The trek wasn’t that bad, at first. Some of the spit and polish fell by the wayside after a couple of blocks, but Ringo’s turf was far from the ugliest part of the city I’d ever seen. People moved to and fro, checking their mailboxes, calling up to their neighbors on their balconies, packing together to go out, and splitting off when they got home. Cars clogged the blacktop, turning down side streets and roaring at each other over parking spots. I passed grilles, a handful of food trucks, and a couple of cafes that wrote their specials in chalk on the sidewalk just outside the door.

There was plenty of fur along the way, too. Some of them wore collars and some didn’t, but I could tell who was a local at a glance. It was the way that two stray Siamese I passed watched me, drawing closer to each other so they were on one side of the street and I was on the other. It was how the black lab curled up near a side yard moved a little closer to his food dish. Or how the pigeons went quiet and watched me, uncertain about the new element in play beneath the tree they were perched in. A lot of it was subtle, but you could see it if you knew what you were looking for.

I was waiting for a light when a curly-haired Westie eating out of a charity bowl of kibble glanced up at me. I gave him a nod and he returned it, his tongue lolling slightly.

“Hey there, friend,” the terrier said. “Haven’t seen you around the neighborhood before.”

“Just passing through,” I said.

“Care for a bite before you move on?” the dog asked, taking a half step back from the bowl. My stomach rumbled a bit, so I lowered my head and took a few bites. The food was dry, crumbly, and didn’t quite know if it was trying to be fish or chicken, but I didn’t have to scrap for it, which made it all right as far as I was concerned.

“Much appreciated,” I said, lapping up some of the water from a nearby bowl.

“Hey, we’re all just trying to make it, right?” the terrier said, giving himself a shake before he waddled back up to the bowl and took a few more gobbling bites. “Where you on your way to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Place called St. Bart’s,” I said. “You been there?”

The terrier stopped chewing, and gave me a serious, measured look. He swallowed the crushed kibble, and shook his head slowly.

“I don’t know you or your business, friend,” he said, bending down to lap some water. “But I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. Lot of trouble brewing there right now.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Some kind of turf tussle,” the Westie said, shaking his head. “It was a nice place, for a while, but it’s not safe right now. Might change in a couple of days, but everyone’s walking shy of it till this all shakes out.”

“Good to know,” I told him.

“Hey, you don’t need a place, do you?” the terrier asked as I was about to turn away again. “I know a few places you could hole up for a day or so. Get out of the cold, maybe get some food if you need it?”

“I appreciate it,” I said. “But I’ve got some business to attend to.”

“Well, wish you luck with it,” the Westie said, taking one more small mouthful from the bowl and talking around it as he chewed. “You ever back around here, ask for Spotty. Everybody round here knows me!”

“I’ll do that,” I said. The light changed, and I hustled across the road stripes before Spotty tried to continue the conversation.

I found the neighborhood I was looking for just as the light was starting to go stale. Ringo had been right in the broad strokes; the whole place was concrete, asphalt, brick, and cement, with a few spatters of neon and fluorescent cheer that did nothing to soften the hard edges. Most of the places I saw sold used junk, lottery tickets, cigarettes, and booze in no particular order. There were a few gladiators standing guard here and there, Rottweilers with scarred flanks and shepherds who never seemed to quite put their teeth away, but everything else I saw on four legs looked like they had somewhere to be and they were in a big damn hurry to get there.

What Ringo hadn’t mentioned was the smell of the place. It clung to everything and seemed to sweat up from the cracks and pores in the street: a combination of stale tobacco, spilled gasoline, and rot. A sick smell, like the whole neighborhood was trying to keep limping even while the infection spread a little further with every beat of its heart. I shook my head, but I could feel the scent running its fingers through my fur and sliding into my nose. It was going to stay, whether I wanted it to or not.

I stopped in front of a sagging chain link fence on the north side of the street. The building behind the fence still had the strong, clear lines of a church, and the steeple on top was still mostly intact, but the decay had snaked in there, too. More than half the windows were broken out, with a few jagged teeth left in some of the frames. The stone had swallowed the dirt and grime, and half a dozen different layers of spray-painted tags ran round the outside. The front doors were closed and chained shut. The little strips of grass round the property had grown wild, and now they were a half-dead, untamed mass. It looked abandoned, but even out on the street I could smell the fresh markings the rovers had left and hear movement inside.

For a moment, I thought about walking on past. I could snatch a train ride during rush hour, when people were less likely to notice me, and be back on the north side before Gino finished closing up for the night. I could hit up the park for a snack, let the bird who pulled watch know I didn’t need them, and curl up in my crate for a long nap. Then the moment passed, and I pawed at the fence where a corner had come loose.

I squeezed through the gap and walked up the wide front steps. The chain on the main entrance was no joke, and the front doors felt like they’d swelled into the frame besides. Since that obviously wasn’t the way in, I followed a little footpath that went around the side. I stepped over an old plastic bottle, making my way around a few glittering shards of broken glass beneath a pebbled window that had been propped open with a dirt-streaked ruler before I came to the church’s side door. The frame was splintered around the handle, but I could see there was plenty of give in the door itself. I kept walking, circling around the entire building. I found plenty of other gaps in the fencing, and while one side of the church butted up against what smelled like a tenement house, the back end was vacant, surrounded by a second layer of rusting fence. I could tell something used to be there, but it had been gone long enough that the only thing left was an ugly scar across the earth, with bits of gravel poking out of it like the last grit from a scab. I kept walking, noting the handful of bare trees that still grew around the church and the ragged, skeletal bushes pressed up against the fence. I watched the windows as I went, but no one watched me back.

When I made my way back to the side door, I pushed on it. The door moved about half an inch, then fetched up against something hard on the other side. When it didn’t budge any further, I butted the door with my head, making it clap against the stop. After a couple of minutes went by, a set of tentative footsteps approached the door.

“What do you want?” a throaty voice asked.

“My name’s Leo,” I said. “Charity came to see me earlier.”

The footsteps retreated a bit. I waited. Whoever it was came back to the door.

“Just a second,” the mystery voice said.

Something scraped across the floor, metal clanged, and the door creaked open. A head peeked out into the gap. It was long and lean, with bright, wary eyes. The fur all along it was black, except for a white streak starting just above the eyes.

“Come on in,” the skunk said, ducking back around the door.

St. Bart’s had seen better days. The pews were old wood, and most of them had been left behind when the front door was chained shut. Half a dozen of them had collapsed, or been broken up to use as firewood, and there were scorch marks along the floor in several corners. There had been a carpet, once upon a time, but what hadn’t been pulled up was mildewed to little more than smears on the concrete. The pulpit was gone, but the stage remained. What I didn’t see, though, was any broken glass. Not only that, but aside from a few nests under the sturdier pews and in the corners, and the puddles under the holes in the roof, the whole place seemed relatively clean.

It wasn’t empty, either. A scrawny pigeon with ragged feathers perched on the arm of a pew, shifting nervously from foot to foot. A rabbit with matted black fur and red eyes crouched underneath another pew, tensed like he was ready to bolt. Even though there was nowhere to go. Sprawled in a pile of ratty blankets, one eye swollen shut and crusted with blood, was a Wheaten terrier. His coat was dirty enough I couldn’t tell what was bad breeding and what wasn’t, but I could see he’d been torn up pretty bad. Still, he smiled at me and let his tongue loll. When he shifted, I noticed he had maybe three good teeth left. The same was true for the number of legs he had. Charity crawled out from a nest that looked like it had once been part of a mattress, and beamed at me.

“You made it!” she said, coming toward me. “I knew you would!”

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

The skunk picked up a long metal pin in her teeth, and tried to shoulder the door closed again. Her paws were slipping on the wet floor, though, so I stepped up next to her and shoved. The skunk turned, and slid the pin into a small hole in the ground. When I let go of the door, the pin held it in place.

“Charity,” the pigeon said, his beak clattering a bit as he fluttered to the back of the pew. “When you said you had someone who was coming to help us you didn’t mention he was… well, I just assumed that it wouldn’t be… ummm…”

“A cat?” I asked, turning to the bird. His feet stutter-stepped back, and a coo startled out of him.

“I… ummm… well…” the bird said, struggling for some kind of answer.

“Morty’s had his share of run-ins with those of the feline persuasion,” the skunk said, chuffing a laugh at the pigeon. “It’s made him nervous. And he was pretty nervy before, so you can imagine adding another dose doesn’t help.”

“Leo, this is Mitzi,” Charity said, gesturing to the skunk. “That’s Mordecai up there, and under here is Banny. Over there on the rag pile is Taggart.”

“Apologies for not getting up,” the terrier said, wincing as he shifted his weight.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I trotted away from the water that had managed to sneak under the door, and sat. I looked from one face to the next, until I was back to Charity. “This everyone?”

“Everyone who’s left,” Banny said, his nose twitching. His voice was raspy, as if he wasn’t used to speaking. “After what happened to Tagg, no one was all that eager to stick around and take their chances.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Anything happen between when Charity left, and I got here?”

“It rained a bit,” Mordecai said. I looked at him, and he flapped his wings. “Right, right, no jokes, got it.”

“Ain’t nobody been by, if that’s what you’re asking,” Taggart said. “Neighborhood’s mostly emptied out. Folks who would be looking for a place to curl up are steering clear until this all shakes out, one way or another.”

“And the crew that rolled you?” I asked. “They been sniffing around?”

“Ain’t had so much as a whiff,” Taggart said. “I may be deaf in one ear and missing one of my back wheels, but there’s nothing wrong with my snoot, and I’d know those hounds anywhere.”

The words were no sooner out of Taggart’s mouth than the door rattled gently. Mordecai went completely still, his beak dropping open. Banny skittered back a few steps. Charity glanced at Taggart. Taggart sniffed the air, before giving the mouse a wide smile.

“Smells like dinner might be here,” he said.

“Guys?” A small voice called from outside. “Is anybody there?”

“Frisco, is that you?” Charity squeaked, surprise and pleasure in her voice.

“No, it’s National Geographic!” the voice hissed through the door. “Now open up, will ya?”

Mitzi took a grip on the floor pin, and I pushed on the door. She tugged the steel pin up, and I let the door swing a bit. A black rat with his damp fur slicked back waddled in, dragging a ragged, plastic sack by a single strap. As soon as he was clear of the threshold, he flopped over, breathing hard. I wasn’t sure what was in the sack, but I smelled chicken, pork, and thick, dark sauces. I shoved the door back into place, and Mitzi slid the pin back into its hole.

“Thought you said everyone was gone?” I asked.

Frisco looked over his shoulder, then did a full double-take. He leaped to his feet, backing away from me with his head down and his hindquarters up. His eyes were rolling in their sockets as he looked everywhere but at me.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Frisco said, talking fast. “That’s all I’ve got. Really. But I can get more! Just take it and—”

“It’s all right, Frisco,” Charity said, putting one of her paws on the rat’s side. “This is Leo. He’s here to help us.”

Frisco stopped dead in his tracks, his beady eyes moving back and forth as he processed what Charity had just told him. He relaxed slowly, his tail going still. He rubbed at his nose, sniffing once.

“Oh,” Frisco said. “So you weren’t looking for me?”

“Got no idea who you are,” I said with a shrug. “Not terribly interested, either.”

“Oh. Well then, that’s good,” Frisco said, nodding. “Good thing I grabbed a little extra, then. I wasn’t sure how many mouths I was gonna be feeding.”

Frisco fumbled with the bag pulling out the bounty he’d brought to St. Bart’s. He lifted out the contents carefully, like he was afraid they were going to fall apart if he breathed too hard. There were four waxed cardboard cartons, all told, along with a bag of greens. The salad was pre-mixed, and there was no sign of any dressing. The others drew close, and several stomachs gurgled.

“Where did you find this?” Charity asked.

“I was on my way over, when I passed a delivery boy shouting on his phone,” Frisco said as he carefully opened the first carton. It was packed with boneless ribs dripping with red sauce. “Couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, but when he was done talking he tossed the bag onto the sidewalk, and pedaled away.”

The rat’s clever paws undid the fastenings, and the box quickly folded out into a flat plate. Mitzi shuffled forward, snatching one of the ribs and tearing off big chunks of it. Her tail bushed out, and a sound of fierce pleasure slid out of her throat. When she gripped the meat, I noticed she didn’t have any front claws. Frisco opened the second container, then the third, and the fourth repeating his magic trick of turning them into flat dining stations.

“Anyway, I ran over, and most of it was still okay,” the rat said as he picked up the salad bag. He tugged at it, his paws slipping on the moisture-slick plastic. “There was a box of rice that spilled, but who the hell eats rice? So I scooped that out, and tossed the side of steamed broccoli. Figured that, when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to have something for the meat eaters, right?”

I padded over, and gave the bag a swipe. It popped loudly, and a few croutons bounced onto the floor. Frisco held the bag for a second, watching as the tears got bigger, then he put it down. Banny was on it in seconds, teeth crunching the darker leaves. Mordecai was warier, but he sidled close enough to snatch a crouton before hopping back up onto the bench. I bent down and snatched a piece of teriyaki chicken, savoring it before swallowing.

“We really can’t thank you enough, Frisco,” Charity said. “We’ve all been so worried about what might happen that we haven’t been able to bring anything back.”

Taggart tried to roll off his bed, grunting as he got his feet under him. Before he could get up, though, Charity snatched several pieces of the beef and took them over to him. The terrier protested that he could get up, but when Charity shushed him he laid back down on his blanket pile and held open his mouth for her to throw the meat in.

“Hey, it’s really no problem,” Frisco said, shrugging before grabbing a rib for himself. He ate in small, nervous bites, and swallowed a little too often. “I just figured, you know, last night in the old place, last supper. Be the neighborly sort of thing to do.”

“You a neighbor, then, Frisco?” I asked.

The rat choked on the mouthful of meat he had, but managed to swallow it down. “I’ve crashed here a time or two, you know, but this isn’t really my neighborhood. I just pass through sometimes, and when I’m around I like to stick my nose in, see how stuff’s sitting.”

“You heard about who’s prowling?” I asked.

“I ain’t heard shit,” Frisco said, tearing off another piece of meat. “Only thing I know is everyone around here seems to be trying to stay out of this whole mess until day after tomorrow at the least.”

Frisco wouldn’t look at me when he said that. I took a piece of the pork, and chewed. It was good. An awkward silence rolled in, and lingered just long enough for everyone to really feel it. Mordecai cleared his throat, and sidled a little closer to the edge of the pew.

“I went uptown earlier today,” he said. “Thought I’d take another look at some of the side spots. And wouldn’t you know it? I found an old coop on top of a townhouse!”

“That’s great news, Mordecai!” Charity said. The tone in her voice didn’t match her eyes, though. The pigeon nodded, carrying on.

“It’s surprisingly intact, given how long it’s been up there,” Mordecai said. “There were a couple of old squawkers who’d claimed two of the corners, but the rest of it was open. I asked them about it, and they told me that the coop had first been put up fifty or sixty years ago. The old man passed it down from father to son, but no one’s really been around to take care of it for a while.”

“How long are the others going to let you stay?” Charity asked.

“They said I could stay as long as I wanted,” Mordecai said, beaming. “Still, it’s not exactly built for winter. But with spring just getting started, it should be more than enough for now.”

“Must be nice, being able to just fly away from this whole problem,” Mitzi said. Her tone was light, but Mordecai winced at the bitterness in her words.

“Mitzi, that’s not fair,” Charity said. “You can leave just as easily as Mordecai can, if you want to.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure I can,” Mitzi said, tearing at a piece of meat. “Can’t stay anywhere for long, though. Soon as someone figures out I don’t have any perfume, it’s time for me to hit the road. Not bad for day trips, but this punk rock stripe isn’t a whole lot of good any other time.”

Mitzi had her mouth open to say something else when the cries from Charity’s nest intensified. She turned, scuttling back into her burrow to check on the little ones. All the fire drained out of Mitzi’s face, and she chewed hard on a piece of gristle.

“At least I can leave,” she said, more for herself than for anyone else.

“We’ll talk about who’s leaving for where tomorrow,” I said, stretching out and laying down. “Little bit of luck, it might all be a moot point anyway.”

“Awfully confident in yourself,” Banny said from around a mouthful of greens.

“I’m still here,” I said with a shrug. “Lot of folks who tried stepping on my tail aren’t.”

None of the others seemed to know what to say to that. The meal continued on in relative silence, until there wasn’t much left. Banny finished his salad, and returned to his space under one of the pews. Mordecai fluttered around until he found a spot he could roost, tucking into himself while keeping one eye in my direction. Taggart rolled over in his bed, rocking gently before he got his back leg under him. He stood up slowly and hobbled toward the back of the church. He moved carefully, making sure he avoided any of the patches of standing water. A door creaked, and I heard Taggart’s bladder letting go into what sounded like a floor drain.

Frisco glanced up at the broken windows, his whiskers twitching. Outside the night was thick and chill, lit only by the false gold of occasional streetlamps. The rat wiped a dollop of sauce from his nose, and licked it off his paw. He glanced my way, though he tried to make it seem like he was just stretching his neck.

“On that note, I’d say it looks like it’s about time for me to get going,” he said, getting to his feet and giving himself a shake.

“Go?” Taggart said, limping back from the church’s front room. “Night like this is gonna get plenty cold before dawn. Where you gonna go that’s close enough you won’t freeze that naked tail of yours off?”

“I got a friend a train stop or two from here,” Frisco said, taking a few steps toward the door. “His hole is small enough no one really bothers him all that much. Besides, I ain’t tired yet. I hang around here, I’m just gonna be up pacing all night, and you all need all the rest you can get.”

“Are you sure, Frisco?” Charity asked, sticking her head out of her nest. “You said it yourself, it gets dangerous out there when the sun goes down.”

“Don’t worry about it, Charity,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on him till he gets where he’s going.”

Frisco’s eyes went wide at that, and he took a step closer to the door. “Nah, that’s okay. Really, I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine out there by myself.”

“It’s no trouble,” I said, padding closer. “I insist.”

Frisco looked like he wanted to argue, but after clicking his front teeth together for a few seconds, closed his mouth. Mitzi swallowed the piece of beef fat she’d been chewing on, and walked over to help. We got the door open, and Frisco slipped out into the night. I was one step behind him.

The city outside St. Bart’s walls didn’t sleep, not exactly, but it had started to fall into a doze. On the street, the low growl of passing engines grew less frequent, and the tinny sounds of an out-of-tune juke floated in and out of the bars we passed. Foot traffic was scarce, and most of it just went from one doorway to another. Frisco kept to the shadows at the edge of the sidewalk, doing his best to avoid being noticed. I slowed my pace, screening him from the street-side. Neither of us said anything for a block or so.

“You paying off a debt with this?” Frisco asked.

“Why,” I said, keeping my voice mild. “Someone out there gonna be grateful I kept you out of trouble?”

“Slick,” Frisco said, hopping down off the curb and glancing down the street before hurrying over the faded crosswalk. “I got big ears, and I’ve heard your name before. What business gets an uptown bruiser like you coming down here and putting your nose into this mess?”

“Charity asked me to,” I said, stepping up onto the opposite curb.

“And that’s that?” Frisco asked as he clambered over the cracked concrete where it had been angled down for wheelchair access. “Somebody comes uptown with a sob story, and you come all the way down here to save the day, huh?”

“She walked into the lion’s den hoping for the best,” I said. “She’s got little ones. Figured it was easier to make the trip than to deal with seeing her walk away after I said no.”

Frisco didn’t say anything, but I could tell by his expression that he didn’t believe me. That was fine. I didn’t much care what Frisco did or didn’t believe. I’d learned early that you didn’t tell a rat your life story unless you wanted everyone in the city knowing your personal details. I jerked my head at the ugly green wraparound and the stairs leading down to the subway station.

“Train ought to be by in a few,” I said. “Don’t miss it.”

“So it’s like that, is it?” Frisco said, edging past me.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s like that.”

The rat looked over his shoulder, giving me an approximation of a smile. “Hey… thanks all the same.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, turning back the way I’d come.

I walked back across the street and ducked behind the leg of a bench set up near a bus stop. I settled down, tucking my legs under me and wrapping my tail around myself. I took slow, deep breaths of the evening air and watched the station’s exit. Frisco had been squirrely about something. Maybe he really was going to hop on a train to go stay with a friend, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I wanted to be sure.

I didn’t have to wait long. I’d been there for twenty minutes or so when I saw Frisco’s snout peeking around the corner of the subway stairs. He looked around, trying to be casual. I stayed still, turning my head so the light wouldn’t catch a sheen on my eyes. Frisco bolted across the street and started heading away from me. I got up and followed him.

Frisco wasn’t hard to tail. He was waddling at a decent clip for a rat, keeping his head on a swivel, but he wasn’t really taking his time to watch his back trail. He paused once or twice, trying to look everywhere at once, and he doubled back through a breezeway once. I kept my distance and waited him out. He always moved on after a few minutes, hustling faster than he had been before. By the time he turned down an alley, he was practically running. I heard the pitter patter of his footsteps slap to a halt and Frisco panting. Then I heard something else that stopped me in my tracks.

“You’re late,” a rumbling voice said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Frisco gasped. “I got held up.”

“We just bet you did,” a second voice said. That voice was higher-pitched than the first. Younger, too. I slid closer, keeping quiet as I approached the alley mouth.

“We were just about to get out of here and come looking for you,” the first voice said. While it was jovial on the surface, there was a note of menace underneath, like a patch of sugar over black ice. “Glad we didn’t have to do that.”

I peered cautiously around the corner, staying low to the ground to avoid notice. The alley was narrow and crowded, with a dozen garbage cans along either wall. The dark brick was interrupted only by a pair of fire doors to either side, and a fence dead-ended just above a gurgling drain. Frisco was halfway down the alley, his snout looking back and forth between two dogs. One was a thick-bodied dachshund, and the other was a Chihuahua. I couldn’t see the yapper’s face from where I crouched, but I could clearly see one ear was torn and ragged. The dachshund had a ragged scar across his muzzle, nearly exposing some of the teeth on one side of his mouth.

“So spill it,” the Chihuahua snapped. “What are we looking at?”

“Tagg’s still all kinds of laid up after what you did to him a few days back. Only folks left are a pigeon, a rabbit, a mouse and her brood, and a skunk with no front claws and no spritzer.” Frisco shook his head slightly, finally getting his breath back. “Way everyone was talking, at least a few of ‘em might be gone when you get there tomorrow, too.”

“They should have been gone already,” the Chihuahua growled, taking a step closer to Frisco. “We made it clear what would happen if they stuck around, didn’t we Frank?”

“Couldn’t have been any clearer,” the dachshund said. “I don’t like it that there are still squatters in that place. It’s messing up the time table.”

“You ain’t gonna like this even more, then,” Frisco said. “There’s somebody else in there. An uptown skull cracker who heard about what’s going down and is putting his nose into things.”

“What!” Frank snarled. Frisco backed up a few steps, bumping his rear against the brick wall of the alley.

“He’s a big goddamn cat, goes by the name Leo,” Frisco said, talking fast enough that his words were starting to get away from him. “He runs an alley on the north side, killed a couple of Longtails a few years back. We’re talking serious bad business here!”

“And why is he there, huh?” the Chihuahua barked, growling as he got in Frisco’s face. “Somebody go squealing about what was going down, maybe?”

“You spooked the church mouse!” Frisco squeaked, pressing himself back against the wall. “She’s got a brood in there, and she can’t move ‘em. I don’t know who told her about him, or why, but she trekked up there, and when she asked for help he said yes.”

“That all you know about it, Frisco?” the yapper barked. His voice was high, trembling on the edge of violence. “You sure you ain’t holding out on us?”

“Hey, I did what I could!” Frisco said, ducking his head and keeping his throat covered. “I’ve been trying to give ‘em other places to go. Ain’t my fault they went and got help instead of high tailing, is it?”

“Nah, it’s not your fault,” Frank said, waddling forward. His legs might have been stubby, but there were thick muscles in his chest and shoulders. The dachshund gestured with his head, and the Chihuahua backed off a couple of steps. “You did good, Frisco. Just what we expected.”

Frisco relaxed slightly, but before he could open his mouth to say anything else, Frank rushed in and clamped his teeth around Frisco’s neck. The rat gasped, gripping at the dog’s maw and trying to pry open his jaws, but he may as well have been caught in a bear trap. The Chihuahua barked a little laugh, his rear end wiggling with excitement.

“I’d close my eyes and let it happen, if I were you,” the Chihuahua yipped. “Ain’t no way you’re getting out of—”

I ran forward, splashing through the runoff in the middle of the alley floor. Frisco’s eyes went wide when he saw me. The Chihuahua was too caught up in the spectacle, and he didn’t even get a chance to turn around before I pounced on him. I brought all my weight down on my front paws, hammering square into the toy dog’s back. All the breath rushed out of him, and I felt something crack as he went down under me. I crouched and jumped again, and the little dog yelped as I sprang off him.

Frank was thick in the waist and chest, but he was faster than he looked. He tossed Frisco aside, and the rat bounced off the brick wall. Frank snarled at me, lunging forward, but I hammered the side of his face with my front paw and gave him a love scratch to get his attention. His jaws snapped shut, and he stumbled slightly. Then he blinked and narrowed his eyes at me. It took him a while to put two and two together, but he got there eventually.

“So you’re the big hero,” Frank said, circling to my left. “Take some advice, long hair: get out of here, before you get hurt.”

“You’re the one bleeding,” I said, giving Frank a nasty smile that showed all my teeth. The Chihuahua coughed from behind me, trying to bark but only getting out a tired wheeze. I tracked the dachshund, moving to the right. Behind me, Frisco scrambled to his feet, gasping through his bruised throat. “Maybe you’d better take your little friend and tuck that stumpy tail of yours between your legs, before I make the other side of your smile match.”

Frank lowered his head, growling at me. That was when Frisco broke for the alley mouth, scattering trash and splashing through water as he bolted. Frank was two steps behind, barking as he pelted after Frisco. I came after, letting the dachshund build up a head of steam. Just as Frank got within biting distance of Frisco’s bouncing tail, I lashed out and cut the back of the dog’s rear leg. My claws didn’t go deep, but it threw off Frank’s rhythm. His knee buckled, and instead of getting his teeth back around Frisco’s neck, the dachshund went down in a splash, his chin cracking the storm drain that was trying and failing to dry out the alley. I bounded over him, ducking back out to the sidewalk.

I pelted down the street, stretching my legs as far as they would go with every stride. I leaped onto a bench and skittered around a corner. I crossed against a light, dodging a pair of scruffy looking riders on equally questionable cycles and ducked beneath some bushes. I didn’t stop running until I’d covered three blocks and crossed enough streets to feel confident I’d gotten away clean. Just to be sure, though, I laid down, caught my breath, and watched my back trail.

Five minutes passed by. Then ten. Then twenty. A drunk leaned against a light post, debating whether he was going to throw up before he shambled on down the sidewalk. A bus stopped and let an old woman and her dog off. A couple of pigeons fought over a roosting spot, with the smaller one flapping over to a light pole after taking a couple of pecks to the chest. Neither Frank nor his yappy little companion came barreling down the street, spitting blood and ready to throw down when they caught up to me. Frisco didn’t limp out of the shadows to explain exactly what I’d just overheard or to thank me for saving his neck. I waited another half a dozen minutes. A tired-looking woman in a washed-out maid’s uniform walked an aging beagle round the corner, and a powder-blue sedan with rust on the rear wells pulled over long enough for a guy to get out and relieve himself on an alley wall.

I took a few more breaths of the damp night air and stood up. I had my wind back, and nothing hurt when I stretched. I checked my feet, flexed my claws, and licked a few spots of blood off of them. I poked my head up, got my bearings, and started walking back toward St. Bart’s.

I might have blown the big surprise, but if Frank and some of his friends still decided to show up tomorrow, I didn’t want them to be disappointed.