Splinter: The Cards of Fortunate Destiny, 3, 4, 5

Chapter Three

He had hunted early, prompted by the electric tingle in the air, returning to shelter just before the lowering clouds let loose their burden of rain and lightning. Dry beneath the old loading dock, protected by rocks and beams fallen a-ground, he yawned, and bathed, and tucked himself up to sleep.

Sleeping, he dreamed briefly – a contentment of moonbeams waking a fair glitter from the ice upon the land – and woke all at once, hunter senses alert.

The storm had subsided into a drizzle, through which most of his would pursue their nightly business, unimpeded. A small breeze stirred about the thin lane that was his holding, reached warm, tentative fingers under the dock, and departed before it touched him. Out on the mainway, automobiles growled and splashed; closer were the sounds and sense of cats: familiar, safe and – stay.

Well inside the freehold, one moved, not upon cat-feet, nor yet with the firm, here-I-am tread of the caregivers – and what caregiver ever came by night, in all his long experience of the breed?

Silently he came to his feet, and silently began to work his way to the edge of the edge of the dock, flowing over the rubbish of long neglect. Somewhat short of his goal, his whiskers told of the approach of another, and he paused until the familiar shape of bold Roscoe, his second, formed out of the dimness.

The two of them had stood shoulder-to-shoulder many more times than once, and well each knew the other’s mind, and heart. The flick of an ear, the barest caress of whisker, and they were as one, moving stealthily to the place where the intruder had been sighted.

Pausing at the edge of the dock’s broken shelter, they watched. The drizzle glittered brassy in the musty glare from the vapor lamp at the end of the lane. The shadows thrown by that irritable light were orange-tinged gray, black, and ebon. Across the lane, hard by one of the feed-stations the caregivers, of their mercy, maintained – loomed a two-legged figure swathed in a overlarge slicker, hat pulled down against the weather. The figure paused by the feed-station, bent and poured somewhat from a vial into the bowls, and moved on to the next place.

Silent, he and Roscoe paced the intruder, watching undercover as three of the four stations were treated in turn. The stranger walked past the fourth station, more cunningly placed than the others, paused in the center of the lane and took a moment to cap the vial and slide it away into a deep pocket. There was another moment to adjust the angle of the wide-brimmed hat, and the intruder was gone, striding purposefully toward the mainway, steps springing, as if in pride of a deed well done.

An ear-flick and Roscoe went after, stalking the stranger through the shadows, to and over the edge of their land.

Himself, he approached the last feed-station the stranger had anointed, already certain in his heart what he would find.

A sniff confirmed his heart’s grim certainty – both the dry rations and the water, treated alike – a deliberate and dishonorable strike at the very heart of his holding. The fur roughened along his back, and he heard his own voice, swearing vengeance.

By the time Roscoe returned, with nothing more to report than the intruder had entered an automobile and driven, calmly, away, he had dealt with both bowls as was required.

One glance at the overturned water and the spoilt food, one sniff through a much-scarred nose, wrinkled in fastidious disgust. Roscoe stalked off, stiff-legged, to deal likewise to the rest.

His second was competent; he need have no fear there. What he did fear, in the damp and the drizzle, in sight of the intent to do black murder, was the malice of men. That he did fear, and wholly – not for himself, but for those over whom he stood guard.

* * *

Chapter Four

The “guest room” was in fact the entire third floor of the Project’s row house, with a wide shuttered window at the front looking over Hollins Street, and french doors at the back, opening on to a black iron balcony, overlooking a narrow walled garden, abundantly in bloom beneath the beneficent branches of two maple trees.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle and a slight, cool breeze wafted up to Sarah’s nose, bearing the scent of flowers, bark, and old brick.

Leaning on the wrought iron railing, she closed her eyes and just …breathed… for a few long minutes. But for the faint rustlings and murmurs of growing things, and the soft drip of water, the garden was quiet. Almost, she could imagine herself back in the mountains…

The staccato wail of a siren shattered that illusion, and she half-laughed, pushing herself upright.

You’re back in Baltimore, Butler. Deal with it.

Still, the garden was lovely, and she promised herself a closer inspection, after a shower and a phone call to Sue James.

As she turned to go back inside, her eye caught on a break in the smooth symmetry of the railing. Closer inspection discovered a gate, firmly latched, and – Sarah leaned over the rail – a flight of black iron stairs, descending through the dappled shade, to the garden’s bricked floor.

Fire escape, she thought, and approved whoever had been responsible for making that necessary condition of city living as attractive as possible.

She was tempted to try the gate and the stairs right then, but the lure of a shower and clean clothes was stronger, after three days on a Greyhound and a long, sticky walk across the city.

Smiling slightly, she went back inside, regretfully closing the doors behind her.

#

Some while later, in wrinkled but clean shorts and tank top, her hair still wet and flat to her head, she sat in the kitchen, sipping a not-totally-repellant glass of instant iced tea, the remains of a Spring Vegetable Lipton Cup-a-Soup and two restaurant packs of Saltines before her.

Her Gift, good or bad, was working overtime. She had no right to expect a month’s pay in advance and a free place to bunk.

Certainly, she couldn’t have hoped to find food of a sort in the spare kitchen cupboards – secretary-lite, she’d said to herself, upon locating a jar of instant tea, another, of coffee crystals, Cup-a-Soup in four different flavors, and a double-handful of cracker packs.

The fridge held a pint of non-dairy creamer, apparently used to cut the product of the coffee crystals; the freezer compartment a single tray of ice cubes.

On the drainer at the side of the sink four ceramic mugs had been set to dry, a dishrag folded neatly over the faucet. A low-powered microwave sat on the counter next to the stove.

Sarah mixed instant tea and cold water from the tap in one mug, added four ice cubes, sipped and decided it was better than warm water from her travel bottle. Choosing another mug, she stirred an envelope of dry soup into tap water, and slipped the mug into the little microwave, closing the door with care. The chicklets beeped when she pushed them.

She had done some basic exploration while dinner “cooked.” The pantry, next to the refrigerator, held two fifty pound bags of dry cat food, a number of plastic buckets and scoops, a shelf holding folded stacks of plastic grocery bags, a box of latex gloves, and dozens of plastic tubs in a rainbow of color – margarine bowls and the like, washed and ready to enter a second life of service as a cat food bowl.

Against the pantry’s back wall stood an apartment-sized washer and dryer.

Well, so, she thought, finishing her so-called iced tea, and pulling the cellphone out of her pocket. Let’s see if the good luck holds.

She punched the number in from memory, put the phone against her ear.

“Hello?” The woman’s voice was breathless – nothing startling, there; Sue James wasn’t exactly the calmest woman in the Lower Forty-Eight.

“Hi, Sue, it’s Sarah.” She made a conscious effort keep her own voice light and unhurried. “I’ve landed in Baltimore.”

“Sarah, I’m so glad you called!”

Sarah’s eyebrows rose; Sue had been happy enough of her help in the days immediately after Allen’s stroke, but they weren’t by any means friends.

“Bernie Foster called today. He – there are some of Dad’s papers that they need for the inquiry – and they’re not – the papers you compiled from Dad’s office, they aren’t there.”

Bernie Foster. Sarah grit her teeth.

“Did Dr. Foster say which papers were missing?” she asked, lightly – Lightly, Butler, don’t rattle the child…

“I – he left a list. I could mail it to you?” Sue’s field was medieval literature; Sarah reminded herself; she didn’t think about computers as a means of communication. If she thought of them at all. Probably it was all scrolls and illuminations with her.

“Why not email it to me? I’ll pick it up tomorrow and then email Dr. Foster. Get you out of the middle.”

If there was one place Sue didn’t want to be, it was between her father and his Numero Uno Academic Rival. She taught medieval literature, besides being the daughter of professors; faculty politics was in her blood.

“Oh, that’ll be a big help,” she said now. “What’s your address?”

Cheerfully, as if she hadn’t given this exact information to Sue at least four times previously, Sarah recited, “Sallywolf-at-lectrikcity-dot-com.”

There was a long, intense pause as Sue wrote this information down. “…got it,” she said. “I’ll send that off tonight, then.”

“Great,” Sarah said, with more warmth than she felt. Bernie Foster… “How’s Allen doing?” she asked.

“Much better,” Sue said, suddenly sounding brisk and adult. “The physical therapist came today and is very encouraged. Dad doesn’t see any reason why he can’t just sign himself out the of the hospital and drive home, naturally….”

Sarah grinned. “Sounds like he’s making millennial leaps.”

“If you could have seen his face when the therapist told him he needed to be patient,” Sue said, and there was grin in her voice, as well. Allen James had many virtues, Sarah thought, but patience wasn’t even a runner-up.

“He asked after you,” Sue added. “I told him you had a position in Baltimore, and he said he hadn’t thought you wanted a city. It seemed to …trouble him… a little.”

“I’ll write,” Sarah promised, too hastily. “Did they say when they were turning him loose?”

“If all goes well,” said Sue, “and he doesn’t murder the poor physical therapist, they should be moving him to the rehab facility next week. Send the letter here, and I’ll be sure he gets it.”

“Will do.” She paused. “Is there anything –?”

“I think things here are mostly under control,” Sue said, sounding breathless and harried again. “If you can take care of those papers Bernie wants….”

“Not a problem,” Sarah assured her. “I’ll take care of Dr. Foster.” If only.

“Thank you. And thank you for calling, Sarah. I’ll tell Dad I heard from you and that the new job’s working out well?”

“You do that. I’ll get that letter out in the next couple days.”

“Thank you,” Sue said again, hesitated, then added. “Good-night.”

“‘Night,” Sarah replied. “Take care of you, too, right?”

“Sure…” Sue said vaguely. “Bye, Sarah.”

The line went dead.

Sarah sat there for a heartbeat, looking at the face of her cellphone. Finally, she hit ‘end,’ turned it off and got up to make herself some more tea.

* * *

Chapter Five

The bank opened at seven. Sarah cashed her check, walked a couple blocks and was in Hollins Market by seven-thirty.

By eight-thirty, she was home again, having done a quick grocery shop, and by nine was finishing up a sesame seed bagel liberally anointed with Philadelphia cream cheese and her second cup of brewed coffee.

With the exception of the dented tin coffee pot simmering on the stove, her field pots and utensils were disposed decently in cabinet and drawer. The refrigerator now held half-a-dozen eggs, a loaf of fresh-baked whole wheat bread, butter, the remainder of the Philly, a quarter pound of deli sliced ham and a quarter-pound of Swiss cheese, a lemon, fresh broccoli, and a bottle of cheap Chardonnay. On the counter were a bag of brown rice, two lovely local tomatoes, twenty-four orange pekoe tea bags, and a small bag of sugar.

Much better than trail mix, she told herself, running water into one of her battered pans and setting it on the stove. And real ice tea has it head and shoulders over fake.

“Now.” Coffee mug in hand, Sarah considered the upcoming work day. First order of business was to use the pass codes and see what Elaine’s computer could tell her. Assuming the lawyer – Fine – called her back this morning, this afternoon she could take herself around to Hob Alley and have a look at the colony. There had been a list of volunteer feeders and their schedules among the information Elaine had left for her – maybe one of them would be willing to give her a tour….

The water was boiling. She turned the gas off, threw four tea bags into the pot to steep, topped off her coffee and headed for the office.

She had one foot on the bottom stair when she heard a rattle from the vicinity of the front door, and turned in time to see it pushed open just enough to admit a thin woman in a Baltimore Aquarium t-shirt, blue jeans that had faded the old-fashioned way, through use and many washings, and a pair of blue sneakers. A Baltimore Orioles cap was jammed down nearly to her ears, the brim shadowing her narrow face, and she was carrying a canvas shopping bag that may once have been white.

“Good morning,” Sarah said, gently.

The woman spun, her sneakers squeaking on the polished wooden floor, the hand holding her key rising to her chest.

“Goodness, you scared me!” she exclaimed. She took a hard breath, slid the key into her jeans pocket and used two fingers to push the cap’s brim up. Pale blue eyes considered Sarah from a long, red-cheeked face.

“You the new girl?”

Silently, Sarah sighed and stepped forward.

“Just started yesterday afternoon,” she said cheerfully, holding out a hand. “Sarah Butler.”

“Nancy Wilmot.” Her hand was dry and hot. She gave one decisive shake and let go, duty done.

“Elaine back yet?” she asked, pushing the ball cap up a little more.

Sarah shook her head. “She should be back next week. Is there something I can help you with?”

Nancy considered that, shifting her bag from one hand to the other, her mouth rumpled as if she was chewing on something that didn’t taste all that good. Finally, with a look askance, she asked.

“You know cats?”

“Some,” Sarah admitted, neglecting to mention her degree and her published papers in ethology. They wouldn’t matter to the cats, why should they matter to Nancy? “What’s the trouble?”

The woman shook her head, exasperation showing. “They peed in the food and overset the water! What kind of way is that to treat good food?”

Sarah frowned. “All the bowls?”

“All but one pair,” Nancy allowed, “over in the weeds, for the ones who like to be private.”

“Right. And they do this all the time? Spoil their food, I mean.”

Nancy thought about that, her thin frame rigid, as if all her resources – mental, emotional, and physical – were bent on this one task of memory.

“No –” she said eventually, and with some hesitation, then, decisive. “No – not once since I been covering Thursdays. But – ” Her face hardened. “Why?”

Good question, thought Sarah. Wolves, now, peed on traps, as a warning to others of the pack, and, as their detractors and admirers both would have it, to show their utter contempt for the puny works of man. Spoiling good food, though…

If the food was good.

She looked back to Nancy, who was now shifting from foot to foot.

“You have some time?” she asked. “The two of us can take food and bowls over. You can show me the ropes and maybe I can figure out what happened.”

Nancy nodded. “Was coming over for new bowls, seeing what they did to the ones they had. You can come back with me, if you want. Don’t expect to see anything, though. They hide from strangers.”

“Smart cats,” Sarah said, and waved Nancy toward the kitchen. “Let’s get provisioned.”

She poured the remaining coffee down the drain and set the mug to wash later before going over to the pantry door. Nancy hesitated in the middle of the kitchen, looking around. Sarah waited, one hand resting against the door frame.

Eventually, Nancy looked at her, blue eyes narrowed, shoulders registering suspicion.

“You’re living here?”

“Just till I find my own place,” Sarah answered, evenly. “Elaine okayed it.”

Nancy nodded, suspicion fading. Anything Elaine had okayed was fine with her.

Good, thought Sarah, and stepped into the pantry, Nancy on her heels.

The woman went straight to the shelf holding the empty plastic bowls and put six into her bag.

“Already had food with me,” she said, “and a jug of water. Left the jug – no sense carrying it, and they can’t get into it. Food’s in the bag.”

Sarah nodded. “Is there anything you want me to carry?”

Nancy tipped her head to one side. “The other girl, she always brought her camera, so in case one of ’em did come out, she could get a picture for the log book.”

Right. There was still her real job to do, in between doing Elaine’s job. Sarah sighed, quietly.

It’s only a week, Butler, she chided herself. Quit your bellyachin’.

“This time I’ll just take a look around and get a sense of the place.”

“OK by me.” Nancy shrugged. “I’m ready if you are.”

Sarah patted the front pocket of her jeans – keys, check – and the back pocket – wallet, check – reached up and grabbed a plastic grocery bag from the pile next to the bowls, a pair of gloves from the cardboard box, and nodded to the other woman.

“After you.”

 

 

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