “the whole time they were together.”

“Clyde was walking the pups down Ocean,” Wilma said, “when a big Harley came roaring around the corner. The pups went crazy, hit the end of their leads bellowing, and Selig kept on going, chasing the Harley and baying like a bloodhound-and Clyde chasing him, dragging Hestig through traffic, yelling and swearing.”

Joe Grey smiled, his yellow eyes slitted with pleasure.

“A squad car came around the corner,” Wilma said, “following the roar of the Harley.” In Molena Point, motorcycles were just as strictly forbidden as were unleashed canines.

“Another black-and-white screamed down Ocean, and when they got the Harley cornered, Selig and Hestig and Clyde were right in the middle, Clyde trying to hold Hestig and slip the other leash around Selig’s neck.”

Wilma smiled. “All of this in front of the Patio Cafe, and half the village looking on.” She and Clyde had been close friends forever-if she had a little laugh at his expense, he’d had plenty of laughs at hers. “My friend Nora was waiting tables and had a ringside view. Those two rookies that Harper just hired-they don’t know Clyde.”

“They arrested him,” Joe Grey said, rumbling with purrs.

Wilma nodded. “Arrested him while the pups had him tangled in the leash.”

Dulcie looked from one to the other, half amused, half feeling sorry for Clyde.

“Clyde got himself untangled,” Wilma said, “but Selig wouldn’t let the rookies near the Harley. The puppy seemed to think that he had caught the cycle, and they had no right to it. He stood guarding it, snarling like a timber wolf, and Clyde trying to pull him away.

“One of the rookies stepped into the cafe and bought a prewrapped beef sandwich. He distracted Selig with that until his partner could lock the Harley driver in a squad car. Ordinarily, a rookie wouldn’t be assigned alone to a unit, but there was some kind of changeover at the station.”

Wilma settled back against the cushions, and for a long, perfect moment, she and the cats envisioned Clyde Damen in the backseat of a black-and-white, confined behind the wire barrier.

“Nice,” Joe Grey said. “Wait until I lay this one on him.”

“He didn’t mention it?” Dulcie asked.

“Silent as a mummy in the tomb.” He looked at Wilma. “So what happened when they got to the station? Did you talk to Harper, get a blow-by-blow?”

“When rookie Jimmie McFarland tried to get the pups out of the unit, they set their feet and wouldn’t come.

“McFarland had saved back a little of the sandwich. He bribed them out with that. But when he got them into the station, Selig took a look at all those nice uniforms and began to bark and leap in the officers’ faces, kissing everyone. And Hestig grabbed McFarland’s field book, raced around the station with it, dodging anyone who got close.

Wilma smiled. “When the dispatcher called the dog catcher, that’s when Clyde began to shout.”

Joe Grey rolled on his back, laughing.

“At about that time,” Wilma said, “Harper came in the back door, saw McFarland tackle Selig, saw Officer Blake trying to corner Hestig. Harper grabbed Selig by the nape of the neck, shook him, and turned on Clyde as if he’d shake him, too.”

Dulcie’s purr bubbled into laughter. Joe lay grinning, thinking about what he’d have to say to Clyde.

“Before Harper could get them sorted out, Selig jerked loose from him, snatched a sheaf of reports from Officer Blake’s desk, and ran off chewing on them. Three officers caught him but, without a collar, he slipped free of them-snatched Lieutenant Brennan’s ham sandwich, then grabbed the photo officer’s reflex camera. The officer tackled him, rescued his camera, stood cradling it like a baby. Harper was so mad, he told me, and was laughing so hard, that he could feel tears.”

“And I missed it all,” Joe said. “The event of the-“

A tremor shook the bed. Joe leaped up. Dulcie rose into a wary crouch. Wilma’s cup rattled in its saucer.

But then the room was still again.

They waited, but no second jolt hit. The three friends looked at each other, and shrugged. A second later, the phone rang.

Wilma picked up, listened, then pressed the speaker button.

Lucinda’s voice was weak and unsteady. “… he’s… I’m at the hospital. He’s hurt, Wilma. Broken arm, some broken ribs. He was soaking wet and so cold, shivering. I only hope… I don’t know how long he lay there, in the cold and rain.”

Wilma leaned close to the phone’s speaker. “Start at the beginning, Lucinda. Tell me what happened. Take it slowly, please.”

“The police found him-not our police,” Lucinda said. “The highway patrol. They-in the dark. Pedric was lying halfway down Hellhag Hill. Someone…” Lucinda’s voice shook “Someone tried…”

“How would they find him in the dark and rain? What were they doing… Never mind. I’ll come. Who’s the doctor?”

“Dr. Harliss.”

“I’ll be there.” Wilma slipped out of bed. “I’ll be…”

“No. Don’t come here. I’m… I’ll stay with him. Go there. Go to Hellhag Hill. Find out… Talk to the police. Find out who-what happened.”

“But…”

“Hurry, while they’re still there. Please find out what happened.”

“But they won’t be…”

“They’ll still be there. I came away in the ambulance. They were still there, seeing to Newlon.”

“Newlon?”

“Newlon’s dead. They found him lying on the highway in the rain. Please find out, Wilma.” Her voice shook. “Find out who killed Newlon, and tried to kill Pedric.”

Wilma hung up the phone and sat looking at the cats. “First, Chambers is stabbed. Now, another man in the hospital, and a man dead. And all of them,” she said, “connected to Shamas Greenlaw.”

Swinging out of bed, she snatched up some clothes and slipped into the bathroom to wash and dress. Within minutes, she and the cats were headed for Hellhag Hill, Joe and Dulcie staring out through the rain-soaked windows, shivering in the cavernous, cold car.

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