The cat called himself Alex.
Alex was a calico, a feline patchwork of white, gray, and reddish brown, the runt of his litter and still undersized though fully grown. Dark stripes on his face hinted at tabby ancestry, but his tail was snow white at the tip.
A liberal feeding from John (his human) last night had set Alex’s bowels to tightening well before the regular time. He darted from shadow to shadow, down silent city streets, searching for a place to relieve himself. Then he spied it, two storeys up, adjacent to an alley and easily accessed by a rusted fire escape—an oasis of loose dirt in a concrete desert: a windowsill flower box. His belly rumbled relief, then cramped with guilt—he really should be saving his scat for John. But Alex was good about his litter habits. John could afford to lose out on one quick, fecal pinch. Just enough to loosen the tummy knot.
The little calico bounded up the fire escape’s steel stairs, mounted the second storey railing, then hopped onto the windowsill. He froze in place, his eyes wide and amazed, the gray and red fur rising on his hackles and along his spine. A solitary green sprout clawed out of the flower box’s dry soil, spreading one broad leaf at the end of a bent and anemic stalk. When had Alex ever seen anything green and growing in the city?
He inhaled, flaring his nostrils, swirling a most irresistible scent through his nasal passages. He closed his eyes and fluttered open his lips, drawing a phlegming breath into his mouth to be tasted, a gesture for sexually mature cats (and the first time Alex had ever felt the compulsion). A saliva-slippery tongue pressed the scent molecules against the roof of his mouth, into the Jacobsen’s organ, stimulating a chemical and hormonal reaction that swelled Alex’s heart and zapped a charge into his loins. He raised an eager nose to sniff for more, but there was only the city’s stagnant odor: the dusty stench of things dead, past rotten and beginning to crumble in desiccation. Everyday smells, nothing to arouse the senses.
But around this flower box, the scent of another cat, a female—a queen. Nothing territorial, no threat here, nor was she in heat. But there was something both disturbing and enticing in her musk, a tainted-fragrance blend of desperation and promise that awoke deep within Alex strange yearnings.
The little cat scanned the street both ways, the irises of his eyes round and black, his ears up, the white tip of his tail twitching. The glow of imminent dawn reddened what little sky was visible between towering husks of office buildings to the east. To the west, darkness leached color to a lifeless gray, the ocean visible eight blocks distant, its shades of perpetual night blending into brooding cloud cover.
Nothing stirred. Only the barest breezes blew.
Alex stepped into the flower box, pressed a pink nose against the green sprout, purred at the velvet texture of the single oxygen-producing leaf. He was moved to lick the leaf, his eyes easing closed while his mind snapped open to a sudden cascade of waking dreams, genetic memories of lush jungle, of swaying savannah fields, of rushing streams coursing vibrant torrents under skies as fresh and bright as hope. . . .
A low synthetic rumble yanked Alex from sunlit dreams. He blinked through the murky haze to see a gas-powered vehicle—one of few that still prowled desolate streets—resolve itself into detail as it rolled toward him. Alex crouched stock-still in the flower box, the white of his belly concealed, his ears flat, his eyelids squeezed to slits, his tail curled in tight to his lean body. The machine idled to a stop directly below.
The cargo bed of the truck—a 4X4 with oversized tires—had been fitted with bucket seats and rack-mounted searchlights. Two men stood from the seats to shine bright beams down the alleyways opening on either side of the street.
Alex knew he should bolt, make a quick escape through a shattered window into a building. But no. . . .
Instinct ruffled the fur along his back, held him immobile, a captive of his heightened senses. The city’s silence roared in his ears, muffled only by the engine chug-chug-chug of the 4X4. His nose wafted a sudden, soundless mayhem—the humans below reeked of carbon monoxide and body stink thinly masked by soap and deodorant, of sweat and breath and flatulence, summoning a taste like a worm-glutted after-belch. But there was another smell, a magical musk-fragrance, growing stronger now, fresher.
She was coming. She who had blessed this flower box with her scent and her scat. The she-cat queen of queens.
Alex crouched, bowels forgotten, fur rippling anticipation, sniffing, watching, waiting. . . .
Gainer Washington gazed down the searchlight’s beam. The skinny young black man with the big Afro played the concentrated light up and down the alleyway, peering into shifting shadows. “Motherfuck. . . we checked all our traps, I’m sure of it. Caught nothin’ but dust. Someone says they seen a weed growing around here, so Rudy says we gotta keep looking when there ain’t shit to look for. Fuck this. I’d rather be sleeping!” He switched off his searchlight and slumped into a bucket seat. Walkman headphones blasting Doctor Dre hung around Gainer’s neck; he padded his ears with them, reclined his chair, closed his eyes and crossed his hands behind his head to bop to the beat.
Waylon Bukiss manned the other searchlight. Waylon looked down from his six-foot-six height at Gainer, was struck again by the gleaming sable sheen of Gainer’s blue-black skin. With eyes adjusted to searchlight-beam brightness, the only facial detail Waylon could make out was Gainer’s teeth: big and square as a mule’s, chattering away in an oversized mouth mumble-rhyming lyrics that made as much sense to Waylon as any donkey’s braying.
Gainer’s eyes—yellow in the whites, like his teeth—snapped open to glare directly into Waylon’s Aryan blue. Waylon glanced away. Gainer yanked the headphones from his head, reached a finger to poke Waylon in a meaty buttock, saying, “Motherfucker. . . there you go again, always staring at me. Whassup?”
“Nothing. I was just listening to your music.”
“Bullshit! Now you go ahead and tell me what you find so fascinating about me.”
Blond-haired and white as a Republican, Waylon said, “I never seen too many. . . too many Afro-American people before, at least none as dark as you.”
Gainer chortled disbelief. “Are you serious? You ain’t never seen a purebred nigger?”
“Uh. . . no. Not up close anyway. . . . I never traveled much.”
Gainer pondered this, then asked, “So tell me. . . what nigger-free planet did you live on before all the germ shit happened?”
“Spent all my life working with my father on our turkey farm, second biggest in the state. Took it over when he died four years ago.”
“Well, gobble-gobble. . . . You showed up with that group come in a few days ago, that right?”
Gainer called into the 4X4’s cab: “Hey, Calvin. . . that bunch that just come in, confirmed Shit-eaters, right?”
Bald-headed, fiftyish, and Caucasian under layers of dirt, oil, and grease, Calvin Maynard grunted an affirmative from behind the steering wheel, saying just loud enough to be heard through the open rear window, “We’re all Shit-eaters.”
Gainer shook his head. “That ain’t what I hear.”
Calvin shut off the truck’s rumbly engine, then stepped into the suddenly silent street, vice grips and pliers in callused hand, saying, “Don’t listen to what you hear. Most people are full of crap.” He looked at Waylon, rolling eyes Gainer couldn’t see from his vantage point. “Clutch cable’s slipped a bit again. Gonna tighten it quick. Don’t leave your lights on for too long or you’re gonna kill the battery.” He disappeared beneath the vehicle.
Gainer said to Waylon, “So you’re a Shit-eater. . .?”
Waylon weighed his words before replying. “There’s no shame in a person doing what they got to do to stay alive.”
Gainer grinned and slapped his knee. “Ha-ha! Don’t you know it ain’t good manners to talk about it, let alone openly admit eating it? Ha! You honky shit-eating motherfucker!”
Waylon’s cheeks reddened. “There’s no need to call me names.”
“Ain’t callin’ you names! Simply stating facts!”
“Those aren’t facts. I’m no. . .‘motherfucker’. My mother died when I was just a baby.”
“You got sisters? Cousins?”
“Only child. Never met any of my cousins.”
“Well then, you honky, shit-eating turkey-fucker!”
Waylon whirled the searchlight on its mount, blazing into Gainer’s face its super-bright halogen glare. The black man recoiled, cursing and shielding his eyes. Waylon snapped off the light, then reached a long, lean arm hardened by years of farm toil to seize Gainer by the jacket collar, yanking him from his seat and face to face.
With white nose flattened against broad black, Waylon growled, “Despite the hell I’ve been through. . . despite the hell we’ve all been through. . . I’ve never had cause to strike a man before. At least not a man I called ‘friend’.”
Gainer cringed and swore and pounded mosquito fists against the sides of Waylon’s head. The big farmer wrapped his other hand around the back of Gainer’s neck and squeezed, spitting, “Stop it! Stop it or I’ll snap your scrawny neck!”
Gainer went limp, raised his palms in surrender, squeaking, “Okay. . . okay! This nigger knows when to shut up!”
Waylon dropped him into his seat.
From under the truck, Calvin called, “What’s going on up there?”
Gainer grimaced, massaging his neck. “Nothing! We’re fine, just fine!” He glared up at Waylon. “Sumbitch. . . strong mother—. . . . So what makes you think I’d wanna be your friend?”
As he settled into his seat across from Gainer, anger lines creasing the corners of Waylon’s eyes smoothed somber and thoughtful. “Because we can’t afford to be enemies.”
Gainer shook his head. “A honky turkey farmer for a friend. . .?”
“That’s better than a honky turkey farmer for an enemy.”
Gainer considered this. “I s’pose I can’t be too particular about the company I keep. ’Cept for Terrance, I’m the only nigger left that I know of! I guess that makes me and Terrance kind of special, don’t it?”
Waylon regarded him. “Terrance—he’s the other. . . the other negro man, the guy heading the Park Council, right?”
Gainer nodded. “Yeah, but he’s more brown than black. Not like me. I bleed straight back to Africa, as nigger as a nigger can get!”
Waylon frowned. “Why do you keep saying that word?”
“ ‘Nigger.’ ”
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a nigger callin’ himself nigger.”
“Because there ain’t. Niggers do it all the time.”
“Well, Terrance ain’t exactly a nigger’s nigger. More like a quadroon—milk chocolate rather than molasses. You have to understand. . . Terrance was born with a silver spoon stuck so deep up his ass it come out of his mouth filled with peppermint flavored shit. Before the world up and died he was into politics, worked for a senator or somethin’. If it wasn’t for our present circumstances I might have social issues with the man. But now I say hands up for the brother!”
The two men regarded each other. Then Waylon held out the biggest, whitest hand Gainer had ever seen.
Gainer looked at it, saying, “You expect me to shake that?”
“We might never be brothers, but we gotta be friends.”
Gainer considered this. He held up his own lean, dark hand, spread the fingers and rotated it so Waylon could appreciate it from all angles. “Lookee here: this nigger’s hand is fine and delicate, made for gentle loving—not that that’s been happening a whole lot. . . don’t you go squeezin’ too hard now, big boy!”
Gainer took Waylon’s hand and shook, marveling at a rock-solid grip, then snatched his hand away, saying, “Did you get so big from eating turkey all your life?”
“My father was even taller than me.”
“I ate turkey once. Thanksgiving, down at the Mustard Seed before it closed down. Had mashed potatoes and gravy. . . turnips. . . Brussels sprouts. . . cranberry sauce. . . .” Gainer smacked his lips at the memory. “That was fine eatin’! Fine. . . .” He regarded Waylon. “You ate turkey every day?”
“Whenever I wanted it.”
“I saw a live turkey once—it was butt ugly, scary ugly, ugliest bird I ever seen. Is a turkey a bird? Chickens are birds, not so ugly as turkeys but turkeys taste better. Did you eat your everyday turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and all the good stuff?”
Waylon nodded. “We even grew our own vegetables. Fresh vegetables every day.”
Gainer frowned. “Couldn’t grow nothing but niggers where I lived. Does Terrance know you’re a farmer?”
Waylon shrugged. “I’ve never talked to him.”
“Are you kidding? Ain’t you been down to the Garden, west end of the Park down nearest the ocean? We planted down there and it’s growing!”
Waylon raised an eyebrow. “How are you managing to do that? The plague killed the plants right along with all the animals and people.”
“Hey, we ain’t dead. Maybe what’s workin’ for us is workin’ for the Garden, too. And it’s workin’! That’s all that matters. Pretty soon we’ll have fresh carrots and potatoes, Brussels sprouts. . . Brussels sprouts is nasty, mind you. . . .”
Calvin appeared in the street beside them, wiping his hands on a rag he pulled from a coverall pocket. “Clutch cable’s done. Let’s give this up and head on back to the Park.”
Gainer saluted. “Sounds fine, boss, sounds just fine.”
Calvin clambered in behind the steering wheel. Gainer hunched in his seat, his attention focused on his Walkman. He gave it a shake, saying, “Batteries are going dead again. Rechargeables ain’t worth shit. I remember Duracell with their drum-banging bunny: They kept goin’ and goin’. . . .”
“That was Energizer,” Waylon said.
“Energizer batteries, not Duracell.”
Like thunder from a near-striking lightning bolt, a plaintive “Meow!” sounded behind Gainer. He shot to attention, whirled in his seat to look over the side of the pickup, then stared in open-mouthed stupefaction, jabbing a frantic finger groundward.
At that moment, Calvin fired up the big truck’s engine. Waylon saw a cream-colored cat sprint away from a misfiring exhaust belch, into the alleyway across the street where it stopped to look over its shoulder at the truckful of men.
Choking for breath and with bugged eyes fixed on the cat, Gainer pounded on the cab’s rear window. Calvin turned in his seat, glanced at a gawping Gainer and then looked a question at Waylon.
Waylon was just about to speak when Gainer sucked enough breath to shriek, “A cat! A god-damn Siamese cat!”
Calvin gaped at him for a moment, followed the trajectory of Gainer’s straining pointer finger, then yanked the shifter into reverse and squealed a tight quarter turn backwards. The 4X4’s headlights were reflected in startled feline eyes that blinked from the mouth of the alleyway and then sped away down the alley.
Gainer stood and yelled, “After him!”
Calvin stomped the clutch (the cable slipped again), ground the shifter into first and the 4X4 lurched forward, tumbling Gainer into Waylon’s lap. Waylon held tight to the arm-flailing black man, keeping him from bouncing out of his lap and into the street. The alleyway echoed Gainer’s hoots and hollers as garbage cans and other city flotsam cut a dirty wake behind the roaring 4X4.
Alex had seen her creep out of the alleyway. Despite jutting hipbones and xylophone ribs, she cut the most exquisite profile. Her face was fine and aristocratic, her fur tawny but dark at the tips of her ears and the ends of her long legs and tail. One sniff told Alex it was she who had visited this flower box. She meowed and ears reinforced the royal conclusions of Alex’s eyes and nose. Here she was, the queen of queens!—a she-cat to raise the night howl of any tom’s undying devotion.
Alex opened his mouth to yowl a greeting, to get her attention. He must peer into her almond-shaped eyes, she into his, to make the feline connection that would allow him to communicate to her the danger she had unwittingly courted. But the humans had sparked to fume-spewing life their big machine, startling her into motion.
Yes, run! She must run!
But she stopped just inside the alleyway, still clutching at flawed-crystal hopes that shattered shards of fear all around her as the humans screamed and hollered and propelled their half ton of mechanical wizardry at her. She scooted away.
Alex leaped onto the fire escape then executed a controlled plummet streetward that had claws and footpads scrape the barest purchase from fire escape steel. He sped like the she-cat’s forgotten shadow across the road and into the alleyway, tailing the 4X4. Roiling dirt and dust swallowed him as he kept pace with the humans in their tire-screeching machine. The alley turned a tight corner, and there, just ahead, red tail lights winked bright. The humans jumped from their vehicle to run up concrete stairs to a loading dock.
Alex trotted to a stop behind a garbage dumpster, his eyes wide, bright, and fixed on a slash of darkness beneath a barely open garage-style door on the loading dock. The three humans clustered around this door, hunkered their heads down low to peer inside.
Panting with excitement, Gainer called into the warehouse darkness, “Here, Kitty! Come on, Kitty, Kitty. . . sumnabitch I saw it, I tell you, I saw it up close and personal! A god-damn Siamese cat! A god-damn Siamese! Sweet Jesus we gotta call this in, we can’t let this one get away. . . .”
Gainer jumped off the loading dock and ran to the 4X4. A radio salvaged from a Checker cab was mounted under the dash. He reached through the driver’s window to seize the handset, fumbling in his haste, dropping it on the seat. He grabbed it and yanked it to the limit of its cord out the window and shouted, “Park Base! Park Base! It’s Gainer Washington here. Come on now, motherfuckers! Someone’s gotta be there! Come on now, let’s hear from you! We got us one motherfuck of a cat, a god-damn Siamese cat! Where the fuck are you? Wake up, motherfuckers!”
Waylon had come over; he said, “You press the button to transmit, but then you got to let the button go to receive.”
Gainer stared at his gray-knuckled fist squeezing the handset. With his other hand, he pried the handset from his excitement-palsied grip. Once the button was released, static crackled from inside the 4X4’s cab: “—copy that? Are you there? Yo, Gainer!”
Gainer paced back and forth, nodding at the handset. “Yes, I am here, I am here, motherfucker!”
The radio crackled. “Did you say you had a Siamese cat?”
Gainer danced on his tiptoes. “You bet your ass! We got ourselves a genuine Siamese, the sweetest little slope-eyed puss you ever seen!”
A stretch of dead air and static while Gainer continued pacing, then a growly sleep-voice came over the radio: “This is Terrance. Gord says you’ve found a Siamese. Are you sure it’s a Siamese?”
Gainer laughed into the handset. “You never seen such a Siamese! She even meowed in Japanese!”
“Is this Gainer? Put Calvin on.”
Calvin had been leaning against the truck. He took the handset from Gainer, then confirmed that they had seen a cat that was probably a Siamese. Terrance was dubious but asked for their location. Calvin gave him directions.
Terrance said, “Hold tight to the cat, but don’t make a move! We’ll be right out.”
Calvin closed with “10-4,” then made to toss the handset into the truck.
Gainer said, “You better tell him we don’t actually got the cat yet.”
Calvin offered the handset. “You called him. You tell him.”
The black man hesitated, frowning, then took the handset and lifted it to his mouth. “Uh. . . Park Base. . . it’s not like we actually got the cat. But we know where it is. We got it trapped in this warehouse.”
He listened for a response. Radio static crackled.
Gainer frowned a moment longer, then grinned mule-like again; he tossed the handset onto the truck’s seat, then shuffled into a Michael Jackson moonwalk, chanting, “We got pussy! We got pussy! We got the sweetest slanty-eyed pussy!”
He danced up to Waylon, saying, “You understand what we got here, don’t you?”
“We got a cat.”
Gainer glanced over at Calvin and laughed, sharing a joke with Calvin that only made the grease-stained man frown.
Waylon asked, “So what’s the big deal about this particular cat?”
Gainer grinned. “You’d love to know that, big boy. Oh yes, you’d love to know that!” He bounced up the stairs to the loading dock and lay on his belly to call into the warehouse darkness. “Come to papa, little pussy! Meow, meow, meow! You’re lookin’ pretty lean. We got worms, we got meat, we’ll give you anything you want to eat! Meow, meow, meow!”
Alex kept to the shadows behind the dumpster. His twitching nose told him there was more to be discovered, more to be known about the queen. She was mystery. And she wasn’t alone. But that only made her more vulnerable.
While these humans might not intentionally harm her, Alex knew they posed a viable threat. His fur riffled as he listened to the skinny black man calling to the queen; he was trying to win her confidence. His words were contrived to foster trust, but only the most gullible of felines would have believed them. Human words could not be trusted unless their veracity was confirmed by even the most fleeting glimpse into human eyes, eyes that cannot lie.
These humans were from the Park. They would ply the queen with soft phrases and gentle caresses, but Alex could not be sure of her treatment once they had her securely in their clutches. Terrible things had happened to Park cats.
He cocked an ear behind him. More humans were coming; he could hear their machine. He stole closer to a brick wall, crept between dumpster and building, scanning his near environs, planning his escape route. His heart fluttered a moment of panic when he realized he was boxed in here. All the buildings crowding this dead-end alleyway had no open doorways, no windows.
The only way out was back the way he had come. And that way was now blocked.
Gainer stood on the loading dock and pointed down the alleyway. “Here they come!”
Headlight beams brightened the alley down at the turn. A military-style Hummer rumbled into view, slowing just enough so that a man dressed in tan army fatigues could jump out, rifle in hand, to take a sentry position. The Hummer sped toward Gainer, Calvin, and Waylon, screeching to a halt behind the 4X4.
Two men stepped from the Hummer, one from either side. The driver was a tall man with caramel-toned skin and tightly curled jet-black hair. His eyes were green, his nose aquiline, a face more Roman than African. Lack of sleep hung in loose hammocks below his eyes. He pulled a long overcoat tight against the early morning chill and walked with a nod toward Gainer.
Jumping down from the loading dock, Gainer raised a fist in greeting, “Yo, Terrance!”
The Hummer’s passenger wore tan camouflage. He was broad-shouldered and square-jawed, his hair crew cut, a beard and mustache just starting to lay claim to the territory above his neck. His eyes were cold and humorless. He held tight to a vintage Thompson submachine gun while he scowled around.
Gainer’s tone was serious when he addressed the military man: “G’mornin’, Craig.”
Frowning, Craig regarded Gainer, then Calvin, then (for longer than the previous two) Waylon. He turned back to Gainer. “So where is it?”
Gainer pointed at the loading dock. “Right inside, just waiting for us!”
“You mean you haven’t caught it?”
Gainer tossed up his hands. “Tried to tell you on the radio!”
Craig snorted. “But you’re saying it’s a Siamese?”
Craig peered into the half-foot crack of darkness under the warehouse door. He glanced at a paint-peeled sign hanging on the wall, then reached inside his jacket to a radio strapped to a shoulder holster. “Barry, you and Drake take a post across the street from a red brick three-storey warehouse. Name on the front is ‘Woodrow’ or maybe ‘Woodson’. You copy?”
The radio crackled. “Copy that. Can see it from here. Looks like it’s sealed up tight. Drake’s scouting the immediate neighborhood; I’ll get him to join me when he’s done.”
“Give me a shout if you see anything you don’t like.”
From inside the Hummer, a dog barked. Craig walked back to the vehicle. He reached inside the still-open passenger door to clatter a cage obscured to view by tinted windows. Canine whines and low growls preceded the appearance of two gloss-black Rottweilers that jumped to the ground to sniff and snort in the dust. Craig held tight to thick leads attached to studded collars around the dogs’ necks.
Alex cringed behind the dumpster, his tail frizzing to three times its size, but he could see that the big drooling animals were interested in only the queen’s scent. The two dogs whined and one howled, straining the leash toward the loading dock. Craig yanked the leashes hard enough to make the dogs choke. “Easy, Otto! Easy, Spike!”
Waylon asked, “Why do we need dogs?”
Craig regarded the big man. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
Gainer said to Terrance, “He’s a farmer! A real one. Grew everything from potatoes to turkeys!”
Terrance gave Waylon a head to foot inspection, nodding approval. “A farmer we can definitely use. Have you seen the Garden?”
Waylon shook his head. “Gainer’s told me about it.”
“Talk to me back at the Park—I might have a job for you.”
Craig held tight to his snuffling dogs and jerked his head at the loading dock door. “We need that opened.”
Calvin turned without a word to mount the steps. Gainer followed, then Waylon. The three men grasped the bottom edge of the door and heaved. It rose with a metallic shriek three feet, then screeched to a halt and refused to open any wider.
Gainer crouched down for a look inside, saying, “That’ll do it, but we need light.”
Calvin hopped down to start the 4X4 while Waylon followed to adjust the searchlights to shine inside the warehouse. Terrance pulled from a pocket inside his long coat a black flashlight. He switched it on, checking to see that it worked. Beside him, Craig cocked his head to his shoulder radio, then reached to it to ask, “Who is it?—Rudy? Damn it. . . anyone else?—Of course, of course. . . .”
All heads turned to see a small white Nissan rounding the corner down the alley. The sentry in position there tried to stop the vehicle with an outstretched hand, but the little car slowed only enough to nudge the gun-toting man who pounded on the hood while leaping aside. Terrance sighed, giving Craig a weary glance, then stood with hands in pockets to watch the Nissan approach.
Gainer whispered to Waylon, “It’s god-damn Rudy and Maria. They always got to be a part of everything.”
The Nissan edged in beside the Hummer. The doors on either side of the car popped open before it came to a full stop. A lean fortyish man, pillow-rumpled and longish hair receding to the top of his head, stepped from the Nissan’s driver’s seat. He pulled a down-filled jacket tight around his mid-section and zipped it up to the neck, a frown on his flushed face while he regarded Terrance. A tall brunette with a severe face stood from behind the passenger door. Two inches of gray roots capped her skull.
Terrance nodded a greeting. “Rudy. Maria. Nice to see you.”
The new arrivals stalked up to Terrance, demanding that he tell them why they had not been alerted. And why had Barry pointed a gun at them out in the street?
“Everywhere!” Maria said in a voice like pulling a rusty nail. “Guns! Guns! Guns!”
Rudy shook his sleepy-haired head. “I feel like I’m in a war zone; I just can’t get used to it.”
Maria’s eyes were as gray as her roots. “Why didn’t you wake us, Terrance? Gord said it was a Siamese!”
Craig had moved off to the side, Otto and Spike tugging at their tethers toward the insistent couple. Craig eased forward a step, close enough for the slobbery dogs to sniff Maria’s hand. She yelped at the wet touch and skipped aside. Craig pulled the two dogs back a fraction of an inch, saying, “Oh. . . I’m sorry, Maria.”
Maria shot sparks from her eyes and bared her teeth but Otto Whoofed! at her, startling her rebuke down her throat where she choked on it. Rudy patted her on the back, then stepped one tentative shoe between woman and canines, trying to be chivalrous but clearly terrified of the dogs. “G-God-d-damn it, Craig! There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t have d-done that!”
Maria swallowed, then demanded of Craig, “Where’s Garret?”
Craig patted Otto’s head. “You were briefed yesterday.”
Terrance reminded her, “Garret left yesterday morning with a patrol to finish collecting supplies from Gratham Base.”
Maria huffed and glared at Craig. “Well, he should take better control of his dogs—all of them.”
Craig jerked the leashes, making the two Rottweilers yelp. They retreated back to him, one on either side, sitting and whining and licking his fingertips.
Maria shook her head. “Aaaaahhh. . .! Guns and dogs and so much testosterone I could retch!”
Terrance said, “The rules of the game are changing, Maria. You’ve got to accept it. We must take measures to protect ourselves, to protect what we’ve worked so hard to build.”
“I can understand why we need some guns, but lately it’s been looking like Garret’s outfitting us for World War III!”
Terrance said, “One day soon we may have to defend what’s ours.”
Rudy raised open hands. “Alright, alright, we’ve been hearing too much of this kind of talk—let’s save it for Council. The pressing question is where is the Siamese?”
Gainer had been hanging back, watching and listening. Now he danced forward to exclaim, “I found it! Me! Or more like it found me. . . meowed right at me!” He pointed into the warehouse. “Its inside, waitin’ for us!”
“You’re sure it’s a Siamese?”
Gainer nodded and grinned.
Craig stepped forward. “Alright then. . . we’ve got work to do. You guys got nets in your truck?”
Gainer jogged to the 4X4 and pulled from the box two long-handled nets. “Come on, turkey-farmer! Time to round up the cattle! Yee-haw!”
Gainer bounded up the loading dock stairs in two strides. He would have dived under the door except Terrance called to him: “Gainer! Can you stifle the enthusiasm a little bit? Let’s make a plan.”
Gainer blinked at him. “Of course, of course. . . just excited, that’s all!”
Craig spoke into his radio, then said to the people standing in a half moon around him, “We’ll send two inside. Barry and Drake have the front covered—they say there’s no way out. We’ll spread out here in the alley. If they flush the cat, it’s coming out this way.” He gestured at Terrance. “Let’s set the big net across the doorway.”
Terrance nodded and jogged the ten feet to the Hummer. He reached into the cargo box to pull out a balled-up badminton net, groaning when he realized it was a tangled mess. Calvin walked over to help him untangle it. The two men tugged and pulled, making little progress.
Frowning within his five-day’s beard growth, Craig grunted at the delay, then knelt to unclip the leashes from the Rottweilers’ collars. Spike and Otto sat quivering on either side of him. Craig clucked his tongue, a barely audible signal that made the two suddenly baying animals rush toward Maria.
She screamed and cringed back into Rudy’s arms, both of them tumbling backwards to the ground. The two dogs leaped over them, then made straight for the loading dock to race up the stairs. Gainer shrank back from the snarling animals as they sped past him barking their way into the warehouse.
Maria screamed, “Damn it, Craig! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Craig shrugged. “Best way I know to flush out a cat.”
At that moment, Alex sprang from behind the dumpster, sped like lack of better judgment up the loading dock stairs, between Gainer’s knobby-kneed legs and into the warehouse.
Gainer exclaimed, “Motherfucker! Did you see that! Another one!”
Calvin said, “That was no Siamese.”
“Sure it was!”
Calvin shook his head. “Calico. Pretty cat, but nothing too special.”
Terrance groaned. “Was that the cat you saw, Gainer?”
Gainer gaped. “I. . . uh. . . I—”
Waylon interjected. “I saw the other one, too. Definitely a Siamese.”
Gainer grinned at Terrance. “Two cats. . . that’s even better, right? Even if that second one is nothin’ special. Still shits, I’ll bet. ‘Gotta love a cat that gives a shit.’ That’s the honest truth, right?”
Muttering under his breath, Terrance shook his head and then gestured at the net where it lay at his feet. “Let’s get this thing untangled. Siamese or calico, I guess we’ll catch what we can.”
Alex’s searchlight shadow stretched insanely long across the warehouse floor. The reek of the two dogs had his blood boiling fight or flight in his veins. His eyes took the barest moment to adjust to the warehouse’s murky confines, then he sprinted along the nearest wall, out of the light and making straight for a stack of wooden pallets. He ascended the ten feet to the top, then stood there panting, eyes and nostrils open wide.
He could see Otto and Spike, big and black and confused, racing around the warehouse floor, sniffing and barking. Alex leaped from one stack to another, gaining altitude as he made his way deeper into the big cubish building. He achieved the highest-most vantage point along the wall farthest from the loading dock and stood there unseen by the two dogs milling about below.
Suddenly, the Rottweilers froze in place near the middle of the huge floor-space, ears up and tuned to below Alex. He peered down to see her—the queen!—trotting floor-level flush to the wall toward him. She held in her mouth a small, squeaking form.
A kit! Her kit!
The queen skittered between two crates as Spike and Otto bounded barking like cannon fire toward her. The snarling beasts slammed into the crates, striving to thrust their heads between, snapping at each other in their savage determination to get at the queen and her young. Otto gave up trying to force his way between unyielding barriers and ran floor-sniffing back the way Alex had come, looking for another entrance into the maze of stacked inventory. Spike twisted and growled his head between two wooden crates at floor level below Alex.
Then the desperate beast began to howl: its thick collar had wedged in place between splintery containers. Spike snarled and jerked but could not pull free.
Alex saw the queen sneak out from between wall and crates, right next to the snared and frantic dog. She sped silently on her toes against the wall to disappear with a leap through a small office’s broken window thirty feet away. A head-stuck Spike clawed toenails into wood, shrill yelps peaking to panic as splinters pierced foot pads. Blood spattered the floor.
Otto had found a way into the crate labyrinth. Alex could hear him snuffling and whining against a narrow dead end that forced him to back his way out.
Just then the queen jumped from the office window, another squeaking form in her mouth. She trotted along, stopping for a moment to chew a better grip on her kit.
Alex saw the maze-roaming Rottweiler inch out from between crates and stop to give his big dangling balls a lick. The slurping dog’s eyes lit on the queen, shining blood-red as he lunged toward her, his paws pinwheeling for traction against the smooth concrete floor. Alex glanced back at the queen. Sanctuary among crates was mere feet away, but she had again dropped her young.
Alex yowled at her. She glanced up, startled, to lock panicked eyes on his.
“Hurry!” he screamed at her.
A floor-slipping Otto had gained forward momentum, his jowls drool-flapping a low, deadly growl. Alex realized in a heart-stopping moment that the queen could not see the dog racing toward her; he was obscured behind the struggling form of his head-wedged partner. But she had the kit in her mouth again, was dragging it along the floor.
The speeding Rottweiler roared as he gathered himself to leapfrog over his whining twin. The queen heard and flinched against sudden comprehension of imminent danger, dropping her young and freezing in place against the wall.
Without thinking, Alex dove from his high perch, raw instinct timing his twenty foot plunge so that he landed full on jumping Otto’s head. Adrenalin-pumped cat-claws raked the dog, tore into folds of skin behind an ear, shredded a frothing jowl, scratched a lucky foothold against the leather collar. And punctured and yanked from its socket one goo-spurting Rottweiler eyeball.
The queen braced herself for a body-sized bite that never came. The weight and stink of the dog crashed into the wall above and beside her, but Otto spun away, frenziedly snapping and snarling. She saw a bundle of frazzed fur and claw spring from the dog’s head, cartwheel yowling to land on its feet beside her.
Alex blinked stunned but gleaming eyes at her. “Run!”
The queen grabbed her kit, and the two cats disappeared between crate and wall while an Alex-ravaged Otto agonized a popped and dangling eyeball, howls peaking a warehouse-reverb crescendo.
Outside, Gainer gaped at the people crowding the loading dock. “Motherfucker! Do you hear that?”
Terrance spat. “Oh, Christ, they’re killing them!”
Calvin ran a hand over his smooth head. “The question is, who’s killing who?”
Craig snarled, snatched the flashlight from Terrance, then shoved Gainer aside to crawl under the door, flashlight and Tommy gun probing ahead of him.
Terrance looked at Maria and Rudy. “Do we really want him alone in there?”
All three council members hesitated only a moment before crawling into the warehouse murk.
Gainer tossed down his net and scrambled in right behind them, saying, “We’ll get ’em! Don’t worry none, guys! We’ll get ’em!”
A moment later, Gainer’s wide, blinking eyes peeped out at Waylon. “Come on, farmer! You’ll miss out on all the fun!”
Wondering (and not for the last time) what he had gotten himself into, Waylon crawled after Gainer.
Inside the warehouse, Terrance, Rudy, Maria, and Gainer stood side by side, eyes blinking against the searchlight-slashed blackout while Rottweiler yelps reverberated from who knows where. Waylon got to his feet beside Gainer. Craig had jogged deep into the warehouse, his flashlight bouncing a light-ball along a wall fifty yards distant and off to the right, into some corner darkness untouched by searchlights. The flashlight beam lit upon two furious, snarling shadows. Craig ran toward them.
Terrance yelled, “Don’t you shoot anything, Craig!”
He, Rudy, and Maria set off at a run. Waylon and Gainer followed.
When Craig reached his dogs, he trained his flashlight on Otto’s ooze-streaming face. The pain-frenzied dog with the bouncing eyeball turned to snap at him. Craig lurched back with a curse. Then he shone his light on the tail end of the other Rottweiler. Spike was head-lodged and thrashing; his tail stump stood erect, feces seeping from a sweaty anus that glared distress. The animal’s thick torso pumped and whined.
Terrance, Rudy, and Maria ran up, Waylon and Gainer close behind. Maria gagged at the flashlight spectacle of dog shit and blood. Craig shoved the flashlight into Terrance’s hand, then pressed his shoulder against one of the crates trapping his dog. “God-damn it, Gainer! Give me a hand here. . . .”
The skinny black man ran over to wrap his fingers around the crate’s edge and pull. It did not budge. Gainer called to Waylon. The big farmer fastened a grip on the wooden box, and three men strained together to no result.
Terrance said, “Don’t bother. There’s a half-dozen full pallets stacked on top of that one. He shone the flashlight around. “Over there!”
He’d found a pallet jack. Craig hastened to it, wrapped unfamiliar hands around the handle, pulled and swore venomously when the leading wheels turned an abrupt ninety degrees, grinding against the floor.
Gainer grabbed the jack’s handle. “Let me! I worked with these lots’a times!”
He expertly maneuvered the jack into position, the pushed it under the skid hosting one of the offending crates. He pumped on the handle, hydraulics raising the skid and those stacked on top. Spike screeched as wood shards pierced his neck.
“Fuck!” screamed Craig.
Gainer tugged the stack to the side and the Rottweiler shot free, stumbling back with a yelp onto its wet-shitty haunches. The humans gaped when the dog launched with no hesitation at all at the now wider space between crates. This time Spike got head and shoulders wedged in place. Craig snatched the pallet jack’s handle from Gainer’s hands and heaved the stack of crates to one side. The six-crate tower swayed.
Terrance yelled, “Look out!” pushing aside Rudy and Maria.
The crate stack toppled. A second later a splinter-shrapnel Ka-Boom! erupted Styrofoam and heavy machine parts clanging across the floor.
Now Spike had an open path to his goal. The big dog lunged, his throaty triumph-growl alerting his half-blind partner. Otto had been sitting back on his haunches, licking his penis to soothe the agony of his eye. Suddenly oblivious to personal injury, Otto charged after his brother, howling and disappearing among pallets and crates, ignoring Terrance’s command to “Heel! Heel! Heel!”
Alex huddled shivering in the darkness next to the queen. Three mewling kits lay on the floor’s concrete-cold beneath the mother cat. She mewed distress and purred reassurance, the resulting tones the voice of chaos—and it was chaos that hungered for the kittens, massive and black, growl-yelping so close by that the head-stuck Rottweiler’s fetid breath sickened the dusty atmosphere.
Alex forced himself to calm down. He nipped at the queen’s shoulder, was given the barest eye-blink from her. It was enough—in the moment when eyes met, feline minds touched, and Alex revealed the grim facts: they would die if they stayed here, she and he and the kits, torn to pieces by the two dogs. Her slanting eyes flashed her response: if she had to die to protect her kits, she would; he did not have to stay, but she would never leave her young to the slavering jaws of bloodthirsty beasts.
Alex inched as close as he dared to the furious, head-wedged dog. He even clawed a swipe at Spike’s frothing face, thrilling to a power rush when blood welled on the dog’s shiny nose. Then Alex heard the humans. He scampered upward to see them assembling below. He watched them manipulate a machine into place directly below him and just beside the trapped and wailing dog. The crate stack Alex stood on lurched up. He realized in a horrific second that these humans would clear the way to the queen for their blood-lusting dogs. He sped down to floor level as the crates jerked to the side, landing in a panicked stagger next to the queen, who hissed at him.
Alex screamed of imminent peril. But the queen was beyond caring—she had resigned herself to death. The Rottweiler’s devil-dog face was barking and snapping closer now, spraying the cats in hot spittle. Barely holding the canine at bay, the crate stack cantered to one side, then fell with a crash. Alex leapt up and out of the way when Spike dove with a snarl into the narrow space. The little cat landed atop a cardboard box to see the queen claw-dancing on the back of a frenzied, chawing Spike.
Then Otto forced his way into the narrow confines, under the scrotum and belly of his brother, single eye and dripping snout finding the tiny, mewling balls of fur on the floor. In the time it takes to draw breath to scream, Otto had chewed the kits into fluffy mash. The half-blind, all-crazed dog snapped and gnawed at hot, innocent blood while its back-riding twin twisted and thrashed in an effort to clamp jaws around the queen.
She kept just clear of Spike’s gnashing teeth, finally clambering onto the box next to Alex. She hissed again at the little calico, panicked confusion painting all things in the fiery colors of threat.
Spike had front paws on the box. The two cats backed away, Alex hopping up and out of harm’s way on to an adjacent crate. The queen stood her ground before the roaring dog, frozen in a back-arching hiss-rictus as the Rottweiler strove to climb onto the box. The big beast pressed back paws against its kitten-munching brother and lunged. Alex defied his life-honed skills at self-preservation to again dive at a fang bristling Rottweiler head. He landed with belly on spike’s flat forehead, front claws and teeth digging and chewing a grip on the animal’s muscular shoulders, back legs kicking at his face. The point of one needle claw hooked into a tender nostril and tore deeply. Spike shrank back yelping, sliding down behind Otto to howl and snap at his brother’s haunches.
Alex sprang free of this hellish bucking bronc to land next to the queen. She shivered in hissing terror, then crouched down with ears flat, her eyes black slits of shock and anguish. Alex bounded over top of her, up a foot to another crate, then reached down with a forepaw to bat her in the head. She shrank away from the blow, almost lost to despair. He swiped again, yowling the primitive imperative all animals recognize as the call to live, to breathe, to preserve the life spark no matter what the cost. Ears pressed tight against her head, she turned to gaze dully up at him.
“Come on!” he blinked at her. “Your young are dead. You can do nothing for them, nothing except live to have more young!”
She heaved a shuddering breath, glanced down at the dark writhing and whining forms slurping through the remains of her kits. She yowled once, shrill and cutting and startling the two dogs into momentary stillness. She yowled again, a blessing for her deceased kits and a curse for painful death on their murderers.
Then she jumped up beside Alex. Spike renewed his maniacal efforts to climb onto the box. But the cats were quickly twenty feet above the floor, the queen blindly following Alex.
Craig was knocked to his knees when Otto plowed through him to get where Spike had already snarled his way among crates and kittens. The military man grinned a cruel slash to hear the sounds of slaughter.
Maria screamed, “Stop them! You’ve got to stop them!”
Gainer had pulled the pallet jack free of the skid. With Waylon’s help, he kicked a path through the jumble of broken pallets and scattered parts, then positioned the jack under another crate behind which Spike and Otto were celebrating with wet, throaty growls. A sudden feline yowl stabbed the two dogs into silence. Another yowl and the dogs howled a frustrated dissonance in response.
Gainer slammed the jack into place and pumped. The crates rose and he leaned back to pull, in his excitement wrapping his fingers around the jack’s hydraulic release. The stack Whamped to the floor and Gainer fell backwards (“Motherfucker!”) onto his ass. Maria screamed at him to hurry up, slapping at his Afro as he clambered to his feet to repeat the procedure. This time, with Waylon reaching to balance the load, he eased the crates out of place to reveal the hindquarters of the two writhing Rottweilers.
Craig whistled a piercing tone between tongue and the roof of his mouth. Spike and Otto immediately struggled free of their confines to sit dutifully, licking their chops, on either side of him. Both dogs were face-bloodied and drooling pinkish foam, but their ears were perky and three eyes gleamed canine pride of accomplishment.
Maria shrieked at the dogs’ grinning master: “Why didn’t you do that earlier?”
Craig stared at her. “Didn’t think of it.”
Maria gaped in open-mouthed shock. “You. . . you didn’t think of it? Are you fucking crazy?”
She dove at Craig, fingers contorted to claws. Rudy just managed to grab the hem of her jacket and yank her back. Growling, the Rottweilers glared at her.
Terrance shone the flashlight to see that Craig had a solid grip on the two dogs’ collars, then stood between Craig and Maria, gesturing to Rudy to take Maria away from the sight of blood, rended fur, and entrails spilling from between crates. Rudy hustled her sobbing along the wall toward the warehouse’s office.
Terrance crouched to shine the flashlight on the swatches of rusty-looking fur stuck to the floor among the crates; then he stood to confront Craig: “I can’t believe it. . . there’s barely even anything left. Damn it, Craig. . . .”
“Hey, dogs will be dogs.” Craig had hunkered down to let the two bloody animals kiss his face and mouth. “It couldn’t really be a Siamese anyway. What are the odds?”
Waylon took Terrance’s flashlight and reached to grab a fistful of the bloody kitten mess. He grunted upon inspecting what he held. “Well now. . . .”
Terrance looked at him. “What?”
Using the flashlight, Waylon highlighted two small feline heads laying in the palm of his hand. He shone the flashlight between crates again and said, “There’s another one.”
He passed kitten heads to Gainer who accepted them before realizing what he was doing; the skinny black man grimaced at the violence of what he held, but he felt pity for the kittens and didn’t toss their heads away.
Waylon pulled out another tiny feline head, a body—more or less intact—attached to it. “Kittens,” he said. “A nest of kittens.”
Terrance groaned. “Are they Siamese?”
“Hard to tell. . . .”
Terrance glared at Craig. “They better not be Siamese, Craig. If they are. . . .”
Forty feet away, Rudy leaned against a wall and held Maria while she cried. The rising sun had finally cast rays over city rooftops, finding the row of dirty windows lining the top of the warehouse. Shadows lifted inside the building, showing a huge storage facility in disarray. Plague survivors had plundered whatever they could use, digging open boxes and spilling crates to the floor. To the immediate right of Rudy, the main floor office receiving area had been broken open, the door-window smashed.
Maria continued to sob.
Rudy asked, “Are you going to be okay?”
She leaned away from his embrace to wipe her eyes and cheeks; she sighed and said, “I just can’t believe it. . . I can’t believe that fucking Craig—”
She stopped, attuned to a tiny sound that rang into her stormy spirit like a breeze-tinkled wind chime.
Back at the bloody mess, Terrance took the flashlight from Waylon to shine on the kitten heads Gainer held, wincing and saying, “I think they’ve got the right color for Siamese. Siamese don’t darken at their points until they get older. Anything else in there?”
His hand already sticky and stained, Waylon reached between crates to sweep out the remaining gore, a scattering of furry pulp with mismatched legs. The dogs lunged for what they took as a juicy offering, but Craig restrained them.
Terrance said to Craig, “Would you please just get them the hell out of here?”
Craig clucked his tongue. Spike and Otto followed dutifully as he led them toward the loading dock door, Otto whining and occasionally giving his eye-dangling head a shake.
Terrance frowned at what Waylon and Gainer held. “Is that all there is then?”
He shone the flashlight among the crates but couldn’t see much. Waylon used the pallet jack to make room for a closer examination. “Nothing but blood and guts. I count three heads, all kittens.”
Terrance asked Gainer, “The cat you saw, was it a kitten?”
Gainer shook his head. “Weren’t no kitten. Was a cat, a Siamese cat, that’s all I can say for sure.”
Terrance looked around the warehouse. “So where’s the mother?”
A short jog away, the receiving office door opened and Maria stepped out cradling a small cloth bundle in her arms. Rudy hurried past her to Terrance to ask, “Where’s the dogs?”
“Craig took them out. What have you got there?”
Maria walked up and then everyone heard it, the faintest Mew. . . .
She grinned a sob. “Oh, Rudy, it is alright!”
Terrance lifted a flap of the cloth she held and shone the flashlight, exclaiming, “Son of a bitch. . . now that looks like a Siamese! Are there any more in there?”
Rudy shook his head. “There was, but the mom must have been moving them when the dogs busted in. Mother cats will do that when they think their kittens are in danger.”
Maria said, “She was right. . . they were.” The kitten mewed again and tears coursed down her cheeks. “We’ve got to get back to the Park. We’ve got to get back to the Park now, Rudy! Now, dammit! Now!”
She rushed across the floor with her precious bundle, telling Rudy as he jogged beside her, “If those god damn dogs are out there, I want you to get a gun and shoot them. You understand me? I want you to kill the fuckers, and fucking Craig too if you want.”
Gainer gently placed on a nearby crate the kitten heads. Waylon lay his dead kitten beside it while Terrance provided light. The three men stared at the grim tableaux.
Gainer said, “Don’t seem right at all. They was just little kittens.”
Terrance sighed. “Couldn’t be more than a few days old. Well. . . let’s get out of here.”
Maria and Rudy had reached the loading dock door, Rudy crouching down to shout outside, “Get the dogs caged up! Get ’em clear! We got ourselves a Siamese, folks! That’s right, we got one alive!”
Terrance, Gainer, and Waylon jogged up. Rudy had crawled under the door and reached to his wife. “Pass it to me, honey.”
She growled, “No.”
Rudy backed off.
With Terrance, Gainer, and Waylon gathered around her, she made her way under the door, creeping on her knees and into the alley-dim daylight.
Terrance suggested that she and the kitten should ride in the Hummer. But Maria ignored him, made her way headlong to the white Nissan, Rudy scurrying ahead to open the passenger door for her. Maria settled inside, rocking the kitten and cooing. Rudy closed her door then vaulted over the little car’s hood to the driver’s side, saying to Terrance, “We’ll meet you back at the Park!” He dropped into the vehicle, started it, then sped in reverse down the alley.
Terrance glanced around; he had unbuttoned his overcoat in the warehouse and now he swept it around himself and cinched the belt, saying to Calvin, “Craig and I will head back to the Park. Given the mess inside. . .” He shot Craig a scathing look. “. . . Mommy Siamese is probably long gone, but you better hang around for a bit, set a few traps—maybe she’ll come back.” He signaled to Craig and the two men went to sit in the Hummer, Craig behind the steering wheel and looking only marginally sheepish.
Terrance rolled down his window and leaned out to say to Calvin, “On your way back, pick up Barry and Drake. They’re out front.”
Calvin saluted against his bald head. The Hummer rumbled down the alley, slowing to allow the sentry to hop inside.
Gainer slapped a kitten-bloody handprint on his thigh and grinned. “Son of a bitch. I knew it—a Siamese! Ain’t no cat comes close to a Siamese.”
Waylon had rinsed his hand with water from a canteen. He poked around in the truck for a rag to dry himself. Calvin pulled a grimy one from a cover-all pocket and handed it to him. As he dried himself, Waylon asked, “So what’s special about Siamese cats?”
Gainer glanced over at Calvin; the bald man shook his head. Gainer said to Waylon, “Sometimes your shit don’t stink so bad as everyone else’s.”
Waylon raised an eyebrow.
Calvin made his way to the 4X4’s cab, saying over his shoulder, “Come on, guys. We gotta set some traps. Let’s get going.”
Waylon said, “Aren’t we supposed to leave someone back here to keep an eye out for the mother cat?”
Gainer had hopped into the truck’s box. “Sure. We’ll leave you. You can take the bus home.”
Waylon considered this, a country-born and –raised turkey farmer about to be left on his own in the alley-heart of a plague-dead city. He vaulted up to sit beside Gainer. “How about we all go together?”
Gainer shrugged. “S’alright with me. Now where’d you put that water? Kitten blood’s so sticky. Echh. . . .”
Calvin cut a sharp U-turn; the 4X4 chugged down the alley.
The two cats crouched atop an almost ceiling-high stack of crates, Alex watching the humans below picking through the remains of the queen’s kits. Another human was leading the two bloody dogs out the door. Alex could tell from the beasts’ tender strides that he and the queen had dealt them some penance. Alex grinned, grin giving way to head-shaking awe that he should be sitting here alive.
What had gotten into him? Such wanton acts of bravery and daring-do went against everything he thought he knew about himself!
He glanced at the queen. Here, of course, was the reason for his mindlessness. Even bloodied and shivering from shock she inspired him to near-rapture. But he could see her eyes glazing over; she swayed from side to side. He nuzzled her, licked her face. Now she began to purr, but it had nothing to do with Alex’s ministrations. He recognized the signs—she might soon be lost to catatonia. He nipped her on the ear, getting no reaction. He nipped again harder, and she yelped, turning to gaze vague awareness into his eyes.
She asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Alex. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“Where. . . are my babies?”
She looked down at the humans, then around the warehouse, blinking her perturbation. She settled purring again into a relaxed posture belied only by her flattened ears and furrowed brow. Alex knew he couldn’t let her stay like this for too long; he’d never get her moving again.
Excited chatter from below drew Alex’s attention. The humans had clustered around one of their number. Alex heard a pitiful Mew. Could it be. . .?
The humans below hurried to the door and out. He glanced at the queen. She was lost to the hopeless rumbling of her purring. He pressed close, nudged at her face. She only purred louder. He nipped an ear. No response. He had to get her to open her eyes, to peer into his. He chomped the ear. She remained unfazed. Was she gone? Catatonia could claim a cat to the death—Alex had seen it happen.
He did the only thing he could think of, pissing a musky squirt straight into her face. The effect was instantaneous—she yelped and swatted at him, but he held his ground, endured her claws to gaze into her cursing eyes. The mind channel sluiced open, gushing one way, from her to him. Alex braced himself, then lifted defensive thought barriers, allowing her emotions to flood into him, staggering against the crippling current of her sorrow. When the waters rushed back into her, he blended his thoughts with hers, trickling them into her consciousness, asking, “How many young did you have?”
She shook her head at this. “Wha. . .? I . . . four. But they’re gone now. . . .”
Alex squinted against fresh, hot waves of hopelessness. She was drowning in it. He said, “Four? Then they’re not all gone—the humans have taken one!”
The queen stared at him, the steamy tide of her emotions suddenly flowing cool as Alex’s statement dove to where reason lay mired in the cold, muddy depths of her despair, then rushing up to spout a fountain of hope. “They’ve got one! Oh, yes! Yes! One. . . two. . . three. . . oh, my littlest boy! Where is he? Where?”
She stood to pace on her lofty perch, searching the warehouse with her keen eyes, her ears high and sharp.
Alex said, “The humans have him. They’ve taken him with them.”
With no hesitation she set off at a sprint atop the crate stacks and toward the garage door. Alex shot after her. She was going to blindly rush out into the alley! He scampered to the floor, then shot across the smooth cement to intercept her, tackling her from the side. They rolled to a furry heap, Alex on top, pinning her and glaring into her eyes: “You can’t got out there! They’re waiting. They’ll capture you!”
“So let them!” She struggled, hissing and spitting into his face. Her mother’s desperation might have gotten the better of Alex, but she was starved and weak and finally collapsed beneath him.
Alex was on her back, holding tight to her in a pseudo-mating grip. “They’ll take him to the Park,” he said. “I can take you to him.”
She struggled for a moment, then acquiesced, nodding, and Alex eased up on her. A whirling spitfire flipped around to rake a claw across his face. He staggered backward as the queen bolted for the door.
“No!” he howled, charging after her, following her outside.
Daylight reared all around, jarring him to a halt. He expected a net to close over him—that was what he deserved, blundering after the queen like this. But there she was, unshackled and racing down the alley after the big machine the humans rode in. Alex ran, his better health and diet having him gain on her. He was almost at her side by the time the alley turned. He slowed his pace to run beside her.
She was laboring for breath. She stumbled to a halt around the corner, panting heaves quavering her rail-thin sides. Blood flecked her nostrils. The 4X4 accelerated into the street and was gone.
Alex stood in front of her, but kept his distance. She blinked at him. “I. . . I. . . have to. . . rest,” she said. “You can. . . you can take me. . . to him?”
“You’re lucky. We could have both been captured.”
Panting, she glared at him. “Can you. . . take me to him? Yes or no?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“Do you promise?”
Her sorrow again, and her desperation, rippling through Alex. “I promise. I can take you take to him right now. Do you think you can make it?”
She heaved a breath. “Just give me a moment.” A few more chest heaves, and she trotted with faltering conviction down the alley.
Alex galloped past her and skidded to a stop, blocking her way. “Wait! Now you have to promise. . . we do this my way.”
Impatient, she snarled at him.
“You don’t understand,” Alex said, standing firm. “These humans are not to be trusted.”
She postured rebuke, then her eyelids fluttered. “You’re right. . . you’re right. Okay. . . . Your way. You lead, I’ll follow. But hurry.”
Openly suspicious, Alex regarded her.
“I promise!” she said. “Now let’s go!”
He nodded, then turned and set off at a trot toward the street, the queen loping a stuttering rhythm at his heels.
Barry Slipchuk and Drake Betford sat across the street from the warehouse, obscured behind the dust-caked windows of Leah’s Coffee Shop. A decade and a half of life experience separated the men, Barry being the eldest and wisest; however, the post-plague world recognized only two generations: the living and the dead.
Barry’s hand drummed fingertips on the plastic stock of the M-16 assault rifle laying on the table between the men. He hadn’t shaved since the plague took his wife and eight-year-old daughter. His beard stretched like ZZ-Top—dark, frazzled, and shot with gray—almost to his chest. Since his family’s death, he wore black leather always—jackets, pants, boots, and riding chaps—and sunglasses, the strain of the last year having painted sunless everything in his world. He was a large man, prone to weight-gain in times of plenty, now big-boned and lean-solid.
Drake sat across from Barry, a rail-thin contrast in appearance and a balm on Barry’s often bitter disposition. Drake’s hair was oily, skater-straight, and twice as long as Barry’s beard. It was held in place by an orange bandanna and framed on three sides by a long, gaunt face sporting adolescent-looking beard tufts and red swells of fresh-squeezed pimples. He hummed wandering thrash-rock melodies, his knee nervously bouncing the excess energy that made him a Ritalin-popping pain-in-the-ass to his school teachers; then he reached into the baggie laying his side of Barry’s rifle, gripped a fistful of the green powdery stuff inside and sprinkled it into a jumbo-sized Ganja-Man! rolling paper.
Barry watched, saying, “You’re spilling it.”
Evenly distributing the marijuana in the rolling paper (and savoring the task), Drake leaned over the table. “So who gives a rat’s hairy ass? We must have three pounds of this shit!” He laughed and licked the paper along the glue line, smacked his lips while twisting a white torpedo. “Man, it’s too much like fantasies I used to have when I was sixteen!”
Drake was making reference—again—to the discovery the two men had made a week earlier when they had cruised past the 114th Precinct Police Headquarters. Sudden inspiration had Drake stop their jeep, then run inside the police station. A moment later Barry followed, muttering at the folly of youth, to find Drake in the station’s evidence room. Drake was dancing and shrieking with delight because he had found what he was looking for: a veritable cornucopia of illicit drugs—a bale of marijuana cellophane-wrapped and big as a bread box; enough blotter acid to print a phone book; a half pound of crack cocaine cut into dime chunks; unnamed pills in jellybean blacks, reds, blues, and pinks; blow and black tar; Valium and Speed. Assorted baggies and vials filled with dreams powerful enough to afford at least a temporary escape from the new reality.
Drake had insisted they load all of it into the jeep, and Barry had agreed to help because he couldn’t come up with a reason not to. They had been smoking pot together every day ever since, getting high, even though it really wasn’t much fun anymore—especially for Barry, who still hadn’t graduated to the hard drugs (but was thinking about them more and more often). Drake had been a chronic pot-smoker since his fourteenth birthday—it mellowed him out, a fact he reiterated every time he rolled his wiener-sized joints. He told Barry this was some of the best shit he had ever had the pleasure of burning into his brain, probably hydroponically grown stuff from British Columbia, and definitely not that seed-popping Mexican crap he used to smoke.
As Drake sat back in his coffee shop chair and set Zippo-flame to the latest of his boomer joints, Barry asked him, “Isn’t it a bit too early in the morning for this? Fucking sun is barely up.”
Drake ignored him, eyes closed, lolling his tongue around the day’s first puff. He exhaled, studying the smoke. “We should drive up to the mountains this winter, do some boarding.” He sucked again on his rasta-reefer, thick, billowy waves flowing up past his squinting eyes.
Barry said, “Why? Won’t be any lifts running.”
“We’ll take Calvin. I’ll bet he could get one going—most ski resorts have generators for backup. We could ask the Council, tell them it’s kind of like a Club Med vacation for whoever wants to go. These people need a change of pace, man, a party, a real ravin’ party where they can get fucking loaded without worrying about nothin’!”
“You know what Garret would say: ‘We can’t leave the Park. The crops are growing and they must be defended.’ We’re seeing more foragers all the time.”
“Ahhhh, fuck the crops. And fuck the foragers. I’m a carnivore anyway. Christ what I would give for a taco. No. . . twenty tacos! The shredded chicken kind, like from Taco Bell, in a soft shell and all rolled up like a big, delicious doobie you can eat. . . screamin’ hot sauce and sour cream. . . and lots and lots of cheese, all melted and greasy. . . .”
Barry’s stomach growled loud enough to make him a slap a hand on it. “There’s no chicken, only cats. Cats make shitty tacos. Meat’s too stringy. Now shut the fuck up and toke.”
Drake complied, chewing on his imagination and belching spicy smoke. He offered the joint to Barry, saying, “You know what I find the most weirdest?”
Barry eyed the joint, then took it with a self-effacing grunt, inhaled a primer puff and released it as a monosyllable: “What?”
“No more flies.”
Regarding his young friend, Barry sucked back a barrel-chested lungful.
Drake continued: “Remember how there were so many fucking flies? Everything and everyone is dying all over the place and rotting and stinking and there’s nothing but these clouds of fucking flies, a non-stop buzzing. Buzz-Buzz-Buzz-Buzz-Buzz. . . buzzing, buzzing, buzzing all the time. I though they’d take over the whole fucking planet!”
Barry exhaled, watching the huge gray cloud billow upward like a rising thunderhead. “Cockroaches,” he said.
“Cockroaches will inherit the earth. Everyone knows that.”
Drake thought about this, then shook his head. “Cockroaches? Can’t say as I’ve seen any cockroaches lately. . . .”
Barry tossed the joint on the table. “Saw one last week. Killed it.”
Drake nodded. “Good job. Hate fucking cockroaches worse’n I hate flies!” He picked up the joint, took a toke, prodded the joint’s unevenly burning cherry with a spit-moistened fingertip, then exhaled toward the street as he looked out the open door at the warehouse they were supposed to be keeping an eye on. “Did Craig tell you what all the fuss was about?”
He passed the joint to Barry, who replied, “They’re looking for a cat.”
Drake arched an eyebrow. “A cat? Why the fuck do we need another fucking cat?”
Barry shook his head, scowling around the reefer as he sucked on it. He spoke with lip-leaking smoke punctuating his words: “Never. . . liked. . . cats.”
Drake shrugged. “ ‘Gotta love a cat that gives a shit’.”
Barry exhaled, then said, “Don’t gotta love ’em—just gotta love their shit.”
Drake nodded. “Who’d’a thunk it, hmmm? I remember my first time. . . .” He leveled searching, bleary eyes on Barry. “So tell me. . . how’d you take your first dose?”
Barry blanched at the memory of a vomiting wife and daughter, scowling at Drake as he passed the joint. “Why the fuck should I tell you?”
With barely an eye-blink, Drake said, “I’ll tell you straight: I ate mine smeared on a cookie—an Oreo Double-stuff.” He grinned and toked while waiting for Barry’s reaction.
Barry’s dark, sunglass eyes revealed nothing; his beard-buried lips were silent. He had tumbled into a dark mind-pit of survivor’s guilt, a black abyss filled with nothing but memories of a wife and child he could no longer hold and love. Some people just hadn’t been able to stomach Dose (all children, for instance), and those people had died.
The big man in the black leathers suddenly shot to his feet, his chair blasting backwards and tipping to skid the floor-dust. He seized another chair beside him and hurled it with a roar the length of the coffee shop where it crashed against a blackboard menu, someone’s neon-colored, chalk-drawn still life of fresh fruit and vegetables no longer being served.
Drake hardly flinched—he had grown used to Barry’s volcanic outbursts, understanding that eruptions always gave way quickly to ash, ash to usually harmless puffs of smoke. Barry raged a scream till his voice rasped harsh, his fists clenching white-knuckled. He stood for a moment shivering in tremulous silence before finally looking around for his chair, righting it, then sliding it back to the table so he could sit. Drake waited a moment, then offered the joint, half-sized now but still formidable. Barry stared at it for a moment, then took it and sucked till the cherry glowed long and red. He heaved a smoky sigh. “Do you think suicide really sends you to hell?”
Drake frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. “Who the fuck knows.”
Roman Catholic since birth, Barry snorted as he passed the joint. “It’s a dumb rule. . . just a dumb fucking rule.” He gazed out the door. “Did you know I was a building contractor?”
Drake held a toke and watched him. Despite rooming with the man for almost a year, Drake had heard little of Barry’s home-life in pre-plague America.
Barry nodded. “That’s right. Built everything from homes to shopping malls. I was good at it, too. Made enough money to put a sizable down payment on a two storey house I built myself in a decent neighborhood, nothing like the rat-hole I grew up in. I would have had the mortgage paid off in three years. My wife loved me, had supper ready for me every evening when I came home from work. I read a bedtime story to my daughter every night. Berenstain Bears. Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear.” He grimaced, then said, “So who gives a good god-damn what I did, huh? A man works most of his life to paint a white picket fence around his version of the American Dream, and who gives a good god-damn?” He smiled vinegar at Drake, the acid calm in the eye of the storm—lightning was still striking and burning behind Barry’s dark shades.
Drake said, “I was flunking my first year of college for the second time when they closed the campus down. I was actually relieved when it happened. My dad was gonna rip my balls off. I went boarding for a week, courtesy of Dad’s American Express card. Partied on it for another two. When I finally got around to calling home my father was already dead.” Drake stared at the joint, an inch-long, cigar-thick roach with a two-inch turd-like ash that he plucked off and examined, saying, “I wonder if you can smoke it. . .”
Barry considered this. “Tough to roll.”
“You’d have to dry it out first, maybe mix it with some tobacco or weed in a spliff.”
“Why not try? Hell, I eat it.”
Drake grinned. “Now that’s the spirit.” He leaned across the table, offering an open hand for a high five. Barry stared his sunglasses but raised no reciprocal palm. Drake leaned back in his chair, unzipped a down-filled vest, then unbuttoned the jean jacket beneath, spreading it wide to display a t-shirt that had factory-printed on it, “Eat shit and die!” Drake had modified the statement with black marker; it now read, “Eat shit or die!” He grinned again. “And worn with pride, heh, heh!”
Barry shook his head.
Drake finished off the roach, flicking it against a wall when it burned his fingertips. Numbed by a glutton’s breakfast of early morning weed, the two men settled into a silent, fleeting-thought repose, alone together in mire-thick dope daydreams. The minutes oozed past.
Eventually, the sound of an engine chiseled its way into their stone. Using his rifle like a cane, Barry stood and shuffled sluggish feet to the doorway to see the white Nissan, then a moment later the Hummer, speed from the alleyway to head toward the Park.
“Hey! There goes our ride home!”
He fumbled for his radio, spoke into it, gave it a shake when no one replied, tried again and cursed the static.
Drake was beside him. “Calvin’ll come get us.”
“He’d better. It’s over twenty blocks to the Park from here.”
Drake stepped past Barry and into the middle of the street to groan-stretch out of weed torpor. “Wouldn’t mind the walk myself.”
The dope hung from Barry in burn-out bars of lead. “Not me. Feels like my boots are full of cement.”
Now Calvin’s 4X4 rumbled out of the alley. Barry went to stand beside Drake, rifle in one hand to wave the radio with the other. He gaped when the big truck followed the path taken by the Nissan and the Hummer, the two men riding in the box not even glancing back toward them.
“What the fuck?”
Drake said, “Oh, well, looks like we walk.”
Barry shook his head. “Oh, no, no, no. . . fuck that. I don’t wanna walk no twenty blocks!” He trot-shuffled after the 4X4, hollering, “Hey! Hey!”
The big truck accelerated with a roar.
Barry stopped and stared open-mouthed. Then he heaved the radio after the vehicle; it smashed into pieces on the pavement. He glanced back at Drake, then snapped his head toward the receding icon of the speeding 4X4. He worked his rifle’s bolt, raised the weapon and would have fired off a shot if he had remembered to disengage the safety.
Drake rushed up, pushed the gun’s barrel down, sputtering, “Pffssttt. . . hey! Hey, big fella. . . easy!”
Barry glared at him with oversized, polarized eyes. “They fucking forgot about us! Those cocksuckers. . . .”
“Ain’t no thing, man, ain’t no thing. . . we’ll walk. We’ll have conversation.”
But Barry was shaking his head in wide, agitated beard-sweeps. “No, no, no, no, no, no. . . .” The leather-clad man’s red cheeks had turned pale. He was hyperventilating, twisting the rifle’s stock in his hands.
Drake stepped back, bracing himself for Krakatoa. And so soon on the heels of the last eruption! Drake tried to simmer his big friend, saying, “They’ll be back! They wouldn’t leave us—”
Drake looked to see two cats jog out of the alleyway vacated by the three vehicles. “Son of a bitch. Guess they didn’t—”
Barry remembered the safety this time.
Drake reeled sideways from the gun’s near report, “Jesus, Barry! You could at least tell a guy—”
Blam! Blam! Blam!
Barry yanked off his shades to sight on the two panic-scampering animals, the molten fire in his naked eyes pouring searing tears down his cheeks.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Ricochets whined and whistled, but the two cats were suddenly lost to sight, disappearing amid a broken glass tinkle.
Click – Click – Click. . . .
A cringing Drake dared to press an open palm against Barry’s aftershock-quivering shoulder, saying, “Hey, man. . . they’re gone, man, they’re gone. . . .”
The rifle wilted. Steaming tears soaked into Barry’s beard. He turned to burn charred, tortured eyes into Drake’s, growling, “You ever just wanna fucking shoot someone?”
“Not me, man, not me!”
Barry ejected the empty clip from his rifle, pulled a fresh one from a deep pocket and slammed it in place, then bent to pluck his sunglasses from the street. He pushed them onto his face, casting cold shadow over smoldering flames. He hocked and spat. “Get the weed,” he said to Drake, and stomped off toward the Park.
Alex reeled from the shock of it, then plowed through the sudden hail of bullets, across the street and straight into a sidewalk-level window, smashing through the glass to fall six feet to a carpeted basement-apartment floor. He landed on all fours, the queen yelping and stumbling across broken glass beside him.
Adrenalin swelled Alex’s veins, numbing any pain of injury. At least one bullet had cut a hot path directly beneath his belly, close enough to singe the hairs. Was he bleeding? No time to concern himself with that now—his sense-heightened hearing told him the human with the gun was still out in the street and coming their way.
Leaning against him (and even under the circumstances he could appreciate that it felt good), the queen yipped, “Yi-yi-yi!”
A quick sniff and glance showed she had been grazed by a bullet, snicking a chunk out of the base of one ear. With no time for arguing or pleading, Alex pressed against her with his forehead, forcing her to stagger from this room to an adjacent one out of sight of the window. She was barely through the doorframe when she collapsed unconscious onto a throw rug.
Alex sniffed close to see that she still breathed, deep and steady. Blood seeped from her ear, staining her neck. He settled next to her and licked the wound. He froze when footsteps trudged past the broken window; a moment later, other feet jogged in pursuit. The sounds faded. Now he took a moment to take stock of himself, discovering a glass-slice on one foot pad and wrinkling his nose at the burnt-fur stink coming from his belly. Close inspection showed he was fine, but another quarter inch and he would have been eviscerated.
Alex had never been shot at before, kicked once or twice but never shot at! He fought the urge to run outside, to hunt down his assailant. At this moment, with his heart aquiver and his common sense clamped to the end of his twitching tail, he could easily pounce on and savage that human, claw out his eye balls—like he had done to that dog. (He had done it, he had!) That would win some respect. Had a cat ever killed a man? This could be the first time. . . .
The queen stirred, mewing a faltering squeak. Alex lay against her, purring to soothe her, grooming her face and eyes with his tongue. She nuzzled close. He felt the steady thud of her pulse and slowed his speeding heart to beat in time to hers. Within moments, she had surrendered to restless sleep. Her bleeding had stopped, but the wound, while clean now, was ugly, gaping bare, white tissue. Alex used a gentle paw to examine the rest of her. No other injury that he could see. He checked the pads of her feet. Through some miracle she had avoided cutting herself when she jumped in here.
But what if she hadn’t followed him? The street had offered no cover. . . .
But she had followed, just as she had promised.
He ran adoring eyes over her starved and battered frame. She had been pushed beyond her limits, well beyond. She needed rest. Alex would protect her while she recuperated, keep her warm and safe while she slept some strength back into her ravaged body. He stretched body-length beside her, purring into her ear.
He thought of home, of his human, John. If he could get the queen home, John would take care of her. Alex trusted John as he trusted no other, human or feline, so much so that he sometimes thought of John as his littermate (and that was the best cat-compliment to be given any human). For the last few months it had been only Alex and John, two bachelor males living together, coming and going as they pleased with no one to tell them they couldn’t. You were better off on your own—John never tired of saying it, and Alex’s experiences among the Park toms (with all the pissing, posturing, and fighting) supported the notion.
Better off on your own. Life is simple, predictable
Alex eyed the queen.
He had expected upon waking this morning to take a leisurely stroll down to the beach. To hunt among the rocks for the few bugs still crawling, to splash around in the surf. The he’d stroll home later for a nap, up on the rooftop with John. Alex would have been content to do just as he had planned; he had aspired to nothing more.
The queen stirred and mewed. She blinked open glazed eyes, struggled to focus on Alex as he peered into her face. She squinted affection and nuzzled him. He returned the gesture, giving her mouth and whiskers a lick. She squinted again, blinked around, her features twisting into confusion. Staring at Alex, she struggled to stand on wobbly legs. “Who. . . who are you?”
Disappointment nipped at the little tom, but he could forgive her. He told her his name, then recounted the events of the last hour. She seemed to grasp some of it, particularly about her one still-living kit. “My littlest boy,” she said, looking for a way out of the apartment. “We’ve got to get to him. . . where is he?”
“Yes, yes. . . the Park.” She spied the broken window, then summoned energy to bound up onto a bookcase and jump to the street-level windowsill. She stood there teetering, almost stumbling back into the apartment. Alex leapt up beside her, steadying her with his shoulder, then pressed her outside.
They stood on the sidewalk. Quick glances to the left and right showed Alex an empty street. Ears alert, he set off at a jog toward the Park. After thirty paces, he slowed to look over his shoulder for the queen. She staggered along behind him, her eyes half closed and her ears drooping; the tip of her tongue protruded from her mouth. She lurched to a halt, shuddering against a breath, then stumbled a few more steps toward Alex.
“We’re going to the Park,” he told her when she was close, not sure if she was really hearing him, “but we’ll be making a stop along the way.”