BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WASH. — LOST CAT. Has a little bell on her collar. Reward.
When a feline goes missing, the explanations of where she could be are as long as the darkest corridor of the owner's imagination:
High up in a Douglas fir. In the bellies of the coyotes slinking out in the woods. In a ditch, bleeding, after being smacked by a car. Snatched by a bald eagle. (On the island in Puget Sound where I live, wildlife biologists report, a number of cat collars have turned up in eagles' nests.)
There was the time my dimwit Persian, Amanda, lodged herself inside the back of my friend's clothes dryer while I was on vacation, and didn't come out for five days.
And then there is Bess -- whose fate no one could have imagined.
She is the latest in a line of cats I've picked up in my travels as a foreign correspondent.
There was Marie, named after the Bob Dylan song "Absolutely Sweet Marie," an ersatz Siamese I got for $5 from a pet shop in Cairo. She got run through the dryer by my housekeeper in Moscow but lived to a ripe old age.
There was Peter, a ginger tabby who fatally sailed off the eighth-floor balcony of my apartment in Moscow -- as did Mario, my beloved Burmese from Portland, Ore. Katya survived the move from Moscow to London, only to get hit by a bus.
Is it any wonder the Animal Welfare Society in London wouldn't let me adopt a kitten?
I tried to make them understand that although these mishaps had befallen my cats, they were exactly that -- bad luck -- and I basically was a woman who doted on cats, whose cats were adored members of the family, who could offer a cat glorious food, a comfy bed, constant attention, frequent compliments, an annoying number of kisses and plenty of lap time.
"Do you have a garden? Because we don't give out cats unless there's an opportunity for them to go out and get some sunshine," the matron at the Hounslow shelter in West London said when she called for my initial home inquiry.
"Oh yes," I assured her.
"But there's a fence? The cat can't get out of the garden?" she asked.
"Well," I said, not wanting to tell her how Katya had met her fate, "we have a very high fence, but I'm not sure it's possible to build a fence a cat can't get over. Is it?"
She moved on. "Do you have a bus route on your street?"
Had someone coached her? "Well, yes, but it's only one bus," I said slowly.
"No, I'm afraid that rules you out. We don't adopt to homes on bus routes."
So it was that the Times researcher in the London Bureau, who has suffered through the whims of generations of correspondents, drove me out to East London one afternoon two springs ago. A lady there had several street cats, and anyone willing to pay 75 pounds -- about $150 at the time -- was welcome to take one home to a flat with three double-decker bus routes, if they wanted to.
I picked Bess.
She wasn't the prettiest cat. Mostly black with disjointed splotches of gold and orange, she looked like a Jackson Pollock painting to me, which wasn't saying anything very complimentary. But she fixed her green eyes on me and wouldn't let go. I was smitten.
Kolya, a shy tabby we had picked out of a box of kittens in the Moscow subway and taken along with Katya to London, was equally enamored. He and Bess would chase each other from my daughter's attic room, down two floors to the end of the kitchen, and back again. Then they'd settle into a patch of sun in the living room and take turns giving each other baths. Bess blossomed into a tubby young matron we dubbed "the Potato."
In July, we moved back home to Bainbridge Island. The cats adjusted well; there was so much room to run around in our old farmhouse that they never seemed to miss going outside, which we had decided would be unwise given the abundance of coyotes, foxes, raccoons and eagles.
Bess disappeared Sept. 28.
We were having a barbecue that night, with lots of loud music and friends and kids and a rambunctious dog. The next morning, when no one could find Bess, we feared the worst.
She probably escaped out an upstairs window one of our houseguests had left open, we reasoned, then ran into the dog tied up on the deck, panicked and headed into the woods -- where the coyotes live.
Still, we printed up posters and tacked them around the neighborhood. We knocked on doors, walked up and down streets calling her name, placed her toys and my daughter's nightgown in the yard to entice her with familiar smells.
Eventually, even the children admitted she wasn't coming home. Annabel, 11, was quietly furious. "I don't want to talk about religion anymore," she announced after I tried halfheartedly to say something about God having had a reason or some such.
Halloween came, and Annabel said at least we didn't have to worry about Bess getting out and some teenagers conducting black magic rituals on her.
Some friends visiting for Thanksgiving told us we should think about getting a dog. Had we moved on that much? I changed the subject.