Leo is the toughest alley cat around, but he’s got some soft spots. One is for an ex-flame looking for help and the other is for abandoned kittens, which lead him into trouble a lot bigger than he expected. But putting trouble in front of Leo is not what the furry denizens of the streets who know him would call a good career move.
It was a lazy summer in the park when an old flame walked back into Leo’s life. It had been a while since he’d seen Delilah, and it looked like she was doing all right for herself. She had a problem, though, and it wasn’t one her new squeeze could fix… a friend of hers had gone missing. Worse, she’d left her kitten behind.
Mischief was a devoted mama, and she never would have abandoned Trouble to fend for himself. Especially not in a place like Scratch Alley. But for old times’ sake, Leo agreed to stick his nose into things and see what he could turn up.
What he found was a lot more than he bargained for. While Mischief appeared to have vanished into thin air, Leo finds low-rent muscle dogging his steps. While he’s looking for Delilah’s missing friend, though, they’re trying to get their claws on Trouble. What’s so special about the kitten that petty packs of alley enforcers are out for blood? That might just be the answer to where Mischief went, however, if Leo knows anything about… Painted Cats.
The early afternoon heat hung in the air like a sheet someone had left out to dry—warm, clean, and welcome. Summer had officially arrived about a week ago, but it hadn’t quite worn out its welcome the way it always inevitably did. Cars rushed along the boulevards with their windows down just to invite the day inside, and a dozen different radio stations blended together into their own form of street music with the ebb and flow of the traffic. The frisbees had come out of storage, along with a bevy of colorful balls, and even one or two kites were dancing on the light breeze.
I was curled up in the shade under a park bench, enjoying the contrast of the warm air on my back and the significantly cooler concrete path under my belly. Somebody had tossed half a chili dog onto the ground, and I’d been working my way through it one bite at a time. Across the path, spread out under the wide branches of an oak tree, was this year’s crop of community theater people discussing what they were going to do for Shakespeare in the Park. An older woman named Miranda had been running it the past two years, and I admired how she’d managed to whip the volunteers into something like actual actors with no more than a few weeks’ rehearsal, some cheap makeup, and a steamer trunk full of props and costumes she’d probably inherited from the previous director.
A curly-haired girl was halfway through her reading of Puck when something caught my eye. Out on the path, slipping around a couple of joggers, a pair of high, white stockings were coming my way. My eyes slipped up the long legs to where they met deep black fur, admiring the smooth slope of cat’s back. Her hips rolled with her walk, her black tail whipping side to side with the motion. A little white tip of fur topped her tail, flicking almost playfully as she approached. It was her deep, green eyes that made my whiskers twitch, though. They were the color of polished sea glass, but with none of the sharp edges were worn away on her; that gaze was inviting and dangerous at the same time. I hadn’t seen those eyes in a little over a year, and they still made my tail go straight.
“How did I know this was where I was going to find you?” Delilah asked in the soft, let-me-come-out-of-the-rain purr I recognized.
“I’d like to think it was because you remembered what day it was,” I said, nodding at the now clapping gaggle of actors. “But as someone who knows better, you probably asked Doc if he knew where I was.”
“I did,” Delilah admitted, her tail drooping a bit. She peered under the bench, then looked at me. “There room for two under there?”
“There is,” I said, flicking my tail back out of the way. She narrowed her eyes at me for a moment, then slid into the shade at my side. She kneaded the ground a bit, then lowered herself into a comfortable crouch. She wasn’t right up against me, but she was much closer than the space demanded.
We were quiet for a time, just relaxing in the shade. A trio on roller skates went past us, their wheels growling along the concrete. Someone else took up the script, deepening their voice as they spoke in the threatening tones of Oberon. A pretzel cart rumbled to a stop, interrupting the speech as the group collectively got to its feet, reaching for their wallets. Delilah turned to look at me, and I could feel the weight of a question against the side of my face. I recrossed my front paws, tucking them under me and yawning.
“Do you need a place to stay for a while?” I asked.
“No,” Delilah said, shaking her head.
“That shorthair treating you right?”
“Binks is good to me,” she said, leaning over and butting my shoulder with her head. “If he’s not, you’ll be the first to know.”
“That’s good,” I said. “So what did you come all the way out here for?”
Delilah didn’t answer right away. She shifted, kneading the ground like she was trying to pull her thoughts out of the pavement. Her ears drooped, and her tail twitched nervously. She looked worried about something, but I let her take her time with it. If it was enough to get her to cross borough lines, then I could afford to let her chew through it at her own pace.
“It’s a friend of mine,” Delilah finally said. “She’s missing.”
I shifted, scooting around to face her. She was still kneading the concrete, her whiskers drooping. I put my paw on top of hers. One of mine easily covered them both, with room to spare. She stopped working the ground and looked up at me.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
All the tension went out of Delilah’s shoulders, and she slumped forward with her head on top of my paw. Her tail went completely still. She looked like she’d been carrying around something heavy for a while, and she’d finally gotten a chance to put it down. Above us a pair of woman sat down on the bench, each of them talking about their kids in between mouthfuls of pretzel. A few flakes of salt bounced onto the path, sitting on the concrete like false snow.
“Her name’s Mischief,” Delilah said, picking her head up off my paw. “She’s a tortoiseshell I met a while back, just before I spent that winter with you. She was down and around, but she spent most of her time out at Scratch Alley.”
I nodded. Scratch Alley was a place over on the north side that catered to cats looking for a mate. Short-term or long-term varied, but it was said no matter what you were looking for, you could find it there if you checked back often enough. Most of the regular residents were young and female, and there was a steadily rotating population as new street kittens walked in and older ones strutted out. It wasn’t where I’d met Delilah, but it was the place she’d been calling home before she shared my crate for a season.
“She still street strutting?” I asked.
“She was,” Delilah said. “She’d been on her back for a bit after having kittens earlier in the spring. It was a rough pregnancy, and only one of them made it through when all was said and done. There were usually other mothers in the alley willing to feed Trouble, though, so Mischief could keep looking for someone to take care of them. I tried to see her every week or so to check up on her, and reconnect, and she’d tell me all about her current prospects.”
I nodded. “Anybody in particular stand out?”
“Not as such,” Delilah said. “There was a smoky Russian blue she was working on who had a cozy little place on the south side. An Aegean down by the docks who was a little shortsighted, but she liked his stripes. One or two others she mentioned, but who I never saw her with.”
“Did they know she had a kitten?” I asked.
“No,” Delilah said, shaking her head vigorously. “Mischief never let any of them know about Trouble. She wanted to make sure she had her claws in them hard enough they couldn’t shake her loose first.”
“All right,” I said. “And then?”
“And then nothing.” Delilah blew out a breath and shook her head again. “One day I showed up looking for her, and she was gone. Nobody had seen her leave, and nobody knew when she was going to be back.”
I nodded, shifting my feet under me. “When was this?”
“About a month ago,” Delilah said.
“Hate to ask,” I said. “She love her kit?”
“Enough to go out hunting on cold mornings, and put on her best purr for strays I wouldn’t waste my breath to hiss at,” Delilah said. “She went hungry more nights than not, but she always made sure Trouble was okay.”
I nodded again. It wasn’t unusual for a cat to walk out of Scratch Alley without so much as a backward glance as soon as they found a better prospect somewhere else. A lot of them left everything behind, taking a new name and a new life as if they’d never even been there. They abandoned every part of their old selves. But if Mischief wasn’t that kind of mama, then it meant something else had stopped her from coming back for Trouble. There were a lot of potential entries on that list, and each one was worse than the one that came before it. I glanced over at the actors, who were applauding a reading I’d missed entirely. A guy with a potbelly was bowing, a big, goofy smile on his face. I felt more than saw Delilah tensing up out of the corner of my eye. She’d put on her old sweetness, and walked all the way out here to ask, and there was no going back now. I shook my head, blew out a breath, and grunted as I pushed myself to my feet.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll ask around. Can’t promise you I’ll find her, but I can promise I’ll look.”
Delilah beamed at me, and she pressed up hard against my side. She nuzzled her head under my chin, purring so loud that it made my teeth vibrate.
“Thank you,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” I said, ducking down and coming out from under the bench. I nodded toward the far entrance. “Walk back with me. I’ve got a couple of questions, then I can start putting my nose into things.”
Delilah came willingly enough, and I walked us around to the east entrance. Outside the park the foot traffic was pretty steady, and mixed in with all the people on their errands were a lot of leashes. A great Dane pulled along a young man who could probably have ridden her if he had a saddle, all the while trying to tell her where to go and what to do. A pair of shih tzus barked back and forth, talking loudly about someone from back at the kennel while the woman holding their leashes spoke into a headset confirming their current itinerary. A Rottweiler with the thick neck and twitchy eyes that came with over training was barely held in check by his chain collar. Once he’d moved on, I sat in the shade of the traffic light pole and waiting for the signal to change. I could have reached up and pushed the button, but I’d learned a while back that the buttons on this side of town were just dummies.
“First things first, where’s Scratch Alley at?” I asked.
Delilah peered at me out of the corner of her eye, shooting me a playful look of disbelief. “Tomcat like you’s never been out that way? Even when it’s practically in your backyard?”
“Never had much of a need,” I said, shrugging. “And this hasn’t always been my territory.”
Delilah nodded and gave me a clear set of directions. I listened, then repeated them back to her to make sure I had it right. She nodded.
“That should get you there,” she said. “But if you get lost, you could just ask anyone local. Especially if they’re still out on a strut.”
“What’s Mischief look like, exactly?” I asked.
“She’s about my size, though a little softer around the middle,” Delilah said. “Most of it’s from the kittens, but she’s also got thick fur for a shorthair. The right side of her face is black, and her left ear and cheek are orange. She’s cream around her mouth, like she just finished swiping a saucer.”
I nodded. The light started flashing across from us, and cars growled to a halt six inches from the crosswalk. I waited until the flow of people on foot headed out onto the zebra stripes before joining the stream. Delilah stretched her legs out at my side, trying to keep up with me. Once we were back on the sidewalk, I slowed down to let her catch her breath again.
“She got any other identifying marks?” I asked, turning north. I paused at the door to a pop-up coffee place, waiting for a gaggle of people to walk past me with their straws firmly planted between their lips as they slurped at condensating cups of chilled caffeine. “Scars, collar, surgeries, anything like that?”
“She’s never worn a band as long as I’ve known her,” Delilah said as we ducked around a pair of long boarders barreling along the pavement. “She’s still got her sharps, front and back alike. Got all of her teeth too. No chips, no plants. Keeps herself groomed, and she’s got bright blue eyes.”
“That might make her stand out a bit,” I said, rounding the corner. Gino’s was down a little ways, the handful of tables outside filled with people talking in between bites of their sandwiches. A nice cold cut on a hot day meant there were a lot of folks placing orders, which meant Gino might be putting a little more than usual aside for my food bowl. I paused at the alley that ran behind the deli and turned to Delilah. “Anything else?”
“There is one thing…” she said. Delilah hesitated, and she wouldn’t look up at me. That was when I heard a sound that didn’t belong; the clink of metal on concrete. It was a small sound, unremarkable in most ways, but I recognized it; it was the sound my food bowl made when I got a little too overzealous, and tilted it up on one side.
I stalked around the corner, head low and ears up. Most people knew to leave my alley well enough alone, but sometimes I got a straggler who didn’t know me, or a runner who thought they could get in and out again without getting caught. I was generally open-handed if somebody needed a meal, but there was a difference between me giving it to someone and them thinking they could take it from me.
I was halfway down the alley, my hindquarters flexing and my paws digging in, when I got a look at just who was at my bowl. I’d expected a possum, or maybe a raccoon who’d been shooting for the dumpster but got sidetracked by an easy meal. What I saw was a tiny, fuzzy form, with a stumpy tail in the air, and its face completely buried in the pile of chicken trimmings. The kitten raised his head, trying to chew a piece of gristle that wouldn’t fit in his mouth. His right cheek was a blotch of dark fur, and his left ear down to his muzzle was cream. All around his mouth was orange, though it was currently flecked with chicken shavings. Even from where I was, I could see his eyes were bright blue. I blew out a breath, stood up, and walked the rest of the way down the alley. I was almost within pouncing length before the kitten noticed me. He tried to spit out the chicken and jump back from the bowl at the same time, but his teeth were caught in the meat. He shook his head, spitting it out and hissing at me.
“Hey, I don’t know who you are, but you’d better get out of here,” the kitten said. “If Leo finds out you were here-—”
“I’m Leo,” I said. “I take it you’re Trouble?”
The fierceness ran off the kitten’s face like milk, and his eyes got big enough they took up most of his head. All at once he seemed to realize he was up on a stoop, and he was still eye level with me. He looked left, then right, and he was flexing his back legs to make a run for it when Delilah trotted up. Trouble’s ears went down at the sight of her, and he tried to make himself as small as he could. I didn’t blame him; I could practically smell how mad she was when she came up on my flank.
“How?” Delilah spat out. Then, before the kitten could possibly have given her an answer, she followed it up with, “Why?”
“I heard you and Binks talking,” Trouble said, his words running into each other as he tried to get them out fast enough. “He said there was no way some back-alley bruiser was gonna lift a paw to help find my mom if there wasn’t anything in it for him. But you said you knew you could get him to help, so when you left, I followed and—”
Delilah hissed, and Trouble ducked back. His eyes were wet, but there was still fire in them. He took his eyes off Delilah, which was no small thing given how high her hackles were raised at that moment, and he fixed them on me. He forced his ears up and shook the tears out of his eyes.
“Is what Binks said true?” Trouble asked. “That you’re a raccoon killer, and that anybody who looks at you wrong is gonna get raked?”
“That’s enough out of you,” Delilah said, darting her head forward to grab Trouble by the scruff. The kitten managed to dodge at the last second, ducking back so Delilah’s teeth clicked closed on empty air. “Leo, I’m sorry, I don’t know what-—”
“Some of it’s true,” I said. Delilah froze, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. Trouble went still, too, his belly to the concrete step and his paws splayed out, ready to dodge in any direction. “Why do you wanna know?”
“Leo,” Delilah said. “You don’t have to do this.”
I ignored Delilah and took a step closer so that the kitten could really see me. Trouble looked from her, to me, then back again. He licked his muzzle and gave his head another little shake before he got back on his feet. He took a step forward. He smelled afraid, but under the fear there was something else. He was mad. He might not have weighed much more than my tail even if he was soaking wet, but that anger was a hard little knot that tugged at every line of his face.
“Something bad happened to my mom,” Trouble said. “I don’t know what, but she always came back to me. Every day, she was always there. And she said that no matter what, if she went, I was coming with. If somebody hurt her, I want somebody like you to be the one that finds him.”
I twitched my whiskers once, working my jaw. Trouble stared up at me, hoping for something. Delilah stared at me too, holding her breath. I nodded and clicked my teeth.
“I’ll do everything I can to find your mom,” I said. Then, without thinking about it, I added, “My word on it.”
Trouble straightened up at that, his ears going up and his chest going out. He looked like he was trying to say something, but whatever it was didn’t want to come out. Finally he dashed forward, pressing his cheek against my chest. His purr stuttered like a little engine that just wouldn’t turn over. I leaned down and gently pressed my forehead to his.
“Thank you,” Trouble managed to get out.
“Don’t thank me till it’s done,” I told him.
“Come on,” Delilah said, managing to scruff the little tortoiseshell and get him down off the step. She lightly batted at his flank. “Start walking.”
For a second it looked like the kitten was going to argue, but then Trouble turned and started walking down the alley. He looked back over his shoulder every few steps, as if he was worried that Delilah was going to leave him. She turned back and blew out a hard, irritated breath.
“This is why I don’t have kittens,” she said under her breath.
“He seems to be turning out fine,” I said, keeping my tone even.
Delilah narrowed her eyes at me. There was significantly less affection in the look than the last time she’d given it to me. “I’m going to ignore that, as you won’t look very intimidating trying to find Mischief if you have to limp everywhere.”
“Your concern for my reputation is touching,” I said.
Delilah growled at me before butting her head against my chest. “Be careful.”
I dragged myself out of my crate just as the sun started creeping into the alleys, and the smell of the pre-morning rush began leaking into the street. I yawned, shook myself, and drank until the night’s dryness had been washed away. I pulled a small bag full of roast beef tips out of my crate that I’d scrounged the night before and ate them slowly. I was planning on being halfway across the Bronx by the time someone came out to give me breakfast, and the last thing I wanted to do was start out with a short temper because I had an empty stomach.
I finished off my water and paused at the front of the alley just long enough to put a fresh spray on each wall. That little chore done, I headed east, then north, checking the bank clock on the corner. I slid under a bench in a bus shelter, stretching out in the shade beneath a man in what looked like a cleaner’s uniform. He was barely half awake, sipping from a steaming cup of something while his thumb lazily scrolled over his phone’s screen. He was joined by a slump-shouldered woman who looked like she was on her way home, and two young men who smelled like they’d spent the night in an alley a lot nastier than mine. None of them noticed me, though, which was exactly what I wanted.
The bus rumbled around the corner about five minutes behind schedule, which was sooner than I’d expected it to show up. The people shuffled to their feet, readjusting their bags and yawning. I pulled myself under the far wall of the shelter, and waited until the bus had settled into its spot at the curb. I walked a wide circle around the exhaust and glanced up at the rear bumper. There was a particularly plump pigeon on the far end who appeared to have fallen asleep, but nobody else. I got up on my back legs and lightly jostled him. His eyes fluttered, and when they focused on me, he practically sprang up.
“What stop you looking for?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s this one,” the bird said, waddling along the bumper toward the street without taking his gaze off me. “Definitely this one.”
The bird fluttered down to the ground, hopping along to try to build some momentum until he was airborne. I checked the seat to make sure I hadn’t scared him into leaving anything behind. Once I was sure the bumper was as clean as I could reasonably expect for a city bus, I hopped up on the far side. I hooked my claws, and tucked my tail just as I felt the engine rumble, and the bus pulled away from the curb.
It wasn’t the smoothest ride, given that construction season had started, and the rush hour seemed to get a little earlier every year. That said, jouncing over the occasional pothole put a lot less strain on my pads than walking the same distance would have done, especially if the day ended up getting as hot as I’d heard it was supposed to be on the kitchen radio last night. I got off and changed buses when I needed to turn north, and shared the last leg of the commute with a tabby that was probably about half my size, but twice my girth. He wheezed with every breath, and despite looking like he would tumble off with the slightest shift in his weight, he stayed rock solid for the whole ride.
I hopped off shy of University Avenue and started walking east. In less than a block, the bustling streets full of tourists and shoppers, clumps of students and panhandling artists, seemed to just melt away. It was almost like stepping out of a river and onto the bank. One minute I was surrounded by the throbbing pulse of commerce, and then two dozen steps later it was just murmuring behind me. Like how if I went a few more miles east, I’d be able to feel the swell of the ocean and smell the waves, but the water would still be just over the horizon.
I walked down the block until I found a bus map on the side of a stop and tried to get my bearings. I ran over the directions Delilah had given me one more time, marked my route in my mind, and started walking. I wandered past a bodega where the owner was playfully arguing over soccer with two customers, dodged between the wheels of a popcorn wagon, and crossed against the light when I saw no traffic was coming my way. I managed to avoid the flashing tires of a bike messenger, and the attention of a muscular mutt chained up to a doorway who seemed to take my existing in his field of vision as a personal challenge. I found the side street Delilah had described, the one with the drooping metal sign fading into the gloom, and stepped off the main thoroughfare.
I was six steps in when I knew I’d come to the right place. A scent tickled my nose, and it sent my hackles raising. My heart beat a little faster, and my tail tried to puff out. I paused for a moment, rubbing at my nose with my forepaw and sneezing once. My head was a little swimmy from the perfume, but I gave it a moment to pass. Scratch Alley didn’t need a sign out front to let you know it was there; if you could smell a cat in heat, you’d find it sure enough.
About halfway down the block, I noticed a plump bobtail stretched out on a basement window ledge. She was idly licking her paw and running it over her tawny fur, which was thick with black tiger stripes. When she noticed me, her golden eyes widened, and she leaned forward on the windowsill, looking me over.
“Well, aren’t you a cat and a half,” she purred, putting a little something extra into it. “You looking for something, big boy?”
“A tortoiseshell,” I said, clearing my throat slightly. The bobtail made a pouty little trilling sound that was not in keeping with the rest of her.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I don’t know any torties. A friend of mine’s a calico, if you’re looking for something a little exotic…?”
I shook my head and blew a hard breath out of my nose. When I spoke again, I sounded more like myself. “I’m looking for a particular tortoiseshell. Her name is Mischief.”
“Don’t know her,” the bobtail said. She was already sliding off her work mask, returning to her grooming.
“She’s got a kitten named Trouble,” I said. “That jingle any bells?”
The bobtail paused at that. Her ears twitched slightly, and I saw there was something rolling around in her mind. I waited. She glanced over her shoulder, then back to me.
“Is he a tortie too?” she asked.
“He is, since you ask,” I said. “Why?”
“Just a little something,” the bobtail said, languidly licking her paw and gently scrubbing at one cheek. “Had a pair of strapping strays out here a week or so ago sniffing around asking about a tortoiseshell kitten. They were real clear that it was a boy, and that his mama was looking for him. I don’t remember what they said her name was, but that might have been it.”
“You remember anything else about them?” I asked.
The bobtail paused mid-lick, looking me over again. I could see the calculation in her eyes. She finished her lick and ran her paw over the back of one ear. “Something might come to me, if I had a reason to think about it.”
“You got a name?” I asked.
“Trish,” she said.
“You a chicken or a beef kind of cat, Trish?” I asked.
Her eyes flashed at that, and I caught a glimpse of teeth. “Chicken, since you’re asking.”
“You remember anything about those strays, and I’ll make sure I remember that,” I said. “You can find me down around Gino’s. You know it?”
“I could find it, if I had to,” Trish said.
I gave her a brief set of directions. “You help me find Mischief, I’ll make sure you get the best of the day’s trimmings.”
“I’ll think real hard on it, then,” she said, some of her purr back in her voice. “What should I call you, handsome?”
“Leo,” I said.
“Well, Leo, I hope it was nice to meet you,” she said, stretching her neck. “I’m gonna finish my bath and get me some beauty rest while I do some thinking. Meantime, you’re gonna want to talk to Minerva. She runs things round here.”
“And where can I find her?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll know her when you see her,” the bobtail said, fluffing out the fur on her cheek. “Just keep walking till you find the throne.”
I walked into Scratch Alley. The place was narrow, lined with unmarked back doors and steps that led down into basements. There were no trash cans or dumpsters, things that would have made the territory worth fighting over, but there were water dishes and plates of dry food scattered around. Offerings, no doubt, from the residents who lived in the buildings to either side. There were only a few cats sprawled out this close to the street; a coffee-and-cream short hair curled up with her head on her flank, and a ginger mix half hanging off one of the stairs going down. Neither of them gave me more than a twitch of their tails as I went past, quiet as I could on my pads.
The musky scent led deeper into the alley, and I followed the perfume down cross breezes. Every time I turned a corner, I found more cats. They were in ones and twos at first, but they quickly grew thicker the deeper I went. They were all shapes and sizes, colors and breeds. Some were barely old enough to be left wandering the streets on their own, others were old enough they could have been my mother. They lounged on blanket nests and crouched on fire escape stairs, basked in thin sunbeams, and huddled in piles of contrasting, purring fur. I got my share of half-hearted come-ons and catcalls, but several of them just stared at me, silently. Several of them shifted subtly, getting their feet under them, flexing their paws to make sure their claws were ready, just in case they needed them. It was too early in the day for serious customers, and that meant I was there for something else. I did my best to keep my tail down and my ears up. No one got in my way, but by the time I turned the last corner I was walking in silence that felt like it was ready to have kittens.
The alley ended abruptly in an old wooden fence. The slats were studded with nails and staples, many of them rusted from their years of exposure. Tiny pieces of paper fluttered from a few of them, like ragged pennants caught in a breeze. In front of the fence was a busted out wingback chair that looked like it had weathered a dozen years or more. The leather had gone a sun-bleached gray, and it had mostly scraped away from the nail heads, leaving dull brass gleaming. Stuffing oozed from scratches and scrapes all along the length of the chair. The wooden legs were pale and splintery, and they were the same dirty gray as the rest of the chair. There were a few cats sprawled in the shade, wrapped around the legs as they drowsed. Curled up on the chair though, her pale olive eyes fixed on me, was Minerva.
Trish was right that I’d know her when I saw her. Minerva was long and sleek, with a narrow head and wide ears that gave her the look of a disapproving goddess. Her paws were heavy for her size, her claws yellow but strong where they were pressed against the thin leather of her seat. Hairless, her skin tanned and lightly wrinkled, it was impossible to tell how old she was. I approached slowly, and sat, keeping my paws in front of me and my claws put away. I didn’t say anything. Minerva didn’t say anything. The cats curled around the bottom of her throne didn’t say anything. Somewhere off in the street, two cars blared their horns at each other.
“Did you want something?” Minerva asked, her naked tail slapping against the dry leather. “Or did you just come all the way back her to watch me nap?”
“I’m looking for someone,” I said. “Trish told me I should come right to you.”
“Congratulations, you found me,” Minerva said, yawning. One of her long teeth was broken off in front, and several of her smaller teeth were worn down to brown nubs. “Who is it you’re looking for?”
“Tortoiseshell by the name of Mischief,” I said.
I felt the air in the alley change. The cats that had been lounging under the chair hadn’t moved, but suddenly none of them were drowsing anymore. Minerva’s nervous tail went still, lying down quietly. Her ears stayed up, but she flexed her heavy front paws, and the leather sighed as her claws dug in a little deeper.
“And why would you be looking for her?” Minerva asked, a low growl vibrating just under the surface of her words. My hackles were trying to stand up, and I forced them not to.
“Her kit,” I said. “Trouble’s staying with somebody I know. He wants to know where his mama is, and I told him I’d try to find out if I could.”
All eyes were on me. A pair of Siamese cats who were alike enough to be littermates uncoiled themselves from around the chair, stretching as they stood up. A longhair whose breed I couldn’t be sure of yawned, and rolled into a crouch, her tail whipping one way, then the other. There was no growling or teeth, but I had a feeling that if things went bad, they wouldn’t bother. I was on their territory. Minerva leaned forward, peering down at me. Her body was relaxed, but her voice was filled with quiet tension.
“And just who, exactly, is this somebody you know?” Minerva asked.
“Her name’s Delilah,” I said.
“Describe her to me,” Minerva said.
I could tell the sphinx wasn’t making a request, so I did what she asked. From the painted tip of Delilah’s tail to the chocolate shade of her nose leather, I gave Minerva the full picture. With every detail, I felt the tension in the air relax. By the time I finished, it wasn’t gone, not exactly, but it had ratcheted back to a wary curiosity.
“That sounds like her,” Minerva said. Her tail curled up lazily, then slapped the leather of the seat as she frowned at me. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Ah,” Minerva said, as if that explained everything. “You should have told me that straight off. Would have kept a lot of hackles down. So you’re the one Delilah went off to stay with. You’d have held onto her, if you were smart.”
“Nobody ever accused me of that,” I said. “Trish said there were a couple of strays sniffing around here a while back asking about Trouble. Claimed they were trying to find him for Mischief?”
“Uh-huh. Pair of scratchers, the both of them. I’ve seen my share of strays in my years running this territory, and I know cheap muscle when I see it. Mischief’s got some questionable taste, but she’d never send cat’s paws like those two to bring her baby boy back.” Minerva shook her head, and it sent the looser wrinkles around her neck wobbling.
“Anything else about them?” I asked.
“They were both dirty cream, as my mother would have said.” Minerva snorted, coughing for a moment like she was going to hack something up. “One of them had green eyes, the other yellow. The yellow-eyed one had half an ear missing. Both of them had that ragged look you get when nobody’s willing to groom you. They had their teeth and claws, sure enough, and you could tell they were used to using them even though they were trying to put on a sweet act.”
“They have names?”
“Probably,” Minerva snorted. “I doubt they’re the ones they gave, though. Tom and Tom, they said. As if painted cats don’t hear that line enough around here to know when it’s a lie.”
“Uh-huh.” I flicked my tail. I liked this less and less the more I heard. “I’m guessing you don’t know where Mischief is?”
“I don’t, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t tell you just for the asking.” Minerva laid her chin down on her paws, gazing at me thoughtfully. “I’m sure you know enough about this place to know how we operate. Cats come as they please, and go as they please. You don’t bring problems here, and we all try to help each other as best we can, while we can. Maybe Mischief told someone where she was going when she ducked out, but if she did, it wasn’t me.”
Minerva’s eyes started to drift closed, and I got the distinct impression that my meeting was over. Still, I hadn’t spent the time it took to pad all the way out here just to shrug my shoulders and walk away.
“Any idea who she might have told?” I asked.
Minerva’s eyes opened again, and she stared at me in silence for a long moment. Her tail thumped against the seat irritably, and she worked her jaw. Finally she coughed again and rolled onto her side.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Girls, do you have any ideas that will get this bottle brush scratching up someone else’s tree?”
“No, ma’am,” the long hair said, her voice surprisingly high for having such a deep chest. One of the Siamese shook her head, but the other was frowning down at her paws.
“Misty might know something,” she said after a moment. “She nursed Trouble for a while. Maybe Mischief told her something?”
“Lovely,” Minerva said, though the way she spit the word out made me suspect she didn’t really mean it. She yawned, then tucked her chin in an attempt to get more comfortable. “Cinnamon, take our guest and see if Misty’s willing to talk with him.”
Most of the other cats settled back into their previous lounge, keeping a passive eye on me as they did. The mistress had spoken, and the conversation was really done this time. I got to my feet, stretched, and turned to head back the way I’d come. The Siamese who’d volunteered Misty’s name got to her feet and started padding after me. I let her catch up, then set my pace to hers.
“Misty’s just down this way,” she said, keeping her voice low. “It’s midday feeding time, so she’ll be taking care of the kittens.”
“How many does she have?” I asked.
“She’s got three,” Cinnamon said. “She’s taking care of three times that many on any given day.”
Cinnamon shrugged. “We all do what we can around here. And at least when you’re nursing, you know they don’t mean it if they hurt you a little.”
I didn’t quite know what to say to that. After a few steps I managed, “I appreciate your help.”
“I’m not doing it for you,” she said, keeping her eyes ahead. “We’ve got a lot of cats here just looking for a better situation. Those two strays that were here last week caused all kinds of problems on their way out, and we’re all jumpy. Last thing we need is a big Tom like you sticking his nose around here and putting everybody off their afternoon routines.”
I tried to think of some reply, but nothing came to mind. Instead, I just nodded. Cinnamon walked a little faster, weaving past a dozen or so other cats. A few of them greeted her, and she stopped once or twice to touch foreheads. A few of them glanced my way, but there were none of the call outs or occasional come-ons I’d gotten on my way in. That didn’t surprise me. I didn’t exactly spend a lot of my time on this side of the street, but even I knew that one of the unspoken rules when it came to sidewalk strutters was that you didn’t poach somebody else’s mark. And since I was clearly being led somewhere, it meant they’d need to find their own meal ticket if that was what they were looking for. I kept my head facing forward, but I took note of where my guide turned, and what direction we were facing. Just in case I had to find my own way out.
After two more turns, Cinnamon pulled up short outside another corner. A metal fence sectioned off our side of it, with ribbons blowing in the breeze and old posters for faded concerts drooping off one side. A few kittens were batting around an old milk ring, and a weathered cardboard box sagged against one wall of the alley. A ragged edge of blanket hung out of the box, and even from where I was standing, I smelled milk and heard the mewling sounds that came with a feeding in progress.
“Wait here,” Cinnamon said, turning down the alley without a backward glance.
The Siamese approached the box, dodging two kittens who were fighting over the milk ring. The rest had lost interest in the game entirely, staring back at me with a mixture of curiosity and unease. A few of them were alike enough to be littermates, but they were a generally mixed batch. Cinnamon stuck her head around the flap of the cardboard box, looking in on the resident. A moment later she stepped back and nodded me toward the box.
I thought about calling it an early day and waiting for things to develop, but now that I was sticking my nose into this business, I was starting to get that familiar itch in the back of my head. Besides, the morning was just going stale and there wasn’t really anything pressing I had to do back at Gino’s. The problem I had was now that I’d gone to Scratch Alley, I didn’t know where to look next. I knew of a few places I could check, mostly by reputation, but if there was muscle on the prowl, then all I was likely to do was make a lot of noise and draw the wrong kind of attention.
I had my nose down in a charity water bowl, trying to ignore the day’s growing heat, when a thought occurred to me. It wasn’t a thought I particularly liked, but after I considered it, I decided it was worth taking a swipe at. I checked the time on a digital sign down the street and wandered over to a bus shelter with a map held in place under the protective exterior. Once I was sure where I was, I marked a path toward the nearest subway station. It was a couple blocks east, so I ducked under the shelter’s back wall and headed that direction.
Other than a shouting match between a driver and a pedestrian who’d nearly gotten hit, I found the station without any real problems. I lingered around the stairs, glancing down to see if there were any overzealous attendants actually keeping an eye on things. I didn’t see anybody, but I didn’t want to risk it. So I made myself wait until a pair of men engaged in a rather heated debate over the upcoming Yankees’ game started making their way down the stairs. I ducked in behind them, keeping my tail low and trying to stay behind the scissoring motion of their legs. It was a little cooler under the street, and when I looked around, the only uniform I saw was talking to a guy in a suit through a plexiglass window. While they were distracted trying to figure out why the man’s rider pass wouldn’t work, I sidled up behind a woman carrying a briefcase and slid through the turnstile, trying not to step on the backs of her heels.
Down on the platform, I found a comfortable spot next to a bench and waited. A big guy who was still beaded with sweat even in the relative cool of the underground was mopping his forehead in between bites of a subway sandwich. I sniffed, and got the thick, hearty scent of roast beef mixed in with ham, and what I’m pretty sure was a thin-sliced Gouda alongside a bunch of peppers, lettuce, and what I think were cherry tomato slices. He was just about to finish the first half of it when he glanced down at me. I looked up at him, ears perked and hopeful. He sighed, opened up the sandwich, and pulled out the last couple bites of meat, holding it down in his palm. I snatched it up before he could reconsider. The meat was dark and smoky, with a spice from the pepper juice. I tossed my head back, swallowed, and licked my muzzle to make sure I didn’t miss any bits.
“There, that’s my good deed for the week,” he said, popping the bread, cheese, and veggies into his mouth and chewing. I rubbed up against his leg, purring. He reached down, patting my side. “Hey, you’re welcome. Let’s not make a big thing out of it, okay?”
I settled back down at the end of the bench, and the guy picked up the other half of his sandwich. He glanced down at me once or twice, checking to see if I was going to try for double or nothing, but I was mostly trying to get the bread crumbs out of my coat from where he’d petted me. A few people crossed the platform, leaning on support columns or opening newspapers, but we didn’t have all that long to wait. My dining companion was halfway through the other part of his sandwich when the train started rolling in. He swallowed hard, and for a moment it looked like he was going to try to wolf down what he had left. Then he wrapped the sandwich back up, and got off the bench. I finished grooming myself and got to my feet, as well.
The train pulled in, squealing and grinding, trying to make sure it slowed down right where it wanted to be. Through the windows I could tell most of the cars was half full, at best. Up and down the platform, I saw people standing up, tucking books back in their bags, and settling packs over their shoulders. Not that many, but hopefully enough. Once the train hissed to a final stop and the doors opened, I fell in behind a wide set woman in beat-up tennis shoes. As I predicted, people leaned back in their seats to make sure she had room to pass, and with all those drawn in legs and averted eyes I had no problem making it to one of the rear seats. I settled in out of the way, tucked my tail in, and waited for the ride to get started. I knew it was going to be a while, so I tried to make sure I was as comfortable as I could be.
I kept an eye on the crowd as the train moved from station to station. While the overhead announcements were fuzzy around the edges, I could tell where we were going by the sights and smells of the riders. I watched as blazers and low heels changed places with scrubs and overalls, and I saw how the phones passengers held got older and rougher around the edges. The smells of deodorant and perfume changed, quickly sliding down in cost even as they grew less prevalent. I could have been half asleep with my eyes closed, and I still would have known roughly where I was.
By the time the train rolled into the Norwood 205th station, I didn’t need to be told it was the end of the line; all I had to do was take a deep breath. It didn’t matter how hard the city tried to clean the place, you could always smell the mold growing between the cracks, mixed with the smell of stagnant water and a sharp hint of urine. I got up, shook out my coat, and darted through the crowd as soon as the doors were open.
The platform looked like the place smelled: cramped, damp, and cold. The dingy white tiles glowed under the harsh light of the overhead fluorescents, and the stained concrete was cool beneath my pads. The moss-green support columns looked like they’d been freshly repainted, but already they were growing new layers of graffiti. A burger wrapper fluttered in the breeze from the tunnel like a greasy ghost, vanishing down onto the track and out of sight.
Most people who got off the train headed for the Bainbridge exit, but one or two drifted over toward the Perry Avenue stairs. I waited until they’d gone on their way before I walked in the opposite direction, taking care that I didn’t step in anything I’d have to wash off later. I walked toward the stairs. Rather than going up them, though, I kept walking around the side, where the platform narrowed. Several warning signs were posted, telling people to stay out and to keep back. They were uniformly faded, and several of them were starting to peel in the constant damp. Curled up in the shadow of the stairs, like a forgotten dust mop, was a ball of fur that had every color of dirty brown you could imagine. As I rounded the corner a pair of eyes slitted open; one was blue, the other a dark green.
“Mmm… I must be dreaming,” the ragdoll said as he slowly uncurled himself. “Long, handsome boy like you coming all the way out here to see little old me.”
“Nice to be appreciated,” I said, waiting for Andreas to finish stretching out his bulk. “Got myself a problem, and I’m hoping you could help me out with it.”
“Well, I doubt it’s the kind of problem I’m hoping for,” Andreas said, his eyes glimmering with amusement. “But tell me about it.”
“I’m looking for a painted cat,” I said.
“Oh, so it is the kind of problem I’m hoping for.” Andreas chuckled, reaching up to scratch under his chin. “So what do you need from me? A recommendation?”
“I’m looking for somebody in particular,” I said. “Sleek black shorthair. Long legs, big attitude, goes by the name of Licorice.”
Andreas twitched his whiskers, chewing it through. He might try to give the impression that he was just as slow in the head as he was on his feet, but I knew his mind was more than quick. He finished his scratch and licked his front paw.
“That doesn’t strike me as your type,” Andreas said, fluffing out his cheeks as he regarded me. “Though far be it from me if you’re looking to experiment.”
“I’m on a trail,” I said. “Somebody he used to strut with turned up missing, and not long after people stopped hearing from her, Licorice vanished off the scene.”
“Well, that’s significantly less salacious.” Andreas shook his head, licked his other paw, and starting work on his other cheek. “And I assume that you took the long ride out here to ask me if I could assist you?”
“You assume correctly,” I said.
Andreas nodded and continued grooming himself. I waited, doing my best to enjoy the coolness away from the summer day above. Somewhere down the tunnel, water dripped irregularly. Another train came, opened its doors, and swapped one set of bedraggled passengers for another. While I saw one or two four-footed riders, they all made their way up the stairs. When Andreas was finally satisfied with his face, he tucked his paws back under himself.
“Just how important is this little curiosity to you?” Andreas asked.
“Missing cat’s got a kitten,” I said. “I told him I’d look into it.”
Andreas watched me for a long moment. He was utterly still, as if he was waiting for me to blink. After a long moment he started to laugh, a low, purring chuckle that came from deep in his belly. He shook his head slowly and got to his feet, stretching his paws, his back, and his tail. Standing up Andreas was not quite my height, but he was almost twice my width.
“I sometimes forget what a simple creature you are, Leo,” he said. “Wait here. I have some arrangements to make.”
The ragdoll sauntered past me, his heavy tail almost brushing the ground as he padded down the tunnel. I watched him go for a moment, then shrugged and curled up where he’d been lying. I didn’t sleep, not exactly, but I let myself doze while keeping my ears open. Trains came and went, doors opened and closed, and once or twice I heard raised voices. They were always far enough away that I didn’t concern myself with them. It wasn’t until I noticed the scrape of small nails on concrete coming around the stairs that I opened my eyes. As the scraping steps came around the corner, I got my feet under me.
A mouse skittered around the corner. He was small, brown, and plump, with a little balding patch on the back of his neck. His naked tail slapped against the tile every few dozen steps.
“Andreas,” he said, stepping over into the shadows. “I was watching that thing you told me to, and-—”
The mouse stopped mid-sentence, his jaw dropping as his eyes adjusted and he got a better look at me. He skittered to a halt, panting as he tried to catch his breath. I looked at him for a long, quiet moment.
“So, ugh, I guess Andreas isn’t here,” the mouse said as he took a careful step back toward the brighter light. “Sorry to, ugh, disturb you. I’ll just-—”
“Raymond, there you are,” Andreas said, trotting back out of the tunnel. “Something happening?”
“Oh, Andreas, there you are.” Raymond skittered closer to the ragdoll. “It’s… well, should we talk privately?”
“Just spit it out,” Andreas said, rolling his eyes. “What’s happening?”
“It’s like you said.” Raymond ran his paws over his muzzle, smoothing out his whiskers before rubbing his nose. “Bottom right window. He leaves it unlocked when he comes out, then sneaks back in and shuts it behind him.”
Andreas smiled, clearly pleased with himself. He brushed past the mouse, a noticeable spring in his step. “Well done, Raymond, good work. See Fluff, and she’ll make sure you receive adequate compensation.”
Raymond looked like he wanted to say something, but when he saw me standing, he just twitched his whiskers and shut his mouth. By the time I’d finished stretching, Raymond had scampered back into the shadows, off the platform and into the tunnel. Overhead, an announcer declared a train was going to be late.
“He actually know where he’s going?” I asked.
“Probably not,” Andreas said. “I’m confident Fluffy will catch him before he goes too far. She’s very good at what she does; it’s why I keep her around, after all.”
“And she probably knows too much for you to risk her working for someone else,” I said.
“That, too,” Andreas said.
I followed the ragdoll around the side of the stairs. We went up them quickly, and when we hit the mezzanine, we pushed through the full-sized turnstile. It was sometimes sticky trying to shove through it on my own, but with two of us it turned easily enough. Andreas braced himself as we headed out toward the street, and once we were out in the daylight again, he closed his eyes and groaned. Noon had come and gone, but there was still plenty of light left.
“How do you live in this heat?” he asked, giving himself a shake as if he could shed the summer warmth like an inconvenient drip of water.
“I actually groom out my undercoat once winter’s over,” I said.
“You’re lucky you’re so pretty,” Andreas said. “Equally lucky we don’t have to go all that far.”
Andreas started walking, heading around the block and taking us over toward 204th Street. The foot traffic got heavier as we headed into the commercial strip. Old markets stood shoulder-to-shoulder with new restaurants, forming a blend that looked like a snake halfway through shedding its skin. The old bars and groceries with their Irish names transitioning to new owners and new purposes, becoming something else as the neighborhood remade itself in fits and starts. More than the people walking through it, though, the smell was of a place caught in the middle of a transformation: old varnish and floor wax mixed with fresh spices, hot grease, and new paint.
The ragdoll paused, then took a turn down the side alley of a bar whose sign read McGillicuddy’s. There was a door with a large window and curtains that appeared to be a fire exit, but Andreas didn’t stop until he’d come all the way around to the rear. When I followed him, I saw a line of bikes locked into a rack, along with two motorized scooters chained in place against the brick wall. A set of wooden stairs ran up to the floors above, each with its own small balcony. A few green fronds stuck out into the open air from potted plants and rail gardens. Empty drink crates were stacked under the stairs like the turrets of a castle, and in the middle of them was a wooden pallet with a scrap of carpet attached to it. A chocolate Irish setter was lying on top of the carpet, gnawing on a strip of rawhide. There was a hefty collar around her neck, and it was roped to an eyebolt. A glance at the rope told me it was a long enough that she could have free rein of the stoop, if she wanted it. She looked up when we came out of the alley, one ear flopped inside out.
“Aren’t we a touch early?” she asked, licking a few slivers of jerky out of her curls. “Mike won’t be putting scraps out for hours yet. There’s water, but that’s really all.”
“Just hoping to have a few words, Molly,” Andreas said. “Is Seamus in?”
Molly shrugged and tossed her head to flick her ear right side out again. “I don’t keep track of his comings and goings. Find out yourself.”
Andreas shrugged and nodded toward the bike rack. “Wait here, Leo. Seamus is… touchy about who comes to see him. I’m already going to be waking him up in the middle of his beauty sleep.”
I glanced up at the angle of the sun, then back at Andreas. I raised an eyebrow. Andreas laughed a little, shaking his head.
“Seamus is one of those cats who needs six or seven hours to himself before he can face the day,” the ragdoll said. “Just wait.”
“I got nowhere else to be,” I said, shrugging and settling down to loaf on the corner of the concrete.
Andreas crossed the pavement and started making his way up the stairs. He didn’t rush, but he went up quietly, avoiding the center parts of the stairs where his bulk might make them creak. He made it to the first landing without incident and slipped up out of sight. I yawned and laid my head down on my paws. Molly continued working at her rawhide, her teeth scraping and crunching, the muscles of her jaw bunching as she bent and broke off more and more pieces of it. A guy in a bartender’s apron came out of the back door, plucking an electric cigarette from his shirt while holding a cell phone to his ear. He dragged on the vape, blowing out a cloud that smelled vaguely like cherries, and reassured whoever he was talking to that he was going to be there tonight. No excuses. Once he hung up, he scratched Molly behind the ears and went back inside. He didn’t so much as glance my way.
“You Andreas’s new watcher?” Molly asked, shifting her rawhide around so she could come at it from a different angle.
“Nope,” I said. “Didn’t even know he had an old one.”
Molly let her tongue loll from the side of her mouth, showing me it wasn’t really meant to be a serious question. “Thought not. Andreas likes ’em slim and young.”
“I’m trying to find somebody who meets that description,” I said. “Figured Andreas could point my nose in the right direction.”
“Ah,” Molly said. She went back to work on her rawhide, breaking off a troublesome piece and working it with her back teeth. “Luck to you. City’s a big place, and it’s easy to get lost if that’s what you want to do.”
“Don’t I know it?”
Molly didn’t seem to have anything to say to that. She kept working on her cowhide, wedging it into a crack in the pallet so she could get a better grip. A group of people came out the bar’s side door, loudly continuing a conversation about somebody’s wife. The impression I got from what little I overheard was she was soon to be an ex-wife. A car with an Uber label pulled down the alley to pick them up, driving through to the connecting side street. The exhaust ran over my fur and pricked at my nose. I sneezed and shook my head. I was just getting a drink from the large, metal bowl under an outside tap when I heard Andreas coming down the stairs. He was a lot less careful returning than he had been in going, and the look on his face told me either he’d found something useful, or he’d stolen somebody’s nip while he’d been up there.