Marked Territory – Snippet 15

Chapter Five

The crew inside the old church gave me a hero’s welcome. Banny did a speed run all around the main room, as if all the nervous energy he’d been holding onto had finally snapped like a rubber band. He ended giving me something that was half a hug and half a tackle that nearly bowled me over. Mordecai couldn’t stop flapping his wings, speaking in half-finished sentences all the while. Mitzi cleared a spot for me and touched her forehead to mine once I’d sprawled out. It was a sweet and oddly vulnerable gesture. Charity filled a small water dish and had Taggart drag it over to me while she grabbed the cleanest rag she had. She washed the blood out of my fur, rinsing and wringing that cloth a dozen times before I was relatively clean. She even had me open my mouth so she could get around my teeth, and make sure nothing had come loose. I was battered and bruised, but the few bite marks the gang had managed to leave behind had stopped bleeding by the time the church mouse finished grooming me.

While Charity got me cleaned up, Taggart and Mordecai headed out to scrounge dinner. They didn’t show up with the feast that Frisco had, but they did manage to find some choice pieces. A couple of partial beef patties that only had some kid-size bites taken out of them, half a cold gyro with an extra helping of tzatziki sauce, a dented hummus cup, and a baggie of carrot and celery sticks. It wasn’t a lot, but mixed in with the previous night’s leftovers no one went hungry that night. Seasoned with relief, though, it was one of the best meals the crew had ever eaten. More than once they raised a toast to me, like I was some conquering hero or hometown champ. I tried not to let it get to me. There was still a chance, after all, that I’d just delayed the inevitable.

When the celebrations were all over, I curled up with my head on my uninjured hip, closed my eyes, and just let the tension go. Sleep came to me, and I got good and comfortable. I was out the whole night through and half the morning besides, until a sunbeam tracked across the floor and settled on my face. I woke up with a sneeze that made my ribs hurt and sent the teeth marks in my scruff to complaining. I got up slowly, waiting for the pain to get worse. I was stiff and sore, but as I stretched I found the hangover wasn’t as bad as I’d expected it to be. My hip ached like a bad tooth, and my jaw was sore, but everything else seemed to be just the usual post-scrap blues.

Despite feeling mostly fine, I didn’t want to take any stupid risks. So I spent my second day at St. Bart’s mostly resting, except for occasional trips back to the bathroom. The temperature was rising, and the old church was almost warm inside. Mitzi went scrounging that afternoon and brought back some food truck leftovers she’d found a couple blocks over. I ate, I slept, and I recovered. No one stopped by to visit, but no one hassled the place either. Neither Frank nor his boys came sniffing around looking for a rematch. After one more night I was almost back to my old self. Part of me wanted to keep up the vigil a little while longer, but after three days away from home I decided to hang it up. I’d done my bit, and it was time to head back uptown before Gino and the others noticed that I hadn’t been sleeping in my usual spot.

“We really can’t thank you enough, Leo,” Charity said as I stood on the stoop. Her whiskers were twitching again, and she was dry washing her paws. Her little ones were meeping, a few of them starting to actually crawl toward the edge of the nest to see what was going on in the wider world.

“It’s all right,” I said, shaking my head slightly. “You all take care of yourselves now. I don’t want to have to come back down here.”

“But you will?” Charity asked in a small voice. “If… if something else happens?”

“Sure,” I said, stepping down off the stoop. “But it’s not gonna.”

I stepped out of the doorway, and waited until Mitzi and Taggart had managed to get the door shut again. Once it was in place, I headed into the back lot and ducked under the rear fence. The chain link tried to claw at my hip, but I managed to get out without losing too much fur. I slipped along the wooden fence surrounding the neighboring patch and made my way into a side alley. I jogged a few blocks south, dodging a trash collection crew and a sedan who mistook street-side parking for a turn lane. Once St. Bart’s was comfortably out of sight, I headed back toward Mayaro. I wanted to tell Ringo what I’d seen, then go home and put this whole situation at my back.

With the warmer weather, the foot traffic was starting to clog up the streets. Still, I managed to make my way to the park in just under two hours and some change, accounting for a winding route so I could check for extra tails. I was at the southern entrance to the park this time, keeping my distance from a little girl who didn’t seem to realize street cats are under no obligation to tolerate grabby hands, when someone hissed at me. I slid my gaze to the side and saw a raccoon tucked up behind a garbage can. I didn’t recognize her, but that wasn’t all that surprising.

“You Leo?” the raccoon hissed, keeping her voice low.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Ringo around?”

“When it gets banging like this, boss likes to go somewhere a little quieter,” the watchman said. “Bear told us to keep an eye out, though. Said you might be by sometime soon.”

“Where’s your boss?” I asked.

“Hell if I know,” the raccoon said. “But I know where Bear is. He told us that if you came by we was to hand you off to him. You good with that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Lead the way.”

The raccoon waited until a trio of joggers went past, then stepped out of the shadows. She uncurled herself, grunting as she stretched. She was younger than I’d taken her for at first. Leaner, too. She gave me a little smile, then cocked her head before trotting off. I lengthened my stride, keeping up with her. My hip grumbled, but not much. She made sure to keep her distance from me, constantly glancing out of the corner of her eye as if worried I’d gotten too close. We rounded the corner of the park, and my guide leaned against a light pole, waiting for the light to change. I yawned, and she jumped slightly, wincing back from me.

“I’m not gonna bite you,” I said.

“Nah, I didn’t think you were.” She rubbed the side of her face, nervously glancing around. She opened her mouth to say something but closed it after a few seconds. She looked across the street. The light turned green, and she was bounding across the zebra stripes. I followed at a more leisurely pace, favoring my hurt side a bit. I caught up with my guide half a block down, near a stack of wooden crates at the mouth of an alley. Bear was relaxing on one of the middle crates, looking more like his namesake than ever before. He yawned and started the process of climbing down when he saw me coming.

“Look like you seen a little action,” Bear said, nodding at my hip.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“You need me for anything else, Bear?” my guide asked, already edging toward the curb.