The dour one had come to their holding just after the bell told nine. She had sworn, loudly and at length, upon discovering the spoilt food and the overturned bowls, but made no effort to examine them more closely.
From his vantage in the oak, he watched her. If she had looked up from her lamentations she would have seen him, but this one never looked out for any of them. She filled the bowls and renewed the water, though what moved her to these acts of gentle mercy he could not discern. Possibly it was the rule of her order which held her obedient to a task she so despised.
Eventually, her pique subsided and she went away, leaving the water jug inside the deep shade beneath the ruined loading dock.
He settled in to wait.
The last time the food was spoilt, it had been the boy-child who found it. He, bright laddie, ran straightaway and fetched back the mistress of the mission which had made his folk the object of their charity. She had gathered the spoilage and carried it off, for study, so he strongly believed, and wondered at the time what she might do when her chemist told her of poison.
As it came to pass, nothing was done, whether by the indolence of the chemist, or the lady’s own understanding that there was nothing that could be done. Though they might accept the grace bestowed by the mission, the truth was that they lived wild, with all that such a state promised. In the end, they took their own chances, his gallant, free folk – they built their own lives and they died their own deaths. Murderers in the night they would deal with in their own fashion, and the good folk of the mission might then pray for the souls of the departed.
Which was bold indeed, he considered, for an alley cat, even for a captain of alley cats. But the truth, since he was dealing in truth this fine bright day – was that there was little enough harm they might visit upon foul enemies. In vigilance alone lay their safety.
Below and to a side the weeds parted and the broad, scarred face of their own warrior queen appeared. She looked up at him in his tree, eager to have done with skulking about and to move on with her private business.
He stretched tall and sat straight, ears flickering.
Inscrutable, she withdrew – and he heard familiar footfalls.
The dour one was returning, and she had brought another with her, though not, as he heard it, the lady of the mission.
Walking brisk, they entered his keeping, the dour one bearing her sack and her sorrows, and at her side….
His sight blurred, and the fur rose along his spine, for pacing beside the dour one was nothing more nor less than a great gray she-wolf, her head high and proud, her eyes amber and alert –
She saw him, sitting high in his tree, and in the instant her gaze crossed his, her form shimmered – and it was only a plain human woman he saw, out of something more than cat eyes. Only a woman, with cool amber eyes, and the scent of the wild wood upon her.
Her eyes widened as they touched his and she stopped as if struck, while her companion plodded on, unknowing.
She raised a hand and called out, her voice green and powerful.
“Nancy – ”
* * *
Nancy set a stolid pace down the brick sidewalk to the corner of Hollins. Sarah kept up by stringently reining in her usual long-legged stride.
Traffic was light on Hollins, though she could hear the rumble and growl of cars in the city without – and it was odd, she thought, that she considered the park and its immediately abutting streets as somehow — sheltered – from the rest of the city. Silly concept. Still, when she had gone out in the early morning to run her errands, she had definitely felt that she was leaving a safe haven for more chancy territory…
A shout caught her attention. Across the street in the park, a squad of younger kids were running across the grass, chasing a ball. Whenever one caught up with it, he or she kicked it ahead of the pack again, to the audible delight of them all.
Sarah grinned and looked over to her companion.
“At least some people don’t mind the heat,” she said, though it wasn’t really hot yet, not under the trees.
Nancy glanced indifferently over to the park and shrugged. “They’ll grow out of it,” she predicted, with a certain grim relish.
They paused on the corner of Hollins and Stricker, waiting for the thin traffic to clear. Sarah gazed at the pristine row of brick houses marching down the street opposite, each with their six-step flight of marble stairs leading up to their doors.
“Where’s the museum they’re going to be fixing up?” she asked. “I thought it was right here.”
“Other end of the street, across from the Pavilion,” Nancy said. “’bout time somebody took an interest in taking care of that building. What the city did to it was nothing but a shame.”
Good grief, a speech, thought Sarah, following Nancy kitty-corner across the street. On the Stricker Street side, they turned left.
“Kept it open till it got to needing repairs, then said it was too expensive to fix, and closed it up,” Nancy continued, and she actually sounded aggrieved. “Let it sit there, a temptation to any vandal could put his hand on a rock, till the window sills rotted and the chimney broke apart. Three years and finally the city says it’s surplus, and sells it off. They could’ve done that right when they closed it up, but, no, they had to let it rot, first.”
A dissertation. Sarah opened her mouth to ask a question, but Nancy was pointing up ahead and to the right, apparently into the yard of the corner rowhouse.
“Cat’s’re down there.”
Half-a-dozen more steps revealed a thin street at the far side of the yard; an old-fashioned and incongruous tin sign bolted high up on the combed steel lamp post read “Hob Alley.”
Side-by-side they entered. Directly before them, across the far end of the alley, was a crumbling concrete building, and a deteriorating wooden dock. To the right of the dock, and shadowing it, was an oak tree, in full, glorious leaf.
In the oak tree – jewel-bright eyes glittered among the leaves, and a long whisper of fawn-colored fur – Sarah raised her hand, pointing.
“Nancy – ”
That quickly, the tree was empty, holding nothing more than a memory of a full sable tail. The oak leaves hadn’t moved.
“What?” came the voice at her elbow.
Sarah looked down into the other woman’s narrow face, feeling just a bit foolish.
“A cat,” she said. “Kind of a … kind of a misty-brown color, with a fluffy dark tail.”
Nancy shrugged. “They’re around. Like I said, you don’t see ’em much, but sometimes one’ll come out and just sit there, staring, like you’re interrupting important business.” She jerked her head to the left, directing Sarah’s attention away from the oak and the end of the alley.
A door stood open into the alley. Through it, Sarah could glimpse a gleaming dark wooden counter, glasses racked above it twinkling in a lance of sunlight. Music was playing somewhere in the deeps of the bar – Sarah thought she made out the line of a jig.
“Goodfellows Pub,” Nancy said, and jerked her head again, this time indicating a weed-choked lot to the right of Goodfellows’ pleasant open door. Queen Anne’s Lace, chickweed, and black-eyed Susan vied for space with razor edged grass and other, more noxious, weeds.
“Used to be an antique store, when I was a kid,” Nancy said. “Burned down, I heard. Land went back to the city for taxes. Worthless little bit of land, anyway.” She shrugged and began moving again, back toward the old loading dock. Sarah started after, then paused, staring at a recessed door in the wall just behind the weedy, worthless land, half-hidden behind a peeling green Dumpster. The door was solid, painted an orange-red that almost matched the surrounding bricks.
“What’s that?” she asked.
Nancy turned and looked along the line of her pointing finger. Shrugged again and took up her trek to the back of the alley.
“Fortune teller, I heard. Never open, though.” She glanced over her shoulder at the door, a pronounced frown on her face. “Forgot it was there.” She sounded, just a little, worried.
“Well, it’s not exactly easy to see,” Sarah said bracingly. “And if it’s never open, it would be easy to forget.”
“I guess….” Nancy said, uncertainly. She shook her head and marched forward, the picture of woman who has forcefully put a disturbing thought out of her mind.
Sarah trailed after her, the recessed doorway tickling at the back of her mind, like a half-remembered, and irritating, song. She stretched her legs.
“What about the warehouse?” She asked as she came up to Nancy’s side. “What was that?”
“Wasn’t ever anything, in my day,” Nancy answered, picking her way through weeds laced with rotting wooden planks, and stones so round and smooth they looked like they might have crossed the ocean a hundred years ago as ballast.
“Heard once that it was a distributor, that all the street Arabs –” she pronounced it “ay-rabs,” in proper Baltimore style – “the Arabs would bring their pony-carts down and load up on potatoes, corn, strawberries, watermelon.” She had reached the edge of the wooden dock. Carefully, she bent down and groped under the boards.
“There,” she grunted, hauling a sloshing plastic milk jug out of the dimness. She picked her way back to Sarah’s side.
“Doesn’t make any sense, though – Arabs would’ve just gone over to Hollins Market and loaded up – this place here would’ve been too narrow.”
Sarah nodded, squinting her eyes, trying to visualize the alley in its heyday. Sometimes, she had luck with her visualizations – more often, not. Today was a not. She shook her head at herself and followed Nancy to the first feeding station, between Goodfellows’ Dumpster and the wall.
“Look at this!” The woman was saying. “No gratitude – ”
Sarah blinked. “Cats aren’t long on gratitude,” she said, after a moment. It was never any use to remind people that animals were animals, with their own behaviors, not furry little people who automatically adhered to the social rules of the Great Hairless Ape.
“Why don’t you set up the new bowls over there –” she pointed out a random spot on the far side of the Dumpster – “and I’ll check this out.”
Nancy moved away without comment. Sarah knelt down to examine the evidence.
The food had certainly deeply offended someone’s delicate sensibilities. It had been fouled, and then scratched over, as if whoever had done the deed were seeking to bury a stinking bit of filth.
Bad food, then, Sarah thought, unhappily, fishing the latex gloves out of her pocket.
There aren’t all that many ways for dry cat kibble to spoil, she thought, inching the gloves over her fingers.
The water bowl – same treatment, with the dusty asphalt beside the overturned bowl showing the score of claws – and the dandelion growing out of a crack in that same asphalt withered and sticky, as if… Sarah bent forward. The cracked asphalt supported a hearty tribe of dandelions, and while not all of them were perfect examples of their kind, none displayed the sticky, weakened stem, almost as if an over-application of –
“Weed killer,” she said aloud.
“What?” Nancy asked from the other side of the Dumpster.
“Somebody put weed killer in the cats’ food,” Sarah repeated, absolutely sure of it, in the way that Aunt Bett would have reminded her had no basis in provable fact.
“Why would they do that?” Nancy again.
Good question. Sarah sighed and pulled the grocery bag from her back pocket.
“Some people,” she said, maybe not loud enough for Nancy to hear, “shouldn’t be people.” She used the bowls to scoop up the scattered food, dumping it all into the bag, hesitated, then yanked up the poisoned dandelion and threw it in as Nancy came ’round the corner of the Dumpster.
“Well,” Sarah said, brightly. “Let’s take a look at the rest, shall we?”
The second feeding station was ringed by blighted vegetation. Grimly, Sarah cleaned up the area, while Nancy established a new station a little distance away.
At the third station, she knelt, reached for the bowls and looked up, the sense that she was being watched impossible to ignore.
She looked first to the oak tree, but if cat eyes observed her from that vantage, they were too cleverly hidden for her to discern. She scanned the dock, finding nothing, and shrugged, trying to throw off the feeling, and again reached for the bowls.
She couldn’t just pretend that there weren’t eyes boring into the back of her head – the back of her…
Carefully, she turned on her knees, emptying her mind of any preconceived notion of what the area behind her ought to look like – weeds and rock, random piles of wood – hah.
Sitting quite calmly amidst a scrambled pile of wood, wire, and rusted bits of metal was a thin white catling – too big to be a kitten, but not yet, to Sarah’s eyes, fully a cat. It blinked serene yellow eyes at her. Sarah inclined her head slightly and squeezed her own eyes shut momentarily – her best approximation of a cat-smile. Inside the untidy pile of trash, the catling tipped its head to one side, as if it found such courtesy amusing.
Having established the source of the scrutiny, Sarah turned back to her work.
The last station had not been fouled; the nearby weeds were hale and green. Nancy changed out the bowls anyway, slipping the used ones into Sarah’s now bulging grocery bag.
“That’s how it’s done, then, see?” Nancy said, pouring the last of the water from the jug into the green plastic bowl.
“Doesn’t seem too onerous,” Sarah returned, hefting the bag slightly. “Especially on days when nobody’s tried to poison them.”
The other woman shrugged. “Still don’t make sense. Why poison a bunch of alley cats?”
“For the same reason some people try to poison wolves and other animals they say are ‘varmints,'” Sarah said, maybe a little too sharply, because Nancy sent her a quick look, shoulders tensing.
Sarah took a breath and deliberately softened her voice. “Because some people think that some lives are expendable and that it’s their right to end those worthless lives at whim. Some people get their jollies from poisoning animals. There was a woman in the neighborhood when I was growing up who thought it was perfectly fine to slip a doctored bone to any dog she found objectionable, pet or not.” She heard the edge back on her voice and paused. Get a grip, Butler.
“She finally got caught and went to jail for a couple months,” she finished, her voice dead flat, “then she moved someplace else.”
“Good riddance,” Nancy offered, hesitantly.
Sarah nodded, caught a movement from the corner of her eye, and turned her head.
The white catling was stretched out on a chipped granite slab, taking a leisurely bath. She pointed.
“That one seems friendly enough. Do you think he was a pet?”
Nancy followed the line of her finger, then looked back, scowling with her entire body. “What one?”
Sarah stared at her, then looked back to the catling, blissfully washing its belly – and met Nancy’s eyes.
“There’s a white kitten over on that chunk of granite,” she said, very carefully.
Nancy looked over her shoulder, shrugged stiffly.
“Not that I can see.”
Sarah closed her eyes, opened them and looked again. Atop the slab, the white catling had paused in its ablutions. It met Sarah’s eyes, and squeezed its own shut in a cat-smile, and turned its head to clean a shoulder.
“One of us,” she said, “has eye problems. If I’m seeing cats that aren’t there, I think I’d better know it sooner rather than later.”
She moved forward, one step – two steps. Three – the catling was gone. Sarah stopped, shaking her head.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll get on with my day,” Nancy said from behind her. “I’m late already for the store.”
“Sure,” she fixed a smile on her face before she turned around. “Thanks very much for showing me around, Nancy. I really appreciate it.”
Nancy shrugged, and nodded – and stumped off down the alley.
Sarah went over to the granite slab, and ran her latex-clad fingers all over its rough surface. Failing to find a cat of any color, nor evidence of a cat, she finally turned and followed Nancy down the alley and away.
* * *
The Project’s computer was on a dial-up – mercifully, on its own line – and it took some time for the accumulated email to download.
Sarah spent the wait exploring the computerized records, familiarizing herself with the volunteers’ schedules, the names of the vets who donated their time to care for ferals, and various back correspondence. She printed out the vet list, and opened a file called “ABC.”
This proved, as she had hoped it would, to be step-by-step instructions on how to take care of a feral colony, how to build a shelter, what and how to feed, the philosophy of neuter-and-release; and detailed instructions on the use of humane traps, which were available on loan from the Project.
“OK,” she murmured, sending two copies of the entire file to the printer. “Ernestine Brown, you came to the right place.” She made a note on the yellow pad next to that lady’s phone message while the inkjet at the end of the table got about its business.
The computer emitted a not-so-subtle bong!, and the email program bloomed on the screen. Sarah set the pad aside and leaned forward, fingering the mouse.
“Spam, spam, spam…” She sang under her breath. “Die, die, die!” Clearing the junk mail took several minutes, and at the end of the blood-bath, only three emails remained in the queue: The Princeton electronic newsletter, an email from J. Fine, and another, from Julie Whitmore.
Sarah felt a pang. Dammit, Butler, you should’ve called her last night. What were you, raised, in a barn? She clicked on the letter.
As she had feared, Julie was worried: she hoped everything was all right, and wondered why Elaine hadn’t called her back.
Irritated with herself, Sarah flexed her fingers over the keyboard.
Elaine was called away on a personal emergency and should be back in a week, she typed rapidly. I’m the new archivist, filling in until she returns. If Elaine calls in – She hesitated, backspaced and replaced “If” with “When” – I’ll certainly give her your message. She paused to consider an appropriate closing, decided on, Take care, and signed herself Sarah Butler. Feeling considerably more civilized, she hit “send,” and opened Jeremy Fine’s email.
Reporting in, it began, laconically. Gerry wasn’t at home to me yesterday afternoon, even after it was carefully explained to his assistant that I was there as the representative of the Feral Feline Project. Mission not accomplished. Give me a call and let’s work on Plan B. I’ll be at MCW all day Thursday.
“Mr. Pickersgill,” Sarah said aloud, leaning back. “For shame.”
She reached for the phone and punched in the number for Monumental City Works, getting a busy signal for her trouble. She depressed the switch and kept the receiver nestled between chin and shoulder while she flipped through the Rolodex and found the address – only a couple blocks away. Hm.
She hit redial – still busy – and cradled the phone.
“Your problem, Butler,” she said, standing up and stretching, hands over head, “is that you like walking better than you like working.”
Neither the computer nor the phone bothered to dispute this observation.
She went across the room and pulled a “Neuter Your Pet” tote bag off the hook on the back of the door. At the desk, she slid the Pickersgill Development file, a yellow lined pad and a couple of random pens into the bag, hit redial again – still busy – and headed out.
Clean food, clean water, the poisoned plants removed, and the bowls moved some small distance away from the infected areas. Well done, on all counts.
Satisfied, he betook himself to the secret door and settled in on the entry-stone to think.
The wolf-woman – now there was as fine a puzzle as he’d been set for many a day. Did she replace the gilt-haired mistress of the mission? A most gentle and courteous lady, that one, and not lacking for wit, either. She had wrought well for them, in human terms, and saw much, with human eyes.
Another vintage entirely was the wolf-woman, who had not only spied him in his oak, but discerned the hidden door, latched and near lost as it was. And what could it mean that the White One had allowed her to see him, not once, but twice within the same hour?
He yawned, cat-drowsy there on the cool stone, despite questions and the need to devise a defense against –
His thought hazed, and once again he yawned, curling ’round on the welcoming stone. It was too warm to think. He would consider the matter further after he….
“Yessir,” the receptionist said into the phone as Sarah entered the offices of Monumental City Works.
She was standing, unreceptionist-like, behind her desk, fingers gripping the back of her steno chair so tightly her knuckles showed white. She was big, blond, and tanned, with a round, lineless face that would have been a real asset in a poker game. She looked perfectly capable of smashing the phone, the chair, the caller – or all three – into many small pieces, without breaking a sweat or even rumpling her sleeveless turquoise silk dress.
Sarah eased the door closed and stood to one side, watching.
“No, sir,” the receptionist said, and there was a noticeable quiver in her voice.
This is a seriously pissed-off woman, Sarah thought, watching the white fingers press tighter into the chair, and wondering how much more pressure plastic and foam could take.
“Please hold on,” the blond snapped, and leaned across the desk to hit the “hold” button before whoever was on the other end had a reasonable chance to say “OK.”
Holding the phone against her shoulder, the receptionist closed her eyes, inhaled – deep, deeper, deepest – and let it all go in a yell.
Nothing happened – no. From the hall behind the receptionist came, first, the sound of slow footsteps, and, finally, a man – a short and slender man of whom at least two would have been needed to balance the blond. His hair was dark red and cut close to his head in an effort, Sarah thought, to control what were probably unruly curls. White shirt, rolled at the wrists, open at the throat, no tie, brand-new jeans. His glasses were broadly framed in dark plastic and he limped badly off his right leg.
“We do have an intercom, you know, Marcie,” he said, angling his glasses up at her face. His voice was soft, his tone ironic.
“We do,” Marcie admitted, shoving the receiver at him. “But sometimes you just gotta yell.”
“Point taken.” He cradled the instrument against his chest. “Care to tell me who’s on the line?”
“Pierce Norman.” She took another deep breath, and gave it up in a mighty sigh. “He said he was going to come down here and kill us.”
“Idiot,” Jeremy said, without heat. He used his chin to point at the base unit on the desk. “Hit me.”
“You got it.” She leaned over and released the hold button.
“Mr. Norman, this is Jeremy Fine.” His voice was cool and collected, his body that of a man perfectly relaxed and in control of the situation. Exactly what was needed in dealing with a predator, Sarah, who had dealt with her share, thought admiringly.
“Now, I understand you’ve told Ms. Williamson that you’re going to come to our office and kill us,” Jeremy Fine continued, calmly. “I wonder – ”
He paused, holding the phone a little away from his ear. From her position by the door, Sarah could clearly hear a man’s obscenity-laced voice blaring out of the receiver. Gradually, the torrent of sentences slowed, and Jeremy Fine brought the receiver back to his ear.
“I wonder,” he said again, completely unheated, “if your lawyer knows you’ve made this call? No sir, I assure you that it’s very much some of my fucking business. I’ve known Ned Steele for a good many years and I have the greatest respect for him as a lawyer. If he okayed this call, then I am extremely concerned for his heal – Excuse me?” A small pause before Jeremy Fine nodded. “Ah, I see. Ned didn’t know you were going to call. I’m relieved to hear that. Now, what I suggest you do right now is hang up the phone, call Ned and tell him what you’ve done. I suggest this very strongly, Mr. Norman. Because whether you do or don’t, in exactly ten minutes I will be calling Ned to discuss increasing your penalties in the upcoming case. I think we’re seeing a pattern of behavior here, Mr. Norman, and I – Excuse me?”
This time he didn’t move the receiver away from his ear, so all that Sarah caught was a wordless roar. His calm face did tighten somewhat, however, and his chest lifted with a hard breath.
“That is,” he said coolly, “entirely up to you. I will note, however, that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. Good-bye.”
He handed the still-roaring receiver to Marcie, who cradled it with such authority that Sarah felt sure the plastic had cracked.
“No such luck,” Marcie said, with a grin in her direction. “And even if I did break it, they’d only get me another one.”
“Too true,” Jeremy Fine added, limping around to the front of the desk. “The whole of MCW is only a complicated torture chamber designed to separate Marcie from her fragile sanity. Not much of a plot, I’ll grant you, but our own.”
Sarah grinned. “It’s nice to have a plot,” she allowed. “And Marcie seems to be holding up pretty well.”
The other woman snorted as she settled into her chair. “Fragile sanity, my eye,” she muttered. “How can we help you, now that we’ve got this morning’s crisis out of the way?”
Sarah inclined her head to the man. “I’m here to see Jeremy Fine, actually. My name’s Sarah Butler; I’m filling in for Elaine Norbertson.”
He looked up at her – not as far as he needed for Marcie, but still a way. His face was sharply planed, with lines bracketing a generous mouth; the eyes behind the black-framed lenses were gray.
“Ah, yes. I have you on my list of people to call today. I hope Elaine’s well?” he asked. “She didn’t say anything about taking a vacation when we talked last week.”
“Called unexpectedly away on personal business,” Sarah said. “I found out when I showed up for my first day at work. There was a message on the machine from Gerald Pickersgill, and….”
He raised a thin, ringless hand. “Say no more. Phone messages from Gerry Pickersgill have been known to send strong men crawling under their desks.”
Marcie laughed. “Such a nice, polite man. Pierce Norman could take lessons.”
Jeremy turned his head. “You are a very scary woman, Marcie.” He glanced back to Sarah and swept his hand toward the hall from which he had emerged.
“After you, Ms. Butler. First office on the left.”
Stink woke him; feline stealth kept him relaxed in his comfortable curl, while his eyes slitted open.
The alley was bathed in late morning sunshine; an unusual hour for rats.
But rat there was, belly down to the asphalt, creeping toward the trash bin outside the pub’s back door.
He had long ago made the pub his business, for which care he was handsomely paid in table scraps. Most usually, it was mice he killed and laid out on the stoop for the cook or the barkeep to find. Very rarely nowadays, a rat would forget itself – driven by hunger, or madness, or simple rat arrogance. Those, he dispatched most speedily. He loathed rats. Always had.
The creature skulking toward the trash bin was thin; he could smell its fear, woven through the rat-stink – one of the desperate, then. He gathered himself, stealthily, getting his feet under him, muscles coiling as cat senses judged the distance, timed the leap…held…and held…and –
A car horn sounded in the street outside. The rat froze.
He sprang, landing behind and over the creature, broke the neck with a snap and a shake, and dropped the corpse, lips curling away from the vile taste.
Behind him, a noise. Cat reflexes shot him straight into the air, body twisting ’round and landing solid on all four feet, facing –
Five large and well-fed rats, arranged in a semi-circle, fangs showing in pointed muzzles. Behind him was the dead rat and the trash bin, to one side, a brick wall. To the other side and before him were rats.
He flattened himself to the asphalt and growled.
. . .to be continued