Marked Territory – Snippet 02

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.”