Marked Territory – Snippet 03

“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.