With ''Ace Ventura'' out on video this week, Lois Alter Mark plays detective herself in a missing cat case

By Lois Alter Mark
Updated June 10, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

It started out like any other Tuesday. I left Sara with the babysitter, dropped off Alex at nursery school, and was about to go for a cup of Joe with the girls when Susie phoned with the bad news. Her cat, who answers to the name of Murphy, had disappeared. Granted, Murphy has the temperament of her sitcom namesake and none of us were distraught, but we knew that Jake, Susie’s 4-year-old, would be devastated when he realized Murphy wasn’t around.

I had to help Susie find Murphy. If Ace Ventura could locate a missing dolphin, how hard could it be to find a kitty? I decided to check out William C. Dear’s Private Investigation Course, an exhaustive instructional-video series that covers everything from analyzing trash to conducting polygraph tests. (If you buy the whole set, Dear, a well-known private eye who’s worked on such cases as the 1979 Dungeons and Dragons missing persons case and the 1981 exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, packs the tapes and five binders’ worth of text in a briefcase.)

Realizing that Murphy could be on her ninth life by the time I finished watching all 10 cassettes, I stuck with the basics — segments on improving observational skills, on gathering information, and on finding missing persons (the closest thing here to missing pets).

I took a cab to Susie’s place and interrogated her. No one had seen the cat since the evening before. I checked the windows, but they had screens, so Murphy wasn’t a jumper.

Following volume one’s instructions, I eyeballed Susie’s expression, her gestures — could she be lying? Nah. I followed Dear’s suggested line of questioning, asking her where Murphy hangs out (in a closet, under the dining room table) and whether the cat has run away before (no). Dear recommends distributing posters and talking to neighbors, so I rode the elevators, walked the stairs, and yakked with building residents and workers.

Almost 20 hours after Murphy’s disappearance, I went down to the lobby hoping the night doorman might have seen something. I glanced at his wall of video monitors-what was that blob behind one of the washing machines? It was Murphy, snuggled up against a hose; I’d been down there earlier and missed her.

Dear says that detective work combines perseverance and luck, and that grateful look on a client’s face is one of a private eye’s finest moments. I got a kiss and hug from Jake. But I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.