Marked Territory – Snippet 06

“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.