Celeste and the Case of the Persian Cat
I trailed my parents and younger sisters up the walk to the small brick building, swinging my bucket of cleaning supplies.
“My shoe-shoe’s coming off,” little Karolyn whined.
I set down my bucket and knelt to help, breathing in the earthy smell of woodchips and hydrangea leaves.
“Thanks, Celeste,” Mom called, juggling her mop and broom.
Dad reached to unlock the door to the town hall, and I sighed. Across the street, the library with its shelves and shelves of mystery books called to me. That’s where I should be right now. I wondered if Sally-Anne Super Sleuth, my favorite book detective, ever had to clean the town hall on Saturday afternoon. This was my aunt’s job, really, but tonight we were filling in while she went on vacation.
A soft meow startled me. My hands froze on Karolyn’s shoestrings.
One of the hydrangea bushes that lined the building rustled.
I peered under the nearest bush just as a cat poked out its head. We stared at each other, the cat’s eyes huge and blue on either side of a slightly turned-up nose. Just in time, I stifled a squeal of delight. I certainly didn’t want to scare the pretty thing.
“Celeste, why aren’t you coming?” Farrah asked.
I patted the cat gingerly on its head. A rumbly purr started up and silky fur rubbed against my leg.
“Wow, a Persian.” Mom stood behind me. “That’s a nice cat to be running loose in town. I’ll bet its owner is worried.”
Farrah started one of her songs. “My Little Gray Kitty” was about a lost kitten that ended up drowned in a brook. I winced, wishing for the fiftieth time she’d never learned that one.
I scoped out the neighborhood. No houses nearby, just a barber shop, a café, and the library. Well, maybe I could use my detective skills to find its owner. I had all evening to walk around knocking on doors in my neighborhood. Tomorrow Grandma was cooking lunch for us after morning church, and I could spend the afternoon going door to door. My best friend Lexi could help.
Meanwhile, I could cat-sit, of course.
Nothing compared with a warm, purring kitty. My cat Spicy might not appreciate company, but you couldn’t just leave expensive, beautiful cats roaming the streets.
“Can we take it home, Mom?” I asked.
Before Mom could answer a motorcycle rumbled past. Karolyn and Farrah clapped their hands over their ears.
“Too loud,” Karolyn squealed.
She was right. The noise must’ve scared the cat, too. By the time I turned around, it had disappeared.
Mom went inside, but my sisters and I examined each hydrangea bush and made a circle around the little storage shed nearby. Nothing.
I sighed. Being the proud owner of two gorgeous cats was too good to be true, anyhow.
Inside the city hall a tall man in a navy uniform was putting on his jacket in the entry. He wore a holster on his belt. He had to be a policeman, maybe even a detective.
Sally-Anne met up with policemen all the time. I felt a bit shy, but since my parents were inside, I had every reason to get a closer look. I rushed my sisters through the door, stepping on the back of Farrah’s flip-flop in my hurry.
“Ouch,” she protested.
Pausing to make sure she was okay, I stole a sneaky glance at the man’s chest. Sure enough, a ray of evening sunlight glinted off his policeman’s badge.
“I’m out of here,” he said, and we stood to the side in the entry as he grabbed his hat off a peg. “Clean away.”
As soon as the door swung closed behind him, I went to where Mom was unwrapping a new roll of paper towels.
“What’s a policeman doing here?”
She cocked an eyebrow at me. “His office is in this building.”
“You never said there’d be police stuff here.” I gazed around with new curiosity.
“I never thought to explain. There’s the mayor’s office, the sheriff’s office, offices for water and gas ...” Mom shook her finger at me. “No snooping, now. Hear?”
She set Farrah to work emptying trashcans and gave me a rag and a can of dusting spray. I hurried down the hall, dusting hurriedly through several boring rooms.
At the end of the hall I arrived at my goal: the city police office. Paradise.
A wanted poster hung on one wall: a black and white photo of a squinty-eyed man with a bald head. At the big desk I dusted under a stack of papers, then riffled through them, wondering at words like assault and battery and Miranda rights.
Farrah came in with a roll of trash bags.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I slapped the papers down and grabbed the dust rag. “Working. Duh.”
Once in a while Farrah practiced detective skills with me, but mostly she whined because I didn’t like dolls and tea sets and playing Old Maid. I couldn’t trust her not to tattle.
She pulled a full trash bag from the can and knotted it shut. “Celeste?”
“Hmm?” If she got me in trouble, I wouldn’t play dolls for a year.
“Are you really, truly a detective or just a play one?”
I thought about it. “Well, I don’t have an office, or a badge, or anything like that.”
“You use Grandma’s desk. That’s sort of like an office,” she said.
“You could make a badge. Out of tinfoil. Like when we made princess crowns.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but it wouldn’t be real. So I guess I’m not a true detective, but I try my best.”
Farrah arranged a new bag in the trashcan. “Anyway, you’re the best one I know.”
My sister didn’t know any other detectives but her comment made me feel good.
“I’m done with the trash so I can go play outside.” She headed for the door but stopped under a large poster of a car on a railroad track, crumpled in front of a train engine. “I’m glad I’m not a cop.”
How I wished I were! I eyed the row of drawers on the biggest desk. Mom said not to snoop, but a tiny peek wouldn’t hurt. Crouching, I pulled on the bottom drawer handle.
I tried the one above it.
It didn’t budge.
One last try. I clutched the cool metal of the top handle and tugged. The drawer shot open and I nearly fell over. I leaned over the drawer, ready to discover mysterious, cop-like secrets. Maybe a set of handcuffs, or crime scene tape, or some fingerprint powder.
Instead, I found a bunch of markers and pens and a roll of tape. Taking up most of the room were six packages of powdered donuts.
“Yummy.” Karolyn’s voice at my ear startled me. “I want one.”
I slammed the drawer shut and began to dust furiously. “Don’t you dare tell Mom, Karolyn. Go find Farrah.”
She skipped out of the room. I took a last look around. Maybe someday I’d have an office like this.
I paused. A jam-packed bulletin board hung near the payphone, and a photo caught my attention: a lovely, longhaired white cat with a slightly turned-up nose.
The Persian under the hydrangea bush!
I leaned closer. Someone had scribbled a note on a post-it and stuck it on a corner of the photo.
Grey Persian cat: blue eyes, white paws, called Boofy.
Lost Thursday near park.
Mrs. Leona Harris – Ph. #345-2137
“Mom,” I shrieked, and raced down the hall. “I know who that cat belongs to!”
“The cat is none of our business,” Dad said. “We’re not supposed to snoop around. We’re just here to clean.”
“But it’s Saturday.” My words tumbled over each other. “Nobody will come here till Monday. By then the cat will be gone.
Lost, starved, dead of a broken heart. Squished flat under a motorcycle tire.”
I tugged on Mom’s arm.
“I don’t think it’ll be that dramatic,” she said. “But I do feel badly if that cat spends two nights away from its family when we could do something about it.”
“Please, please!” I almost jumped up and down.
“We’ll discuss it when we’re done cleaning, Celeste,” Dad said firmly.
I knew better than to argue, but all my hope faded. The cat would be long gone by then.
“But—” I began.
Karolyn popped her head into the room, her mouth twisted in a pout. “Mom, I’m hungry,” she whined. “I want doughnuts.”
“Doughnuts?” Mom asked. “Why doughnuts?”
Uh-oh. I didn’t like where this was going.
“Mom, I’ve finished dusting. Can I go walk around outside?” I abandoned the cat for now and talked fast to save my own hide.
“Cat prints are lots harder than people prints.” Farrah crept along the side of the building on her hands and knees.
I pulled a hydrangea leaf from my hair and got to my feet.
“This isn’t working,” I said. “We need to stop running around in circles and think this through. Lexi would say to be logical.”
Farrah blew hair from her eyes. “Do you think there’s a brook around here? I hope it didn’t drown.”
“Oh, don’t be so gloomy,” I said.
I inspected the area carefully. “If I were a cat, where would I go? The motorcycle was roaring on the street, so I wouldn’t go that way.”
“The barber shop?” Farrah asked. She giggled. “Maybe she wanted her fur trimmed.”
“Ah-ha.” I tapped my chin. “Maybe the barber stole her, you mean. Come on.”
We walked down the sidewalk and stood under the red and white striped pole.
“Act natural,” I said.
Farrah lifted her face to the sky and started singing that awful gray kitty song again. I leaned close to the big glass window and pretended to admire the dusty plants on the sill inside.
“The cat’s not here,” I announced.
I grabbed Farrah’s arm and pulled her down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
“How do you know so quick?” she asked.
“Simple. The barber has a dog.” I couldn’t help feeling super smug. “There’s a big black lab sleeping on a rug in the corner. If a strange cat was there, do you think he’d be asleep? No! He’d be barking his head off.”
Farrah looked impressed. We passed the town hall and approached the café.
“Watch for a dumpster,” I said.
It made much more sense for the cat to come here. It had probably followed its nose, once the fright from the motorcycle wore off.
“There’s a dumpster!” Farrah pointed and we ducked into a narrow alleyway.
We crept toward the side door of the café, the smell of hot oil and cooked cabbage wafting around us. At the dumpster, we stopped.
“Here, kitty,” we called softly.
Sure enough. A tiny meow, then a louder one, and a fluffy white cat stepped from among the black trash bags.
Back at the town hall, I sat down among the bushes and gathered the animal into my lap. Once you actually held it, the cat felt small and delicate under the masses of fur. I couldn’t just hear its monstrous purr, I felt it.
I didn’t dare go inside and try to convince my parents, now that Karolyn had doughnuts on the brain. Besides, Dad said we’d discuss it when the cleaning was done.
But if I did nothing, the poor kitty would have to rough it until Monday. If I were a real detective like Sally-Anne, I’d go to the payphone and call Mrs. Harris myself. Instead I was just a wannabe detective, a fifth-grade girl who had to obey her parents.
A police car pulled into the lot and parked. The policeman we’d seen before strode down the sidewalk, nodded absentmindedly at us, and disappeared into the storage shed.
Then it hit me. A quick way to save the cat.
When the policeman returned, Farrah, Boofy, and I perched on the curb beside his car. If he wanted to get inside, he’d have to climb over all three of us.
“Hello again, girls,” he said, writing something in his notebook.
“Look what we found, sir,” I said loudly.
He kept writing.
“Anybody missing a cat?” I stood up.
It made me nervous to pester a policeman and I knew my parents wouldn’t like it. Sometimes, though, detectives put themselves in uncomfortable situations in order to solve a case.
“Hmm?” He moved toward the car.
Desperate, I held the cat higher, her fluffy paws nearly resting on his notebook.
“Sir, I found Mrs. Harris’ missing cat,” I said. “The one she reported missing.”
He blinked at me. “What?”
“In your office? The picture on the bulletin board?” I recited the phone number I’d memorized, just to be safe. “Can you please call Mrs. Leona Harris and tell her to come get Boofy?”
An hour later we were home and my face hurt from smiling so big. The offices at the town hall were sparkling clean, the policeman had complimented me on my sleuthing, and thanks to Karolyn I’d had a long talk with my parents about respecting other people’s property. But—-hallelujah!—-Boofy was home with her owner, the grateful, elderly Mrs. Leona Harris.
When I walked into my bedroom later after supper, my sisters were playing in a corner. Farrah had pulled up a stool to the nightstand and was pursing her lips importantly while writing in a notebook.
“Now. Let’s pretend we’re real live detectives,” Farrah told little Karolyn. “You can be Sally-Anne and I get to be Celeste.”
I grinned and pulled out my own notebook to record the facts of the case. I’d made a few mistakes—-true—-but Boofy would spend the night in a soft cat bed instead of on the ground under the hydrangea bushes.
© Vila Gingerich 2017