Marked Territory – Snippet 04

Chapter Two

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?”