Of all the treehouses, in all the backyards, in all the world, she climbs into mine. The broken boards and empty gaps that formed the walls of the treehouse left stripes of light and shadow across her face. Then she stepped forward.
She was the kind of dame boys would kill for. Golden hair in curls, tied with pale blue ribbons. A matching blue dress and a face that could make a kid sucker punch his best friend just for a chance at her. Her eyes were puffy and red—I hoped it was hay fever.
“What can I do for you, doll?” I moved behind the plank set on two cinder blocks that served as my desk and dropped onto the crate I used as a chair, ignoring the long creak it let out. I hadn’t had a case in weeks and the endless chocolate-raspberry milkshakes I’d used to pass the time were taking a toll.
She set a small card on the desk in front of me.
Cole Club, P.I.
No case too big
No pet too small
My business card. Not bad for a kid in the fourth grade. I looked at her and raised my eyebrow.
“My name is Sophia Atwood.”
I nodded, even though I already knew her name. A girl like that you don’t forget, even if you only see her briefly across a crowded playground.
“I saw your card and I need help.” She looked at her hands and then back at me. “Mittens is gone,” she wailed, and then let loose a torrent from her baby blues.
Darn, it wasn’t allergies. I pushed a box of tissues across the desk—I kept it nearby for times like these—and looked out the window, giving the gal a chance to pull herself together. Missing pet cases were my bread and butter. They weren’t glamorous but they payed my tab at the comic book store.
“Can you describe Mittens?” I heard her hiccup a few times and blow her nose before answering.
“He—” She hiccuped again. “He’s gray with white feet.” She sniffled a bit.
I picked up my pencil—ignoring the teeth marks from the word search in this morning’s paper—and scratched out a few notes. “Any other distinguishing features?”
“My grandpa shut his tail in a door when he was a kitten and it’s been crooked ever since. Mittens still hasn’t forgiven him.” Her smile was short-lived.
Crooked tail, that would make it easier. I jotted it down. I didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco with the Anderson’s dog. “When did you last see Mittens?”
“I fed him breakfast yesterday and then he went outside and jumped over the back fence. He hasn’t been back since.” The moll broke down again and wailed, “He never misses a meal.” At this rate, I’d have to buy another box of tissues before my next case. I’d counted 48 of the 74 nails in the ceiling before the crying stopped.
“I charge a dollar a day, plus expenses. I’ll need the first dollar now with the remainder paid after I close the case.”
She nodded, still clutching a tissue, and pulled a change purse from her pocket. I watched as she counted out a dollar in nickels and dimes on my desk. I looked at the cat clock hanging on the wall—the eyes and tail no longer moved but it still kept time. “It’s two right now. I’ll search this afternoon and let you know what I find tonight.”
She nodded again. “I’ll be waiting. I live in the big yellow house next to the dog park.”
I knew the place.
I watched her climb down through the hole in the floor and then dropped the change into a piggy bank I kept stashed in the left cinder block under my desk. You get used to handling a lot of change in my business.
I pushed back from the desk. I was going to need some help for this one. I picked up a tin can from a hook next to the window, pulling the string connected to it taut and ringing the bell on the other end.
Jimmy the Nose lived in the house behind mine, his bedroom facing the treehouse. I called him the Nose because he was the best informant south of Main Street. And because of his abnormally large schnoz. His sister volunteered at the animal shelter so he was my go-to-guy for missing pets.
“What’s shakin’, sherlock?” Jimmy’s voice was tinny over the string and just this side of understandable. We’d jawed about upgrading to walkie-talkies but never seemed to have the clams.
“Got a new case. Standard M-’n-P. Gray cat with white socks and a bent rudder. Answers to the name of Mittens. Last seen at his owner’s house on 5th and Jefferson thirty-one hours ago.” We’d worked together long enough there was no need for pleasantries.
“According to my sister, it’s been slow at the pound. Other than Mr. Rhinne’s doxie, nothin’s been through all weekend.” I could hear Jimmy breathing through his prodigious proboscis as he mulled it over. “I did see Butch and his cronies carrying something down by the Millpond this morning. Might want to check that out.”
“Butch, huh?” Jimmy must have heard my grimace because he told me to be careful before he hung up. Butch was the biggest fifth grader in town and he never let anyone forget it. His sidekicks weren’t far behind in size, either. Being a scrawny third grader, Jimmy would be no help. No, I would need some muscle for this one. Time to call in a favor.
I climbed out of the treehouse and carefully pulled my ride from its place in the shed, leaving a bike-shaped hole in the web of rusted tools, broken flower pots, and forgotten car parts.
Brent Stanton lived on the top of Clearhorn Drive, the steepest road in town. Great for sledding in the winter but I wasn’t looking forward to the long climb in the summer sun. I debated whether the climb was better than eating a knuckle sandwich from Butch. It was a close call but I stood over my pedals and started the ascent.
The first-string fullback for the Craterville High School football team even though he was only a sophomore, Brent was an old client of mine. He’d suspected his girlfriend was cheating and asked me to follow her. I’d caught her in another player’s letterman jacket and, in return, he helped me out from time to time.
Brent was under the hood of his car, a broken-down old Camaro he’d bought with his own money a few months after his 16th birthday. His father believed in teaching his children the value of a dollar.
“Got that jalopy runnin’ yet?” I wheezed a little, still out of breath from the climb.
Brent pulled his head out of the engine compartment when he heard my question. “Not yet. Still having a problem with the timing.” He wiped his hands on a rag and looked me in the eye. “Got a new case?”
“Yep, missing cat. Looks like Butch and his pals might be involved.”
He nodded and dropped the hood closed with a clang. “I’ll grab my bike.”
After he turned around I said, “Penny says hi.” I grinned as I saw a blush reach his ears. Penelope was my older sister, two years older than Brent and a senior in the same high school. He’d been sweet on her ever since they’d met while he was helping me with the Anderson case.
I filled him in on the details as we rode to the Millpond. Butch’s gang had set up a clubhouse in the heavy growth on the small lake’s shore. It was a ramshackle heap of piled rocks, fallen branches, and rough plywood. We parked our bikes in a stand of trees and walked the last fifty yards.
Cyril Desjardins sat on a large rock outside the clubhouse, making patterns in the dirt with a small branch. A new transplant to Craterville, Cyril had attached himself to Butch and his gang. Given his rotund form and slight lisp, he was less a member and more a joke but he was too slow to notice. Apparently, he was on guard duty today.
I motioned Brent to one side, where he could sneak up unseen. Letting a hostile informant think he has the upper hand helps loosen his lips. Seeing me, Cyril jumped off his rock and stood in front of the rusted sheet of corrugated metal that served as a door to the clubhouse.
“I can’t let you in without the password, Cole.” His grimace was apologetic.
“Don’t worry, Cyril, I know the password.” Or a password, at least.
I raised my voice. “Butch is a big palooka with the morals of a sticky-fingered ferret.”
Butch was the first one out. A fifth grader who’d been held back twice, he was a foot taller than his two sidekicks but they made up the difference in width. His lips twisted in a snarl when he saw me. We didn’t have the best of relationships.
“Whad’ya want, tinkerbell?” Butch tended to lower his voice and add a growl to make himself seem tougher.
“Just lookin’ for a missing cat. Gray with white feet. Answers to the name of Mittens. Seen it?” I kept my gaze focused on his face.
His eyes narrowed and he moved his right hand behind his back, then his poker face returned. “Don’t know nothin’ ’bout no cat. How ’bout you, Hal? Hugh?” His cronies shook their heads—identical twins, only the part in their hair was different. Cyril looked confused as he stood behind the two. “Guess you’ll have to look somewheres else.”
Bingo. Now to get a better look at that hand. “I have an eyewitness that puts you and the cat together this morning.” I crossed my arms in front of my chest.
His face reddening, Butch took a step forward and pulled back his fist to throw a punch. His right fist. There were several rows of angry red lines criss-crossing it, just the right size to have been left by a perturbed pussycat. That was conformation. Now to get time and location.
“Ah, ah, ah. None of that.” Brent stepped from his hiding spot and grabbed the menacing mitt before it could fall. I could see the calculation in Butch’s eyes as he considered the odds. I doubted I was part of his equation.
Butch’s arm relaxed and Brent let him go. “I didn’t do nothin’. Just tried to pick it up and it went crazy.”
“Where and when, exactly, did it go crazy?” I grinned. Sometimes I really like cats.
“In the alley off 8th, behind Miller’s.” Butch pointed back toward town. “Around seven this morning.”
I nodded to Brent and we headed back to our bikes. I ruminated on the clues as we hopped on our rides and pedaled off.
“That’s near Mrs. Johnson’s. She might have seen the puss.” Mrs. Johnson was the town’s resident cat lady. Miller’s store was only a block and a half away from her home.
I nearly ran into Brent’s back tire as he screeched to a halt.
“You’re scared of a little old lady? What would Penny say?” I thought I’d get a few more digs in before he left.
“Mrs Johnson is crazy! She tried to poison me!” His hands were white knuckled on the handlebars.
“You didn’t have to eat the cookie.”
“I was trying to be polite.” He pushed off again. “You’re on your own. I’m going back to work on my car.”
I grinned a little as I watched him ride off.
Mrs. Johnson’s house was set back from the road, behind a small garden. A path wound through a riot of white, yellow, and pink blossoms. Petunias, daffodils, and tulips, among others. She loved to talk about her garden so I’d learned a few of the names.
Her front porch was a different sort of chaos. Every available space was covered by a cat sitting, sleeping, or bathing, with several trying all three at once. I gingerly stepped over the large tabby sprawled in front of the welcome mat and pressed the doorbell.
“Just a moment.” Mrs. Johnson was a spry old bird in her early 70s. I heard her shooing cats away from the door before it opened.
“Hello, Mrs. Johnson.”
“Why, Cole Club, as I live and breathe. Have another case, do you?” She stepped back to let me in. “Come into the kitchen and I will make you some tea. I just pulled a batch of cookies from the oven.” A parade of cats followed her toward the kitchen, hoping for a treat.
We passed through her sitting room. It was cozy, with two high-backed wing chairs facing the fireplace and separated by a small table. Cats perched atop most of the other pieces of furniture. A few of them raised their heads as I entered before going back to sleep. There was a cup and saucer on the table next to one of the chairs. As long as I’d known Mrs. Johnson, I’d never seen her sit in the other chair.
The kitchen was the one room in the house where the cats didn’t get their way. It was blue and white, with matching china displayed in a cupboard and a small round table for guests. When I’d asked how she kept the cats off the counter, she’d just smiled and said it was a secret.
“Here we are, dearie.” She set a plate of shortbread cookies on the table along with another cup and saucer.
I took a sip of tea—milk and five sugars, just how I liked it—and then slipped a couple of cookies into my pocket when she turned to sit down. Her shortbread cookies looked good but, as Brent had found out, you never knew what they would taste like. Going by smell, she’d mixed in catnip this time.
I waited until she settled in and took a bite from a cookie. “How’s the research coming, ma’am?”
“Quite well, quite well.” She brushed crumbs from the sides of her mouth with a white lace napkin. “My paper on ‘The Social Dynamics and Hierarchies of Feral Feline Populations Along the Urban-Rural Boundary in Small-town America’ was accepted for publication.”
“That’s swell, ma’am. Congratulations.” I had tried reading her last paper but had given up after having to look up ten words while just working through the abstract.
“What about you, dearie?” She set her cup down and folded her hands in her lap. “Another missing tom?”
I nodded. “He’s gray with white feet and a crooked tail. Last seen in this vicinity around seven this morning.”
“That crooked tail doesn’t sound familiar but let me check my notes.” She pulled a large research notebook from among the cookbooks on the counter and flipped through the pages. “Nope, no cat with a bent tail stopped by yesterday or today. Sorry.”
I smiled and shook my head before taking another sip of tea. False leads were common in this business and you had to roll with the punches.
“What ever happened to that boy that was with you a few cases ago. He wore a jacket with a big C, I think.”
“Brent? He still gives me a hand from time to time. I just saw him today, in fact.”
“Such a nice young man. And he liked my cookies. You should take some extra for him.”
“Yes—yes, I should.” I grinned as I added a few more cookies to the stash in my pocket.
It was almost dinnertime when I left Mrs. Johnson’s. Time to fill in the client before wrapping it up for the night. I’d get a fresh start in the morning.
I rode the long way to Sophia’s house. This was the time of day the Andersons liked to walk their dog at the dog park and I didn’t want to run into them.
Sophia’s house was bright yellow in the light from the summer sun still high in the sky. I remembered when they had painted it a year ago, soon after they moved in. Canary yellow was not a popular color in Craterville.
I parked my bike next to the porch and climbed the wooden steps to the front of the old Victorian. The overwhelming fragrance from the planters hanging between the columns made me sneeze a few times. I always had a problem with gardenias. After I rang the bell, I heard footsteps and Sophia’s voice yelling “I’ll get it!” from behind the door.
She looked even better when her eyes weren’t red and bloodshot from crying. She hustled me in and shut the door behind me, directing me up the staircase that filled the foyer.
“Who is it, Sophie?” That must be her mother.
“Just a friend from school.” Sophia yelled back.
I raised an eyebrow.
“They didn’t want me to hire you. They think Mittens will come back on his own,” Sophia whispered as we proceeded up the staircase.
I was assaulted by a profusion of pink as I entered her room: pink curtains, pink chair, pink rug, pink bed, pink elephants. I reeled a bit and sat on a chair, waiting for the elephants to disappear.
As my head stopped spinning, I took a better look around. It was always good to know more about your clients than they wanted you to. The room was clean, not a ribbon or stuffed animal out of place. She picked up a crumpled piece of paper. I only made out the word ‘Missing’ before she crushed it into a ball and dropped it in a pink trash can. I could see more inside.
“I wanted to put up posters but my parents wouldn’t let me.” She sat on the edge of the bed, crossed her legs primly, and smiled.
I looked away. Above her bed were several pairs of pink ballet slippers, hanging from hooks.
“I take classes on the other side of town, near the mayor’s house.” She’d followed my gaze. “Did you find out anything about Mittens?”
“He was seen this morning near 8th Street and animal control hasn’t picked him up. I’m sure he’s still in the area. I’ll pick up the search tomorrow morning.” Putting a positive spin on my report was second nature by now. ‘Never let the client lose hope or you lose a client’ was the second rule of being a P.I. ‘Always get payment up front’ was the first.
“Thank you, Cole.” Sophia’s smile faded and she sniffled. That was my cue to get out of there. I made my goodbyes and promised her results before hightailing it outside.
The next morning, after breakfast, I pulled my bike from its place in the shed and headed down the street. At this time of day, Fisherman’s Market would be my first stop. Stray cats tended to congregate while the morning delivery of fish was being cleaned.
I was a block away and just smelling the Market when I saw him—gray, white paws, bent rudder. He was sitting in the Franklin’s front yard, cleaning a front claw. Must have already been to the Market. I slowly laid my bike down in the grass. Catching a lost cat isn’t like catching a dog. You can’t just bribe them with treats, you have to gain their trust.
“Here kitty, kitty.” I reached in my pocket for one of Mrs. Johnson’s catnip cookies but Mittens was off and running. He headed straight over the fence into the Franklin’s backyard. I’d spent several weeks earlier this summer canvasing the neighborhood, following cats around, identifying bolt holes and preferred transit routes. I knew where he was going. I just needed to get there first.
I yanked open the Franklin’s gate and ran toward the back hedge. The gap underneath the bushes was smaller than I remembered but I squeaked by with only a couple of scratches. In the next yard, a brick barbecue gave me the boost I needed over the fence.
All that was left was Mr. Topher’s yard. After swinging open the gate, I ran to the patio and sat down in a chair.
The timing was perfect. Mittens ducked under a nearby fence and stopped, eyeing me suspiciously. But this time I was ready with the cookie.
I held the cookie out at cat level. A breath of wind caught the scent of catnip and Mittens edged closer. You have to be patient with an unknown cat. Let them come to you. I didn’t move.
Mittens came even closer, barely out of arm's reach. I set the cookie down.
That did it. Inside of a minute, we were best friends. Two more cookies and he was mass of warm, purring putty in my arms.
Mittens slumped contentedly in the basket hanging from my handlebars. He didn’t even complain about the bump when I turned into my driveway and headed toward the backyard. Those cookies from Mrs. Johnson had really done a number on him.
Sophia was standing under the treehouse when I reached it. Must have really missed the little bugger. Today she wore a white dress with an oversized white sun hat. Even her hands were covered in white gloves with a bit of lace. She held them out and Mittens jumped into them. Even though the cookies were long gone, I still smelled a bit of catnip.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” The missing mouser was now rolling on the ground and batting playfully at Sophia’s hands. “How much do I owe you?”
“I found him in the first twenty four hours and there were no unforeseen expenses.” I knelt and rubbed the tabby’s tummy. “Since you paid for a day up front, we’re square.”
She leaned in and kissed my cheek. Again, the smell of catnip—this time with a hint of lavender. I pulled my head out of the clouds and watched her sashay away, Mittens and gloves seemingly inseparable.
That afternoon, I was in the kitchen watching my mom make lunch, celebrating another successfully closed case with a chocolate-raspberry milkshake, when Jimmy skidded into the room at full speed.
“It was…the mayor’s…cat!” Jimmy managed between pants.
“What? Which cat?”
“The one you just found! Turn on the TV, channel 3.”
Mom turned on the little thirteen inch black and white TV she kept in the kitchen and switched the channel. “Mayor Clayton and his family were very thankful to the young lady, awarding her a fifty dollar reward for finding their lost cat, Mittens.” There on the screen, in all her glory, was Sophia, accepting a check from the mayor with a smile from ear to ear.
The dame had played me and played me good. I pushed my glass across the counter. “Hit me again, Mom. And make it a double.”