Marked Territory – Snippet 12

Chapter Four

The crew was mostly asleep by the time I got back to St. Bart’s, but Mordecai roused Mitzi long enough for her to unpin the door and let me in. I spent a couple of hours curled up near the wall, my head resting on my flank. My brain was still chewing over what had gone down in the alley with Frisco, but I put it on the back-burner. I wasn’t going to be able to get answers to any of the questions I had, so there was no point in losing any sleep over them. Not when I was going to have bigger concerns to deal with in the very near future.

I slept until about half an hour before dawn, yawned, and stretched. I silently padded up the center aisle of the church, past the font, and back into the vestibule. I followed my nose to a door covered in cracked, peeling paint, and when I pushed it open found the bathroom waiting for me. It smelled like the water service was shut off a while ago, so I took my morning piss right into the floor drain. Much relieved, I walked back into the church proper. My stomach started grumbling as soon as I smelled the small pile of leftovers from last night’s feast, but that was just routine talking. Experience had taught me that the last thing you want to do is to go tooth and claw with someone after gobbling a big breakfast.

Gray light was starting to creep in through the windows as I stalked back through the tangle of pews. Mitzi had curled up on herself in the night, putting her face to the wall. Mordecai had shifted a dozen different times, judging from the trail of feathers he’d left behind, and now he was tucked into one of the only unbroken window niches along the western wall. Taggart was on his side, curled around Charity’s nest. I could hear the little meepers inside, occasionally letting out muted squeaks as they shifted. Banny seemed to have disappeared, until I noticed the fluff of his tail sticking out of Taggart’s rag pile.

I got up on my back legs and reached up for one of the pews. It felt solid enough, and when I transferred my weight the wood barely grumbled. I lowered my shoulders, dug in my back feet, and launched myself toward the end. My feet came down once, twice, and I bounded off the arm, and through the empty window pane.

The morning chill hit me like a face full of cold water, and when my paws came down on the wilted grass I was awake and alert. I let momentum carry me half a dozen steps, looking, listening, and scenting. Other than a couple of sparrows I startled awake in one of the bushes, there was no one around. Still, I wanted to be sure. So I tucked my tail down, and went for a stalk around the church. I didn’t find anyone lurking, and I didn’t see any signs that someone had been prowling while I’d been taking a nap. When my tail brushed the fence against the back lot, I saw that some of the ties holding it in place had broken. I stuck my nose down near the ground and pushed. The fence had some give. I pushed a little harder and wiggled my whiskers against the opening. I’d fit, but not comfortably. And anyone who had more than a pound or two on me wasn’t going to be able to follow unless they broke the fence completely or were willing to leave a little skin behind. Good to know, just in case things went poorly or Frank showed up with a bigger breed to back his play, and I needed to get the hell out of there in a hurry.

I tugged my head out from under the fence, shook out my ruff, and decided to take a quick walk around the block. Giving the sleeping St. Bart’s a last look, I snuck through the front fence and started pounding the pavement. I passed a couple of bars, their neon signs resting in the wee hours. I saw a convenience store that was switching shifts, and I passed a lot of apartments where you needed one key to get in and another one to open your door. No one was really up and moving in this neighborhood at this hour. There were a few early morning scavengers about, like the pair of gray short hairs who were trying to quietly pull the top off a trash can down an alley, but at this hour even most of them were tucked away in their holes. I did spy one or two late-nighters heading back to their nests with the dawn, including one particularly grumpy-looking possum, but I didn’t see any mutts out and about.

I paused near a downspout and licked some condensation from a glass bowl someone had left outside. Part of me hoped that Frank and his crew wouldn’t show up today, deciding to slink off and lick their wounds after last night’s unexpected tumble. Especially if the Chihuahua was hurt bad enough to be out of the fight completely. I doubted I was going to be that lucky, but it was nice to want things. I stretched, shook myself, and headed back to St. Bart’s. Instead of going back in through the front, though, I headed down a side alley and scrambled into the vacant lot out back of the old church. I carefully hooked the fence in my claws and pulled it back. Once I had it up, I held it open with my head, unhooked my claws, and eased in without a sound. I let the fence down slowly, padding across the dead grass to the church’s back wall. I hunkered down near the corner, tucked my legs under me, and waited to see what would happen. Anyone watching the front could have seen me leave, but no one would have seen me come back.

The sun rose slowly. The early morning chill lessened but didn’t leave entirely as the light grew brighter. The milky silver gave way, and color bled back into things. The shadows grew distinct edges, becoming clear outlines on the dormant grass. I purred quietly, keeping my muscles from getting too stiff. I shut off the motor when I heard shuffling steps inside the church and muted conversation as the holdouts started rousing one another. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I got the general tone. Confusion, edged with worry. I shifted slightly and stayed where I was. Hopefully they’d all do the smart thing and stay inside until the day was done, one way or the other.

I got my wish until the morning had started to turn sour, and the shadows were growing short. Shuffling steps approached the door, and I heard a clink as the metal pin was drawn out of its hole. The door creaked open, and an unsteady set of footsteps wandered out. I didn’t need to poke my head around the corner; I could tell it was Taggart by the ragged breathing, and lopsided pace.

I sat where I was, watching as Taggart limped into my field of view. He looked a little stronger today than he had last night, but it was mostly a matter of degrees. He leaned against one of the trees, and awkwardly squatted. When he finished doing his business, he rested there a second before grabbing a low-hanging branch in his jaws and levering himself back up. He was halfway back across the yard by the time he noticed me, and his fur stood up from his neck to his tail when he realized I was there. He looked around cautiously, his nostrils flaring as he drank in the air. Once he was sure it was just us on the lot, he limped over to me.

“Wondered where you’d gotten yourself off to,” Taggart said, his tongue lolling in a doggy grin. “Morty was convinced you’d run out on us.”

“Didn’t want to wake anyone else up,” I said, shifting slightly. “Would appreciate it if you’d keep your voice down.”

“Oh, right,” Taggart said, whispering. He winked at me, as if we shared a secret. “Guess I should go back inside, huh? Leave you to your business?”

“Actually, hold on a second. I had something I wanted to ask you, since it’s just the two of us out here talking.”

“Hmmm?” the terrier said, tilting his head slightly.

“Charity tells me you’ve been at St. Bart’s a long time,” I said. “Maybe longer than anyone else who’s still around.”