TWO HIGHWAY patrol units were nosed in along the shoulder, their lights shining across the rain-matted grass at the base of Hellhag Hill. Passing them on the wet black two-lane, Wilma pulled up ahead, behind two Molena Point black-and-whites. Beyond these stood the coroner’s gray sedan, its headlights shining on a makeshift tent, a green police tarp erected to keep the rain off Newlon Greenlaw’s body. Other illumination was provided by three large butane lanterns. The coroner, John Bern, a thin, button-nosed man wearing a yellow raincoat, knelt beside the body. As Wilma stepped out of the car, she saw Max Harper leave the tent and start up the hill, his torchlight bouncing off curtains of blowing rain. She saw, up the hill just below the trailer park, in the beam of other torches, two more uniforms and a gathering of onlookers.
“Up there,” Officer Davis told her, coming up to Wilma, wringing water from her uniform skirt. “That’s where Pedric Greenlaw fell, just above those boulders. Ambulance left with him about half an hour ago.” Davis was a middle-aged woman, solidly built, short dark hair, dark and expressive Latin eyes.
“What happened?” Wilma said. “I’ve only talked with Lucinda Greenlaw, and she was pretty upset.”
“You knew Newlon Greenlaw?” Davis said, gesturing toward the body.
“I’ve met him.”
“Head cracked open. We’ve found no weapon. Apparently the two men were fighting, up around the trailers. It’s dark as hell up there at night; they’ve never had good lighting.
“People in the trailers woke up, heard thumps and scuffling, then groans. Grabbed flashlights and ran out. Someone thought there were three men, but they couldn’t be sure. We’ve not found any traces of a third man. Pedric fell maybe twenty feet, into those rocks just above the cave.
“When the people up there called 911, California Highway Patrol was just up the road. They came on down to see if they could render assistance, spotted Newlon’s body in their headlights here beside the road.
“We won’t know much until it gets light,” Davis said. “And maybe not then, with this rain. Sure makes a mess.”
Moving to the tent, Wilma watched the coroner examine the dead man’s head wound and take the temperature of the liver, a procedure which never failed to make her queasy. She flinched as the needle went into the abdomen.
She had left Joe and Dulcie in the car. She hoped they’d stay there, hoped the heavy rain would keep them confined. Knowing those two, she doubted it. A promise from either of them was subject to all manner of feline guile.
As Harper’s light moved up the hill, someone started down toward him with another torch. The rain had slacked off, but the damage to the crime scene would be significant, blood washed away, evidence destroyed. When she glanced down the road toward her car, the torch of one of the CHP officers caught four bright flashes low to the ground racing across the highway, accompanied by a gleam of white.
“Damn cats,” she muttered; but already the cats had disappeared. Joe and Dulcie were doing as they pleased, and no one was going to stop them.
The turmoil on the hill, men shouting and striding through the dark grass with lights swinging, had terrified the clowder of wild cats. Already disoriented by the heavy rain, by the jolting of the earth, and by the earlier violence of the men fighting and then the crowd gathering and the scream of the ambulance and not knowing where to escape, they had withdrawn to cower among the rocks in a state of near shock Even the bellowing mewl of the ragged kit, which they had heard earlier, had seemed terrifying, coming alone out of the night.
Still cowering against the boulders as men moved all over the hillside, they refused to go into the cave; none of them would enter the cave when the earth shook.
Long after the police cars and most of the men had left and the world grew quiet once more, they crouched in the soaking grass, belly to ground, waiting for further disaster-perhaps for the earth to open entirely, for the hill beneath their paws to crumble away.
All but the tattered kit. The ninth and smallest, she was of another mind.
The cave did not frighten her. She sat in its mouth, where the others wouldn’t go, had sat there earlier, stoically enduring the earth’s trembling. If she died, she died. She wasn’t going to run away.
After the earth stopped shaking she had stood up on her hind paws like a little rabbit, looking all around her, delighted at the brilliance of the sky. When the quake ceased, the rain had ceased for the moment, too, and a strange, thin gleam lit the sky. Not the light of dawn, but a silver glow shimmering beneath the rain clouds. Ignoring her soaking fur and the icy chill that reached down into her thin little bones, she had looked around her, thrilled with the beauty of the world.
But at the same time, too, she tasted fear. She could still smell the blood from the man who had lain among the boulders. She had seen him fall. She had seen another man die. These matters deeply distressed her.
It had happened just at midnight. She had been hunting beneath the trailers, where field mice had burrowed away from the driving rain, mice displaced and disoriented and easier to catch than most. Despite her lack of skill she had trapped two and eaten them; and as she padded along beneath the wheeled houses, hoping to find more such foolish morsels, smelling from above her the sour scent of sleeping humans, hearing through the thin trailer floors the rumbling of their ragged, crude snores, she had heard something else. Footsteps thundered overhead, and she heard a door creak open.
She stopped suddenly, spun around, and drew back against a wheel.
A man left the trailer, heading across the sodden yard to a shed where firewood was stacked; she was afraid of him until she saw that it was only the old man who came here with the lady-the lady called him Pedric. The kit was crouched to leap past him when another man came out, shutting his door so softly that only a cat would hear it.
He walked soundlessly in the rain, following Pedric. The smell of him, in the wet air, made her fur bristle. A cruel smell, and when he drew close behind Pedric, she hissed with fear.
Suddenly in the darkness the silhouettes of the two men merged. She heard a loud crack, saw Pedric fall heavily into the splattering mud.
Immediately the man who had hit Pedric grabbed him and dragged him down the steep hill. He bent over him listening, studying him, then he half threw, half pushed him. Pedric fell, rolling limply down and down, until his body lay against the boulders that formed the mouth of the cave.
The thin man climbed again. Before he reached the trailers a third man came out of the shadows, crouching low, a big, heavy human, broad as a rutting bull. The two fought, pounding and grunting, hitting one another until the big one fell and lay still; that surprised her, that the smaller man had been so clever and quick. Then she saw the rock in his hand. He had hit with that. He dragged the big man down the hill past her. She smelled the death smell.
He dragged and threw him, just as he had thrown old Pedric; how strong he was, like a fighting weasel. The big man rolled farther than Pedric had. Rolled and fell. The dun man ran after him, kicked him, threw him again so he slid down and down onto the highway; the heavy soft thuds of his falling body made her think of the mice she had crushed between her young, sharp teeth.
The thin man went away, down below the road. She crept out to look at Pedric.
The old man was alive, twisted among the rocks. Nosing at him, she could feel his breath, faint and ragged. She knew nothing to do but yowl.
For such a little thing, she had a huge, demanding cry. Leaping to the top of a boulder, she faced the trailers and bawled.
She mewed and cried until a light went on, then another light, spilling into the night like a yellow river. A woman shouted at her to shut up. A door burst open, and a man ran out, hefting a shoe. Then another man, swinging a hunk of firewood; he heaved it at her, and she dodged. Yowling twice more, she fled down the hill behind the thin man who had hurt Pedric.
Down swiftly past the dead man. There, the thin man ran across the dark highway and down again, down the steeper cliff. She was close behind him; humans were so slow. At the edge of the cliff he lifted his hand, she saw the rock and smelled the blood, the rock that had killed the big man, watched him heave the rock away into the sea.
Rain came again, beating into her face. Above her, up the hill, car lights were racing among the trailers. A siren screamed, and men shouted.
She followed the thin man up again, across the road and up the hill, and watched him vanish among the trailers. But in a minute he was back, pushing in among the crowd, crying out with surprise, and then with pain and anger, a mourning cry that, to the little kit’s ears, was as fake as the kitten-mewl of a seagull.
Galloping up the hill through the dark, she drew as close as she could to the killer and tried to catch his scent, but she could not; too many humans were crowded all together. Before, when she had followed him downhill, she had smelled only the dead man’s blood.
Frightened and puzzled at humans, the little cat went down to the dark, empty cave and sat hunched in its yawning mouth, looking out, watching the moving reflections of lights from above, and on the road below. Despite the shouting, she dozed, mewling in her sleep. She woke fearful.
Alone on the hill, she waited. It was her nature to wait, to expect something better to happen. Ragged and starving, bone-thin, outcast by her own kind and without any reason to hope, the small kit was filled with hope.
She thought of the hills her clowder had come from, hills like this one, dripping wet in the rain but, in the sunshine, bright with yellow grass, sweet and rustling above endless, sunstruck sea, and she was filled with hope. She believed that no matter what trouble came, all would be well again if only one waited and watched-and moved swiftly with a fast paw at the right moment.
Closing her round yellow eyes, she dozed. When next she woke, two shadows approached her, padding up through the dark wet grass; two pairs of long, gleaming eyes silvered by the pale sky, two pairs of eyes, watching her.
Joe and Dulcie studied two round yellow eyes peering out at them from the black and dripping grass. They could see no more than the eyes, disembodied in the blackness-until the shadows re-formed themselves, turning into mottled black-and-brown fur.
The waif stepped delicately forward through the sodden grass. She was so thin that the sea wind should have blown her tumbling across the hill. Her narrow little face was all black-and-brown smudges. Her expression was not the innocent look of a normal kitten, but brighter and more intelligent, more lively and knowing than any ordinary cat. Dulcie lifted her paw, enchanted; this kit was like them. Not for an instant did she doubt the wonder she sensed in this small kitten.
But the kit made Joe uneasy.
The two experiences he’d had with cats of their own kind had badly shaken him. First, Kate Osborne, whose skill at shapeshifting had left him nervous and unsettled: to know a human woman who could become a cat, deeply disturbed him. And then Azrael, that other like themselves, black, lecherous, lording it over them, coming onto Dulcie all testosterone and gleaming claws.
Now here was this ragged kitten. Like them. And frightening in her wide-eyed yearning-but before Joe Grey knew what had happened, he had reached a protecting paw to scoop the little kit close to him. Before he knew what he was doing, he was washing her smudgy face.
She had a little, tilted nose, a dish face. How boldly she rubbed against his leg, purring so hard that the ragged rhythm shook her thin body, and shook him, too.
Dulcie came close and licked her face, purring.
But around them, hidden in the night, Joe could sense the clowder of wild cats creeping close, could sense their anger as stealthily they moved closer through the dark wet grass, the wild beasts watching them-as if they did not want the kitten to be with outsiders. The darkness around them felt brittle with feline rage.
Joe stood up tall in the night, glaring into the darkness, daring the beasts to so much as hiss at them.
He caught a startled gleam, but it was quickly gone. He scowled and leered, then licked the kitten’s face.
Dulcie said to the kit, “A man was killed tonight.”
The kit’s eyes widened, she looked up at Dulcie and twitched her long, wet tail. “How did you know to speak to me?”
Dulcie smiled. “I knew. A man was killed tonight, kit, and another man was hurt. Did you see? Can you show us who did this?”
The kit’s yellow eyes grew wide. “I saw,” she said softly. “I was hunting mice, and I saw.”
“Was it someone from the trailers?” Dulcie glanced up the dark hill. “Someone who came from there?” She looked deeply at the kit, her green eyes kind and without guile. “Can you take us to that man? Can you show us his smell?”
The kit looked at Dulcie a long time. Twice she cut her eyes around at their unseen observers. She hissed at them and glowered as Joe had done.
At last she led Joe and Dulcie uphill, passing through the invisible cats. Passing a low growl, and snarls. Beside her, Joe Grey thundered and rumbled. No cat moved to strike them.
Up through the matted wet grass, their paws sodden, then splashing through the mud under the trailers. All the trailers were dark above them; no human was abroad now. Only the scents lingered, human stinks riding on the damp air. The kit sniffed and prowled, trying to sort them out. But no cat on earth could have sorted those smells.
“No,” the kit said. “When I followed him, I could only smell blood.”
They stood in the sopping mud between the grease-coated wheels, their wet fur clinging to their shivering bodies. “Which trailer?” Dulcie said. “Where did he come from?”
“He came out from between them. There.” She cocked her ears toward the trailers. “I didn’t see where exactly. I heard a door shut, then there he was.” Again the kit moved away. They followed her.
“Somewhere here,” she said, scenting at the wheels and at shoe prints all filled with water. But she could find no certain trail.
“We’ll come back,” Dulcie told her, “when this tangle of stinks blows away and when the rain is gone. Maybe then…?”
“Maybe,” said the kit. “Maybe I will see him again, and I can learn his smell. I will watch. I will follow him, and I will find his scent. If the others… if they don’t chase me away for being with you, for talking to you.”
Joe Grey leaped down to the boulders and looked around him. He could feel the clowder watching.
“If any cat,” he growled, “any ragged mangy vermin among you touches this kit, if any moldy creature among you does this kit harm, you will
His eyes blazed into night. “I have your scents. I will track you wherever you go, and I will leave you bleeding and immobile. I will watch the gulls swoop down, to pick meat from your living bones.”
The kit pressed close to Dulcie. “If they try to hurt me, I will go deep in the cave. They won’t come there; they fear the cave. They long for it, they want to go where it leads, but they fear it.” She looked brightly at Dulcie. “I will find the man who hurt Pedric. I will find him, and I will lead you to him.”