Cat and the Lost Kitten
from Two-Shot Foul
Detectives-in-training can’t afford to turn down a case, no matter how small.
“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?”
“A J 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?
“Okay,” I said, standing up.
“You gonna f-find Blackie?”
Suddenly Leon was all business. “Show her you m-money, AJ.”
Shorty stuck his paw in his pocket, rooted around, and brought up a fistful of change in which pennies predominated.
“Keep it,” I said. “When I start incurring expenses, I’ll let you know.”
“W-Where you goin’ to?”
“We’re going to AJ’s house so I can check out the scene of the, uh, disappearance.”
Now, you might think it would be beneath my dignity to take on a missing cat case. To tell you the truth, I never had much dignity to begin with and raising three kids put a big dent in it. My two oldest were attempting to continue the process. They seemed to think that since their father, Fred the Frugal, had moved on to that suburbia in the sky, I’d need more of what they considered advice and I considered interference. They had been a real pain in the ass since I moved to Northside and announced my intention of training to be a private investigator. They would have me committed except that they’d lose what little free babysitting they managed to squeeze out of me, which, I might add, is more than you’d think if you heard them carry on about what an unsafe neighborhood I live in.
Lucky for me I didn’t discuss my cases with them.
My tenant and sometime sidekick Kevin O’Neill was coming in as we were going out.
“On a case, Mrs. C?”
He always says that when I wear my mirror sunglasses.
Hell, I was interested in this case, and sympathetic to boot. It was February, and even though we were having a mild spell, Canada could send us the big chill any old day. The last snow had almost melted, but if I had lost a kitty, I’d have been worried. And kitties, as everybody knows who’s lived with one, can be anywhere. They have that ability to slip into a fifth dimension whenever you need to give them medicine or take them to the vet. When mine disappeared, they were usually at Kevin’s, scarfing down gourmet cat yummies or snoozing on his Barcalounger. But they’d taken their share of unannounced vacations.
If this kitty was a tom, he might be taking a sex tour of Northside, playing his part in the population explosion. I didn’t want to have to explain that to AJ, who was wiping suspiciously wet hands all over my beige cloth upholstery.
AJ lived on Apple, a block down from the IGA, which opened up all kinds of possibilities I didn’t want to think about. It was a three-story two-family house, one of those blocky brick Northside types which make up in basement and attic what they lack in closets, from a feline perspective, that is. The front yard looked pretty neat, but my heart sank when I saw the back: someone appeared to be in the middle of a major home improvement project and there was all kinds of crap piled up back there. A kitty kiddieland. We went in the side door and up the stairs.
“AJ? That you?” a female voice called.
“It’s us, M-Miz Hedges.”
“That my granny.” On his own turf, AJ was becoming downright expansive.
“Oh, hi, Leon. Who’d you bring to visit?”
Mrs. Hedges was a mature woman in her prime, about my age. She was on the thin and weathered side, with graying brown hair pulled back in a stubby ponytail. She wore turquoise polyester slacks, a print blouse, and trotters.
“This M-Miz Cat. She a detective. She going to find AJ cat.”
“Catherine Caliban, Mrs. Hedges. The kids asked me to help them, and I agreed.”
“Lord have mercy, AJ and his cat’s fixing to drive me round the bend. I ain’t never seen nobody so attached to an animal. ‘Course, we had cats on the farm growing up, mousers mostly, and they came and went and didn’t nobody ever pay them no never mind. If they was there they was there and if they wasn’t they wasn’t. Want a Coke?”
She had a cigarette going in the kitchen, so we sat down at the kitchen table to talk.
“So you’re a detective? Do you specialize in lost cats or what?”
“I’m not licensed yet, so I specialize in anything that comes around. I didn’t like to disappoint the kids, and I’ve found a few lost cats in my day, but you know as well as I do what the chances are.”
We both glanced at the kids, who were waiting for me to pull off a miracle. She gave me an exaggerated wink.
“Okay, shoot. You going to interrogate me?”
“How old was Blackie? AJ didn’t seem to know.”
“Lord, honey, I don’t know. He’s just a little scrap of a thing. AJ found him out back maybe a month ago during that real cold spell, so we took him in. He was a mess. Full of worms and mites and I don’t know what-all.”
“But he was eating solid food okay?”
She blew out a puff of smoke. “He ate anything he could get his paws on. And Loreen, that’s my daughter, AJ’s mama, she fixed him one of those fancy little boxes of sand and he jumped right in it and did his business. So we told AJ he could keep him.”
“Has he ever disappeared before?”
“No, he follows AJ around just like a little puppy. Cute little rascal, come to that.”
“Friendly? Outgoing? Likes people?”
“Loves everybody, far as I can see. Not a bit afraid, like some cats. Sometimes when AJ was gone he’d go downstairs to visit poor Marion, Mrs. Kay. Now that’s a woman’s had more than her share of troubles. ‘Course, that apartment’s empty now. But lots of times she would leave the door open into the hall, and he’d just walk right in like King Solomon, calm as you please. Fact, it must’ve been Marion was the last one to see him, near as anybody can recollect.”
“She saw him on Tuesday?”
“That’s right. Says she was kind of distracted on account of packing and waiting for the Goodwill and all, but she remembers seeing him. Gave him some tuna fish in the kitchen to keep him out from under foot.”
I shook my head. It couldn’t be that easy.
“So Marion was packing the day Blackie disappeared? Where did she go?”
“She moved in with her sister in College Hill. Said the apartment felt too empty to her, bless her heart.”
“Do you have her new address and phone number?”
“Well, yes, I do. What you want it for?”
“Well, cats are naturally curious little beasts, Mrs. Hedges. They love to explore open boxes and suitcases and bags. Sometimes they climb into something and go to sleep, wake up in a different place.”
“You mean that little rascal might’ve got hisself packed? But Marion would’ve called me right away if she found Blackie.”
“Maybe she hasn’t found him yet. It hasn’t been a week. Maybe there are boxes she hasn’t unpacked.”
“But he’d make noise, wouldn’t he? I never knew such a little thing make so much noise when suppertime rolled around.”
“Well, maybe he’s in a basement or an attic where there’s nobody around to hear him.”
I heard a snuffle from across the table and realized I was waxing a mite graphic for little ears.
“I hate to have you bother poor Marion about a lost cat after what she’s been through.”
“M-maybe the Goodwill took B-Blackie.”
Maybe I should offer Leon a goddamn partnership.
“What did the Goodwill truck take?”
“Why, I don’t know what-all they took. Her sofa and living room chairs, I guess. Juky’s bedroom furniture. Maybe some of hers, I don’t know.”
“Tell you what. I’ll start with Goodwill. If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll let you know, and we’ll have to give Marion a call. Now what’s her full name again?”
“Marion Kay. Mrs. Bashford Kay. You know.”
“Remember what her living room furniture looked like?”
“Seems like it was kind of a brown plaid Colonial. Chairs was the same as the sofa.”
“All right, I’ll start there.” I looked at the name I’d written down. “Am I supposed to recognize this name?”
“Oh, honey, her boy Julius was that basketball player they found. You know — down by the Mill Creek where they’re doing all that digging.” Her voice dropped as she ground out her cigarette. “He was murdered and they still don’t know who done it!”
I figured this was one case I could solve on my own — well, not counting Leon’s advice and counsel. The last time around I ended up recruiting every one of my tenants in the old Catatonia Arms. And lucky for me, nobody had yet proposed a rent reduction in exchange for services rendered. But I didn’t anticipate any legal complexities requiring consultation with my resident attorney, Alice Rosenberg, unless Goodwill wouldn’t release Blackie into AJ’s custody. Her roomie, Melanie Carter, might come in handy if I had to move heavy furniture around, but I didn’t expect to need Mel’s expertise in the martial arts for the missing kitten caper. Ditto for Kevin’s astonishing knack for producing unregistered firearms. If I succeeded in my mission, Kevin could cook the celebration dinner — one of his best skills. Moses Fogg, an ex-cop and our newest resident, I would hold in reserve in case I was dealing with a kidnapping. Of course, if Blackie had been transported across state lines, I’d need to involve the feds. In fact, the animal residents of the Catatonia Arms had more to offer than their human counterparts, and I could envision sending them in as a team to flush out a kitty in hiding. When I left, however, the cats were all sacked out on various heat registers like little warm piles of dust rags and there was nary a beagle in sight.
The Northside Goodwill store is where I do most of my shopping for birthday presents. You’d be amazed what you can find there. Old rock-and-roll records. Ceramic condiment pots that look like beehives. Old chemistry sets with only a few of the chemicals missing. Mirro cookie presses — the kind everybody used to have and nobody has anymore. On a lucky day, a poodle skirt. I don’t hang out in the furniture section, but that’s where I was that day.
Not a brown plaid sofa in sight, either, and that’s more astonishing than you might think. The only thing Northside has more of is black cats with white on their chests.
“Whatcha looking for, hon?”
“A brown plaid sofa and chairs. A Mrs. Kay donated them. Marion Kay. They would have arrived on Tuesday.”
“Had your eye on ‘em, had you?”
“Well, no. It’s just that we’ve lost something and we think there’s a chance it could be in the furniture somewhere.”
“Uh-huh. Well, I tell you, if they was just picked up on Tuesday, they might not have left the warehouse yet. They take everything over there, check it out, repair it, and clean it up. You might not think they do, but that’s what they say. You go over there and look.”
She told me how to get to the warehouse and I thanked her.
Something about the way I said it tipped her off that I was laboring under a delusion.
“Oh, I don’t work here. I just shop here. They should pay me a commission for all the stuff I sell, just walking around the store. But I wouldn’t take it, anyway. I like to speak my mind. When I see junk, I call it junk.”
The warehouse was only a few blocks away and I was turned over to a morose individual who was probably not playing with a full deck.
“You want a brown plaid sofa? Now, we ain’t allowed to sell anything right out of the warehouse. You can’t even reserve anything. You have to go to the store and buy it.”
“I don’t want to buy it. I just want to look at it. Some people in the house it came from have lost something and they think it might be in the furniture.”
“Oh. What’d they lose?”
I knew he wasn’t going to budge until I told him. “A kitten.”
“Oh, well, we haven’t found any kittens here.”
“Could I just take a peek at the furniture?”
“Well, I guess so. But like I say, we haven’t found no kittens. We would’ve found something like that. I thought you was meaning a watch or something. Why, you’d never get a kitten into a divan like that. I mean, not so’s nobody wouldn’t know it was there.”
This guy had obviously never lived with cats. “Let’s see. Callahan, you said the name was?”
“No, Caliban is my name. The lady who donated the furniture was named Kay. Mrs. Marion Kay or Mrs. Bashford Kay.”
“How you spell that?”
I told him. He shuffled through a clipboard of papers, then decided it was the wrong clipboard. He then set about commencing to find the right clipboard, then asked me how to spell Callahan, then asked somebody in coveralls who had just walked in. And Coveralls, without a glance at any clipboards, offered to take me back to look at the furniture.
It didn’t look promising, I admit. A desk and dresser flanked a sofa with two overstuffed chairs piled on top, and two lamps on top of that. A linoleum kitchen table lay on its side, with a disassembled bed frame propped up against it. I sighed.
I got out the can of tuna I’d bought at the IGA, popped the top, and went to work.
Coveralls removed the chairs, eyeing the tuna dubiously.
“Blackie,” I called softly. “Kitty, kitty.”
From the depths of the sofa, there issued a faint, pitiful squeak.
“He’s in there, and he’s alive!” I said, almost hugging Coveralls in my excitement. Like I said, dignity was not one of my more prominent qualities.
“Well, I’ll be darned. Now, how we going to get the little fella out?”
I yanked off the cushions, and was rewarded by a faint but plaintive wail. I shoved my hand down between the back and the seat and felt something. But it wasn’t furry. I considered leaving it there, but I couldn’t. As a mother retired from active duty, I still felt the pull of the old mystery: what long-lamented family heirlooms lurked in the depths of the family sofa? I extricated a small brown notebook and tossed it aside.
“Help me turn this sucker over,” I said to Coveralls. “Just lay it on its back.”
Up in one corner there was a sizeable hole in the black gauzy fabric that had been used to line the bottom. I applied tuna and a black head emerged. I slid a hand in and extricated one Blackie the cat, looking considerably the worse for wear but alert enough to bury his head in the tuna can. Goddamn, I love happy endings.
“Well, I’ll be darned. Would you look at that?” Coveralls was grinning as if he’d just assisted at a birth. I hated to tell him that the kitten already had a name.
I was almost to the car when he came running after me. “Hey, lady, you forgot your notebook.”
I’ll skip the tearful reunion between boy and cat and let you imagine it for yourself. I had to warn Mrs. Hedges about the dangers of overfeeding a cat who’d been fasting a few days; your first instinct is to empty out the refrigerator into the cat dish. I also had to explain a few basic principles of feline behavior. I left out the part about Blackie eating bugs in the warehouse at night.
Leon beamed at everybody like a godfather at a wedding. Then he took me aside and assured me he’d make up whatever costs AJ’s piggy bank wouldn’t cover.
“That’s real generous of you, Leon, but my only expense was a 99-cent can of tuna.”
Look, I know I should’ve billed them for my time, but I’m a soft touch. I’m also unlicensed, so it would be illegal for me to accept any money at this point. Plus, to tell you the truth, I was a little abashed when I realized that it was Leon who’d come up with the Goodwill angle.
But Kevin was impressed. “High five, Mrs. C! Any detective can find something as big as a missing person, but it takes special skills to find something as small as a kitten. He didn’t even leave a credit card trail for you to follow. And you didn’t have to pay informants to rat him out or anything.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and all it cost me was a 99-cent can of tuna.”
Look for D. B. Borton’s Two-Shot Foul, coming soon to your online book dealer or local bookstore.