Marked Territory – Snippet 07

“That doesn’t affect me one way or the other, of course. But there’s the risk that if you get poked you come on down to see me. Now I’ve got a big damn alley cat with a grudge turning up on my turf looking for answers about why I’m bothering him,” Ringo said. “Sure, that might not be likely, but why take that risk? What do I get out of it? Especially because if I wanted to get your attention that badly I could have just sent one of my boys up there to request a meeting.”

I waited. I could tell, even on such a short acquaintance, that Ringo was the kind of animal who liked to hear himself talk. So I let him. If I was lucky he might get to the point before the streetlights clicked on.

“You see Leo, I’m working with a bigger picture than my unfortunate cousin could ever see,” Ringo said. He climbed up the water fountain, grunting as he hauled himself up the shaft and into the bowl on top. He leaned on the button with most of his weight, and slurped from the chilly stream. He wiped his mouth before climbing down again. “Do you know where St. Bart’s is from here?”

“I could probably find it if I had to,” I said. “But judging from Charity’s description, it’s a walk.”

“It is quite the walk,” Ringo agreed, leaning against the base of the fountain. “When I first met Charity several months ago, she was so pregnant that she waddled. But she came down here all the same to ask for my help. That took spunk. So I gave her some food and had Bear walk her home with the leftovers. Or carry her, if I’m to be completely honest. Poor thing was so tired she could barely hang onto his scruff.”

“The church isn’t your turf, though,” I said, swishing my tail.

“It’s no one’s turf,” Ringo said with a shrug. “Place is in one of those pockets that hasn’t been gentrified just yet. Bear gave it a look over when he was there, and there’s nothing to the neighborhood. Sure, there’s a couple of corner shops, and a little grease spot tucked in a block or two over, but it’s mostly liquor stores, hock shops, and a couple of bars mixed in with a lot of apartments that don’t have outside garbage pick-up. There’s a busted-out movie theater with half the lights missing and bars on the ticket booth, but scratching out meals in that place is more a matter of luck than anything else. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“I didn’t bumper jump down here to play guessing games,” I said, feeling the hackles on the back of my neck try to rise. “So why don’t you just spell it out for me and save us both the daylight?”

Ringo nodded, stepping off the path and over to a tree that was starting to show some early buds. He frowned, scratching his belly. He looked me over again, his golden gaze going from the tip of my tail, all the way up to my face. He nodded. The smile was gone from his muzzle. It had never been in his eyes.

“This whole thing at St. Bart’s? It stinks.” Ringo tapped the side of his nose, and shook his head. “There’s nothing in the neighborhood worth fighting for. The only water is what pools in the church font and the gutters when it rains, and there’s no food within an easy walk. It’s got shelter, sure, but it’s a shelter the regulars would have let them use for the asking. Why start a brawl over something they could have just had for nothing?”

“Probably a reason,” I said. “Whether it makes sense I can’t say, because I don’t know.”

“That’s the rub,” Ringo agreed. “It bothers me. I don’t like it when things don’t add up, and when rovers start doing things that don’t make any sense right near my back stoop, that makes me nervous.”

“So how is that my problem?” I asked, even though I was starting to get a glimmer of an idea.

“It isn’t,” Ringo said. “It’s my problem. However, while I have a lot of friends around here, I don’t want to risk anyone putting a toe into a situation that, at the end of the day, might just be a few pound hounds shedding lot of blood for a few feet of dirt to call their own.”

“So you want me to put my scruff on the line,” I said. “And then, if I find out it’s more than a couple of mutts making a ruckus, to come padding down here to tell you all about it?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.” Ringo beamed at me, like he’d been waiting for me to finally get whatever lesson he’d been trying to teach. “You don’t run with any of my crews. In fact, anybody who knows who you are knows what you did to my cousin. So, if anything, that makes them less likely to suspect you’re there on anyone’s business but your own.”

“And you made sure I had someone else’s business to be on when you sent that mama mouse up to my alley.” I bit off the end of my words, my canines clicking on them. Ringo noticed, but he didn’t remark on it. He seemed perfectly relaxed, and at ease. He glanced up the path, and watched a girl in a heavy coat as she walked past us. She had her hands buried in her pockets, but she gave Ringo a smile when she noticed him, and sat a half-eaten pack of crackers down on a nearby park bench. He grinned, and retrieved them, nibbling on one of the peanut butter snacks before he said anything else.

“No one’s saying you have to do anything,” Ringo said, taking another bite. “You don’t have any debts in my books, and calling you one of my neighbors would be more than just a stretch.”

“But?” I asked, when Ringo didn’t keep talking.

“But if you chose to go help the church mouse and her people, you wouldn’t make any enemies over it. In fact, you’d probably earn some respect around here for going above and beyond outside your own neighborhood.”

I didn’t need Ringo’s help reading between the lines on that one. I pulled my claws back in and stretched my neck. He gave me another of those perfunctory smiles of his and finished off the cracker. He licked the crumbs off his muzzle and offered me his paw.

“Can I trust you’ll look into this for me?” he asked.

“The next time you want my help, you come ask for it,” I said, ignoring his outstretched paw. “No more cat’s paws, understand me?”

He let out that short, hard bark of a laugh again. He didn’t seem to be able to stop himself. When the fit passed, he wiped at his eyes.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Ringo said with a nod.

I glanced over my shoulder and ran some quick numbers through my head. If I put a little spring in my step, I could catch a bus in fifteen minutes and be a short walk from home before the dinner rush was over. I could snatch some of the extra fat out of the dumpster, eat my fill, and curl up in my box right near the heat exhaust fan. I blew a hard breath out of my nose, and turned back to Ringo.

“Which way is St. Bart’s from here?” I asked.