It was a little before Thanksgiving when Christina first glimpsed a new shape moving outside of the back door. Cats had been using our backyard as, variously, a refuge from canines, a litterbox and, (we feared) a nursery, for quite a while, with no let-up when we moved in, so such skittering blurs in the backyard were not unusual. On the weekend following the feast, in my capacity as webmaster for our neighborhood association, I posted a description of a lost cat named Audrey in the Missing Pets blog, complete with a link to a page the owner had made with photos of the missing kitty.
Weeks passed, and the backyard visitor became a fixture, playing with Soot and Smoke through the window in the door, and eventually mewing whenever it saw a light on inside. Getting a better look at the feline vagrant, I realized I had seen that face before. It was none other than Audrey. I had until this point resisted Christina's suggestions about putting out food, as I didn't want the cat to become attached to us, or vice-versa. Now that we knew she had an owner, that possibility seemed remote, so I set out a tupperware bowl bearing a few handfuls of our own overfed critters' chow.
We set about contacting the owner. First by strolling down to his house, just a few doors down from ours, then by email and phone. No response. To make matters worse, we couldn't actually claim to have Audrey in hand, as she scampered under the deck whenever the door opened. We tried cutting off handouts, in the hope that she would go exploring for other meal opportunities and find her way home. Nothing seemed to work.
The weather turned a few days after Christmas; winter had begun in earnest. We didn't see Audrey for over a week, and were uncertain whether to be happy for her moving on, perhaps back home, or distressed that her absence coincided with the cold snap. On January 3, she returned. Desperately mewing in the chill wind, she was visibly gaunt. A childhood spent rooting for the coyote in Roadrunner cartoons provided the kernel of a plan.
I bundled myself up and closed off the office from the rest of the house armed only with a small bowl of catfood. Opening the door from the office to the deck, I put a few morsels on the planking, followed by several more on the threshold, and left the door slightly ajar. Drawn by the light and noise, Audrey incautiously devoured the first clump of food, and quickly thereafter caught the scent of the second. Throwing the door wide, I lunged at the pitiful puss; however, my less than cat-like stealth and speed paled next to her actual-cat agility as she darted out of range and into the shadows. As hungry as she was, I wagered that she would return despite the scary man in the sweatpants. Another small mound of food on the deck, followed by another few bits on the threshold, but this time with the door open about a hand's width with a Pac-Man-like trail dribbled well into the room greeted Audrey when she slunk back into view. Peering out the window behind the door, I watched as she wolfed down the first pile of food, then the second, leaving the deck and doorway free of crumbs. Warily sniffing every millimeter of stained concrete and rapidly devouring each triangular nugget as she eased deeper and deeper into our brightly-lit home office/home theatre/guest room. As her twitching tail cleared the arc of the door, it slammed shut behind her.
Forethought had equipped me with thick clothing and gloves, which now seemed fortuitous, as I knew little about Audrey's disposition. While Christina grabbed the cat carrier from the garage, I got to know our guest. Noisy, but not angry, she sniffed, and then licked my outstretched hand to glean the last of the Purina One goodness from it. Taking no chances on losing her again, we coaxed her into the kitty carrier and strolled down a few doors to her owners' address. No answer. Since we'd have an overnight guest that couldn't safely mix with our own feline companions for fear of violence or outdoor-kitty-ichor transmission, Audrey stayed in the garage with a bowl of food while we fetched a disposable litterpan from the store.
The next few days proved quite wretched. Only three houses removed from our own, Audrey's owner had still not contacted us. Audrey, however, proved affectionate, talkative, and voracious. When personal visits and voicemail messages failed, we turned to good ol' text. Using time-honored doorknob-attachment techniques gleaned from takeout restaurant menus and lawn service fliers, I affixed a strongly but carefully worded letter to the door on January 4. At about noon the next day, my phone rang. Sheepish and apologetic for his tardiness, our neighbor was back from vacation at last; he would reclaim the wayward Audrey that night! Four hours later, my phone rang again. This time it was Christina alerting me that we had been burgled, and that the police hadn't seen any of the three cats that should have been in our house.
I arrived first, and received the grand tour of my own ransacked house through the eyes of the responding officer. A sock drawer tossed in a vain search for nonexistent firearms, jewelry boxes raided for sparkly and precious yet worthless heirloom rhinestones, an office stripped of three computers and an HDTV, and a garage fairly glowing orange with powertools left barren and open. While prints were dusted, I stalked Stonebench's many nooks and crannies for the cats. Off the office, in the guest bathroom, on the window ledge in the shower, I found small, terrified Smoke cowering. She backed into the corner, quaking when I reached to pet her. I called for one of the officers to grab the cat carrier from the garage, and eased her into it. One cat found, two to go. I filled a dish with kitty kibble and put it on the back porch, as this technique had been so successful in attracting cats up until then. Christina arrived, and put on a brave face while the police finished their investigation. Once alone, tears fell into her bowl of Wendy's chili. Across the table, outside the back door, we saw something dark move in the porch light. Soot! Affably dim but easily lead by his belly, he had emerged from under the deck when he caught wind of his familiar food. Two cats down, one to go, but no clue as to how to find her.
I made the difficult call to her owner, who was a bit confused, but very understanding. My parents arrived, and my bother and father helped me secure the kicked-in office door for the night. While we chatted, there came a faint meow that could be attributed to neither Soot nor Smoke. No sign of anything out the back door, but the sound seemed to be coming from the other direction. I opened the front door, and circled the house with a flashlight looking for a slinking feline figure. No luck. As I came back in and shut the door behind me, I head the sound again, this time distinctly to my left, in the direction of the coat closet. We had counted ourselves fortunate that nothing in the livingroom had been disturbed, including the still-standing Christmas tree; therefore, neither of us had assessed any damage in the coat closet yet. Open it I did, and out Audrey sprang, with plenty to say besides. It appears that after the thieves went through the side gate and broke in, Soot escaped while Smoke hid. When it came time to open the door to the garage, friendly, conversational Audrey was there to greet them. For some reason, perhaps to avoid drawing notice, or perhaps an affection for cats, instead of letting her escape via the garage door when they opened it to carry the purloined goods away, they put her out of harm's way. Her owner was even further confused at the next call he received: that Audrey, who had been lost and found and lost was once more found. Within the quarter hour, his ex-girlfriend, who may or may not have had joint custody of the wastrel, appeared to scoop her up and hear the tale of how we lost, and then found Smoke, Soot, and Audrey, too.
It's been the better part of a year since the Audrey Saga, as it's become known in the Taylor household, began. We still think of her fairly often, due in no small part to an unintended consequence of the events occurring during her stay with us. As a result of the break-in, we installed a security system to ensure peace-of-mind. With the system came the inevitable window stickers to ward off intruders. When placing them, I put one on the back door (now the only back door) where Audrey used to come a-begging. After a month of being conditioned to seeing her there, the size and shape of the decal sometimes make us do a double-take.