“AJ cat gone.”
I wasn’t a mother for nothing. Mothers know more than the goddamn Shadow knows, seeing as how they’ve got eyes in the backs of their heads and built-in code descramblers more sophisticated than a Dick Tracy secret decoder ring. That was why I had turned to detective work to begin with. Who was better qualified?
So when Leon stood at my door holding a grubby, tear-smeared little white kid by the hand and stated his business, I knew what I was dealing with. Leon wanted to be my first customer.
“That AJ?” I said, nodding at the half-pint.
“Uh-huh,” Leon said. AJ stuck a fluorescent thumb in his mouth and snuffled. I refrained from taking it out and inspecting the stain for toxic chemicals. That much of a mother I ain’t.
Leon was a tall, rangy black kid whose fame in my Northside neighborhood was exceeded only by that of Bill, the hardware store owner. Leon was supposed to be mentally handicapped. Aren’t we all?
I met him while I was working on my first case, which resulted in a commendation for Leon for assisting in the capture of an armed criminal. He got his picture in the paper shaking hands with the mayor of Cincinnati, who is a total loser if you ask me, but that’s beside the point. I’m Leon’s hero. I’m also the only detective he knows. He’s the only kid I know, my own included, who accepts me as a detective, even though I don’t look like anybody on TV. Well,
maybe Columbo. Anyway, if a B-movie actor could reinvent himself as a U.S. president — another loser, in my estimation — no reason I couldn’t be a detective.
“Why don’t you introduce us?” I prompted Leon. He’s not all that mentally deficient, like I said, and generally outdistanced his peers in etiquette.
“This Alfonse Dwayne McManniss, J-Junior,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the little person sitting perched on my sofa. “AJ, this M-Miz Cat.”
I’m Cat to my friends, and Ms. Caliban to my enemies, but Leon, as usual, demonstrated his originality. Besides, I suspected some of his habits were rooted in old Southern traditions. And who am I to quibble with tradition as long as I don’t have to follow it? Sadie had strolled out to see who was there and stopped dead in the middle of the room, her nose in the air and that expression on her face cats get when they smell something bad. My kitties liked Leon but baby humans ranked right up there with flea baths on their list of things to avoid. I edged a box of tissues closer to AJ. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and pulled his head into his ski jacket like a reluctant turtle.
“So AJ’s lost his cat.” See what I mean? Doesn’t take a goddamn Philip Marlowe to figure it out, just a mother.
Two heads nodded.
I avoided the dead-end question mothers usually ask: Where did you lose it? I asked the next best thing.
“Where was the cat last time you saw it?”
“At AJ house,” said his spokesperson patiently. Where did I think? Riverfront Coliseum?
When did it disappear?”
This was Monday. That meant they could file a missing persons report, but somehow I didn’t think it would be welcomed at District 5.
“Did you put up signs in the neighborhood?”
“AJ too little. He can’t write. But I wrote some for him, and we p-put ‘em down on Hamilton Avenue, and on AJ s-street, Apple, and on Cherry, and C-Colerain, and Chase, and K-Kirby, and —.”
“Okay, I get the picture. Did you call the SPCA?”
“We rode over there on my b-bike. It w-wasn’t no cats like AJ cat.”
“What’s AJ’s cat look like?”
“He black, got some w-white on his chest.”
They must be kidding. Half the cats in Northside looked like that and they bred enough to keep the SPCA well stocked.
I began to wonder if I couldn’t talk AJ into the idea that one of the cats at the shelter was his cat, only it had grown since Tuesday.
Leon raised his hands and held them about six inches apart. If you’re having trouble visualizing this part, let me say that my gray tiger Sophie couldn’t squeeze her belly into this space.
“Male or female?”
Now we were getting somewhere.
Leon looked at AJ. AJ shrugged. Leon turned to me and shrugged.
“Four months? Six months? Eight months?”
“What’s his name?”
“Blackie.” AJ spoke through his thumb.
Why is it that when I’m with Leon I always feel that I’m playing the straight man?