The truth is out there, somewhere. Cats have gone missing in a feline West Midlands version of The X Files. Following their trail yesterday led us to strong rumours that Lily, Gizmo, Norman and the rest have been victims not of a catnapper but of a killer.
"Nooses have been found under the hedges, made of wire," said Julie Wootton, who is leading efforts to solve the mystery in a part of Stourbridge some call the Purr-muda Triangle. "Screeches have been heard at night."
This sinister, ahem, tail was treated as a bit of a joke when it broke nationally last week. One tabloid newspaper sent a reporter dressed as Sylvester the cat; another had its man wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker and carrying an oversized magnifying glass. The Independent on Sunday dangled a few sprats over the fences yesterday, but to no effect. It was eerie. Normally there would have been black and white cats, ginger toms and tabbies prowling among the large, semi-detached homes in Meriden Avenue or stalking birds in the gardens, but our extensive investigation discovered just one. Was it terrified? Not being a pet psychologist, it was hard to say. Cats are unfathomable at the best of times. But the distress of cat owners was more obvious.
"We think we know who is doing this," said one victim, who preferred to remain anonymous. "The same name has come up from people, time and time again." The theory is that a local bird fancier has taken against everyone else's feline friends and is trapping them, or shooting them from his open window.
She and others had been advised not to conduct their own inquiries. "We don't want to do anything that would prejudice an investigation."
West Midlands Police said they had received an anonymous call offering information "and we're looking into it. That's all I can say."
Julie Wootton, a 42-year-old charity worker, lost Norman last May. "He didn't come back for his breakfast one morning, which was very unusual. He was a fat, lazy tabby, but we loved him." Out on the streets, putting up handmade posters, she found that an astonishing number of other locals had suffered the same loss – but only in the houses near Meriden Avenue, an otherwise quiet and respectable part of a well-off market town.
"We were devastated," says Sarah Birbeck, 31, a human resources consultant who lost Ernie, a black and white tom, the Christmas before last. "You try to keep it in perspective – children go missing, and this is only a cat – but they are part of your family. If they got knocked down, you can come to terms with that, but to think that someone might be trapping them... and then you find out there are so many missing. It is spooky."
No bodies have been found, but one local voluntary "pet detective" has suggested the killing began more than a decade ago, when hacked-off heads may have been seen in a garden shed. She thinks the killer was provoked when new people and their pets moved into the area.
The RSPCA has been "diabolical", according to locals, who feel it should have done more. "They're not preventing this cruelty to our animals," said Mrs Wootton, "so what on earth does the P stand for?"
However, a spokeswoman for the RSPCA said it was in "a tricky situation". Inspectors had made local inquiries but "nothing was forthcoming". They now needed more evidence, such as a body. "We would ask people to contact us or Crimestoppers if they have any concerns, any suspicions, or any actual evidence." Only then, perhaps, will a killer be collared.