Marked Territory – Snippet 11

“You’re late,” a rumbling voice said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Frisco gasped. “I got held up.”

“We just bet you did,” a second voice said. That voice was higher-pitched than the first. Younger, too. I slid closer, keeping quiet as I approached the alley mouth.

“We were just about to get out of here and come looking for you,” the first voice said. While it was jovial on the surface, there was a note of menace underneath, like a patch of sugar over black ice. “Glad we didn’t have to do that.”

I peered cautiously around the corner, staying low to the ground to avoid notice. The alley was narrow and crowded, with a dozen garbage cans along either wall. The dark brick was interrupted only by a pair of fire doors to either side, and a fence dead-ended just above a gurgling drain. Frisco was halfway down the alley, his snout looking back and forth between two dogs. One was a thick-bodied dachshund, and the other was a Chihuahua. I couldn’t see the yapper’s face from where I crouched, but I could clearly see one ear was torn and ragged. The dachshund had a ragged scar across his muzzle, nearly exposing some of the teeth on one side of his mouth.

“So spill it,” the Chihuahua snapped. “What are we looking at?”

“Tagg’s still all kinds of laid up after what you did to him a few days back. Only folks left are a pigeon, a rabbit, a mouse and her brood, and a skunk with no front claws and no spritzer.” Frisco shook his head slightly, finally getting his breath back. “Way everyone was talking, at least a few of ’em might be gone when you get there tomorrow, too.”

“They should have been gone already,” the Chihuahua growled, taking a step closer to Frisco. “We made it clear what would happen if they stuck around, didn’t we Frank?”

“Couldn’t have been any clearer,” the dachshund said. “I don’t like it that there are still squatters in that place. It’s messing up the time table.”

“You ain’t gonna like this even more, then,” Frisco said. “There’s somebody else in there. An uptown skull cracker who heard about what’s going down and is putting his nose into things.”

“What!” Frank snarled. Frisco backed up a few steps, bumping his rear against the brick wall of the alley.

“He’s a big goddamn cat, goes by the name Leo,” Frisco said, talking fast enough that his words were starting to get away from him. “He runs an alley on the north side, killed a couple of Longtails a few years back. We’re talking serious bad business here!”

“And why is he there, huh?” the Chihuahua barked, growling as he got in Frisco’s face. “Somebody go squealing about what was going down, maybe?”

“You spooked the church mouse!” Frisco squeaked, pressing himself back against the wall. “She’s got a brood in there, and she can’t move ’em. I don’t know who told her about him, or why, but she trekked up there, and when she asked for help he said yes.”

“That all you know about it, Frisco?” the yapper barked. His voice was high, trembling on the edge of violence. “You sure you ain’t holding out on us?”

“Hey, I did what I could!” Frisco said, ducking his head and keeping his throat covered. “I’ve been trying to give ’em other places to go. Ain’t my fault they went and got help instead of high tailing, is it?”

“Nah, it’s not your fault,” Frank said, waddling forward. His legs might have been stubby, but there were thick muscles in his chest and shoulders. The dachshund gestured with his head, and the Chihuahua backed off a couple of steps. “You did good, Frisco. Just what we expected.”

Frisco relaxed slightly, but before he could open his mouth to say anything else, Frank rushed in and clamped his teeth around Frisco’s neck. The rat gasped, gripping at the dog’s maw and trying to pry open his jaws, but he may as well have been caught in a bear trap. The Chihuahua barked a little laugh, his rear end wiggling with excitement.

“I’d close my eyes and let it happen, if I were you,” the Chihuahua yipped. “Ain’t no way you’re getting out of — “

I ran forward, splashing through the runoff in the middle of the alley floor. Frisco’s eyes went wide when he saw me. The Chihuahua was too caught up in the spectacle, and he didn’t even get a chance to turn around before I pounced on him. I brought all my weight down on my front paws, hammering square into the toy dog’s back. All the breath rushed out of him, and I felt something crack as he went down under me. I crouched and jumped again, and the little dog yelped as I sprang off him.

Frank was thick in the waist and chest, but he was faster than he looked. He tossed Frisco aside, and the rat bounced off the brick wall. Frank snarled at me, lunging forward, but I hammered the side of his face with my front paw and gave him a love scratch to get his attention. His jaws snapped shut, and he stumbled slightly. Then he blinked and narrowed his eyes at me. It took him a while to put two and two together, but he got there eventually.

“So you’re the big hero,” Frank said, circling to my left. “Take some advice, long hair: get out of here, before you get hurt.”

“You’re the one bleeding,” I said, giving Frank a nasty smile that showed all my teeth. The Chihuahua coughed from behind me, trying to bark but only getting out a tired wheeze. I tracked the dachshund, moving to the right. Behind me, Frisco scrambled to his feet, gasping through his bruised throat. “Maybe you’d better take your little friend and tuck that stumpy tail of yours between your legs, before I make the other side of your smile match.”

Frank lowered his head, growling at me. That was when Frisco broke for the alley mouth, scattering trash and splashing through water as he bolted. Frank was two steps behind, barking as he pelted after Frisco. I came after, letting the dachshund build up a head of steam. Just as Frank got within biting distance of Frisco’s bouncing tail, I lashed out and cut the back of the dog’s rear leg. My claws didn’t go deep, but it threw off Frank’s rhythm. His knee buckled, and instead of getting his teeth back around Frisco’s neck, the dachshund went down in a splash, his chin cracking the storm drain that was trying and failing to dry out the alley. I bounded over him, ducking back out to the sidewalk.

I pelted down the street, stretching my legs as far as they would go with every stride. I leaped onto a bench and skittered around a corner. I crossed against a light, dodging a pair of scruffy looking riders on equally questionable cycles and ducked beneath some bushes. I didn’t stop running until I’d covered three blocks and crossed enough streets to feel confident I’d gotten away clean. Just to be sure, though, I laid down, caught my breath, and watched my back trail.

Five minutes passed by. Then ten. Then twenty. A drunk leaned against a light post, debating whether he was going to throw up before he shambled on down the sidewalk. A bus stopped and let an old woman and her dog off. A couple of pigeons fought over a roosting spot, with the smaller one flapping over to a light pole after taking a couple of pecks to the chest. Neither Frank nor his yappy little companion came barreling down the street, spitting blood and ready to throw down when they caught up to me. Frisco didn’t limp out of the shadows to explain exactly what I’d just overheard or to thank me for saving his neck. I waited another half a dozen minutes. A tired-looking woman in a washed-out maid’s uniform walked an aging beagle round the corner, and a powder-blue sedan with rust on the rear wells pulled over long enough for a guy to get out and relieve himself on an alley wall.

I took a few more breaths of the damp night air and stood up. I had my wind back, and nothing hurt when I stretched. I checked my feet, flexed my claws, and licked a few spots of blood off of them. I poked my head up, got my bearings, and started walking back toward St. Bart’s.

I might have blown the big surprise, but if Frank and some of his friends still decided to show up tomorrow, I didn’t want them to be disappointed.