Marked Territory – Snippet 09

It wasn’t empty, either. A scrawny pigeon with ragged feathers perched on the arm of a pew, shifting nervously from foot to foot. A rabbit with matted black fur and red eyes crouched underneath another pew, tensed like he was ready to bolt. Even though there was nowhere to go. Sprawled in a pile of ratty blankets, one eye swollen shut and crusted with blood, was a Wheaten terrier. His coat was dirty enough I couldn’t tell what was bad breeding and what wasn’t, but I could see he’d been torn up pretty bad. Still, he smiled at me and let his tongue loll. When he shifted, I noticed he had maybe three good teeth left. The same was true for the number of legs he had. Charity crawled out from a nest that looked like it had once been part of a mattress, and beamed at me.

“You made it!” she said, coming toward me. “I knew you would!”

“I said I would, didn’t I?”

The skunk picked up a long metal pin in her teeth, and tried to shoulder the door closed again. Her paws were slipping on the wet floor, though, so I stepped up next to her and shoved. The skunk turned, and slid the pin into a small hole in the ground. When I let go of the door, the pin held it in place.

“Charity,” the pigeon said, his beak clattering a bit as he fluttered to the back of the pew. “When you said you had someone who was coming to help us you didn’t mention he was… well, I just assumed that it wouldn’t be… ummm…”

“A cat?” I asked, turning to the bird. His feet stutter-stepped back, and a coo startled out of him.

“I… ummm… well…” the bird said, struggling for some kind of answer.

“Morty’s had his share of run-ins with those of the feline persuasion,” the skunk said, chuffing a laugh at the pigeon. “It’s made him nervous. And he was pretty nervy before, so you can imagine adding another dose doesn’t help.”

“Leo, this is Mitzi,” Charity said, gesturing to the skunk. “That’s Mordecai up there, and under here is Banny. Over there on the rag pile is Taggart.”

“Apologies for not getting up,” the terrier said, wincing as he shifted his weight.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I trotted away from the water that had managed to sneak under the door, and sat. I looked from one face to the next, until I was back to Charity. “This everyone?”

“Everyone who’s left,” Banny said, his nose twitching. His voice was raspy, as if he wasn’t used to speaking. “After what happened to Tagg, no one was all that eager to stick around and take their chances.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Anything happen between when Charity left, and I got here?”

“It rained a bit,” Mordecai said. I looked at him, and he flapped his wings. “Right, right, no jokes, got it.”

“Ain’t nobody been by, if that’s what you’re asking,” Taggart said. “Neighborhood’s mostly emptied out. Folks who would be looking for a place to curl up are steering clear until this all shakes out, one way or another.”

“And the crew that rolled you?” I asked. “They been sniffing around?”

“Ain’t had so much as a whiff,” Taggart said. “I may be deaf in one ear and missing one of my back wheels, but there’s nothing wrong with my snoot, and I’d know those hounds anywhere.”

The words were no sooner out of Taggart’s mouth than the door rattled gently. Mordecai went completely still, his beak dropping open. Banny skittered back a few steps. Charity glanced at Taggart. Taggart sniffed the air, before giving the mouse a wide smile.

“Smells like dinner might be here,” he said.

“Guys?” A small voice called from outside. “Is anybody there?”

“Frisco, is that you?” Charity squeaked, surprise and pleasure in her voice.

“No, it’s National Geographic!” the voice hissed through the door. “Now open up, will ya?”

Mitzi took a grip on the floor pin, and I pushed on the door. She tugged the steel pin up, and I let the door swing a bit. A black rat with his damp fur slicked back waddled in, dragging a ragged, plastic sack by a single strap. As soon as he was clear of the threshold, he flopped over, breathing hard. I wasn’t sure what was in the sack, but I smelled chicken, pork, and thick, dark sauces. I shoved the door back into place, and Mitzi slid the pin back into its hole.

“Thought you said everyone was gone?” I asked.

Frisco looked over his shoulder, then did a full double-take. He leaped to his feet, backing away from me with his head down and his hindquarters up. His eyes were rolling in their sockets as he looked everywhere but at me.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Frisco said, talking fast. “That’s all I’ve got. Really. But I can get more! Just take it and –“

“It’s all right, Frisco,” Charity said, putting one of her paws on the rat’s side. “This is Leo. He’s here to help us.”

Frisco stopped dead in his tracks, his beady eyes moving back and forth as he processed what Charity had just told him. He relaxed slowly, his tail going still. He rubbed at his nose, sniffing once.

“Oh,” Frisco said. “So you weren’t looking for me?”

“Got no idea who you are,” I said with a shrug. “Not terribly interested, either.”

“Oh. Well then, that’s good,” Frisco said, nodding. “Good thing I grabbed a little extra, then. I wasn’t sure how many mouths I was gonna be feeding.”

Frisco fumbled with the bag pulling out the bounty he’d brought to St. Bart’s. He lifted out the contents carefully, like he was afraid they were going to fall apart if he breathed too hard. There were four waxed cardboard cartons, all told, along with a bag of greens. The salad was pre-mixed, and there was no sign of any dressing. The others drew close, and several stomachs gurgled.

“Where did you find this?” Charity asked.

“I was on my way over, when I passed a delivery boy shouting on his phone,” Frisco said as he carefully opened the first carton. It was packed with boneless ribs dripping with red sauce. “Couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, but when he was done talking he tossed the bag onto the sidewalk, and pedaled away.”

The rat’s clever paws undid the fastenings, and the box quickly folded out into a flat plate. Mitzi shuffled forward, snatching one of the ribs and tearing off big chunks of it. Her tail bushed out, and a sound of fierce pleasure slid out of her throat. When she gripped the meat, I noticed she didn’t have any front claws. Frisco opened the second container, then the third, and the fourth repeating his magic trick of turning them into flat dining stations.

“Anyway, I ran over, and most of it was still okay,” the rat said as he picked up the salad bag. He tugged at it, his paws slipping on the moisture-slick plastic. “There was a box of rice that spilled, but who the hell eats rice? So I scooped that out, and tossed the side of steamed broccoli. Figured that, when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to have something for the meat eaters, right?”

I padded over, and gave the bag a swipe. It popped loudly, and a few croutons bounced onto the floor. Frisco held the bag for a second, watching as the tears got bigger, then he put it down. Banny was on it in seconds, teeth crunching the darker leaves. Mordecai was warier, but he sidled close enough to snatch a crouton before hopping back up onto the bench. I bent down and snatched a piece of teriyaki chicken, savoring it before swallowing.

“We really can’t thank you enough, Frisco,” Charity said. “We’ve all been so worried about what might happen that we haven’t been able to bring anything back.”

Taggart tried to roll off his bed, grunting as he got his feet under him. Before he could get up, though, Charity snatched several pieces of the beef and took them over to him. The terrier protested that he could get up, but when Charity shushed him he laid back down on his blanket pile and held open his mouth for her to throw the meat in.

“Hey, it’s really no problem,” Frisco said, shrugging before grabbing a rib for himself. He ate in small, nervous bites, and swallowed a little too often. “I just figured, you know, last night in the old place, last supper. Be the neighborly sort of thing to do.”

“You a neighbor, then, Frisco?” I asked.

The rat choked on the mouthful of meat he had, but managed to swallow it down. “I’ve crashed here a time or two, you know, but this isn’t really my neighborhood. I just pass through sometimes, and when I’m around I like to stick my nose in, see how stuff’s sitting.”

“You heard about who’s prowling?” I asked.