Marked Territory – Snippet 08

Chapter Three

The trek wasn’t that bad, at first. Some of the spit and polish fell by the wayside after a couple of blocks, but Ringo’s turf was far from the ugliest part of the city I’d ever seen. People moved to and fro, checking their mailboxes, calling up to their neighbors on their balconies, packing together to go out, and splitting off when they got home. Cars clogged the blacktop, turning down side streets and roaring at each other over parking spots. I passed grilles, a handful of food trucks, and a couple of cafes that wrote their specials in chalk on the sidewalk just outside the door.

There was plenty of fur along the way, too. Some of them wore collars and some didn’t, but I could tell who was a local at a glance. It was the way that two stray Siamese I passed watched me, drawing closer to each other so they were on one side of the street and I was on the other. It was how the black lab curled up near a side yard moved a little closer to his food dish. Or how the pigeons went quiet and watched me, uncertain about the new element in play beneath the tree they were perched in. A lot of it was subtle, but you could see it if you knew what you were looking for.

I was waiting for a light when a curly-haired Westie eating out of a charity bowl of kibble glanced up at me. I gave him a nod and he returned it, his tongue lolling slightly.

“Hey there, friend,” the terrier said. “Haven’t seen you around the neighborhood before.”

“Just passing through,” I said.

“Care for a bite before you move on?” the dog asked, taking a half step back from the bowl. My stomach rumbled a bit, so I lowered my head and took a few bites. The food was dry, crumbly, and didn’t quite know if it was trying to be fish or chicken, but I didn’t have to scrap for it, which made it all right as far as I was concerned.

“Much appreciated,” I said, lapping up some of the water from a nearby bowl.

“Hey, we’re all just trying to make it, right?” the terrier said, giving himself a shake before he waddled back up to the bowl and took a few more gobbling bites. “Where you on your way to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Place called St. Bart’s,” I said. “You been there?”

The terrier stopped chewing, and gave me a serious, measured look. He swallowed the crushed kibble, and shook his head slowly.

“I don’t know you or your business, friend,” he said, bending down to lap some water. “But I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. Lot of trouble brewing there right now.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Some kind of turf tussle,” the Westie said, shaking his head. “It was a nice place, for a while, but it’s not safe right now. Might change in a couple of days, but everyone’s walking shy of it till this all shakes out.”

“Good to know,” I told him.

“Hey, you don’t need a place, do you?” the terrier asked as I was about to turn away again. “I know a few places you could hole up for a day or so. Get out of the cold, maybe get some food if you need it?”

“I appreciate it,” I said. “But I’ve got some business to attend to.”

“Well, wish you luck with it,” the Westie said, taking one more small mouthful from the bowl and talking around it as he chewed. “You ever back around here, ask for Spotty. Everybody round here knows me!”

“I’ll do that,” I said. The light changed, and I hustled across the road stripes before Spotty tried to continue the conversation.

I found the neighborhood I was looking for just as the light was starting to go stale. Ringo had been right in the broad strokes; the whole place was concrete, asphalt, brick, and cement, with a few spatters of neon and fluorescent cheer that did nothing to soften the hard edges. Most of the places I saw sold used junk, lottery tickets, cigarettes, and booze in no particular order. There were a few gladiators standing guard here and there, Rottweilers with scarred flanks and shepherds who never seemed to quite put their teeth away, but everything else I saw on four legs looked like they had somewhere to be and they were in a big damn hurry to get there.

What Ringo hadn’t mentioned was the smell of the place. It clung to everything and seemed to sweat up from the cracks and pores in the street: a combination of stale tobacco, spilled gasoline, and rot. A sick smell, like the whole neighborhood was trying to keep limping even while the infection spread a little further with every beat of its heart. I shook my head, but I could feel the scent running its fingers through my fur and sliding into my nose. It was going to stay, whether I wanted it to or not.

I stopped in front of a sagging chain link fence on the north side of the street. The building behind the fence still had the strong, clear lines of a church, and the steeple on top was still mostly intact, but the decay had snaked in there, too. More than half the windows were broken out, with a few jagged teeth left in some of the frames. The stone had swallowed the dirt and grime, and half a dozen different layers of spray-painted tags ran round the outside. The front doors were closed and chained shut. The little strips of grass round the property had grown wild, and now they were a half-dead, untamed mass. It looked abandoned, but even out on the street I could smell the fresh markings the rovers had left and hear movement inside.

For a moment, I thought about walking on past. I could snatch a train ride during rush hour, when people were less likely to notice me, and be back on the north side before Gino finished closing up for the night. I could hit up the park for a snack, let the bird who pulled watch know I didn’t need them, and curl up in my crate for a long nap. Then the moment passed, and I pawed at the fence where a corner had come loose.

I squeezed through the gap and walked up the wide front steps. The chain on the main entrance was no joke, and the front doors felt like they’d swelled into the frame besides. Since that obviously wasn’t the way in, I followed a little footpath that went around the side. I stepped over an old plastic bottle, making my way around a few glittering shards of broken glass beneath a pebbled window that had been propped open with a dirt-streaked ruler before I came to the church’s side door. The frame was splintered around the handle, but I could see there was plenty of give in the door itself. I kept walking, circling around the entire building. I found plenty of other gaps in the fencing, and while one side of the church butted up against what smelled like a tenement house, the back end was vacant, surrounded by a second layer of rusting fence. I could tell something used to be there, but it had been gone long enough that the only thing left was an ugly scar across the earth, with bits of gravel poking out of it like the last grit from a scab. I kept walking, noting the handful of bare trees that still grew around the church and the ragged, skeletal bushes pressed up against the fence. I watched the windows as I went, but no one watched me back.

When I made my way back to the side door, I pushed on it. The door moved about half an inch, then fetched up against something hard on the other side. When it didn’t budge any further, I butted the door with my head, making it clap against the stop. After a couple of minutes went by, a set of tentative footsteps approached the door.

“What do you want?” a throaty voice asked.

“My name’s Leo,” I said. “Charity came to see me earlier.”

The footsteps retreated a bit. I waited. Whoever it was came back to the door.

“Just a second,” the mystery voice said.

Something scraped across the floor, metal clanged, and the door creaked open. A head peeked out into the gap. It was long and lean, with bright, wary eyes. The fur all along it was black, except for a white streak starting just above the eyes.

“Come on in,” the skunk said, ducking back around the door.

St. Bart’s had seen better days. The pews were old wood, and most of them had been left behind when the front door was chained shut. Half a dozen of them had collapsed, or been broken up to use as firewood, and there were scorch marks along the floor in several corners. There had been a carpet, once upon a time, but what hadn’t been pulled up was mildewed to little more than smears on the concrete. The pulpit was gone, but the stage remained. What I didn’t see, though, was any broken glass. Not only that, but aside from a few nests under the sturdier pews and in the corners, and the puddles under the holes in the roof, the whole place seemed relatively clean.