Marked Territory – Snippet 16

“You’re fine, kid,” Bear said. “Get yourself a drink, then hustle back to your spot.”

She was off as soon as Bear finished talking, heading down the street at something that was nearly a run. She crossed against the light, heading back toward the park. I looked at Bear.

“Your people seem nervy,” I said, when he didn’t offer me an explanation.

“Swipes has been shooting his mouth off,” Bear said with a shrug. “Wasn’t enough to get his ass handed to him, you know? He’s got to make it this whole big thing where he was just minding his own business and then you tore him apart. Nearly died before I saved his life, to hear him tell the story.”

“You letting him talk like that?” I asked.

“Sure,” Bear said. “Keeps the troops on their toes. And as a bonus, makes ’em nice and polite next time you come calling. Two birds, one stone, ya know?”

“Long as Swipes doesn’t have any friends who want to even an imaginary score,” I said.

Bear shrugged again. “You get any problems, you bring ’em to me. If there’s anything left of ’em by the time you’re finished.”

“Sure,” I said. “Where’s Ringo at? I’d like to get home before it gets too dark, and I don’t want to take the train if I don’t have to.”

Bear nodded and headed down the alley. I followed, stepping around a leaning garbage can that smelled like coffee grounds and three-day-old pastries. A wooden fence covered in old ads blocked the way, but Bear grunted and pushed a board to the side. The nail squeaked, but the wood gave way under pressure. He held it open for me, and I ducked through the gap, laying my ears down so I didn’t wind up with splinters I couldn’t reach.

I found myself standing next to a back patio, with all-weather covers still firmly tucked down over the wrought-iron tables and chairs. A low wall of heavy-looking stone marked the edge of the patio. Decorative latticework covered the bricks, and fake vines wound around the wood to try to create the illusion of a greener, warmer space. There was an overhang, casting a lot of it in shadow, and no one had turned on the outside lights. Steam wafted out of a window, smelling of espresso and those burnt cookies high class places like to sell at inflated prices.

Chenzo was leaning against the wall, keeping an eye out. Two other raccoons were posted up further down the alley, looking and listening to make sure everything was okay. Ringo was sitting on the low wall, warming himself in the afternoon sun. He picked up a peanut from a small pile next to him and crunched it as he turned to look at me. Bear grunted his way through the opening, pulling the fence closed behind him and smoothing down his fur.

“The savior of St. Bart’s returns,” Ringo said. He looked pleased, which I chose to take as a good sign. “And not that much worse for wear, I see.”

“Not for lack of trying,” I said.

“Come over here and tell me all about it.” Ringo patted the low wall next to him and popped another peanut into his mouth. “I want to hear everything.”

I considered staying right where I was, but the appeal of the sunbeam won out. I put my front paws on the wall and climbed rather than jumping up. Ringo noticed, but didn’t comment. Once I had stretched out and found a comfortable way to lay my tail, I started in on what happened.

“I found St. Bart’s around the time it started getting dark the day we talked this whole thing through,” I said. “Weren’t many hold-outs left by the time I got there. The church mouse and her little ones, a three-legged dog, a nervy pigeon, an escaped bunny, and a skunk that got her perfume snipped.”

“Easy marks,” Ringo said around his chewing.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “We had a drop-in about halfway through the night. Rat, bringing by some supplies for anyone who was left.”

“A rat,” Ringo said. “What was his name?”

“Wasn’t really paying attention,” I said. “He didn’t stay the night with the others. I walked him to the train station, but about halfway there a dachshund with a scar on his muzzle and a Chihuahua with a ragged ear made a move on him. They didn’t see me. I cracked most of the yapper’s ribs, I’m pretty sure, and gave the long boy something to remember me by before we booked it.”

“Why did they brace him?” Ringo asked, swallowing.

“The hounds were two of the ones who were putting the squeeze on St. Bart’s,” I said. “I guess they saw the rat come walking out, and wanted to know who was left. I figured if I knocked their heads around, they might think better of showing up the next day.”

Ringo nodded and licked some salt off his paws. He brushed dust from them and turned, straddling the wall to face me. His golden eyes were intense, like he was focusing on every word that passed my teeth while noting all the gaps I didn’t fill in for him.

“And did that work?” he asked, when my pause stretched on a little too long.

“No,” I said. “I split and made my way back. No one followed me, and I slept until sunup. I hopped out a side window, strode right out the front gate, and did a walk around the block to see who was around. Not a creature was stirring, so I went back in through a side street and snuck under the rear fence. I figured if someone was watching the place, better that they thought I’d taken off.”

“Slick,” Ringo agreed with a nod.

“Paid off, all things considered.” I grunted, shifting my hips. My back claws dragged on the stone. Chenzo winced, but none of the others moved. “I hunkered most of the morning, waiting to see what happened. Pack turned up looking to kick the doors in just after noon. The dachshund brought some friends with him, but not the Chihuahua.”

“And?” Ringo asked.

“I made it clear they weren’t welcome,” I said, licking my front paw and rubbing under my eye for a second. “The Yorkie couldn’t run very fast after what I did to him, but he managed to get away. The other hitter, I think he was a Basengi mix, almost lost his guts. The long boy didn’t like it, but I’d got him good in the neck, and he wasn’t up for any one on one action after that.”

Ringo nodded. He turned away from me, and tilted his face up to the sun. He folded his paws together over his stomach. He looked peaceful, and relaxed, which made me feel the opposite. I waited. After about a minute or so, Ringo picked up another peanut and bit it in half.

“You think that will be the end of it?” Ringo asked.

“Don’t know,” I said. “They lost some blood over it. The dachshund said it wasn’t over, but judging from the way his boys ran he might have been saying that more to himself than to me.”

Ringo nodded again, popping the other half of the nut into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, his eyes still closed. He swallowed and tapped his paws on his belly.

“You could have ended it there, though,” he said.

“I could have,” I agreed. “But if you wanted me to scratch this pack, you should have offered me more than admiration and respect.”

Ringo nodded silently, conceding the point without saying it out loud. He scratched his stomach and licked his muzzle, thinking. I laid my head on my paws, and did my best to enjoy the sun while he chewed over what I’d told him.

“You didn’t get any names for these dogs, did you?” Ringo asked.