Like any sensible alley cat, Leo minds his own business. But between a mouse desperate enough to ask him for help and suspicious behavior by dogs and raccoons in his area of the Bronx, he soon realizes that Something is Wrong. His turf has become… Marked Territory.
Leo does his best to keep his whiskers out of other people’s business. He’s perfectly content to spend his days stretched out in the sun, or wandering through his little patch of the Bronx. So when a south side mouse comes to him with a sob story about a pack of hound dogs trying to run her and her friends out of the abandoned church they call home, his first instinct is to walk away. But why would a mouse be desperate enough to call on an alley cat for help? The raccoons on the south side have their paws in the mix, he discovers, and any deal the raccoons are tied up in is guaranteed to get messy. Add in the fact that the dog pack seems to have come out of nowhere, and Leo’s got more questions than answers. Curiosity killed the cat, as the saying goes, but Leo isn’t going to stop digging until he figures out exactly why St. Bart’s has become… Marked Territory!
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.
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.
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.