March was a month of contradictions. The days were longer, but the nights still came on early. The sun was warm, but the shadows were full of dirty ice that lingered like bad dreams. It was a month that didn’t know what it wanted to be; not quite winter, not quite spring, it was like that hazy place you went to just before you really fell asleep.
It was also the last month of what I called my winter generosity. The chilly months were rough on everyone, but they could be murder if you didn’t have any turf of your own. With no one filling up the garbage cans in the parks, and the sidewalk cafes forgotten and abandoned, food and warmth were in high demand. My alley was behind a deli, which meant that I was sitting on a serious commodity once the holidays started. That was why I made it known that anyone who needed something to eat could get a meal over by my place. One at a time, once per day, and it would be ideal if they could wait until after the lights were out and the doors were locked, but I knew that wasn’t always possible. Still, they had to be quiet and avoid making any kind of mess. Gino gave me trimmings to keep the riffraff off the property, after all, so I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t doing my job.
I was stretched out like the Sphinx, soaking up the hour or so of decent sun on the alley’s back stoop and contemplating a nap, when I noticed her peeking around one of the trash cans. A little white-footed mouse with a nervous look on her face, I figured she was here looking for a handout. I let her take her time. If she lost her nerve and ran off, then whatever she’d come for couldn’t be that important. She crouched in the shadow of a heavy green garbage bag, and for a moment I was sure she was gonna tuck tail and go back the way she’d come. But she shook herself, sucked in a breath, and scampered right up to the stoop.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you Leo?”
I stretched, taking care not to put my claws on display; she was already on edge, no reason to give her a coronary. I sat up and offered the friendliest smile I could manage for a mouse.
“You know me, but I don’t know you,” I said, giving her the once-over. “What do you need?”
She twitched her nose, and again I thought she was going to bolt for the sidewalk. Instead she planted her rear and curled her tail around herself. “I need your help.”
I didn’t say anything for a long moment. Her nose twitched again, like a nervous tic. Up close I could see her fur was tawny on top and pale underneath, though it didn’t hide the fact that she was much too skinny, and she was starting to go bald in a few places. Her eyes were big, dark, and full of fear, but I could tell it wasn’t me she was afraid of. She took a shaky breath, and words just started tumbling out of her.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her nose drooping like her head was too heavy. “They told us that if we don’t get out that they’ll make us get out. I thought for sure they didn’t mean they wanted everything, but now almost everyone has cleared out, Taggart is hurt, and I just… just… don’t know what to do.”
I nodded like I understood what she was talking about and tapped the stoop with my fore paw. “Why don’t you pop up here? It’s warmer, and you can tell me what happened from the beginning.”
She gave me a measured look, and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. She was measuring the distance between herself and the stoop and from where she was to the nearest cover. Then she took a look at my length and came to a conclusion I’d seen before; if I’d wanted to eat her, it would have happened by now. But I was a kept Tom, and I had no interest in running down a meal when I got two squares a day. So she hooked her paws up into the crack at the edge of the stoop and pulled herself up. I nudged my water dish closer to her, and laid back down to put us more at eye level. She took a drink and rubbed at her whiskers while she tried to catch her breath.
“Th-thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I told her. “Now, let’s take it from the top. First thing’s first, what’s your name?”
“Charity,” she squeaked, a little embarrassed.
“All right, Charity,” I said. “What seems to be your trouble?”
“There’s a little patch that no one’s really used for years now,” Charity said. “Down past 150th, I think? I’m not very good with directions. It was an old church, but it’s been shuttered up for years.”
“Melrose,” I said, just to show her I was picking up what she was laying down. “That’s a hell of a trek all the way up here.”
“Uh-huh.” Charity’s whiskers twitched again. She reached up to try to stop them, but didn’t make a lot of progress. “Well, St. Bart’s is a pretty good place, all things considered. It’s sectioned off, and it’s mostly still in one piece. The roof’s got a leak, but once we swept the broken glass out of the way it was fine. And it’s far enough away from anywhere important that no one really wanted to take it away from us. It just wasn’t worth it, especially not when we would have just let anyone come inside and stay for the asking.”
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh.” Charity rubbed at one of her ears and shook her head slightly. “Just… we don’t really have a name. People came and went, but there were a lot of regulars. There was me, Taggart, the Roosters, Molly and her mate, the Diggers, and—”
“All right, all right, I get it,” I said. “You had a community there, and now you don’t?”
“Well, not much of one,” Charity said. “Past few weeks, pretty much everyone who’s been able to has left.”
I reached out a paw and tugged my bowl a little closer. I took a drink. The water was nice and cool, and some of it splashed my nose. I rubbed it off and settled my gaze back on Charity.
“Then something happened.” I said. It wasn’t a question, but she nodded like it had been all the same.
“Couple of rovers came prowling around. Lifting their legs by the doors and scratching out the welcome signs we’d put up.” Charity’s eyes narrowed. “We offered to let them come in and stay with us, but they just laughed in our faces. They told us that St. Bart’s was theirs now, and anyone caught there in three days would be dealt with.”
“Big talk,” I said, scratching my head with my back foot. “How many of them were there?”
“I saw three,” Charity said. “There was a Chihuahua with a ragged ear, a dachshund with a big scar down his muzzle, and what I think was a Yorkie. It was hard to tell, exactly, with how matted he was. They talked like there were more of them, though.”
“They always do,” I said. “You said someone got hurt?”
“Taggart,” Charity said, bobbing her head once. “He’s been at St. Bart’s as long as anyone and longer than most. Taggart’s a friendly old mutt, and he tried to go out and talk to them. He said that sometimes you got to let the dogs talk. I remember that.”
The mouse shook her head back and forth slowly, then lowered herself and took another drink from my bowl.
“He walked out there, tail wagging and tongue lolling, like he was just one of the pack,” Charity said. “He got maybe three words out before they were on him. Biting, clawing, kicking. Making a show of it.”
“He get in any nips of his own?” I asked.
“Taggart talks tough, but he isn’t a fighter,” Charity said. “He got his teeth on the Chihuahua, but that only made them hurt him more. He showed them his belly, but they gave him a few more digs just to be sure he got the message.”
I nodded again, just because I felt like I should be doing something. I shifted, feeling the warmth of the sun really soaking into my top coat. When Charity didn’t keep talking, I realized she was waiting for me to take the lead.
“Humor me on this,” I said. “But if they want this spot so badly, why don’t you just give it to them? Especially if you don’t have anyone who can tug the rope over it?”
“My babies,” Charity said, her nose drooping again. “Even if I had somewhere to go, I can’t move them yet. In a few weeks, maybe, but not by tomorrow.”
“That the only reason?” I asked.
Charity raised her head, and looked me in the eyes. There was no fear in her gaze now. No hesitation. Just raw anger, blazing away.
“Because it’s mine,” she said, without a hint of her earlier squeak. “And I may not be able to push this pack off by myself, but I am not going to just roll over and give them everything because they told me to.”
She had guts, there was no denying that. More so than most mice I’d come across in my time. The situation she was in was bad enough, but to trek halfway across the borough looking for help took a double share of spine. Still, a shakedown over who had pissing rights on an abandoned church on the south side of the Bronx wasn’t my problem. Especially not if those yappers really did have friends they were going to bring ‘round with them. Charity hadn’t turned up on my stoop by accident, though, so I asked her the question with the catnip coating.
“Who told you I’d help?” I asked.
“Ringo Longtail,” Charity answered.
“Ringo Longtail?” I repeated, turning his name into a question.
“I didn’t know who else to turn to,” Charity said. “He’s a good neighbor. Ringo has helped us before, when we couldn’t find enough food, and I figured he might know what to do about this. He said that if I was brave enough to come up here and ask you face-to-face, that you’d be able to do something.”
I settled back and tried to keep the frown off my face. I’d heard Ringo’s name in passing, but I kept my books clean, and I didn’t owe anything to the Longtails. I also didn’t appreciate critters I didn’t know making promises on my behalf. Charity was right about one thing, though. Knowing how far she’d come did mean something, and I couldn’t just turn that away. Not if I wanted my conscience to stay quiet the next time I laid down to take a nap, anyway. I stretched one more time, and stood up. I hopped down off the stoop and dug under the dumpster with a paw. I brought out a small bag of salad scraps and clawed it open.
“What are you doing?” Charity asked, that squeak coming back into her voice.
“Giving you something to eat,” I said. “So come down here where Jasmine won’t notice you when she brings out the lunch trash.”
“I didn’t come here for—” Charity started, but I cut her off.
“When you’re done eating, I want you to scamper back to your patch and wait for me. I’m going to make some arrangements here, and once I’ve got someone watching my place, I’m going to go see Ringo. We’re going to talk, and I should be out to St. Bart’s by tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning!?” Charity’s voice went into a completely different register. It made my ears hurt a bit.
“Maybe tonight. It all depends on what Ringo has to say when I pop over for a visit.” I skittered the bag of vegetables and leaves over toward the stoop. Charity eyed it uncertainly before jumping down. “Either way, I need you to tell anyone that’s left at your church who I am, and to keep an eye out for me. I don’t want to come creeping up to the side door and end up digging my claws into the wrong person. I need everybody on the same page if I’m gonna be any help at all, understand?”
“I… I think so,” Charity said. “I should be able to sneak onto a train and be there before it gets too dark.”
“Good.” I nodded. “Now, one last thing. Where did you find Ringo?”
“Around Mayaro,” Charity said, nibbling on the remnants of a tomato slice bigger than she was. “He’s usually there, but if he isn’t, there’s always someone who can deliver a message to him right away.”
I nodded and padded out to the sidewalk. My good mood was gone, and I could feel the chip on my shoulder growing now that I’d been denied my afternoon sun soak to go deal with someone else’s problems. I took a moment to scent the air, catching the whiff of fresh coffee from the Mocha Mug across the street and spitting grease from the Shack down on the corner. There were a few people out and about, but nothing like what would happen in half an hour or so when lunch orders came in. I gave myself a shake and turned west, keeping an eye out for abandoned ham or dropped salami. Breakfast had been a few hours ago, and I could already tell it was going to be a long damn day.
There hadn’t been any sandwich-related incidents along my route, but someone had tossed the remnants of a chicken club toward the trash can and missed. I snatched what was salvageable from it, then picked up the lower half of the bun and took it with me. I turned north, crossed against the light, and headed down an easy-to-miss side street. I stopped at a wrought iron gate blocking off a small courtyard. The paving stones were swept clean, and the decorative tables were still set out. A big oak tree grew up along one side, but the bare branches didn’t provide the shade they would once spring got here. The smell of thick sauce as well as simmering beef and chicken wafted out from inside. There were no candles set out in red glasses, though, which meant that Zorelli’s back patio was probably still closed for business. Still, just be sure I pushed my head against the gate. It moved about a quarter of an inch, then stopped, the iron clanging against the latch holding it shut. A little gray head poked out of a hole in the tree.
“Who’s that creepin’ and squeakin’ at my gate?” Gloria demanded, hauling herself out of the bole and up onto the branch. She shook out her gray fur, fluffing her tail as she looked down.
“Somebody who brought you a present,” I said, dropping the bread through the gate and batting it over toward her tree.
“Well, why didn’t you say so, Tomcat,” Gloria said, stretching before she slowly climbed down her tree. She took her time approaching, moving with more of a saunter than any other squirrel I’d ever seen. Living behind a gate had its advantages. She picked up the bread and gave it a sniff. When that passed muster, she nibbled at it and made an approving sound. “Mmm… spicy and toasted. You trying to plump me up for somethin’?”
“It’s been a long winter,” I said, licking the rest of the chipotle mayo from my chops. “Figured if you were awake that you could use a snack.”
“That’s thoughtful of you, honey, but I’ve been back in the game for weeks now,” Gloria said, taking another bite of the bread. “I don’t have that many years left. I stay asleep too long just because it gets a little chilly out, and I may not wake back up. Besides, it’s hard to sleep with all the racket the new sous-chef makes. He may not be up to snuff yet, but there ain’t nothing wrong with how his mistakes taste, you ask me.”
I waited patiently while Gloria ate. She took her time with the bread, nibbling off barely a quarter of what I’d given her before she laid the rest of it aside. It would likely go back up the tree with her for later. One advantage I’ve found in bribing folks smaller than me is that what looks like a mouthful to my eyes is often a feast to them. Gloria wiped her face and sucked her fingers clean before giving me a measured, knowing look.
“All right, Tomcat, what do you want?” Gloria asked, stroking out her tail before wrapping it around herself. “It’s cold out here, so make it snappy.”
“You still got cousins on the south side?” I asked.
“Paul and Gina, yeah, they’re still down there,” Gloria said. “Why you asking about them?”
“Ringo Longtail,” I said. “I’d like to know what the word on the upper branches is about him.”
“Haven’t you had enough of the Longtails for all of your nine lives?” Gloria asked.
“Seems it’s them who haven’t had enough of me,” I said. I related what Charity had told me, keeping things as succinct as I could while still getting all the important parts in. Gloria leaned forward, her eyes narrowing as she listened to my tale. When I finished, she nodded a couple of times before breaking off another piece of the bun.
“That jives with what I’ve heard about Ringo,” she said, nibbling.
“Paint me a picture?” I asked.
“Only because you ask me so nicely,” Gloria said, dusting crumbs off of her paws. “Ringo is part of the new blood that’s been coming up on the south side. His mama is Fiona Longtail, the one who took Vega Longtail’s seat with the banditi when he choked on a chicken bone. She gave her boy a little corner of her territory to manage, and he’s been snatching little pieces from the surrounding blocks whenever no one is looking.”
“Neat trick,” I said. “How’d he manage that without making enemies?”
“Oh, he’s got his share, believe you me,” Gloria said. “But he’s got a lot more friends. How he runs things is that he reaches out and makes an offer. He turns it into a partnership. Any of his new partners have a problem, they come to him. You need a warm place to stay, Ringo has your back. Not enough scrounge on your block, Ringo can hook you up. But it goes both ways. If you have grates on your turf that no one’s using, Ringo will send guests your way on cold nights. New business opens up in your area, you have to share the bounty. Share and share alike is how he says it. Got him a lot of loyalty, and a lot of folks come his way in the lean months looking for a hand-up.”
“What does he do if someone doesn’t feel like sharing?” I asked.
“You ever hear of a mutt called Chopper?” Gloria asked. “Bulldog mix, ran a back lot over near the river?”
“I’ve heard the name,” I said. “Heard something happened to him.”
“Ringo is what happened to him,” Gloria said. “Way I heard it from Gina was that Chopper lost most of his crew in an animal control raid. He needed to lay low for a bit until there were eyes off his lot. So Ringo agreed to help him out in exchange for a percentage of what he took when he got his turf back. Well, Chopper didn’t have a whole lot of choices open, so he said sure, that would be fine.”
“And then he tried to skip when the bill came due?”
“Chopper was a lot of things, but smart was never on the list,” Gloria said. “He was always one of those big dogs who thinks that size is everything. When the heat was off he played along for a while, taking guests and letting them scrounge around. After a couple months, though, Chopper felt he’d paid his due, and sent a pair of cats back to Ringo to tell him he wasn’t taking any more lodgers.”
“Mean and stupid,” I said. “What are the odds?”
“Worse than stupid. He roughed up the cats and sent ‘em running scared.” Gloria shook her head, the way you would at a puppy who hasn’t figured out that eating its own shit isn’t going to fool anyone. “He thought he was sending a message, letting Ringo know that he wasn’t the kind of pooch to take orders.”
“They find him in the river?” I asked.
“No. Ringo had to make it clear that you didn’t hurt anyone under his protection.” Gloria scooted closer, lowering her voice as she spoke. “Nobody saw what happened that night. But animal control showed up when enough people called about the screaming. They found Chopper in the middle of his turf, his throat ripped open, and his guts spilled out. He was covered in scratches and bite marks. His tail was torn off and stuffed in his mouth.”
“Not the message he thought he was sending, I’m sure,” I said.
“Ringo might be new school, but a Longtail is a Longtail,” Gloria said. “All it took was one time to remind everyone else that even if Ringo prefers to talk, that isn’t the only thing he’ll do to get his way.”
I nodded. When it came to raccoons, the more things change, the more they stayed the same. I scratched my cheek and blew out a sharp breath. I was liking this even less than I had half an hour ago.
“So what do you think about all this?” I asked.
“I think you should just leave it be,” Gloria said, rubbing her paws together. “Ringo’s a long way from here and so is this pack of strays, whoever the hell they are. City’s a hard place, and sometimes shit happens. My heart goes out to the church mouse, and if she could get her babies up here she’d be more than welcome in my tree. But this ain’t your problem.”
“No,” I said, giving myself a shake. “No, it isn’t.”
Gloria looked at me for a long, quiet moment. I could tell she didn’t believe that I believed it. She reached through the bars and patted me on the nose. “See you round, Tomcat.”
I watched as Gloria packed the remnants of her bun into her cheeks and started climbing back up her tree. The patio door opened up, and a young man with a bulging garbage bag came through, clenching his keys in his mouth. I headed back the way I’d come. There was still one more errand I had to take care of.
I turned back south, but instead of going home I turned west instead. I was getting into residential blocks, and the foot traffic was mostly dead this time of day. I passed a few delivery drivers and newspaper carriers, along with the occasional mid-day visitor, but most folks seemed to be either at school or work. I waited at the crosswalk, tail twitching. A middle-aged black woman with her hair in a kerchief stepped up next to me and pushed the button on the pole. She gave me a nod when she noticed me but didn’t try to scratch behind my ears or put her hand down for me to sniff. I appreciated that. The light changed, and I dashed through the crosswalk.
I made my way over to Bathgate Avenue and found what I was looking for as I drew even with the playground. There was a multicolored jumble of steel and plastic, with a slide on one end and a horizontal ladder on the other; the whole place was covered in black rubber tiles that would have been soft and hot in the summer months. With ice scabs still clinging to the shady sides of the slides, though, the tiles were stiff as concrete and just about as warm. I even noticed it through my furry pads, which was saying something.
During the warmer months, the place was overrun with children climbing, jumping, and pelting all over the place. Even when the place was in full swing, though, there were always a few crows gathered on the nearby power lines and perched on ledges, keeping a sharp eye out. Now, with the place mostly abandoned, a little black conclave perched on top of the bars, squawking back and forth at each other. The caws were good natured for the most part, but they went quiet as soon as one of the crows spotted me. He nudged the next one, who in turn nudged the next one, and by the time I’d crossed half the yard they were looking down at me like mourners gathered round a fresh grave. I sat and returned their gaze. I had their attention, but I’d learned it was best to let crows have the first word.
“Do you need something?” a big crow with bushy chest feathers asked. “Or are you just admiring the scenery?”
“Got a job, Cayce,” I said, keeping my voice cool. “Would prefer local help, if you all weren’t too busy?”
Another crow, a long-beaked female whose name I didn’t know, croaked a laugh at that. Cayce glared at her and hopped a little closer. He stared down at me, giving me a cold, gimlet stare. He was doing his best to look impressive, but his best wasn’t all that good. I yawned, giving him a look at all of my teeth, and then licked my chops again.
“What are you offering as payment for this service?” Cayce asked. His tone was dismissive, but he sidled a little closer along the bar. You didn’t get as plump as Cayce was by turning your beak up at an easy score, and he’d been running one of the most reliable murder-for-hire operations in the whole borough for years.
“My daily feeding,” I said. “Trimmings fresh from the deli: red meat, with plenty of fat still on it.”
That got the black birds chattering again, several of them putting their beaks together and clacking away. Cayce turned to his fellows and listened. They were bobbing their heads and shuffling their feet. Cayce flapped his wings and fluttered down to a lower rung. He wasn’t at my eye level; I was still a cat after all, but he was close enough that the whole neighborhood wouldn’t be able to hear our business.
“And what would you expect of us in return for this bounty?” he asked, puffing out his beard.
“I’ve got some business on the south side, so I’m gonna be gone for a few days,” I said.
“When the cat’s away, as it were,” Cayce said with a knowing nod. “I do hope you don’t expect us to defend your chosen territory in your absence. Your reputation may keep the metaphorical wolves from the door for a time, but should one grow bold there is not much that I and my fellows would be willing, much less able to do. Not for such a small price, at least.”
“I just want some eyes on it,” I said. “There’s a ledge on both sides, and it’s an easy view. Just tell me who comes and who goes, and if someone has to be raked I’ll settle up with them later. And if you could try not to make it too obvious that you’re there in case someone figures out I’m gone, I’d appreciate it.”
“We are professionals.” Cayce ruffled his feathers, bobbing his head in something that wasn’t quite anger. I could see him contemplating walking away, then his business sense taking hold. “Would you want us to watch all day, and all night?”
“Preferably,” I said. “There’s a morning feeding and an evening one. Whoever is on the job gets the meal. If you need a little extra, the top of the dumpster is usually open a few hours a day, so scooping out some spare on the sly shouldn’t be too hard.”
Cayce shuffled back and forth on the bar, considering my offer. The chorus up above was silent, listening. Finally Cayce clacked his beak, before pecking the steel bar. It made a dull reverberation, and the others let out a unanimous caw.
“Murder Row, at your service,” Cayce said. “When does the job start?”
“This evening will be fine,” I said. “I already ate my breakfast. Wouldn’t want to short change you.”
“A wise decision,” Cayce said, bobbing his head. “Someone will be there around sunset. Do you know how long you shall be absent?”
“Today at least,” I said. “Hopefully I’ll be back by tomorrow night. Longest I intend to be gone is three days.”
“Three days it shall be, then,” Cayce agreed.
I waited until Cayce fluttered back up to his perch along with the rest of the crows. He’d barely gotten his feet under him when the cawing started over who got to be the first on the new job. I got up and stretched. I left the way I’d come and glanced down the street at a bank clock. It wasn’t quite noon. I picked up my pace and headed west. I had a bus to catch and raccoons to badger.