Marked Territory – Snippet 10

“I ain’t heard shit,” Frisco said, tearing off another piece of meat. “Only thing I know is everyone around here seems to be trying to stay out of this whole mess until day after tomorrow at the least.”

Frisco wouldn’t look at me when he said that. I took a piece of the pork, and chewed. It was good. An awkward silence rolled in, and lingered just long enough for everyone to really feel it. Mordecai cleared his throat, and sidled a little closer to the edge of the pew.

“I went uptown earlier today,” he said. “Thought I’d take another look at some of the side spots. And wouldn’t you know it? I found an old coop on top of a townhouse!”

“That’s great news, Mordecai!” Charity said. The tone in her voice didn’t match her eyes, though. The pigeon nodded, carrying on.

“It’s surprisingly intact, given how long it’s been up there,” Mordecai said. “There were a couple of old squawkers who’d claimed two of the corners, but the rest of it was open. I asked them about it, and they told me that the coop had first been put up fifty or sixty years ago. The old man passed it down from father to son, but no one’s really been around to take care of it for a while.”

“How long are the others going to let you stay?” Charity asked.

“They said I could stay as long as I wanted,” Mordecai said, beaming. “Still, it’s not exactly built for winter. But with spring just getting started, it should be more than enough for now.”

“Must be nice, being able to just fly away from this whole problem,” Mitzi said. Her tone was light, but Mordecai winced at the bitterness in her words.

“Mitzi, that’s not fair,” Charity said. “You can leave just as easily as Mordecai can, if you want to.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure I can,” Mitzi said, tearing at a piece of meat. “Can’t stay anywhere for long, though. Soon as someone figures out I don’t have any perfume, it’s time for me to hit the road. Not bad for day trips, but this punk rock stripe isn’t a whole lot of good any other time.”

Mitzi had her mouth open to say something else when the cries from Charity’s nest intensified. She turned, scuttling back into her burrow to check on the little ones. All the fire drained out of Mitzi’s face, and she chewed hard on a piece of gristle.

“At least I can leave,” she said, more for herself than for anyone else.

“We’ll talk about who’s leaving for where tomorrow,” I said, stretching out and laying down. “Little bit of luck, it might all be a moot point anyway.”

“Awfully confident in yourself,” Banny said from around a mouthful of greens.

“I’m still here,” I said with a shrug. “Lot of folks who tried stepping on my tail aren’t.”

None of the others seemed to know what to say to that. The meal continued on in relative silence, until there wasn’t much left. Banny finished his salad, and returned to his space under one of the pews. Mordecai fluttered around until he found a spot he could roost, tucking into himself while keeping one eye in my direction. Taggart rolled over in his bed, rocking gently before he got his back leg under him. He stood up slowly and hobbled toward the back of the church. He moved carefully, making sure he avoided any of the patches of standing water. A door creaked, and I heard Taggart’s bladder letting go into what sounded like a floor drain.

Frisco glanced up at the broken windows, his whiskers twitching. Outside the night was thick and chill, lit only by the false gold of occasional streetlamps. The rat wiped a dollop of sauce from his nose, and licked it off his paw. He glanced my way, though he tried to make it seem like he was just stretching his neck.

“On that note, I’d say it looks like it’s about time for me to get going,” he said, getting to his feet and giving himself a shake.

“Go?” Taggart said, limping back from the church’s front room. “Night like this is gonna get plenty cold before dawn. Where you gonna go that’s close enough you won’t freeze that naked tail of yours off?”

“I got a friend a train stop or two from here,” Frisco said, taking a few steps toward the door. “His hole is small enough no one really bothers him all that much. Besides, I ain’t tired yet. I hang around here, I’m just gonna be up pacing all night, and you all need all the rest you can get.”

“Are you sure, Frisco?” Charity asked, sticking her head out of her nest. “You said it yourself, it gets dangerous out there when the sun goes down.”

“Don’t worry about it, Charity,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on him till he gets where he’s going.”

Frisco’s eyes went wide at that, and he took a step closer to the door. “Nah, that’s okay. Really, I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine out there by myself.”

“It’s no trouble,” I said, padding closer. “I insist.”

Frisco looked like he wanted to argue, but after clicking his front teeth together for a few seconds, closed his mouth. Mitzi swallowed the piece of beef fat she’d been chewing on, and walked over to help. We got the door open, and Frisco slipped out into the night. I was one step behind him.

The city outside St. Bart’s walls didn’t sleep, not exactly, but it had started to fall into a doze. On the street, the low growl of passing engines grew less frequent, and the tinny sounds of an out-of-tune juke floated in and out of the bars we passed. Foot traffic was scarce, and most of it just went from one doorway to another. Frisco kept to the shadows at the edge of the sidewalk, doing his best to avoid being noticed. I slowed my pace, screening him from the street-side. Neither of us said anything for a block or so.

“You paying off a debt with this?” Frisco asked.

“Why,” I said, keeping my voice mild. “Someone out there gonna be grateful I kept you out of trouble?”

“Slick,” Frisco said, hopping down off the curb and glancing down the street before hurrying over the faded crosswalk. “I got big ears, and I’ve heard your name before. What business gets an uptown bruiser like you coming down here and putting your nose into this mess?”

“Charity asked me to,” I said, stepping up onto the opposite curb.

“And that’s that?” Frisco asked as he clambered over the cracked concrete where it had been angled down for wheelchair access. “Somebody comes uptown with a sob story, and you come all the way down here to save the day, huh?”

“She walked into the lion’s den hoping for the best,” I said. “She’s got little ones. Figured it was easier to make the trip than to deal with seeing her walk away after I said no.”

Frisco didn’t say anything, but I could tell by his expression that he didn’t believe me. That was fine. I didn’t much care what Frisco did or didn’t believe. I’d learned early that you didn’t tell a rat your life story unless you wanted everyone in the city knowing your personal details. I jerked my head at the ugly green wraparound and the stairs leading down to the subway station.

“Train ought to be by in a few,” I said. “Don’t miss it.”

“So it’s like that, is it?” Frisco said, edging past me.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s like that.”

The rat looked over his shoulder, giving me an approximation of a smile. “Hey… thanks all the same.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, turning back the way I’d come.

I walked back across the street and ducked behind the leg of a bench set up near a bus stop. I settled down, tucking my legs under me and wrapping my tail around myself. I took slow, deep breaths of the evening air and watched the station’s exit. Frisco had been squirrely about something. Maybe he really was going to hop on a train to go stay with a friend, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I wanted to be sure.

I didn’t have to wait long. I’d been there for twenty minutes or so when I saw Frisco’s snout peeking around the corner of the subway stairs. He looked around, trying to be casual. I stayed still, turning my head so the light wouldn’t catch a sheen on my eyes. Frisco bolted across the street and started heading away from me. I got up and followed him.

Frisco wasn’t hard to tail. He was waddling at a decent clip for a rat, keeping his head on a swivel, but he wasn’t really taking his time to watch his back trail. He paused once or twice, trying to look everywhere at once, and he doubled back through a breezeway once. I kept my distance and waited him out. He always moved on after a few minutes, hustling faster than he had been before. By the time he turned down an alley, he was practically running. I heard the pitter patter of his footsteps slap to a halt and Frisco panting. Then I heard something else that stopped me in my tracks.