On the advice of Debbi's sister after Debbi told her the story, I'll start with the good news up front: The cat came out safe and sound.
She drove us quite round the bend for about two hours first, though.
Debbi comes down every weekend with her cats, Blackjack and Roulette. She puts them in a carrier and brings them down, and they come in and spend the weekend with me and my "big kitties", Newton and Jefferson. Roulette really, really doesn't like riding in the car. Opening the carrier to let them look around a bit seems to help them calm down on the ride.
Friday night Debbi arrives around the usual time and frantically rings my doorbell. I happen to be finishing using the front bathroom and open the door immediately. Debbi's in tears: "Roulette got out of the car!" she cries.
"Oh my gosh!" I say, and I grab a flashlight and dash out the door - in socks - and Debbi tells me Roulette - who rarely actually comes out of the carrier on the trip - had been sitting by the side door, and when Debbi opened the door to get them out, she didn't know they weren't in the carrier, and Roulette darted out, got away from Debbi's attempt to get hold of her, ran across the street, down to the end of my building, and around the corner into the driveway to the back of the complex, where Debbi lost her.
There's no sign of Rou. After walking around calling for her for a little while, I give Debbi the flashlight, go inside and put on my slippers and grab another flashlight, and go out to join the search. I have enough presence of mind to bring some water for us to drink. It's dark out (it's 7 pm, about the time the last glow of the sun has faded) and we keep looking.
My complex isn't very big - only 12 units - but still, it's big enough. Lots of bushes and trees, plenty of places for her to hide. We're hopeful that she's gone to ground - she's a hider, not a runner or a climber - and that we'll eventually spot her and be able to grab her and bring her home.
I start ringing some neighbors' bells, and checking their back yards, in case she did climb over a fence and is hiding in their (or even my) yard. No luck.
The most wrenching moment (for me) is when we go back to bring Blackjack indoors, to make sure he's safe and sound. Looking inside the car we can't see him at all. Debbi says something like, "Oh, maybe I lost both of them!" Blackjack is almost-pure black and would be impossible to spot in the darkness. I have Debbi stand behind me and I get into the passenger seat. I pull Debbi's travel bag off the floor in front of the seat, look down and see a black paw sticking out. I tell Debbi I see him. He's trying to clamber out through the front of the seat. Debbi gets into the back seat next to the carrier. Blackjack seems to be stuck, and then I realize not only is the bar to lock the seat in place in his way, but I'm sitting on him. So I lift the bar, hold myself up, and he pulls himself out. Debbi hugs him close for a few minutes, and then puts him in the carrier and I take him indoors. (Jefferson and Newton are completely baffled by all this, as is Blackjack himself. Obviously being alone in the car with all the sounds of the cars going by scared him half to death.)
We keep hunting. Debbi climbs through bushes around the complex looking. I go next door and look around the apartment complex, but still don't see her. I look under cars, and shine my flashlight in the trees. Then I head down to the big house on the other side, and they helpfully let me into their yard to look for her. They're nice folks. Unfortunately, there's no sign of her.
I head back to the complex, and I hear Debbi calling from the back, "I found her!" She walks out hugging the little thing who's gripping her arm. We bring Roulette inside and she and Blackjack dart upstairs, to hide under the bed for a while, Debbi says.
Debbi's exhausted and still rather frantic. I give her a big hug for a bit, and tell her I'll go collect everything. I grab her bag and purse from her car, then go around the back to get her jacket and the water bottle. Then I walk around and tell the neighbors we found her.
Debbi tells me that she was talking to a neighbor in back when the neighbor spotted Roulette in the driveway. Roulette darted for a neighbor's door, but found she couldn't get in. Then we ran off to the unkept area behind my patio's fence, where she was hiding in the corner of two fences. Possibly she'd been there the whole time and we just hadn't seen her. I wonder whether my poking around in the adjoining yards might have made her run out towards Debbi.
But, we found her. And that's what matters. We collapsed for a while, then went and got fast food for dinner, and ate it, which helped. Blackjack and Roulette came out and had some dinner. Roulette was very lovey towards us. Debbi composed herself, and we went to bed, exhausted.
I woke up at 2 am and had a little anxiety attack over the whole thing, what could have happened, and what did happen. I got up and went out to find all four cats and make sure they were okay. But I didn't sleep that well for the rest of the night. But at least I wasn't really worrying because Roulette was still out there.
I really, really never ever want to see the look on Debbi's face and the tone of her voice when I opened my door that night, or when she thought Blackjack had escaped too.
We'll be a lot more careful in the future.
But all's well that ends well.