Marked Territory – Snippet 01
This novel is being published by Ring of Fire Press on Sept 1.
By Neal F. Litherland
March was a month of contradictions. The days were longer, but the nights still came on early. The sun was warm, but the shadows were full of dirty ice that lingered like bad dreams. It was a month that didn’t know what it wanted to be; not quite winter, not quite spring, it was like that hazy place you went to just before you really fell asleep.
It was also the last month of what I called my winter generosity. The chilly months were rough on everyone, but they could be murder if you didn’t have any turf of your own. With no one filling up the garbage cans in the parks, and the sidewalk cafes forgotten and abandoned, food and warmth were in high demand. My alley was behind a deli, which meant that I was sitting on a serious commodity once the holidays started. That was why I made it known that anyone who needed something to eat could get a meal over by my place. One at a time, once per day, and it would be ideal if they could wait until after the lights were out and the doors were locked, but I knew that wasn’t always possible. Still, they had to be quiet and avoid making any kind of mess. Gino gave me trimmings to keep the riffraff off the property, after all, so I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t doing my job.
I was stretched out like the Sphinx, soaking up the hour or so of decent sun on the alley’s back stoop and contemplating a nap, when I noticed her peeking around one of the trash cans. A little white-footed mouse with a nervous look on her face, I figured she was here looking for a handout. I let her take her time. If she lost her nerve and ran off, then whatever she’d come for couldn’t be that important. She crouched in the shadow of a heavy green garbage bag, and for a moment I was sure she was gonna tuck tail and go back the way she’d come. But she shook herself, sucked in a breath, and scampered right up to the stoop.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you Leo?”
I stretched, taking care not to put my claws on display; she was already on edge, no reason to give her a coronary. I sat up and offered the friendliest smile I could manage for a mouse.
“You know me, but I don’t know you,” I said, giving her the once-over. “What do you need?”
She twitched her nose, and again I thought she was going to bolt for the sidewalk. Instead she planted her rear and curled her tail around herself. “I need your help.”
I didn’t say anything for a long moment. Her nose twitched again, like a nervous tic. Up close I could see her fur was tawny on top and pale underneath, though it didn’t hide the fact that she was much too skinny, and she was starting to go bald in a few places. Her eyes were big, dark, and full of fear, but I could tell it wasn’t me she was afraid of. She took a shaky breath, and words just started tumbling out of her.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her nose drooping like her head was too heavy. “They told us that if we don’t get out that they’ll make us get out. I thought for sure they didn’t mean they wanted everything, but now almost everyone has cleared out, Taggart is hurt, and I just… just… don’t know what to do.”
I nodded like I understood what she was talking about and tapped the stoop with my fore paw. “Why don’t you pop up here? It’s warmer, and you can tell me what happened from the beginning.”
She gave me a measured look, and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. She was measuring the distance between herself and the stoop and from where she was to the nearest cover. Then she took a look at my length and came to a conclusion I’d seen before; if I’d wanted to eat her, it would have happened by now. But I was a kept Tom, and I had no interest in running down a meal when I got two squares a day. So she hooked her paws up into the crack at the edge of the stoop and pulled herself up. I nudged my water dish closer to her, and laid back down to put us more at eye level. She took a drink and rubbed at her whiskers while she tried to catch her breath.
“Th-thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I told her. “Now, let’s take it from the top. First thing’s first, what’s your name?”
“Charity,” she squeaked, a little embarrassed.
“All right, Charity,” I said. “What seems to be your trouble?”
“There’s a little patch that no one’s really used for years now,” Charity said. “Down past 150th, I think? I’m not very good with directions. It was an old church, but it’s been shuttered up for years.”
“Melrose,” I said, just to show her I was picking up what she was laying down. “That’s a hell of a trek all the way up here.”
“Uh-huh.” Charity’s whiskers twitched again. She reached up to try to stop them, but didn’t make a lot of progress. “Well, St. Bart’s is a pretty good place, all things considered. It’s sectioned off, and it’s mostly still in one piece. The roof’s got a leak, but once we swept the broken glass out of the way it was fine. And it’s far enough away from anywhere important that no one really wanted to take it away from us. It just wasn’t worth it, especially not when we would have just let anyone come inside and stay for the asking.”
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh.” Charity rubbed at one of her ears and shook her head slightly. “Just… we don’t really have a name. People came and went, but there were a lot of regulars. There was me, Taggart, the Roosters, Molly and her mate, the Diggers, and — “
“All right, all right, I get it,” I said. “You had a community there, and now you don’t?”
“Well, not much of one,” Charity said. “Past few weeks, pretty much everyone who’s been able to has left.”
I reached out a paw and tugged my bowl a little closer. I took a drink. The water was nice and cool, and some of it splashed my nose. I rubbed it off and settled my gaze back on Charity.
“Then something happened.” I said. It wasn’t a question, but she nodded like it had been all the same.
“Couple of rovers came prowling around. Lifting their legs by the doors and scratching out the welcome signs we’d put up.” Charity’s eyes narrowed. “We offered to let them come in and stay with us, but they just laughed in our faces. They told us that St. Bart’s was theirs now, and anyone caught there in three days would be dealt with.”
“Big talk,” I said, scratching my head with my back foot. “How many of them were there?”
“I saw three,” Charity said. “There was a Chihuahua with a ragged ear, a dachshund with a big scar down his muzzle, and what I think was a Yorkie. It was hard to tell, exactly, with how matted he was. They talked like there were more of them, though.”
“They always do,” I said. “You said someone got hurt?”
“Taggart,” Charity said, bobbing her head once. “He’s been at St. Bart’s as long as anyone and longer than most. Taggart’s a friendly old mutt, and he tried to go out and talk to them. He said that sometimes you got to let the dogs talk. I remember that.”
The mouse shook her head back and forth slowly, then lowered herself and took another drink from my bowl.
“He walked out there, tail wagging and tongue lolling, like he was just one of the pack,” Charity said. “He got maybe three words out before they were on him. Biting, clawing, kicking. Making a show of it.”
“He get in any nips of his own?” I asked.
“Taggart talks tough, but he isn’t a fighter,” Charity said. “He got his teeth on the Chihuahua, but that only made them hurt him more. He showed them his belly, but they gave him a few more digs just to be sure he got the message.”
I nodded again, just because I felt like I should be doing something. I shifted, feeling the warmth of the sun really soaking into my top coat. When Charity didn’t keep talking, I realized she was waiting for me to take the lead.
“Humor me on this,” I said. “But if they want this spot so badly, why don’t you just give it to them? Especially if you don’t have anyone who can tug the rope over it?”
“My babies,” Charity said, her nose drooping again. “Even if I had somewhere to go, I can’t move them yet. In a few weeks, maybe, but not by tomorrow.”
“That the only reason?” I asked.
Charity raised her head, and looked me in the eyes. There was no fear in her gaze now. No hesitation. Just raw anger, blazing away.
“Because it’s mine,” she said, without a hint of her earlier squeak. “And I may not be able to push this pack off by myself, but I am not going to just roll over and give them everything because they told me to.”