I got lucky and found a bus idling at the curb while it loaded a young guy in a wheelchair. While he was getting situated, I padded around to the back and got comfortable on the rear bumper. After the elevator doors finally shut, the driver switched gears and pulled out into early afternoon traffic.
As the bus drove, I ruminated on what I knew and on what Gloria had told me. The Longtails were major players on the Bronx’s south side and had been as long as anyone I knew could remember. Two years ago they’d made a bid for my block, trying to push out the subway rats who had a nominal hold on a lot of the local turf. The Longtails had barely managed to get a toehold when I screwed it up for them.
I was new to the neighborhood at the time, and I’d been sleeping in my alley for three days when Diego Longtail and two of his boys had come to roust me out. He was small for a raccoon, and he’d been used to people knowing who he was and being afraid of him. I had no idea who he was, and after a couple of nights dealing with humidity, gray rain, and jockeying over community watering holes with the rest of the street beasts, I wasn’t in a mood to deal with any of his shit. I broke his handler’s arm when Chenzo tried to lay his paws on me, and I cracked Canner’s skull with my teeth when he tried to jump on my back. Diego made a halfhearted attempt to get in on the action, and I gave him four scars across his belly for his trouble.
Diego and his one surviving minder fled, and I let them go. That turned out to be good for me. Partly because when Gino brought out the trash and found me with a dead raccoon near the dumpster, he decided to start giving me my wage to keep the alley clear. I also heard through the upper branches that when Chenzo said Diego had high-tailed it from a lone cat, letting one of his boys get killed in the process, the banditi that ran the Longtails turned their backs on him. He’d had his chance to secure the neighborhood, and he’d blown it. They’d pulled their masks out of the block after that, and Diego had more or less been demoted to trash duty from that day onward.
I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the Longtails since all that had happened, and dwelling on it now was making the spot between my shoulder blades feel prickly and uncomfortable. Especially since it seemed that Ringo was a very different sort of animal from Diego. The more I turned it over in my head, though, the less sense the whole situation made. I didn’t know Ringo, and I didn’t like the fact that he knew me… or at least knew enough about me to drag my tail into this mess.
The city around me changed, first in small ways, then in bigger ones as I transferred buses. I watched as the street-side businesses gave way to tightly-packed apartments and row houses. The stoops, stairs, and sidewalks were clean and salted, even this late in the season, and everything was fairly neat and tidy. As we headed south, the snow began to encroach. Some of the sidewalks were cracked, and occasional potholes jostled the bus. I had a firm grip, though, and the traffic was slow enough that I didn’t get bounced onto the sedan following along behind. The kinds of businesses we passed changed too, and while they didn’t have bars on the windows, they did have more cameras than most of their uptown counterparts. Or maybe the cameras were just more obvious, it was hard to tell. Right as things looked to be getting sketchy, though, we crossed over the edge of the south Bronx’s gentrification. From one block to another, the cracks seemed to vanish. Everything felt cozy instead of cramped, and it still had that subtle scent of newness that hadn’t worn away yet.
Well, new compared to a lot of the rest of the city, anyway.
Another thing that changed the further south I went were the scents. There were still occasional hot dog and pretzel carts along the roads, and plenty of coffee to go with them. The quality of the brew changed, though, growing harder and sharper in my nostrils. There were heavier spices in the air, too, and a lot of them had a harsh burn if I sniffed too deeply: hot peppers, ground cayenne, and that red sauce that was torture going in and misery coming out. I saw more signs in Spanish, not that those were uncommon anywhere in the city last I checked, but they added a whole different character to the neighborhoods. Especially to the spots of graffiti that still lingered near alley mouths or which were tucked alongside corners, where no one would see them unless they knew what they were looking for.
I had to change buses twice to get where I was going, sharing the bumper on the second trip with a pigeon who gave me nervous looks every time I shifted. I hopped off the last bumper while the bus idled at a stop sign and padded onto the sidewalk. A pair of teenage girls were hustling in one direction, while a mother and her three little ones proceeded in the opposite direction. One of the little ones tried to reach out for me, but his mother snatched his hand away before I had to teach him a lesson about boundaries. A guy in a leather jacket that had seen better days strummed a guitar, his hat turned upside down near one foot as he crooned a song. There was a lot of change in the hat and a couple of rumpled bills. I hopped up on a bench and put my fore paws on the back to get my bearings. According to the signs I was just past 57th Street. So I turned around, jumped down off the bench, and started heading south.
I was still a couple blocks from the Mayaro park when I slowed my steps. I didn’t anticipate a life-or-death scratch up, but I still wanted to get a feel for the neighborhood before I strutted onto someone else’s turf. Especially after what I’d heard about how this particular Longtail ran his business.
The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of chrome on display. Almost every resident of the four-legged persuasion had been tagged, and most of them were either perched on windowsills or padding around little strips of green at the end of a leash. Most of them gave me a nod when I went past, but there were a few warning growls peppered in for flavor. Mostly from smaller breeds. I saw a couple of gray squirrels, but they scampered up into the top branches of their respective trees when they saw me padding down the street. I hadn’t gone more than a block when I noticed two pigeons flying off from separate rooftops, both of them heading in the direction of the park. Unless I missed my guess, I wasn’t going to have to announce myself when I got there.
“Hey there, bottle brush,” a voice called from an alley. “Where you swaying off to?”
I glanced over and saw a bright orange tabby lounging on a stack of boxes just beneath a hot air vent. Her coat was thick, but it had that rough look that told me she took care of it mostly on her own. Her eyes were a sparkling green, and when she stretched I could see she still had all her claws. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a neck belt or its accompanying bling.
“Just passing through,” I said. “Heading down to Mayaro.”
“You going to see Ringo?” she asked. Her posture didn’t change, but I noticed how her shoulders relaxed, and her back end bunched. Ready to run or pounce, as the situation demanded.
“I am,” I said. “That gonna be a problem?”
“With those shoulders of yours, probably not,” she said, shifting her weight slightly. “Though you come strutting up with that scowl on your face, you’re likely gonna make some of the boys nervous.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said. “How many are down there today?”
“Oh, they’re all over,” the tabby said, with a dismissive flick of her tail. “Digging through the dumpsters, posted up in the trees, making a show of things. There are a dozen little crews doing their dailies around these parts… as to how many are at the park? A handful, probably. But that handful can get real big real fast if someone starts yipping for help.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I said. “Anybody in particular I should keep an eye out for?”
She chewed that one over, and for a few seconds I thought she wasn’t going to answer. Then she shrugged, crossed her front legs, and rested her chin on her paws.
“There’s this big one named Bear,” she said. “He’s never gonna win any races, but he knows his business. There’s another one, doesn’t look like much, but he’s always at Ringo’s side. I can’t remember his name, but there’s something wrong with his left front paw. Gives him a nasty limp, and he’s real protective of it.”
“Anyone else?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Probably gonna be a few looky boys posted around the edges. But they swap out pretty regular. Stops any one crew from getting too comfortable and letting their guard down. Ringo likes it when his boys are on their toes.”
“Good to know,” I said. “Any good turns I can do you?”
“Just watch that tail,” she purred. “Be a real shame if something happened to it.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, continuing on my way.
The tabby wasn’t kidding when she said Ringo’s people were out in force. The closer I got to Mayaro, the more raccoons I noticed. One was curled up under a bench, eating some fallen French fries. A pair of them were in an alley, one rifling the trash while the other played lookout. Another one lounged in a tree, his feet up, keeping an eye on what was going on. There were others, maybe a dozen or so, that I passed by. None of them were conspicuous on their own, but the numbers added up once you really took note. All of them kept an eye on me, but none of them tried to hassle me as I walked, and I made it to the edge of the park without any major incidents.
I crossed over near the basketball courts, crunching over brittle grass that was still mostly yellow to get to the blacktop. It was warm under my pads, which was a pleasant change from the sidewalks. There were two kids with gloves on trying to dribble a ball and having one hell of a time with it. The handball court was deserted, unless you counted some wadded up burger wrappers left in a heap. I walked past, ears and eyes open wide as I came.
I made it all the way to the edge of the playground equipment before trouble came looking for me. A pair of raccoons stepped out from where they’d taken cover, one under the slide and the other around the side of a tree. Both of them headed my way, their fur bushed out to make them look bigger, showing me their teeth in wide, humorless grins.
“Hey now,” the one on the left said, hunching up his shoulders as he looked me over. “What do we have here, Swipes?”
“Looks like a kitty cat who done lost his way, Scraps,” Swipes replied. Swipes was a little older and a little bigger. He made sure he took the lead, walking right up to me. “Maybe you don’t know where you are, friend. This here is Ringo Longtail’s private perch. So you might want to scarper back the way you came and go around.”
“My business is right here,” I said, giving Swipes a yawn.
“You hear that, Swipes?” Scraps yipped, taking a few steps closer. “He thinks he can just go wherever he pleases!”
“Maybe you’re just hard of hearing, friend,” Swipes said, stepping into my personal space. “This is Longtail turf. So do your health a favor, and walk around.”
I could have let it go and walked back the way I’d come. I could have trotted back to the sidewalk and come in from the other side of the park so I wouldn’t have to deal with these two. That was probably the smart thing to do. But when Swipes put a paw on my shoulder and pushed, I shifted my weight so he slid to one side, his balance going out from under him. Before he could catch himself, I swiped him across the muzzle. Two of my claws dug in, tearing bloody lines across his nose. He yelped, stumbling back and reaching up to the gouge. I gave him a second swipe across the belly, raking four bloody slashes.
Scraps finally shook himself out of his shock, and came at me in a charge. He was all teeth and nails, but he didn’t expect me to duck as he leaped. He scrabbled at my back, but I came up with all four legs and sent him tumbling. He landed hard on his back, bouncing over onto his side. I turned to Swipes and fixed him with a hard look. He was mad, and he was hurt, but he wasn’t stupid. He half-turned to make a run for it, and I was on him. I shoved him hard to the ground, my paws on his back. He struggled, but when I pricked him with my claws he stopped.
“Tell the kit to stay where he is,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Scraps, stay there,” Swipes said. “I’m just going to—”
I saw the move he was going to make just before he made it. Swipes braced his front paws, and he was just flexing his back to try to throw me off. I clamped my teeth at the base of his skull and gave him a squeeze. His muscles turned to water, and I felt him go limp. Swipes whimpered. I glanced up and saw Scraps out of the corner of my eye. He was up, but not moving. He was looking past me at someone else. I swiveled my eyes and followed the kit’s gaze.
Huffing across the playground was one of the biggest damn garbage grizzles I’d ever seen. The raccoon’s fur was thick and scraggly, and he was so round that he lumbered as he came. He was easily twice the size of Swipes and Scraps, and he might have had a pound or two on me. I took my teeth off Swipes’ head and felt him shiver again. I stepped off, one paw at a time, then sat down and waited.
“What’s all this, then?” the big raccoon panted.
“Your boys were lacking manners,” I said. “I happened to be passing by, so I thought I’d teach them.”
“He tried to kill me, Bear!” Swipes protested, all but screeching as he made his way to his feet. “Scraps will tell you, he saw the whole thing!”
Bear glanced over at Scraps, who had a scrape from how he’d landed. He cupped Swipes under the muzzle, and turned his face, looking at it. He looked at the cuts on his belly. Bear snorted, then looked over at me.
“You Leo?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Boss has been expecting you,” Bear said, letting go of Swipes. “Come on, I’ll walk you over.”
“But Bear—” Swipes started. Bear swung on him, slapping Swipes on the back of the head hard enough that he went back down to his belly.
“Don’t ‘but Bear’ me,” the big raccoon said. “He wanted you dead, he’d have cracked your skull like an egg just now or spilled your guts, instead of giving you a love scratch. Remember that the next time somebody comes along with business to discuss, and you decide to get in their face about it. Especially when they’re twice your garbage-picking size!”
Swipes shook his head slowly, but he didn’t try to get back to his feet. Bear looked at Scraps, who jumped like he’d been pinched.
“Well, what are you standing there gawping for?” Bear asked. “Get back to your spot!”
That time Scraps did jump, scampering behind the same tree he’d been watching from when I first showed up. Bear turned and lumbered off the way he’d come. I followed. Behind me I heard Swipes get back to his feet and limp over behind another nearby tree, hissing every time he put too much weight on his front paws.
Bear’s gait was ponderous given his sheer bulk, but I didn’t try to rush him. Up close I could see he had a half-dozen scars along his ribs, and though there was plenty of fat on him there was more than a little muscle underneath. We circled around the rubber tiles and followed the walking path that led to the far side of a single tree that would have shaded four benches if it had leaves. A pair of pigeons were sitting on the mostly bare branches, keeping a sharp eye out. Sitting on the bench below them was a raccoon who couldn’t have been too much older than Scraps. His fur was thick and lustrous, but it hung loosely in a way that suggested he was still coming back from this winter’s partial hibernation. His eyes were a luminous gold in the black mask across his face, and he had what looked like half a cranberry muffin in his lap. One of the big ones, with the thick flakes of sugar on top. Behind him stood another raccoon. The second one was a little older and scrappy around the edges. His left foreleg stuck out awkwardly, and he favored that side.
“Leo,” the sitting raccoon said, swallowing a mouthful of his muffin. “So good to finally meet you! You’re even bigger than Chenzo told me you were.”
“Clean living,” I said, nodding toward Chenzo. “Looks like you managed to land on your feet.”
Ringo laughed at that: a sharp, harsh bark with only a little humor in it. Chenzo remained stone-faced, doing his best to pretend I hadn’t said anything.
“Chenzo has been invaluable since I brought him on,” Ringo said, pulling one of the cranberries out of the treat and chomping it enthusiastically. Bear lumbered over near the base of the bench, keeping himself between me and his boss. “In fact, he was the one who suggested that I give your name to the church mouse.”
“Was he now?” I said, shifting my gaze to Chenzo. He kept his poker face, but his good paw twitched toward the one I’d broken.
“Yes,” Ringo said, favoring me with a wide, toothy smile. “Which if I had to guess, is the reason you walked all the way down here to have a chat with me. And why, unless my ears deceive me, you are in a less than pleasant mood.”
“You’re smarter than the last Longtail I met,” I said. I could feel my tail twitching, and made myself stop.
“Damning with faint praise,” Ringo said, setting his brunch aside and dusting his paws off. He leaned forward, his gaze intent on me over his long muzzle. “What’s say we go for a walk? Just you and me, and we can keep this private. Work out this miscommunication so we can be friends, hmmm?”
I glanced from Chenzo to Bear, not moving anything other than my eyes. I flexed my paws and rolled my shoulders. The tension in the air was metallic; the kind you smelled just before lightning struck. I made an effort to lay my hackles down, licked a paw, and rubbed my cheek for a second.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s talk. Just the two of us.”
Ringo clambered down the side of the bench, moving with surprising grace. He started walking down the path, but when Bear went to follow, Chenzo shook his head. Bear shrugged, and took a seat just below the bench. I fell in step beside Ringo, keeping my ears open as we walked.
“You’ve got guts, I’ll say that for you,” I said. “Most people wouldn’t invite me on a private walk right after I tuned up on one of their door boys.”
“Swipes watches the courts because he isn’t good for much else,” Ringo said. “Besides, I wanted to get your measure. I needed to know if you were the kind of stray who would just take what was thrown at you, or if you were the kind who’d snap someone’s neck for looking at you wrong.”
“You get the answer you wanted?”
“You’re somewhere in the middle, I’d say.” Ringo said. “Which works for me. Too little spine, I wonder where your rep came from and if you’re just coasting on it. Too much spine, and you’re just as much a hindrance as you could be a help. Probably even more so.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I followed Ringo around the curve of the walking path. There was a man sitting on a nearby bench with two fingers pressed against his neck, and the other wrapped around a bottle of water. He took a deep swallow before shoving it back into an elastic holster hanging from one hip.
“You’re trying to figure out my play, here,” Ringo said as we passed the jogger. “What do I get out of sending someone in need all the way up to your edge of the concrete heap to beg for help when she’s right here on my doorstep? If things go right, she manages to convince you to come all the way down here to help her. If things don’t go so good, well, I’ve sent a mother far away from her brood just to get turned down by a stray who isn’t willing to stick his neck out for some stranger. Or worse yet, sent her to get eaten for her troubles.”
Behind us, the man got to his feet. He stretched, grunting and groaning, as he worked some flexibility back into his muscles. He ran past, giving the two of us a wide berth. Ringo slowed his pace, stopping at the base of a water fountain.
“That doesn’t affect me one way or the other, of course. But there’s the risk that if you get poked you come on down to see me. Now I’ve got a big damn alley cat with a grudge turning up on my turf looking for answers about why I’m bothering him,” Ringo said. “Sure, that might not be likely, but why take that risk? What do I get out of it? Especially because if I wanted to get your attention that badly I could have just sent one of my boys up there to request a meeting.”
I waited. I could tell, even on such a short acquaintance, that Ringo was the kind of animal who liked to hear himself talk. So I let him. If I was lucky he might get to the point before the streetlights clicked on.
“You see Leo, I’m working with a bigger picture than my unfortunate cousin could ever see,” Ringo said. He climbed up the water fountain, grunting as he hauled himself up the shaft and into the bowl on top. He leaned on the button with most of his weight, and slurped from the chilly stream. He wiped his mouth before climbing down again. “Do you know where St. Bart’s is from here?”
“I could probably find it if I had to,” I said. “But judging from Charity’s description, it’s a walk.”
“It is quite the walk,” Ringo agreed, leaning against the base of the fountain. “When I first met Charity several months ago, she was so pregnant that she waddled. But she came down here all the same to ask for my help. That took spunk. So I gave her some food and had Bear walk her home with the leftovers. Or carry her, if I’m to be completely honest. Poor thing was so tired she could barely hang onto his scruff.”
“The church isn’t your turf, though,” I said, swishing my tail.
“It’s no one’s turf,” Ringo said with a shrug. “Place is in one of those pockets that hasn’t been gentrified just yet. Bear gave it a look over when he was there, and there’s nothing to the neighborhood. Sure, there’s a couple of corner shops, and a little grease spot tucked in a block or two over, but it’s mostly liquor stores, hock shops, and a couple of bars mixed in with a lot of apartments that don’t have outside garbage pick-up. There’s a busted-out movie theater with half the lights missing and bars on the ticket booth, but scratching out meals in that place is more a matter of luck than anything else. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“I didn’t bumper jump down here to play guessing games,” I said, feeling the hackles on the back of my neck try to rise. “So why don’t you just spell it out for me and save us both the daylight?”
Ringo nodded, stepping off the path and over to a tree that was starting to show some early buds. He frowned, scratching his belly. He looked me over again, his golden gaze going from the tip of my tail, all the way up to my face. He nodded. The smile was gone from his muzzle. It had never been in his eyes.
“This whole thing at St. Bart’s? It stinks.” Ringo tapped the side of his nose, and shook his head. “There’s nothing in the neighborhood worth fighting for. The only water is what pools in the church font and the gutters when it rains, and there’s no food within an easy walk. It’s got shelter, sure, but it’s a shelter the regulars would have let them use for the asking. Why start a brawl over something they could have just had for nothing?”
“Probably a reason,” I said. “Whether it makes sense I can’t say, because I don’t know.”
“That’s the rub,” Ringo agreed. “It bothers me. I don’t like it when things don’t add up, and when rovers start doing things that don’t make any sense right near my back stoop, that makes me nervous.”
“So how is that my problem?” I asked, even though I was starting to get a glimmer of an idea.
“It isn’t,” Ringo said. “It’s my problem. However, while I have a lot of friends around here, I don’t want to risk anyone putting a toe into a situation that, at the end of the day, might just be a few pound hounds shedding lot of blood for a few feet of dirt to call their own.”
“So you want me to put my scruff on the line,” I said. “And then, if I find out it’s more than a couple of mutts making a ruckus, to come padding down here to tell you all about it?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.” Ringo beamed at me, like he’d been waiting for me to finally get whatever lesson he’d been trying to teach. “You don’t run with any of my crews. In fact, anybody who knows who you are knows what you did to my cousin. So, if anything, that makes them less likely to suspect you’re there on anyone’s business but your own.”
“And you made sure I had someone else’s business to be on when you sent that mama mouse up to my alley.” I bit off the end of my words, my canines clicking on them. Ringo noticed, but he didn’t remark on it. He seemed perfectly relaxed, and at ease. He glanced up the path, and watched a girl in a heavy coat as she walked past us. She had her hands buried in her pockets, but she gave Ringo a smile when she noticed him, and sat a half-eaten pack of crackers down on a nearby park bench. He grinned, and retrieved them, nibbling on one of the peanut butter snacks before he said anything else.
“No one’s saying you have to do anything,” Ringo said, taking another bite. “You don’t have any debts in my books, and calling you one of my neighbors would be more than just a stretch.”
“But?” I asked, when Ringo didn’t keep talking.
“But if you chose to go help the church mouse and her people, you wouldn’t make any enemies over it. In fact, you’d probably earn some respect around here for going above and beyond outside your own neighborhood.”
I didn’t need Ringo’s help reading between the lines on that one. I pulled my claws back in and stretched my neck. He gave me another of those perfunctory smiles of his and finished off the cracker. He licked the crumbs off his muzzle and offered me his paw.
“Can I trust you’ll look into this for me?” he asked.
“The next time you want my help, you come ask for it,” I said, ignoring his outstretched paw. “No more cat’s paws, understand me?”
He let out that short, hard bark of a laugh again. He didn’t seem to be able to stop himself. When the fit passed, he wiped at his eyes.
“I hear what you’re saying,” Ringo said with a nod.
I glanced over my shoulder and ran some quick numbers through my head. If I put a little spring in my step, I could catch a bus in fifteen minutes and be a short walk from home before the dinner rush was over. I could snatch some of the extra fat out of the dumpster, eat my fill, and curl up in my box right near the heat exhaust fan. I blew a hard breath out of my nose, and turned back to Ringo.
“Which way is St. Bart’s from here?” I asked.