The Case of the Purloined Cats

By Alex Shishin

This is the story of how Chie Ogawa, Kobe’s most esteemed consulting detective, got her start.  It is also about how I, Susan Frisch, her English teacher and university advisor, aged 28, an American born and raised in Japan, became her assistant. 

Chie graduated from our women’s university with honors but failed in getting a company job.  She was tall, stout and an indifferent dresser. Her voice was loud and her Japanese was blunt.  Though Chie was gentle by nature, she scared her interviewers.

I got Chie a scholarship to study at our graduate school. She wrote a fine M. A. thesis on British and American women’s detective fiction but failed to secure a permanent university post.   I managed to get her hired as an adjunct instructor at our university teaching two classes in general English.

Chie’s parents, who often quarreled, were not pleased with her, though she gave them nearly all her pay. Chie was unhappy but not despairing.

“I’m going to be a private detective, Suzie-sensei,” Chie said when visiting my office.

I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m good at finding small things,” she said.  “I know where your lost fountain pen is.”

I shook my head. “I’ve looked everywhere!” I said.

“It’s in your refrigerator.”

I couldn’t suppress a laugh and covered my mouth.

Chie opened the refrigerator and extracted my beloved fountain pen.

“I’ve been to the fridge countless times and never saw it!” I said.

“That’s because you never expected to!  You likely put it there with your lunch and milk.”

“Maybe there can be a consulting detective outside of fiction,” I said.

Chie put up a website. It said:  “Ogawa Chie, Consulting Detective:  Finder of Small Things.  6000 yen per day + expenses, Kobe-Osaka area.  Negotiable fees if must travel.”

Remarkably, a dozen requests hit her website within hours.  All the responders came from the same area of Kobe, a new suburban community, and said exactly the same thing: Somehow a person or persons had come into their houses when they were absent and taken their cats without disturbing anything else. The police confessed to being baffled.

“I’m surprised thefts weren’t spotted,” I said as we sat in the university coffee shop.

“I’m sure this the work of one person,” Chie said.  “A person known to everyone neighborhood and trusted. Such a person would likely go unnoticed.

“But how could anyone get into the houses and carry away the cats out unnoticed?” I said.  “And who on Earth would steal a dozen cats?”

“The method? Maybe a skeleton key and a sound-proof carrier,” Chie said. “The motive?  We’ll only learn it when we find the, thieves, or likely the thief.  And we will. This person lives in that neighborhood. Look, at this computer printout, Suzie-sensei.  This map shows all the houses that were robbed.  They form a circle around a dead center.  We must go there.”

What we found was an abandoned artesian well with a high steal mesh fence around it.  Warning signs showing drowning children were fastened to it.

“You don’t think–?” I said.

“No, I don’t think so. It ‘s risky throwing dead cats over this fence.  And dead cats float.”

“So is this a dead end,” I said.

Chie said,  “This suburb was built over an old farming community. There might be something connected to this old well that is relevant.  Only I have no idea of what that might be. I am positive only of one thing.  Our thief is close by. Let’s go before we attract attention.”  

“All these house are exactly alike,” I said. “I’d hate to live here.” 

The next day Chie telephoned my office. 

“I asked my English class to write how someone could break into lots of houses so easily.  Nearly all wrote ‘a special key.’  They didn’t know the word for ‘skeleton key.’   I had practically dismissed that. What a ridiculously hard labor it would be to make twelve different skeleton keys, I thought. And only to steal cats! One student wrote “same key;” her very limited English hit a nerve on the bus home. Then the obvious occurred to me. All those houses in the suburb look exactly alike, as you said.  Therefore, all the locks must the same.  It wouldn’t be difficult for an artisan to make a skeleton key from his front door lock!”

“Brilliant!” I said.

“What we’re looking for is right in front of us and we cannot see it.  It’s like when you couldn’t see your fountain pen, ” Chie said.

We returned to the suburb and went back to the artesian well.   We walk around it for half an hour.

“Nothing!  Not a hint!” Chie said.  “Let’s find a coffee shop.”

In looking for a coffee shop we came upon an abandoned wooden farmhouse. A high steel mesh fence surrounded it and its weedy yard.  Signs to keep out were on the fence.  The gate had a lock but it had been disabled. The trampled grass led to the gaping entranceway.  The door lay half hidden amidst the weeds.

We looked at each other’s darkened face and did not speak.

 “Suzy-sensei, don’t come in with me,” Chie said.  “It might not be nice.”

I took her hand.  We went into the yard together.

 An unpleasant smell, like a mixture of feces and deodorizer, rose from the ground of the gutted house, whose floorboards were gone, leaving soft bare earth that had been dug up in places.  There was a faucet, probably attached to the artesian well, with wet earth under it.

“The cats are safe and well cared for,” Chie said.  “Someone is burying their kitty litter here and is doing a bad job of covering the smell. Our thief uses the faucet to clean his or her hands.”

“Is this from cats?”

“Trust me.  I know it when I smell it. I could’ve had a real job if that was all that was expected of me.”

“Why didn’t the thief just scatter it?”

“A very, very tidy thief,” Chie said.

“Flower beds were here once,” I said.  “There are still a few surviving blossoms.”

“Brilliant Suzie-sensei! Here’s what’s been staring us in the face and we couldn’t see it until this moment!”

“A gardener!” I exclaimed. “Someone who arouses no suspicions when working around a house, even when the occupants are not home.”

“And some prefer gardener to come when they aren’t home because of the noise the tools make,” Chie said. “Why was no one suspicious of the thief? Who mistrusts the neighborhood gardener?” 

“What now?” I asked.

“A hunch. There much be a private parking lot around here,” Chie said.  “There’s no place to permanently park a car around these houses.” 

“Parking lot?”

“When we find it I hope you’ll see what I’m thinking of.”

The first person we met directed us to the local private parking lot.

Among the sedans and station wagons there was single light green utility van.  Written on the van was “Taro Okamoto Landscape and Gardening Service. “  Below were Okamoto’s email address and telephone number.

“Is he the thief?” I asked.

Chie took out her cellphone. 

“You’re calling Okamoto?”

“Why not?  Oh, hello. I’m Ogawa.  I want to talk to you about landscaping around my house.  May my companion and I visit you?  Yes.  Yes. Thank you. Your directions are perfect. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”  To me she said, “I’m positive he is.”

“What if he’s dangerous?” I said.

“It’s easier to play dumb than to dispose of two dead bodies.”

Okomoto’s house, though like the other neighborhood houses, was easy to spot with its flowers and bonsai pines.  They seemed to me to be ill kempt of late.  This occurred Chie too. “Good to everyone’s garden but his own,” she said before ringing the doorbell.

Okamoto, a thin man in his thirties, greeted us with a delighted smile and offered us sweets and green tea. He immediately noticed we took an interest in the dozen cats that seemed unusually sedate, sleeping, licking themselves or sitting in sphinxlike meditative poses. “I have a way with cats,” he said. “I always have.”

Chie and I looked at one another.

“They are not drugged if that’s what you’re thinking.  They’re relaxed,” he said mildly. “Cats need to be relaxed or they’ll run away. Anyway, let’s talk about landscaping. All the houses here are the same.  We can use my house as a model.” 

“We came because of the cats,” Chie said.  “Some of the neighbors want their cats back and hired me to find them. We thought as a gardener you could give us some leads.”

 “No, you suspected me as their thief.  For your information, I found the cats in an abandoned old house and brought them home, the poor things.  I love cats.  Only cleaning up after them is a never-ending chore.  Fortunately, they are all well house trained.”

“That’s a good story,” Chie said, “except it’s not true.  Right?”

Okamoto sighed. 

“You lost your love recently,” Chie said.

“How did you guess that?”

“Your sad garden.  Your pleasure at seeing two young women at your door. My feminine intuition. It has something to do with cats.”

Okamoto looked away.  “I don’t really care what happens to me any more. Call the police.  Ruin my life.  It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not all right,” I said.  “Ruining your life is not all right!”

“I agree,” Chie said. “We’ll contact the cat owners and use your story of the abandoned house.  It’ll work.  After all, the people only want their cats back.”

“I’m glad you found me,” Okamoto exclaimed.  “Eventually people would’ve figured things out without a detective.”

“Want to tell us the rest of your story?” Chie said.

Okamoto blushed and said, “My first and only love left me a month ago without warning.  And she took my precious cat.  I loved my cat, such a beautiful and sweet-tempered cat!  I lost my common sense.  I decided to steal other people’s cats.  Why I don’t know; I honestly don’t know.  Only one sober but feverish night I worked out a scheme for stealing cats during the holidays when I would be working every day and people were gone. I fashioned a master key to fit every door in this neighborhood.  It was easy.”

“Better give me that key just in case,” Chie said.

He handed her the key and she handed it to me to put in my purse.

“Please clear up one mystery, Okamoto-san,” I said.  “How did you get the cats out of the houses.”

“When no one was home, I would open the door slightly and quietly called to the cat.  It would come to me and into the carrier I’d made. There was food and catnip in the carrier, disguised as a toolbox.  Only I could have done this as I have a way with cats.”

Chie and I exchanged dubious looks.  Yet, there before us were the content stolen cats.

“What if anyone wants you to find the thief?” Okamoto said suddenly. 

“They’re busy people and they’ll only be happy their cats back,” Chie said.  “If they ask me to find the thief, I’ll say I’m not a criminal investigator and suggest they change their locks. But my guess is they’ll treat you as a hero.  And they’ll be happy my fees and expenses won’t be too dear. Maybe you’ll find a new love.  You never know.”

Chie was right about everything.  The cat owners bought Chie’s story about Okamoto finding the cats in the abandoned house and hoping to find their owners.  They were grateful to Okamoto for how he took care of the cats. Thanks to this adventure, Okamoto found a girlfriend in the neighborhood.  She took him to an animal shelter, where he fell in love with a black and white kitten.