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Cat Tracker

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The lady on the phone took a moment to compose herself. When her crying had stopped, she tried to explain the situation to me.

"I searched and searched everywhere," she said. "And I talked to everyone I could find."

She was talking about Daisy, her cat.

"So I decided to call you," she said apologetically. I knew that tone. It was the tone of a disbeliever. A disbeliever with a problem.

"I'm glad you called," I reassured her. "How long has she been missing?"

People put up fliers when they lose a cat, but most people wouldn't think of hiring a tracker. Fewer people know that urban trackers even exist. It's not the kind of work to depend on for a living. I had put up a little notice at the corner pet store, where a friend worked. It contained all the essential information.

"Two days," she replied.

Not bad, I thought. There's a pretty good chance of finding a lost animal for up to about two weeks. More than two weeks and I won't take the case.

"You know my fee," I half asked. "After the track, I don't accept any unless I find your pet. But I'd never turn down a free meal." That's because of the fasting.

She agreed and asked if she could come along on the track. I told her that was a good idea, and we arranged to meet at the site later in the evening. After I hung up, I pushed aside my half-eaten breakfast. Better for a city tracker not to eat before a track. Out in the woods, on the plains and in the desert, trackers use their sight, following footprints, broken twigs, droppings, even kills to track an animal. But in the city, where asphalt and concrete cover most everything in sight, we mainly rely on smell and hearing. And fasting helps. That gets the senses anxious, especially the stomach. And the nose picks up things it usually ignores, the ears start hearing better. Evolutionarily, that's probably the way man survived thousands of years ago. The senses acted as instruments for locating food. And they were triggered by hunger.

My last track for a city cat had been quite a while before. I had had a full 24 hours to fast that time. And that track was unsuccessful. The cat had gotten loose in a near-west-side neighborhood pocked by gutted houses, garbage-strewn lots, and stray dogs. That cat probably dug itself into some unreachable hole because of those roving dogs. They track too, and much better than I.

But back to the present track. I met the owner, Julie, outside her house on Bissell, near Armitage. Julie's house, an old frame job with that shingle siding covering the front and two sides, faces west and is in a constant face-off with both the Ravenswood and Howard el lines. But it was late, and the Ravenswood had stopped running for the day. The less noise the better. Cats are active at night and tend to hide out during the day. I had to be all ears, and noisy trains couldn't help. It seemed fairly quiet, except for the occasional passing car on the front road. So I got down to business.

The cat had disappeared in front of the house two nights earlier, after being let out to rummage around with Julie's two other cats. The other two, a quiet tabby and an enormous black-and-white male, had known this routine for years. But the lost cat was new and had disappeared after only five nights. That was no surprise. It probably wandered off to explore, then got confused and just kept going; maybe it got scared and ran fast, then couldn't find its way back. The location of the house could have contributed to its confusion. Not only was it bordered by an alley and the el on the rear, but a side alley ran to its right. To an animal that stands six inches from the ground, one unfamiliar alleyway could look like any other, and one set of back stairs could be confused with another. I was beginning to think like a cat.

"Well, what do we do first?" Julie asked.

"We think like a cat," I told her.

"Well this cat was a kitten," she said. "And I don't know if she thinks like a cat yet."

"Fine," I said. "Then we'll think like a kitten."

We set off down the alley. The first order of business was to check around the back porches and stairs of nearby houses that resembled Julie's. She called out to the cat and we listened. Nothing doing. We retraced our steps and started again, this time looking into curving holes and gaps under fences and stairs, cat-sized holes and generally inviting places.

As we walked down the alleyway I wondered about neighbors who might see us prowling in the night. Any bet they figured us for a couple of thieves casing houses. But I pushed that out of my mind. That was thinking like a human, not a cat.

We covered the entire alley. Nothing.

"What do we do now?" asked Julie.

I took a deep breath. "I'll try a scenting."

"You mean try and pick up a scent?"

"Yep," I said.

She took a deep breath. "I can't smell anything but garbage," she said to me.

"Fortunately," I said, "it rained early this morning and that tends to smother some of that garbage smell. But I know what you mean."

Crouching down, I struck out again, trying to keep close to the back of the houses, away from the garbage cans on the other side of the alley. Julie followed.

Lots of smells were in the air. Fresh-cut grass streamed from a yard, coffee drifted out from a house, stale beer leaked from a back porch. But no cat. When we reached the back of Julie's house, she looked disappointed.

"Cats are usually active at night, but I think I have an idea about this one," I said. "It probably hides at night 'cause it can't compete with the others that are out and about. And during the day, well, too many people are around. So I say early morning. That's when I'll find her."

I said good night and headed home. I got the feeling she wasn't too reassured. She probably thought she'd made a mistake hiring me. But the last thing I needed now was to worry about that.

Next morning at sunup I headed back to the alley. I wandered up and down, sometimes calling gently, sometimes stalking quietly. I headed out onto Armitage and looked around there, but I was sure the animal hadn't wandered that far. Too much noise. No place to hide. I hit the alley again and found myself next to a wooden fence that I had passed already maybe six times. The six-foot-high fence had a few gaps in it from missing planks, and holes dug out along the dirt. I could see the entire grassy yard inside. There was a doghouse but no dog, and a solitary, soggy barbecue grill. An old tracker once told me that the best clues are the most obvious ones. I knew there was a clue here so I kept planted to the spot. I checked the loose dirt along the bottom of the fence. It had been turned over, but there were no prints. Then I crouched down and started calling, and out walked the little cat from a bunch of bushes just inside the fence. I had to coax it to come close, then I grabbed it and held it tight. It fought like the devil to get away.

"Oh my God," cried Julie when she answered the door, and the little kitten scrambled past her into the house.

We had breakfast; that broke my fast and I waived the fee. It was my first successful track in some time and that was reward enough.

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