Lying at the mouth of the alley with blood crusting on his face and multi-coloured lights beating against his eyelids in time with the pounding in his head, all Mark could think was that he had really, really wanted a dog.
“One of those big, smart dogs—a husky or a lab.” He could imagine playing Frisbee with it Sunday afternoons at Waterfront Park, like the buff, bronzed guys who never seemed to wear anything but sneakers and baggy running shorts. He’d seen the way girls looked at those guys, at the sweat gleaming on their shoulders as they tossed the disc, at the powerful muscles bunching in their calves and thighs as they leapt to receive a toss or ran to tackle their smiling animal companions. The girls always made much of the dogs, but Mark knew it was just a front for striking up conversations with their owners. No one ever hounded those guys for spending time in the park when they should have been working, or for growing their hair so long that it fell into their eyes, giving them an air of boyish charm. No one ever claimed those guys were losers.
“You don’t want a dog,” his friend Jody replied. “Especially not that kind of dog. Dogs are work, Marco. Big, smart dogs are lots of work. They have to be walked; they have to be entertained. All the time, not just on weekends. People who live in cities shouldn’t have big dogs like that. You can’t keep them cooped up in a tiny apartment. They need space.”
“I could walk a dog.” He imagined taking it down the streets of the Ukrainian District, just around the corner and across the Boulevard from the run-down old brownstone where he lived in a three-room walk-up under the eaves. The Ukrainian District was full of stately old homes with weird Gothic architecture, where old men sat on the porches in the summer evenings drinking iced tea and young mothers puttered in postage-stamp flower beds, keeping one eye out for the children playing in the yard. There were lots of pretty girls in the Ukrainian District, too. If he had a dog, a girl might talk to him. He’d seen it happen. A girl calls out from the porch, “What a beautiful dog! What’s his name?” and practically before you know it you’re going out for coffee.
“I know you, Marco.” At Jody’s voice the lovely image shattered into fragments. “You’d get tired of it. You might do all right while summer lasted, but when that first big storm hit, that would be it. You’d hole up inside, and the dog would go crazy and pee all over everything. Then you’d get mad and sulky because you’d made a mistake and the poor dog would end up back at the pound. It’s better not to go there at all.”
“I go by Mark now,” he said, because it annoyed him that she couldn’t remember, and because he knew she was right and he couldn’t argue with her.
“Oh. Right. Mark, then,” she said with a frown. She didn’t approve of the change. It wasn’t just that she’d known him since they were both five and couldn’t get used to it. Jody was a quick learner when she wanted to be. But she couldn’t accept the name, because, as she had told him at the time, it hadn’t been his choice. He’d only started going by Mark because Daniella had made such a fuss about his name being so ethnic. She’d never been comfortable with anything alien to her middle-class, WASP upbringing; her parents just didn’t understand. She would have liked Mark to change his last name, too, but he wouldn’t budge on that. Going from Marco to Mark, though, that hadn’t been so hard. And whatever Jody thought, he planned to stick with it even now that Daniella was out of the picture. He was used to his new name and changing back would just be too much trouble.
“What you need is a cat.”
“A cat?” Aghast, Mark stopped dead in the shelter parking lot. “What do you mean, a cat?”
“A cat.” Jody tugged at his arm to get him going again. He thought about resisting, but instead found himself following meekly along. “Whiskers, tail, nine lives.”
“Dogs have whiskers and tails.”
“But they don’t have nine lives and any pet of yours is going to need all the help it can get.”
She could say things like that. They’d known each other forever; in fact, their parents were still next-door neighbours in the suburbs. He’d spent more afternoons than he could count eating oatmeal cookies and reading comics in her mother’s kitchen. Jody had been the one to explain things to him when he had girl problems—at least, as much as anyone could explain that kind of thing—and he’d done his best to explain boys to her. She was his best friend. It had never gone beyond that. There had been that one time, when they were sixteen. She’d come over the fence at midnight, in tears over some recent dating disaster, and he’d held her until his t-shirt was soaking, although he had really wanted to snark that at least she had dates to turn into disasters. Her mouth had been really close and suddenly he’d found himself thinking about kissing her. But it would have been like kissing his kid sister, so he didn’t. Anyway, she probably would have laughed at him.
Getting a pet had been Jody’s idea. She’d never liked Daniella, but she had been kind enough not to bring that up when Mark’s erstwhile fiancée dumped him for a young lawyer in an expensive suit. Jody had really been there for him, from his first boozy three a.m. announcement of the catastrophe to the harrowing afternoon Daniella had actually brought the lawyer to the apartment to help her move her stuff, and all through the ups and downs of his precipitously single new life. So when she said that a pet was what he needed to really take his mind off his lingering misery, he was quick to agree.
He really had wanted a dog, though.
Instead, he found himself examining the wire cages full of cats and thinking they weren’t so bad. Some of the kittens were pretty cute. You couldn’t take a kitten for a walk, but if you could get a girl to come up for a drink, she’d probably think more of you for having a kitten. It was probably a better pet for a writer, anyway: one that would point to a certain ruthlessness hidden behind a sensitive exterior. Yeah, girls liked that stuff. They really dug the guys who were all soft-eyed one minute and sharp claws the next.
“Not a kitten,” Jody said.
“Not a kitten? But….” Mark tore himself away from a little black one that was chewing his fingers through the bars of its cage.
“Getting a kitten would be just as bad as getting a dog. They really need attention when they’re that young, Mark. Otherwise they destroy things and claw the furniture. No, what you need is a cat. One old enough to be fairly independent. One like…this one.”
Jody’s eyes fell on the single occupant of a cage a third of the way down the row.
Mark swallowed. “That one?”
The animal in question was a rangy orange tomcat that looked very much as if it had seen better days. Its tail was crooked, maybe from having been broken. Both ears were notched, and most of the whiskers were missing from the left side of its face; the stubble of the ones that remained appeared to have been chewed. It was lounging in its litter box, chin draped over the edge, an insolent expression in its half-closed eyes. “Touch me,” the expression seemed to say. “I dare you.”
Jody nodded. “He’s perfect.”
And so, an hour later, Mark found himself back at his apartment in possession of a new roommate. He opened the top of the cardboard carrier the shelter had supplied and stifled the urge to stand back. For a while, nothing happened. Then the notched ears appeared, followed shortly by the whole cat, which leapt directly onto the most comfortable chair and posed expectantly.
“Uh…hey, Cat,” Mark said weakly.
The cat stared at him.
“You want some food? I bet you want some food.” Mark moved nervously into the closet that his landlord called a kitchen, all too aware that he was being intimidated by a creature a foot high and less than two feet long, including the crooked tail. “Jody picked out a selection. I got some canned tuna, some Tender Vittles….” Deciding that he couldn’t manage a can opener in his present state, he tore open a package of vittles and dumped it into a plastic cereal bowl. He filled a second bowl from the sink, and by that time the cat had wandered in. It glanced at the bowl of food and up at Mark. It glanced at the bowl again, and this time it condescended to accept the offering. Its feeding was remarkably dainty.
Mark felt as though he had passed some sort of test.
“Yeah, well, your box is in the head—that’s this door, here. I put it between the toilet and the tub, so maybe you can have some privacy.” He was babbling like an idiot. “I guess you can find that, right? Or I could show it to you.” Jody had told him that was one advantage of a cat; you just had to show it where to go and there it went. “No? Well, I’m going to get some work done. Just in the living room. The first room.”
The cat kept eating. Mark escaped into the corner of the living room he had set up as a kind of office and took refuge behind his desk. He opened the file that contained the bits and pieces of the novel he had been working on for the last year and a half and stared at his cheap monitor, wondering what he thought he was doing. He hadn’t written a word since before Daniella left. The two stories that had actually been published seemed a very long time ago, and he wondered if moving to the city to pursue a writing career had been a horrible mistake. Daniella had certainly seemed to think so, even though it was the cachet of dating a writer that had attracted her to Mark in the first place. Probably she’d been imagining literary soirées in black tie and the instant name recognition that comes with routinely making the bestseller lists. Faced with the combined realities of creative process and poor cash flow, she’d begun nagging him to get a real job, and when the money from his grandfather had run out he’d been forced to. It had made her marginally happier, but the words had dried up soon after. He knew some people could work full time and still find the energy to write into the wee hours, turning out page after page until their great novels were completed. When Mark came home from eight hours clerking in the investment office, he felt as though his soul had been drawn out through his nose. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever write a word again.
The cat sauntered in from the kitchen and jumped onto the desk, where it positioned itself in the center of a stack of old story notes and began ostentatiously washing its face. After a minute, it paused and craned its head around towards the monitor, so exactly as if it were actually reading that Mark chuckled in spite of himself.
Then the cat spoke.
“Writer, huh? Ye gods and little tin fishes! Well, I guess it’s better than the pound.”
It was a minute before Mark remembered to breathe.
“The digs will do for now,” the cat said. “We’ll talk about the food quality later. And just so you know, if you try to have me ‘fixed,’ I’ll rip your nuts off and see how you like it. Gotta beer?”
Mark woke with the sun in his eyes. Turning away from the window, he caught a glimpse of the clock perched atop the pile of file boxes that served him for a nightstand. The fact that it was eleven in the morning did not immediately register. Then it did.
“Shit!” He jumped out of bed and was halfway across the room before he remembered that it was Sunday: No work. About that time, his brain caught up with his body and his vision went black at the edges. He staggered back to the bed and fell onto it, bending double to put his head between his knees.
God, what a dream! It remained remarkably clear, rather than fading or devolving into incoherence the way dreams usually did, but it was certainly a dream. One didn’t run out to the corner liquor store because a cat had a hankering for draught-style Guinness. One didn’t have long, maudlin conversations about life with one’s cat—or if one did, the cat certainly didn’t answer with pointed observations of its own!
Maybe there was no cat. Maybe he hadn’t even been to the shelter yet. Maybe it was all symbolic of how out of control his life had become. Maybe it was a warning that if he didn’t stick up for himself, things would only get worse. Yeah, of course that was it. He resolved that when Jody came to take him to the shelter, he’d stand his ground and insist on getting a dog, like he wanted. Or maybe he’d refuse to get a pet at all. It wasn’t his idea. Jody might even be proud of him. She was always telling him that he needed to live his own life, not just go along with other people because it was easier than thinking for himself.
Filled with a heady sense of fresh purpose, Mark got up, strode boldly to the bedroom door and jerked it open.
The cat was sitting in a patch of sun in the middle of the living room rug. Waiting for him.
He took a deep breath. Okay, there was a cat. That didn’t mean….
“It’s about time you got up,” the cat said. “Man, I thought you were going to sleep all day. Even cats rouse themselves once in a while. About breakfast: I take my coffee black and my eggs over medium. Don’t bother with toast.”
The room spun, and Mark reached for the doorjamb.
“I’m crazy. That’s it. Daniella’s leaving sent me right over the edge. I’m crazy, I’m crazy, I’m cra– ”
“Listen, I’ve been thinking. I’m really grateful to you for springing me from the pound, and I’d like to make it up to you. I’ve got some ideas that I really think could work. How would you like a nicer pad, better clothes…what are you mumbling about?”
“I’m crazy,” Mark explained. “My fiancee left me, and I went around the bend. That’s why this is happening. Except it’s not happening. It’s only in my head. Maybe I should call someone to take me away.” He stumbled farther into the room, and scrabbled underneath the sofa for the phone, which retreated there like a badger to its den whenever not in use.
“Put that down. You’re not crazy.”
“I’m having a conversation with a cat.”
“And your point is?”
Mark couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He leaned against the sofa and stared at the cat, the phone forgotten until it began to beep insistently at him to dial or hang up, you asshole. He hung up.
“It’s just not something I’m used to.”
“Well, get used to it, pal. I’m not about to keep quiet just to make you more comfortable, and I hate one-sided conversations. Are you going to feed me or what?”
Numbly, Mark stumbled into the kitchen where he brewed coffee and fixed eggs to the cat’s specifications. He couldn’t quite manage over medium—the yolks broke and got hard—but the cat ate them anyway. Mark’s own breakfast consisted of staring at a slice of dry toast until it got cold, then throwing it away.
“Nice,” said the cat. “I’m sure that will keep your strength up. Have some coffee.”
Mark did. It tasted like stomach acid.
“Now, about my plan. Who’s the power in this town?”
The cat made a noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter. “That moron? No, I mean the real power. The guy who runs things.”
Mark shrugged helplessly.
“You ever heard of Boss King?”
The name rang a bell. Something he’d read in the paper, maybe. “Wait. You mean LaVelle King?”
“Don’t use that name if you know what’s good for you.”
“Wasn’t he indicted last year? Some kind of conspiracy charges?”
“Tax evasion. And he got off. But it’s still a sore spot, so I wouldn’t mention it.”
“Mention it? Who to? Why are we talking about this?”
“Because, dope, Boss King is THE power in these parts. He owns half this dump of a city, and what he doesn’t own he has a finger in. Get in good with him and well…the sky’s the limit. You’ll be set for life.”
“Get in good with…he’s a thug! A gangster!”
“He’s a businessman. The thugs and gangsters work for him.”
“You’re splitting hairs. Whatever it is you’re thinking, I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“Oh, so you really want to spend the rest of your miserable life in this pesthole? I ate a dozen roaches this morning, and those were only the ones I could catch.”
That was an image Mark could easily have done without.
“Miserable?! Listen, cat, my life isn’t miserable. And who said anything about spending the rest of it here? I’ve got my own plans. I don’t need yours.”
“You coulda fooled me. You’re stuck in a nothing job that you hate. Your girlfriend left you for some rich jerk-off with varnished hair. What have you got? Oh, your novel. That’s really going to help. You haven’t written a word in six months, and, from what I saw last night, what you have written is a load of self-referential crap. What is it with writers? They have no lives and they think they can tell stories.”
“Hey!” It really didn’t help that everything the cat said was something that Mark had thought for himself more than once.
“Look, kid.” The cat jumped up into the kitchen counter, knocking over Mark’s coffee cup, which was, thankfully, empty. “Whoops! Sorry. Meant to do that.” The notched ears twitched, and the orange eyes widened in a calculated demonstration of sympathy. Mark looked away, determined not to be manipulated.
“Kid, I don’t mean to harsh on you.”
“Yeah. You coulda fooled me.” Mark was an exceptional mimic when he wanted to be.
“Ouch. Well, maybe I deserved that. It’s just that I see such potential in you. But potential don’t mean squat without someone to recognize it. Someone other than a cat, I mean. What you need is a patron. Isn’t that what all artists want? A patron? Someone who sees the talent and is willing to invest in it, just on the off chance that one day he might be able to say, ‘I gave this guy his start?’”
It was true. Mark had often dreamed of meeting someone just like that. Someone who could believe in him when he couldn’t believe in himself. Someone who would even foot the bills, allowing him to follow wherever the creative impulse took him, without having to worry about mundane things like rent and where his next meal was coming from. Unfortunately, Mark was too well aware of the impossibility of any such thing ever happening for the fantasy to hold any comfort.
“You said I didn’t have any talent.”
“You said my novel is self-referential crap.”
“It is. That doesn’t mean you have no talent. You just don’t have the experience to give it form.”
Something soft rubbed against Mark’s bare arm: the cat’s head. Against his will, Mark reached out to pet it.
“I just want to do right by you. Put you in the way of people who can help you. Is that a bad thing? Because if it is, I’ll think of something else.”
The cat was purring now, a low, tangible rumbling that ran up Mark’s arm and into his body with the force of a minor earthquake, until the whole kitchen seemed to vibrate around him. It was oddly soothing. For a minute Mark fought against being soothed. Then he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Anyway, it felt good. It had been a long time since he’d been so relaxed.
“No gangsters,” the cat agreed, although it turned its face away in order to make a serious study of the cracked linoleum on the countertop.
“I promise on the six lives left to me that no harm will come to you,” the cat intoned solemnly, raising its right paw.
“You winked when you said that.”
“I blinked. I can blink, can’t I?”
Mark sighed. “Okay. I’ll agree that you can see what you can do. But if there’s trouble, or anything dicey, or…anything like that, I can tell you to quit and you have to listen. Deal?”
“All right, then.”
Giving the cat a final pat on the head, Mark got up from his stool and headed to the bedroom to get dressed. Before he was halfway there, the cat’s voice stopped him.
“What is it?”
“There are a few things I need. D’you think you could get them for me?”
Mark turned around. The cat was back in the center of the living room rug. It had its tail tucked primly around its forefeet, and its eyes were as innocent as a kitten’s. Mark could almost believe that it really wanted to help him.
“A bag. A messenger bag, you know, with a zippered top flap and a waterproof lining. And a pair of boots.”
The boots were lace-ups in smooth, black leather: Dr. Marten’s current copy of a World War I combat issue. Mark purchased them Monday after work at a small yet undeniably hip shoe store a block off the central roundabout, as per the cat’s instructions. When the unexpectedly helpful, multi-pierced gentleman behind the counter observed that Mark’s feet were somewhat larger than the size eights he requested, Mark told him the boots were for his cat. This was also according to the cat’s instructions, and it made Mark feel as though he were in an old episode of Hogan’s Heroes, where everyone had some ridiculous fairy-tale codename and communicated in signals and counter-signals unintelligible to the rest of the human race. The feeling didn’t go away when the pierced gentleman got a very odd look on his face, fetched the boots with alarming quickness and shoved them at Mark as if he were eager to get rid of them before being arrested for some unspeakable crime. Together with the messenger bag—purchased at a bike messenger supply shop in the same area, but without any special instructions—they cost the better part of a month’s grocery budget.
“This had better be worth it,” Mark grumbled, laying the packages on the living room floor for the cat’s inspection.
“Just open that shoebox for me, would you?”
“I mean, I can’t possibly see what good a pair of size eight boots will do you. Unless you mean to nest in them,” he added caustically as the cat’s orange head disappeared into a black leather upper. “And that would be a tight fit.”
“Good, very good,” came the cat’s muffled yowl—or at least, that’s what Mark thought he was saying. “These are precisely the boots.” The cat’s head popped out, ears aquiver. “Listen, kid: you take care of your end of the business and I’ll take care of mine.”
As the night progressed without any further discussion of the cat’s plan, it seemed to Mark that his part of the business was finished. He went to bed, slept dreamlessly and went off to work the next morning in quite the usual way. The only thing at all strange was that when he reached his featureless cubicle in the fourteenth-floor warren of the glass and steel tower belonging to Brooks, Marson and Assoc. Investments Ltd., he experienced a strange sense of relief. It was a feeling he knew would vanish instantly if he allowed himself to dwell too closely on what kind of mischief the cat might be getting up to in his absence. So he didn’t.
The kid was gone. The cat watched him leave from a windowsill that gave a convenient view of the front of the brownstone and the bus stop halfway down the street, and it stayed there until it was sure that the bus had come and the kid had boarded it. Then it jumped down. It did not directly approach the boots, which the kid had thoughtfully left lined up beside the sofa; it was too feline for that. Prey must be stalked without showing undue interest, at least at first. So the cat wandered into the kitchen for a few bites from its dish. This ruse accomplished, it dived under the sofa, where it chewed on the phone cord for a time. It nudged open the bedroom door and contemplated the pile of dirty laundry just within, as if considering its fitness for a napping place. Finally, it trotted into the bathroom and scratched vigorously in the box the kid had provided. All the while, it was aware of the boots.
Leaving them at Rudy’s shop had been a calculated risk. The cat hadn’t liked to do it one bit, but when it came to a choice between being taken with them and probably losing them altogether or storing them at a neutral site where—just maybe—no one would find them, well…not much of a choice, really. But the cat still wouldn’t have done it had it not been for Rudy’s absolute refusal to take sides on anything.
Now the cat stalked up to the boots, whiskers quivering and all senses alert. One could never be too careful in these matters. The boots smelled right. It didn’t seem that anyone had tampered with them. Time to see if the risk had paid off.
The cat rose to its hind feet. For a moment it stood swaying, making sure of its balance. Then, gingerly, as if the least movement might have terrible consequences—which the cat was not entirely sure was not the case—it thrust one hind foot and then the other into the waiting boots.
The change was immediate. The orange cat vanished, and in its place stood a scrawny, carrot-haired young man. He was wearing a pair of camouflage cargo pants held up by a black leather belt studded with silver cats’ heads and a plain black t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. His eyes were green and his ears, from which the carrot-coloured hair sprouted in surprising tufts, were ever so slightly pointed. He gave a huge sigh and knelt to lace the boots tightly around his calves. Rising, he caught sight of himself in the mirror hung just to the left of the bedroom door.
“Welcome back,” he said to his reflection, and winked. “Now, time to go to work.”
Slinging the messenger bag over his shoulder, he left the apartment without bothering to open the door.
Once outside, he set off down the street in a more conventional way. From time to time he paused, scanning the ground on either side as if looking for something. He paid special attention to the cracks in the sidewalk and the wasted space at the sides of the buildings, where summer’s weeds were beginning to show. Two blocks down he came to an empty lot, set off from the street by a ragged chain-link fence. The sun was stronger here and the weeds were taller and more profuse, pushing up from the crumbling concrete in patches of tangled jungle that filled the air with the sneeze-inducing scents of dust and pollen. The young man smiled and stooped to pluck a particularly large stalk of ragweed that grew at the edge of the fence.
“Hie o’er cap,” he muttered, striking the weed against his thigh.
The young man grasped the handlebars of a shiny, green bicycle. It had fat tires and eighteen gears, and the manufacturer’s decal on the crossbar was not in English. In fact, it was not in any recognizable language at all.
The young man leapt onto the bike and rode off. He did not need to pedal.
In a remarkably short time, the bicycle reached a posh uptown shopping district, where it stopped outside the door of a small but expensive jeweler’s establishment. Dismounting, the young man leaned the bike against a lamppost and went in. The shop’s air was canned and heavy; the tread of his boots on the thick carpet was as silent as a fall of snow. He passed a uniformed guard, who did not seem to see him. The few other customers present did not seem to see him, either, nor did the sales clerks who attended them. He walked straight up to the central display case, an octagon of glass filled with glittering baubles, presided over by a chicly skeletal woman in a brief black dress meant to make her look at least ten years younger than she was. He coughed, and she looked up. No one else did.
“May I help you?”
“I have a pickup here.”
“You must be mistaken.” She lifted a lip. “We don’t use bicycle messengers. Security reasons, you understand.” Her tone made it more than apparent that she did not expect him to understand, did not think him capable of it.
“I’ve got the order right here.” From his bag he produced a clipboard and a sheaf of delivery invoices. The top one was clearly marked, in purple ink, with the name and address of the shop. Beneath that, also in purple ink, was the name and address to which the package was supposed to be delivered. When she saw the latter, the woman looked uncertain.
“I see…I wasn’t told…. Do you know the nature of the package?” she stuttered, buying time.
“Lady, they just tell me where to come and where to go. Don’t you have a delivery book or something?”
“There’s the UPS. book. But it wouldn’t….” She looked up, shaking her head. The young man smiled. Reflexively, she smiled back, her eyes taking on a distinctly glazed look. Without seeming to notice that she had stopped talking in mid-sentence, she reached under the counter and produced a thick ledger. She passed it to the young man, who tapped three times on the cover and opened it. He pointed to the last entry, which was, strangely enough, written in purple ink.
The woman nodded. Moving very slowly, she went to another display case, unlocked it, and produced something that glittered.
Seconds later, the young man left the shop, a small, eggshell-pink box tucked carefully into his bag. Not very long after that, he had left the uptown area entirely and was coasting down Waterfront Drive, a broad avenue that swept from south to north along the lake, on either side of a manicured green median. To the right lay the marina and Waterfront Park. To the left, across the street, everything was obscured by an eight-foot wrought-iron fence atop a fieldstone foundation. At intervals, wrought-iron arches allowed access to the exclusive neighbourhood that the fence enclosed. The young man on the bicycle cut across traffic without signaling and popped into a cross street. As he passed beneath the arch, he shuddered slightly.
He parked the bicycle beneath a spreading oak tree and stood a minute, considering. Then he spit on his hands and smoothed back his hair. He spit again, rubbed his hands together and applied them to his clothing. When he straightened up he was wearing an immaculate black pinstripe suit of Italian cut. He removed the pink box from his messenger bag and placed it in an inside pocket, along with the bag itself, which shrank to the size of a bulky wallet. Only the boots remained unaltered.
He walked up the street, along a fieldstone wall topped with iron spikes a foot long. After a half a block, a gate opened in the wall. Beyond, at the end of a long, tree-lined drive, stood a house of vaguely Art Deco appearance, also made of stone. In the center of the open gate, two very large men were talking about baseball. They wore suits very similar to the young man’s, except that their jackets bulged suspiciously under the armpits.
The young man stopped. The two men looked up. One of them grinned.
“Hey look! It’s Lucky Tom, come to pay us a call,” he said
“Surprise, surprise. Tommy, I heard you crossed Jimmy the Ogre and he sent you up,” said the other.
The young man shrugged. “I got sprung.”
“Lucky you didn’t get dead. The Ogre don’t take lightly to people treading on his toes.”
“It was a warning.” Lucky Tom showed his teeth in something that was not a smile. That something made the two large men step back.
“Whatever you have planned, we don’t want to know,” said the first. “We got no problems with Jimmy the Ogre and we don’t want any.”
“Is that so.” Lucky Tom raised an eyebrow and sniffed.
“The Boss don’t like him. He sticks his fingers where they don’t belong, you know what I mean? But the Boss says now ain’t a good time to resolve this problem. So we have a…waddya call it? Détente.”
“Jimmy the Ogre’s a hard guy to get to,” Lucky Tom agreed. “He’s got a lot of protection. Influence. I can see why your boss would be…reluctant to start something.”
“What are you saying?” The second man lurched forward, a suggestion of menace in his clenched fist. “Are you saying the Boss is scared of that creep? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Did I say that?” Lucky Tom raised both hands in a placating gesture, his green eyes wide.
“Hey. Relax.” The first man laid a hand on his companion’s shoulder. “We’re all friends here, right? All in the same business? But maybe,” he swiveled his lumpy head around to fix the young man with a meaning glance, “maybe you better tell us why you’re here. Did you just stop by to chat about the weather or what?”
“Were we talking about the weather?” Lucky Tom gazed up at the sky. “It does look a bit like rain.”
“Come on, Tom.”
“Oh, all right. As a matter of fact, I didn’t just stop by to chat, amiable as I find your company. I’m here on business.”
The two large men stiffened. Lucky Tom exhaled loudly.
“Not that kind of business. You know I don’t do that. Anyway, do you think I’d come out and tell you? Please. No, I’m here on an errand. For my boss.”
“Your boss?” The first large man snorted. “I thought you were an independent operator.”
“Things change. He got me out of the cage. A guy can be grateful, can’t he? Anyway he’s…got a lot to offer.” Lucky Tom made a show of brushing an invisible speck from one black woolen sleeve.
“Nice threads,” Number Two grunted on cue.
“He sent me with a present for Mr. King. A sign of respect, you understand. To show he has no…untoward designs, or anything like that.”
“What kind of present?” Number One asked.
“I really shouldn’t…. But.” Lucky Tom produced the pink box and opened it just far enough that they could see what was inside. They whistled in unison.
“That’s some present. But the Boss don’t see just anyone who shows up at the door, you get my drift? Leave it with me and I’ll see that he gets it. I’ll see to it personally.”
Lucky Tom shook his head. “I appreciate your assurances, I really do. But my boss did insist that I deliver it myself.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Number One took a radio from his belt. “But you understand, Tommy, no means no. I like you, I really do. Don’t give me any trouble.”
“Of course.” Lucky Tom made to return the pink box to his pocket. Somehow his fingers lost their grip and it flew out of his hands. He jerked forward to catch it, colliding with Number One and causing him to stumble. When they both regained their feet, Number One had the box and Lucky Tom had the radio.
“Sorry about that. Nerves.” Smiling ingenuously, Tom returned the radio and accepted the pink box from a very puzzled Number One.
“No problem.” Number One turned his back and talked into the radio for several minutes. Then he nodded and stood aside.
“Mr. King will see you. Go on up.”
Lucky Tom proceeded up the gravel drive towards the house, where he was met at the front door by another large, suited man, who showed him through the hall, up a rear stair and down a carpeted corridor before stopping at set of pocket doors beside a large French window overlooking the gardens at the back of the house. The large man knocked softly.
“Come in,” said a rough, impatient voice.
The large man slid one of the pocket doors open just far enough for Tom to ease his way through, then closed it quickly once he had passed.
“Do I know you? What’s this about a present?”
The room was a large one fitted out as a study with built-in bookcases full of leather-bound volumes, a lectern prominently displaying an enormous dictionary (open to phanerogamia through phenomenon), several leather armchairs and a scattering of antique deal tables bearing Tiffany lamps with shades in blinding patterns of turquoise, pink and chartreuse. At the far end of the room, across a vast expanse of red Turkish carpet, stood an immense mahogany desk, ornately carved in a pseudo Gothic style. Behind the desk, framed by the red velvet drapes that covered the windows on either side, sat Mr. LaVelle King.
He was a short, squat man with the look of someone who had once been active but now did not get out much: sallow, jowly and balding. His grey, four-button suit was too tight in the stomach and too loose in the arms, and his red silk tie seemed to make breathing difficult. He squinted up at Lucky Tom with an expression of distaste, drumming his fingers on the blotter.
“I have not had the pleasure of your acquaintance, Mr. King. My name is Tom Felix, and I’m here on the behalf of my employer, Marco Csarabas.”
“Never heard of him. What is that, Hungarian?”
“Mr. Csarabas is somewhat new to the area. He is hoping to establish himself in business, but he wishes to avoid any misunderstandings.”
“Smart guy. And the present?”
“Mr. Csarabas has recently gained an interest in a shop uptown. Knowing your…influence in matters of business, he wished to send you some small token of his regard.”
“He wanted to let me know he wasn’t muscling in on my territory and get the go-ahead for his operation, you mean. Cripes, you talk like a Victorian novel. Well, hand it over.”
Lucky Tom approached the desk and produced the pink box. King’s scanty eyebrows rose.
“Rhetmann’s?” The eyebrows lowered in a frown. “Isn’t that in the Ogre’s territory?”
Lucky Tom smiled.
King opened the box and withdrew a bracelet of small platinum plates linked in a chain. The plates were set alternately with emeralds and sapphires. King’s head twitched.
“Nice piece. What’s the angle?”
“Mr. Csarabas wishes only to show you respect. And perhaps to earn yours in return.”
King leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his face. “He’ll need a lot more than my respect if he’s moving in on the Ogre. He’ll need a shroud.”
Lucky Tom said nothing. For a long minute the two men gazed at each other across the desk. The sound of the wheels turning in King’s head was almost audible.
“Okay, you can go. You tell your boss thank you from me. Tell him I’ll be thinking of him.”
Lucky Tom left the house, crunched back down the gravel drive and rode away on his bicycle, whistling.
Mark came home in the twilight and hesitated on the doorstep. He’d left work late, delaying over some trivial paperwork until the janitor gave up glaring meaningfully over the top of Mark’s cubicle and ran his screeching vacuum cleaner right under Mark’s feet. Driven out of his office, he’d wandered around downtown for a time, mingling with the crowds of young professionals who spent even their weekday evenings in a bizarre pilgrimage from fashionable bar to fashionable bar, collecting cocktail umbrellas and little plastic sabers as medieval wayfarers had collected medals from various shrines. He hadn’t really meant to walk all the way home, but when he found himself more than halfway there he thought he might as well continue. Along the way he stopped at a Vietnamese take-out place, where he ordered spring rolls and ate them from the box, leaning on the counter. Farther on, he got a cappuccino from a corner espresso stand and lingered over it for almost an hour while listening to the college kids at the next table discuss philosophers he had never heard of in important tones. About that time he realized that he was afraid to go back to his apartment. He berated himself soundly, drained the last dregs of foam from his cup, and marched out the door, making it all the way to the corner of his block before wondering if he shouldn’t give Jody a call. She’d want to know how he was doing with the cat, after all, and if the conversation lasted long enough maybe she’d let him stay the night.
It took him about two seconds to give up the idea as a bad one. There was no way he could tell Jody about the cat. If he lied, she’d know instantly, and if he didn’t, she’d think he’d finally snapped. While being locked in a psychiatric hospital somewhere would mean that he wouldn’t have to go home, that wasn’t enough to make it a pleasurable prospect. Anyway, what was there to be afraid of? So he had a talking cat. People had to deal with worse things every day. So the cat made weird demands and spoke knowingly of thugs and gangsters. For all Mark knew, that was normal for cats. Maybe every cat would say the same thing, if it could talk. At least his cat seemed motivated by gratitude, which was more than Mark was led to believe about others of the species.
Shaking his head, Mark unlocked the front door and proceeded upstairs. Flipping on the light, he saw the cat sprawled on the sofa, fast asleep. It didn’t even rouse itself when Mark sat down beside it and stroked its head.
“Hard day, buddy?”
The cat opened one eye a slit, then closed it again, squirming around until its belly was exposed. Obligingly, Mark rubbed the proffered area.
“That’s great,” the cat murmured, purring. “You can just keep doing that for about the next five years.”
It didn’t say anything more, and Mark had to admit it was kind of soothing, just sitting there, petting the cat, not thinking about anything at all. He decided he was right; the cat talked big, but it meant nothing. He had a pet with an unusual talent, like having a horse that could count or a seeing-eye dog. It wasn’t anything to worry about.
After a while, Mark got up and went to bed. On the way there, his eyes fell on the boots, sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, just where he had left them. For a minute he thought there was something funny about them, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was, so he forgot about it.
The cat jumped on the bed and curled up next to him, and that was nice, too.
The cat didn’t go out the next day, or the day after that, but on Friday morning the boots went on, the bike was summoned, and Lucky Tom rode off. After a brief stop, he appeared at Boss King’s gate bearing a large, flat box. The two large men allowed him to pass almost immediately, and before long he was back in Boss King’s study. The Boss’s voice was just as impatient and harsh and he wore a suit that fit just as badly, but his face was marginally more welcoming than it had been before.
“What’s this? Another present?”
Lucky Tom nodded.
“From Marco Csarabas?”
“From Marco Csarabas.”
“Let’s have it.”
Lucky Tom placed the box on the desk. The box’s label bore the name of an exclusive restaurant, and inside were two dozen fresh filet mignon. Boss King looked down at the steaks, up at Tom, and back down. He closed the box and read the label several times, slowly.
“These are from Porthos’,” he said, unnecessarily.
“So they are.”
“Porthos’ is in the Ogre’s territory.”
Lucky Tom shrugged.
“Kid, I think your boss is playing a dangerous game here. A very dangerous game. Sit down.”
Lucky Tom perched carefully on a horsehair chair placed conveniently on the client’s side of the desk. The seat was slippery and he had to work at not falling off.
“I asked around. No one’s ever heard of this Marco Csarabas.”
“He’s new to the area. As I told you.”
King snorted. “Right. He’s so new he’s invisible. He can just walk in and start taking over Jimmy the Ogre’s businesses without anyone noticing.”
“Mr. Csarabas is a man of many talents.”
“I’m sure.” King drummed his fingers on the desk. His sleeve pulled away from his wrist, and Lucky Tom could not help but notice that he was wearing the platinum bracelet. It had been made for a woman and did not suit him.
“People have heard of you, though.”
Lucky Tom raised one red eyebrow.
“They call you Lucky Tom.”
“It’s a play on my name.”
“Yeah, I know that. Unlike some people, I had an education. Are you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you? Lucky?”
“I believe in making my own luck.”
“Uh-huh. They say you and the Ogre have…how shall I put this? Issues.”
“We knew each other in the old country.”
“In the old country? What were you, three? Don’t tell me—he was a schoolyard bully and you never got over it.”
Lucky Tom smiled an unusually enigmatic smile, even for him. “Something like that.”
“Okay, Lucky Tom. I know there are some things that aren’t discussed. So. Let me tell you how I read this situation.” King leaned forward and crossed his hands. “You and the Ogre have some kind of private feud on. Fine. It doesn’t disturb me; I don’t care. Then something happens and you decide enough is enough. But you’re an independent operator and the Ogre has protection. You can’t get to him alone. So you enlist some guy just off the boat. He’s a patsy. You say he’s your boss, but you’re running the show. Am I right so far?”
“Your interpretation is very interesting. Do go on.”
“Whatever. This guy starts moving in on the Ogre in little ways. He’s too small to see, maybe. But eventually the Ogre will catch on. So you suggest that this guy, this Marco Csarabas, send me a present or two. This is supposed to get my attention and it does. I’m supposed to think that here’s a guy who’s willing to go up against the Ogre. What’s more, by sending me these presents, he’s saying that whatever he can get away from the Ogre really belongs to me. He’s…ah…paying me a tribute, like. Making me his overlord, you might say. So when the Ogre comes down on him, which he eventually will, I’m bound to protect him.”
“That is historically one of the obligations of an overlord, yes.”
“Some guys might think this is a pretty good deal. I don’t have to start anything. As far as the Ogre knows, I’m in the clear. And if this Marco Csarabas goes up against the Ogre and wins, well, I’m the boss of twice the territory I am now. No sweat. But me, I’m a businessman. I’m smart enough to know the house always wins in the end, and I didn’t get where I am by letting some low-life run a game right under my nose.”
“The house may always win. It’s not always so easy to know whose house you’re in.”
“Jimmy the Ogre is the biggest operator on the dry side of this town. My money says it’s his house. I already decided to keep out of it. I don’t like being manipulated. Get out of here. I don’t want to see your face in this room again.”
Lucky Tom got up and headed for the doors, calmly and without any sign of hurrying. When he reached them, he paused.
“I hear the Ogre has his eye on the wet side.”
He heard King shift in his chair. “Yeah. Tell me something I don’t already know.”
Tom turned around. “Your analysis has merit, Mr. King. But let me ask you something. What if Marco Csarabas isn’t a patsy at all? What if he really could see to it that the Ogre was…how shall I put this? No longer a problem?”
“That’s two questions.”
King smiled, widely and without humour, showing two gold teeth at one corner of his mouth. “Well, Mr. Felix, if Marco Csarabas isn’t a patsy, he’s a damned fool. And as for seeing that Jimmy the Ogre is no longer a problem…. Let’s just say that I’d like to meet the man who could accomplish that.”
Lucky Tom smiled. “I think that could be arranged.”
Mark’s week was remarkably uneventful, considering the astonishing way in which it had begun. After Tuesday, he went to work in the mornings and came home in the evenings much as he had done for the past six months, with only the slightest shiver as he unlocked his door each night to hint that he was on the lookout for strangeness within. It helped that the cat had ceased to talk about gangsters or hint at mysterious plans. In fact, the cat had ceased to talk much at all, but conducted itself as Mark imagined any cat would. It seemed to spend a great deal of its time sleeping. Often when Mark got home he would find it stretched out on the sofa or curled up in his laundry, apparently oblivious, as if it had spent the day engaged in heavy manual labour and was too exhausted to do more than twitch an ear at his arrival. Occasionally a strange fit would take it and it would race around the apartment like a maniac, launching itself off counters and clawing its way up the drapes as if pursued by demons that Mark couldn’t see. This was mildly disconcerting, as was the cat’s habit of spending long whiles crouched in corners, staring intently at the join of wall and floor as if watching some invisible mouse hole. These sessions inevitably ended with the cat’s shaking itself, swiping a moistened paw once or twice around its ears and sauntering off without a backward glance, as if to deny absolutely that it had been engaged in anything untoward. But as none of these behaviors seemed outside the realm of what was normal for a cat that didn’t talk, Mark quickly stopped being alarmed by them, and even became amused.
From time to time the cat did still exhibit signs of what Mark came to think of as its own unique personality. Though it would and did eat regular cat food—in fact, it insisted that a full bowl of Tender Vittles be always at its disposal—it demanded coffee and eggs for breakfast and sent Mark out nightly for expensive beer. That it did so with words rather than the usual non-verbal feline hints and nudges, Mark soon ceased to wonder at. Nor did he consider it peculiar when the cat would perch on his shoulder while he was writing and offer criticism on the work in progress. In fact, the cat’s comments were insightful more often than not, to the point where Mark began to solicit its opinion. All in all, living with the cat was rather like having an eccentric roommate, and one much less troublesome than a human roommate would have been. The cat did not throw wild parties, invite home strangers it had picked up in coffee shops, or run up enormous phone bills to foreign countries. It didn’t leave its dirty socks strewn about the living room or offer feeble excuses when the rent was due. By mid-week, Mark was beginning to think that Jody had been quite right to insist on his acquiring a pet, and by Saturday he couldn’t even remember what his life had been like before the cat had come into it.
He meant to spend Saturday writing. In some inexplicable way, ideas had begun to flow again with the cat’s arrival; he had worked a little each night and was coming to a particularly important part of his story. It was a section he’d had planned from the outset, and he expected it to roll out from his fingertips with hardly a second thought. In the beginning it did, and for two hours he hunched over the keyboard tapping away, from time to time chuckling to himself when an especially deft turn of phrase called his attention to his own genius.
Then he began to think, and it all fell apart.
Had events really led up to this incident? He thought they had. Reading back over what he had written, it seemed that they had, but suddenly he couldn’t be sure. Maybe it only made sense in his mind. Maybe any other reader would find the passage incoherent. Maybe his entire idea was incoherent. All at once, every word he had written seemed entirely random, as if he had pulled them out of a hat without looking. And the flaws! Was his protagonist really such an idiot that he hadn’t seen this coming? Surely it had been hinted at enough! The whole work was contrived. The plot was inane, and the characters had nothing original to say. What was he doing, wasting his time with this garbage? He should delete the whole thing and start over.
“What is it?”
The cat had jumped up onto the desk, interposing itself between Mark’s hands and the keyboard.
“This!” Mark gestured futilely at the monitor. “It’s tripe. Garbage. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t make it work.”
The cat glanced at the screen. “Would you like me to read it?”
“Yes. No. I don’t think I should inflict this on anyone.”
“I know what’s wrong with you, kid. You’re working too hard. Remember, until this week you hadn’t done a thing for months. You can hardly expect to have the stamina you once had. You need a break.”
“But I need to get to….”
“Listen to me.” The cat gave a warning swipe in the direction of Mark’s face. “Don’t make me take the claws out, hear? You got too wrapped up and you can’t see where you’re going. Get out, clear your head, and come back to it later. While you’re gone, I’ll read what you have here and then we’ll talk about it.”
“What’s to talk about? I stink.”
“You’re in no position to judge. Now scram. Get out of here. Don’t come back for an hour. Have some coffee or something. Ogle the pretty dames in the park. Just put this out of your mind. I’m sure it will look better when you come back.”
Under the cat’s glare, Mark reluctantly shoved his chair back and got up. Maybe the cat was right. He did feel foggy and disoriented, as if a headache was coming on. Staring at the monitor wasn’t getting him anywhere. Fresh air would probably do him good.
It did help the incipient headache, but after more than an hour of wandering aimlessly up one street and down the next, Mark didn’t feel any better about his work. He returned to the apartment in a foul mood, to find the cat asleep on the sofa.
“Well?” he asked without preamble. “Did you read it?”
“I did,” replied the cat without moving.
“You got a call while you were out.”
“Yeah? Did you take a message?”
“Funny. She left one on your machine.”
The cat flicked its tail. “It was a dame. A chick. A broad. Some upscale name. Not your class at all.”
Mark leapt for the answering machine, his pathetic novel entirely forgotten. He knew only one “upscale dame” who might be calling.
“Hi, Mark,” the machine recited when he punched the flashing button. “It’s Daniella. I guess you know that. Listen, I’ve been thinking about you. A lot. I think maybe I was wrong. I really miss you. Can you meet me tonight at eight at the Rio Grande? I’ll be wearing that black dress you like.”
Mark sank to the floor, his heart palpitating.
“Your ex, huh?”
“She wants to see me.”
“So I heard.” The cat yawned audibly. “Bad news, if you ask me. We’re getting along perfectly fine without her. Take her back and the next thing you know it’ll be ‘Why can’t you make more money?’ and ‘Ick, you got cat hair on my silk blouse!’ Forget about her.”
Mark twisted to face the sofa. “Listen, it’s still my life. If Daniella wants to see me, the least I can do is go hear what she has to say.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s your funeral.” The cat turned its face away. Later, Mark would remember that it had seemed to be smiling.
Mark planned his assault carefully. His best black suit—the one usually reserved for weddings and funerals—came out of the closet, along with a brand new dress shirt and the paisley silk tie his grandmother had given him two Christmases before but he had never found occasion to wear. If Daniella was having second thoughts about her varnished lawyer, Mark at least wanted to measure up. His shoes were old, but he gave them a polish and hoped they’d pass. He shaved carefully and slicked back his shaggy black hair with some shiny stuff that Daniella had left behind but he hadn’t got around to throwing away; he hoped she wouldn’t recognize the scent. Lastly, for the hell of it, he dug up his old college ring and the garnet tie pin Grandfather Csarabas had left Mark in his will. The accessories gave him the right touch of class, he thought.
He considered flowers and decided an offering of that kind would seem too desperate. He needed to appear cool and detached. Let Daniella talk, but not respond too warmly or quickly. Keep her guessing. Make her think there was someone else in his life, maybe. At least, make her wonder whether he’d take her back.
At a quarter to eight, he called a cab. Leaving it so late was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but he knew if he got there before her, he’d look like a schmuck.
At five after eight, the cab pulled up in front of the Rio Grande, a newer downtown nightspot with a surreal Western theme. It was the only public business in a slightly seedy district of run-down warehouses and loft apartments thus far unredeemed by gentrification. The animated neon bronco buster over its stucco façade cast eerie blue and red shadows over the almost-deserted street, causing Mark to look over his shoulder more than once as he paid the cabbie and sent him away. The inside of the bar was equally empty; either the usual crowd came later or the place hadn’t caught on yet and there was no usual crowd. Either way, it made sense that Daniella would pick it for an assignation.
Except Daniella wasn’t there.
Mark hesitated. He had two choices, it seemed. He could go in and wait for her at the bar: that was something he really didn’t want to do. He wouldn’t put it past Daniella to have told him eight o’clock while planning to show up at eight-thirty or even nine, just so she could make him wait. But he was done with that kind of game, and that left him with choice number two. He’d go for a walk around the block. If Daniella had arrived by the time he got back, he’d go in. If not, he’d go home and see how she liked being stood up for a change.
If anything, the street was even more deserted when Mark put this plan in action than it had been upon his arrival, and for a minute he wondered whether he was doing something really, really stupid. Even the best places downtown weren’t really places where any sane person wanted to walk alone after dark. But he was mad, and he was determined not to lose what he had just decided was going to be a fight rather than a reconciliation. He set off down the sidewalk at a good clip, looking neither right nor left, and by the time he came to the corner, he was breathing easier.
Then he noticed the kid.
Mark couldn’t see him well. He was standing across the street, just outside the circle of flickering light from one of the infrequent street lamps, so that all Mark really caught was the impression of a man-shaped shadow in the corner of his eye. Even when he turned, startled, the impression remained indistinct. There was something that might have been baggy pants, something that might have been spiked hair and, at the waist, the suggestion of something silver that gleamed.
It was only some loser kid hanging out. Mark went on.
Halfway down the side street, he heard footsteps. Following him.
He looked around, but he couldn’t see anything but the dark shape of some small animal, an alley cat, maybe, darting from shadow to shadow along the side of the warehouse to the right. Still, Mark picked up his pace. He thought about turning back and heading for the bar, but the idea of going towards whatever-it-was that followed filled him with unreasoning terror. He kept running, hoping he’d come upon a cab. The one that had brought him couldn’t be too far.
The footsteps kept coming. They sounded nearer. Mark careened around the next corner into another empty street, panting as much from fear as from exertion. He was pretty sure that soon he would collapse into a gibbering mass on the pavement, begging his pursuer to take his wallet, take his clothes, take anything, just leave him alone.
He was at the mouth of an alley when it caught him. At the touch of a hand on his elbow, he screamed. He tried to pull away, but his captor’s grip was too strong. Mark stumbled and spun around. Blinking sweat from his eyes he came face to face with a slight, red-haired young man in cargo pants and combat boots. He knew it was the kid from the corner.
The kid held a two-by-four in one hand.
“You know,” he said in conversational tones, “it really isn’t safe to walk around at night all by yourself.”
His voice was familiar; for a minute, Mark didn’t know why. Then, with a sinking sense that what he was experiencing could not possibly be real, he did. It was the cat’s voice. All at once, Mark remembered how he had glanced at the boots standing by his sofa several nights before and how they had seemed odd in some way that didn’t quite register. Time slowed to a crawl, giving Mark an infinite moment to examine the image that flashed before his eyes. When he’d left for work Tuesday morning, the boots had been brand new and pristine, just out of the box. But when he’d come home, there’d been mud stains all around the insteps.
Mark started to giggle, a high-pitched wheezing sound that he could not accept was coming from himself.
“I’m really sorry about this, kid,” said the…cat?…dragging Mark into the alley. “But I’ve got a plan, and I knew you’d never go along with it if I asked you. Don’t worry. Everything will turn out all right.”
Then the two-by-four connected with Mark’s head, and he went down, his face ploughing right into those damned Dr. Marten boots.
From far off up the street there came the crunch of tires as a big car turned the corner. The cat chuckled.
“Right on time.” It whacked Mark once more with the board, just for good measure.
I really, really wanted a dog, Mark thought. Then he heard the cat’s voice, yelling. It sounded like it was calling for help, but the words didn’t make any sense.
“My master, Marco Csarabas, has been set upon by bandits!” That’s what Mark thought he heard.
Then he didn’t hear anything at all for a long, long time.
Mark came to in a bed, but he knew better, this time, than to think that he had been dreaming. In the first place, his whole body hurt and his head ached so fiercely that any abrupt movement made him see the proverbial stars.
In the second place, it wasn’t his own bed. Even before he opened his eyes he knew that, because he was sprawled on it like the naked guy in that Da Vinci drawing and his hands still didn’t reach the edges. The sheets under his fingers were unfamiliar too, neither the threadbare percale that he used in summer nor the nubby flannel reserved for winter. Smooth yet stiff: possibly linen. Who could afford linen sheets?
Cautiously, Mark sat up. A single glance at his surroundings confirmed that he was nowhere he had ever been before. He was in a large room furnished abundantly in a Victorian style with more dressers—all topped with lace runners—than were strictly necessary, a large, antique-looking wardrobe, and half a dozen occasional tables bearing china knickknacks of indefinite taste and value. A mirrored dressing table on the right wall bore an assortment of silver-backed brushes and combs; beside it stood an old-fashioned washstand complete with pitcher and basin. In the middle of it all was the bed, a more than king-sized monstrosity with a gilded headboard that would not have been out of place in Louis XIV’s Versailles.
A severe pinch on the thigh convinced Mark he was not still suffering the effects of the blow to his head and hallucinating some weird, anachronistic alternate reality, but it gave him no clue as to where he really was.
The idea that he had hallucinated at least part of his night’s adventure retained some appeal, however. Maybe he’d been mugged and some well-to-do passerby had found him and brought him home to recover. There were serious holes in this theory—why take him home? Why not take him to a hospital?—but it was far better than believing he’d been set up and assaulted by his cat.
Extricating himself with difficulty from the bed, Mark dragged himself over to the dressing table, along the way narrowly avoiding knocking over an emaciated plinth bearing an assortment of glass horses, and examined himself in the mirror. Aside from needing a shave, he didn’t look too bad. One eye was blackened, his lip was split and puffy and a butterfly bandage on his left temple hid some cut or other. It could have been worse. The bandage actually gave him a rakish appearance that was not entirely unattractive. He wondered if the wound would leave an interesting scar.
He was still sitting at the dressing table in his underwear, practicing a devilish expression and wondering if the set of straight razors he had found in an embossed, leather case were actually meant to be used, when the door opened. Mark whirled around, groaning when his ribs reminded him that sudden movement was not a good idea.
The young man who had just entered was red-haired and green-eyed. He wore an immaculate black pinstripe suit and, barely concealed by his pant cuffs, incongruous and frighteningly familiar black combat boots. Over one arm he carried a dry cleaner’s bag.
“So, you’re among the living.” He laid the bag across the foot of the bed and regarded Mark with a narrowed eye. “None the worse for wear, I trust?”
“You!” Mark knew it was an inane thing to say, but he couldn’t help himself.
“In the flesh. Or maybe I should say, in this flesh.” He waved a hand at the dry cleaner’s bag. “Come on, get dressed. We haven’t got a lot of time here. Mr. King doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Mr. King? Time? What are you talking about? Where am I? For that matter, why did you attack me?” Then, “You’re not my cat!”
“Keep it down!” The young man shushed Mark violently. “Do you want to blow my cover? You never know who might be listening. Here I’m known as Tom Felix, a.k.a. Lucky Tom, obsequious servant and errand runner for the up-and-coming gentleman of business, Marco Csarabas. That’s you, by the way.”
Mark stared, open-mouthed, until he could feel drool threatening to drip off his chin.
“You’re not my cat,” he repeated lamely. He was pretty sure he was wrong about that, but he wasn’t about to accept something so impossible until he absolutely had to.
The young man sighed. “Some people.”
There was a flicker in the room, like the haze over the highway on a very hot day, and where the young man had stood seconds before the orange cat crouched, a disgusted look on its furry face. Another flicker, and the young man was back.
“I trust that’s good enough for you.”
“It’s a trick. They do that kind of thing all the time in Vegas.”
“Like you would know. But okay, let’s say it’s a trick. Let’s say I’ve been hypnotizing you all the last week, making you see a cat instead of the mug that’s in front of you right now. Hell, let’s say I hypnotized the whole pound just so I could curl up in that divine little cage and worry about whether someone would spring me before my time was up. That doesn’t change anything. You’re here, and the only way we’re both going to get out of here without trouble is if you do exactly what I say. Now get dressed.”
Mark got up, padded towards the bed and started to reach for the cleaner’s bag. Then he stopped, shaking his head.
“No. No deal. I’m not doing anything you say until I get some kind of explanation.”
“Look, kid, we don’t have time for this. Mr. King is waiting. He’s not best pleased with either of us at the moment, so I wouldn’t do anything to aggravate the situation, if you get my drift.”
“I don’t care.” Mark parked himself on the bed, leaned up against the headboard and stared at the young man expectantly. The young man scowled. Mark scowled back, trying to imagine what it felt like to be a tough guy.
“Fine,” said the young man—what was his name? Tom, Lucky Tom. “Fine,” said Lucky Tom after a long minute. “I’ll sing. What do you want to know?”
“What are you?”
Lucky Tom shook his head. “That’s not important, and I’m not sure I could explain if it were.”
“Fairy? Demon? Elemental being?” Mark searched his head for the names of all the otherworldly entities he could think of. “No, don’t tell me. You’re my Guardian Angel.”
“You’re a funny guy, you know that, kid? Look, I told you it isn’t important. But if you must know, all those words are flawed ways of trying to describe something that no one really understands. And no one understands it because your little human minds can’t grasp what we are.”
“We? There are more like you?”
Lucky Tom grinned. “Not exactly like me, no. But more of the kind of thing I am. We’re everywhere.”
“Then why doesn’t everyone know about you?”
“Because we don’t care whether you do or not. We’re independent from you, get it? What you do or don’t do, whether you believe in us or not—who cares? It makes no difference.”
“Right. So little difference that you had to hit me over the head with a two-by-four to make me go along with your little plan.”
Lucky Tom looked uncomfortable. “Okay, you got me. The truth is, we have our limits. There are things we can do that you can’t, but there are other things you can do that we can’t. That’s just our nature. And we have to abide by certain rules.”
“What kind of rules?”
“Let’s just say that…well, a fish can’t breathe air, right? And if a fish gets stranded on dry land, all it can do is flop around until it dies. Unless someone who can breathe air throws it back in the water.”
“We can get into situations that we can’t get out of without human intervention. Is that clear enough for you?”
“Clear as mud,” Mark mumbled, but he gestured for the young man to go on.
“So, there are a lot of us around. I’m one. Jimmy the Ogre is another.”
Lucky Tom nodded. “And it’s not just a term of endearment. He’s really an ogre. The kind that eats innocent children for breakfast. Or at least he did; I don’t know about now. He’s also the biggest crime boss on the dry side of this town.”
“Why would an ogre want to be a crime boss?” Mark asked, his head reeling.
“Well, ogres in general like to run things. When you’re the boss you can indulge in all kinds of nasty habits without anyone asking difficult questions. But the reason he’d want to be a crime boss is simple: protection. You remember what I said about rules? One rule is that magic—I hate to use the word but there really isn’t another one—and mundane matters don’t mix. You can’t get through magical protections in a mundane way and you can’t get through mundane protections with magic. Jimmy the Ogre has lots of enemies among my kind. But if he has mundane protections, none of them can get to him without taking a mundane route. And that’s something most of my kind prefer not to do, or they don’t know how. You get me?”
“No.” But Lucky Tom didn’t hear, or else he chose not to.
“Jimmy the Ogre and I go way back. I didn’t come hunting him, I swear! But when I turned up here, he knew that here’s a guy who’s not above enlisting a little mundane help from time to time. So he went after me. I wasn’t ready for a big offensive, so I did the only thing I could. I ditched the boots and….”
“Wait a minute. You ditched the boots? What do the boots have to do with it?”
“Lots of us…um…well, what you might call our identities aren’t centralized. You know that old saw about the guy who keeps his soul in an egg? It’s like that.”
“Oh,” Mark said weakly.
“My boots are that way, too. I’m not as…complete without them. I’m stuck in my cat shape, for one thing. Well, I knew if the Ogre got my boots I was finished. So I hid them with Rudy the Cobbler….”
“That pierced guy?”
“No, that just Donny, Rudy’s human agent. Anyway, like I was saying, I hid the boots and took my chances. The next thing I knew, the Ogre’s goons caught up with me and took me to the pound, a place I couldn’t escape without mundane help. Fortunately, you came along, and here we are.”
“Why didn’t they just kill you?”
Lucky Tom shrugged. “I wondered that myself. Maybe he just meant it as a warning. Maybe he didn’t want to explain to his goons why he was sending them to kill a cat. Or maybe he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty. If someone hadn’t come along pretty soon, he wouldn’t have had to worry about it anymore. You know they post a little card on your cage, telling how much time you’ve got left? It’s like being on death row, without the appeals.” He shuddered. “Tell you one thing, though. I wasn’t gunning for him before. I am now. This town isn’t safe for any of us, while the Ogre’s loose.”
He prodded the bag again. “Now get dressed.”
Mark did. He wasn’t any clearer in his mind about what exactly was going on and what part he was supposed to play in it, and the further instructions that Lucky Tom reeled off as he donned his newly cleaned and pressed suit didn’t help. One thing he grasped, though. The house he was in belonged to the same Mr. LaVelle King of dubious reputation that the cat had spoken of before. Mr. King would not take kindly to finding out he had been conned. So it seemed that Mark was obliged to go along with whatever Lucky Tom said, up to and including impersonating the fictitious Marco Csarabas. It was not a prospect that filled Mark with delight. At least the name was his own and he wouldn’t have to remember to answer to a false one.
“You ready?” Lucky Tom glanced impatiently from Mark to the door.
Mark delayed by the mirror, giving a final polish to his hair. He had to admit that the suit made him look the part. He wondered if Daniella would have recognized him, had their meeting actually come off.
“Did she even really call me?”
He had meant the question for himself, but Lucky Tom answered.
“Sure. Just like Mr. King really drove by and really picked you up.”
“Oh, it’s not so hard to arrange that kind of coincidence. A rowan twig, a little red thread, and Bob’s your uncle.” Lucky Tom flashed a grin that disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I’m not saying either of them will remember quite why they did what they did now, though.”
“Why does that not fill me with confidence?”
But that question Lucky Tom chose not to answer, and there was nothing for Mark to do but follow his erstwhile cat downstairs to breakfast.
Lucky Tom left Mark in front of the dining room doors.
“Aren’t you coming with me?” Mark hissed, all too aware of the very large men stationed at intervals throughout the hall.
“I have errands to run. Things to do,” Lucky Tom replied, equally low. “Just say what I told you. You’ll be fine.”
“But…” They have guns, he had been going to say. Real guns with real bullets. This, in Mark’s opinion, was an important distinction.
Lucky Tom didn’t give him a chance. “Look, kid, if this all works out you’ll have it made. Trust me. You’ll be fine,” he insisted, shoving Mark through the door.
Like the rest of the house, the dining room was decorated with the weird combination of ornate furniture and offbeat collectibles that Mark thought of as “Flea Market Louvre.” A Queen Anne dining set and sideboard were the center attraction. They shared the room with a handy display of South Sea tribal masks and weapons, a large mirror in a heavy gold frame, a painting that was either a real Gaugin or a copy so good as to make no difference, and a china hutch incongruously filled with Precious Moments figurines. A pair of French doors in filmy draperies stood open to a flagstone terrace at the back of the house. Through them Mark saw, at a discrete distance, yet another very large man in a black suit. The man caught Mark looking at him and nodded. Mark swallowed.
The table could easily have sat two dozen. It was set for two at the far end. One of those places was occupied by a small, balding man eating sausages with a sterling silver fork. Mark didn’t think he had made a sound, but he must have breathed loud or something because before he had taken very many steps the man put down his fork and stood up, holding out his hand. After a minute, Mark took it. It was plump, warm and slightly sweaty.
“Mr. Csarabas,” King said. “A pleasure to meet you at last. Help yourself to some breakfast.” He waved at the sideboard, where a number of silver chafing dishes were arrayed over little chemical burners of the sort caterers used. Mark could smell bacon and eggs, the expected sausages and something else vaguely familiar that might have been oatmeal. His stomach turned over, reminding him that it wasn’t happy about the current situation and daring him to do something about it.
“Thanks, just coffee,” he said.
King poured him a cup from the silver pot on the table.
“Cream? Sugar?” Mark declined both and King sat back down. “I’ll get straight to the point, Mr. Csarabas. Your antics with Jimmy the Ogre have put me in a very difficult position. As long as you kept to the dry side of town, I was willing to ignore it. But you were on my turf when his people administered their little warning last night. Not only that, but I happened to be driving by. Now what am I supposed to do about that?”
“I don’t see why you have to do anything about it,” Mark said, glad to be able to tell the truth about that, at least. Lucky Tom’s instructions regarding this encounter had been less than explicit, but he had suggested that Mark stick to the truth as much as possible; that way, he had said, the rest of the story would be easier to believe. Mark did not find this reassuring. He gulped his coffee, trying hard not to think about the reality of being sequestered in a room with a notorious crime boss. Most of all, he tried not to think about what would happen if the notorious crime boss found out Mark was not what he claimed to be. His hand shook as he replaced his coffee cup precisely on its saucer.
“Mr. Csarabas, really.” Boss King sounded disconcertingly like that sentient program Hugo Weaving had played in the Matrix movies. “What will it do to my reputation if it gets around that people with whom I do business can’t walk the streets of the wet side in any safety?”
Mark thought about that, hoping that his hesitation would appear to come from deliberate reserve rather than abject terror. He had complained to Lucky Tom about the lack of script to no avail. Tom had a general idea of the way the conversation was likely to go, but no way of knowing what Boss King would actually say. It was up to Mark to play along. He was a writer; it shouldn’t be too difficult. So, what would a tough guy say? Something abstruse, yet full of meaning to those in the know. Yeah.
“Big houses have rats.” Mark toyed with his coffee cup in what he hoped was a show of careless confidence. “Sometimes they get into things, sure. Sometimes they make a mess. But is it worth it to hunt down every rat?”
King grimaced. “Muggings happen, you mean. Even in my territory. Well, you’re right. They do, and I can’t stop them all, or waste my time chasing every punk who rolls some idiot in an alley. But, Mr. Csarabas, you and I know this wasn’t just any mugging. What’s more, Jimmy the Ogre knows it. If I don’t respond, he may get the idea that I can’t take care of my own. And then I’ll wake up one day, and the rats won’t just be in the cellar. They’ll be in my house.”
“Jimmy the Ogre has no reason to connect us,” Mark shrugged.
King held up his wrist, displaying something that glittered. “After all the nice presents you gave me? Presents, I might add, that came from his territory?”
“I never gave you any presents.”
King chuckled. “Preserve deniability at all costs, is that it? Nice try. Unfortunately, your sidekick has a big mouth. He talked to my guys. Hell, he even showed them the goods.”
“And you can’t trust your guys?”
There was a long silence. “I trust my guys,” King said finally, scowling a little with the corners of his mouth. “I trust them so far and no farther. Anyone can be got to. Especially in a war.”
“War?” Mark sat up; he didn’t have to feign surprise. It took him a minute to collect himself. I’m cool, he reminded himself and lifted a sardonic eyebrow. It was an expression he had practiced to impress girls, but he’d never had a chance to try it out. “Who said anything about a war, Mr. King?”
“I wasn’t born yesterday. I know where this is leading, and I don’t want any part of it. I decided my position in relation to the Ogre a long time ago, and I don’t have any cause to change it.”
“Really. Why did you pick me up then?” That was something Mark really wanted to know. “Why not just leave me in the street?”
King shook his head slowly. “Really? I don’t know. There I am on my way to the show, and bam! Your guy is running out in front of my limo, screaming his head off, and the next thing I know you’re in my house and I’m wondering if the best thing to do wouldn’t be to put a bullet through your head and dump you in the lake.”
“So why don’t you?” Mark asked shakily.
“I don’t know. Maybe because I want to hear your side of the story. Or maybe because that would be doing the Ogre a favour.”
The two men stared at each other across the table. Boss King’s gaze, Mark noticed, was remarkably patient. Mark supposed he could afford to be. His eyes were that watery blue that it was easy to mistake for weak. Lucky Tom had warned Mark not to make that mistake.
Mark cleared his throat. It was time to set the hook, as it were. He had stopped wondering why in hell he was doing this. Without actually giving details, Lucky Tom had convinced him that everything depended on his playing his part and playing it well. Besides, he was kind of enjoying himself. He opened his mouth and gave the speech he’d been rehearsing in his head ever since leaving his room.
“Mr. King, I appreciate your concern. You’ve been very understanding.”
“I know that you’ve found recent events somewhat troubling, and I wouldn’t expect any less of you. But I can assure you that you have no need to worry. The situation is under control.”
“Yeah? And what’s the Ogre going to say about that?”
Mark gave a dangerous smile. It helped that the interruption had nettled him. He regarded his fingernails coolly, to cover the fact that he was scrambling for his lines.
“The Ogre isn’t an issue. Mr. King, you’re a businessman. You’re concerned with results, not causes. So you don’t really need to know why I’ve done what I’ve done. Maybe I have a personal bone to pick. Maybe I share your very justifiable anxiety over the Ogre’s existence; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve taken steps to see that the Ogre is no longer a problem to anyone.”
“What kind of steps?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“If you’re asking for my help, you better believe I need to know that.”
“Mr. King, you don’t seem to get it. I don’t need your help. I was never asking for it. I’m happy to have met you, but the fact that you happened along during my unfortunate encounter last night is the merest coincidence and my plans were well advanced long before your fortuitous arrival. I can assure you that you don’t need to know exactly what I’m doing.” Mark glanced ostentatiously at his watch, an apparently genuine Rolex that Lucky Tom had provided and Mark hadn’t questioned. “In fact, it’s already done.”
“You’re telling me that while we’ve been sitting here, you’ve had a hit put on Jimmy the Ogre?”
“Nothing so crude as that.”
“But what…?” Boss King seemed to change his mind about what he had been going to say. “Okay. Let’s say I believe you. Why involve me at all?”
“I think my associate made it clear that I wished to show you respect. But if that doesn’t satisfy you…there is something you can do for me.”
King’s eyes narrowed. “Now we have it.”
“It’s nothing dangerous. All I want is for you to take a drive with me.”
“A drive? Where? Why?”
“Jimmy the Ogre is history. You can believe me when I say that. Soon everyone will know, and you won’t have to take my word for it. But I’ve arranged things very quietly. No one but you even knows I exist. So who’s to say what happened or who was responsible? Mr. King, I’m sure you understand the value of a witness—someone who can verify the facts. I want you to witness what I’ve done, so that when people start asking questions there’s one person who can say, ‘This is what happened.’ That’s all.”
King tapped his fingers on the table for a full minute. Then he stood up. Turning to the open French doors, he bellowed to the goon outside.
“Jerry! Get Fred and Pete and bring the limo around to the front. We’re going for a drive.” He turned back to Mark, his weak blue eyes expressionless. “A drive on the dry side.”
Mark felt like he was going to throw up.
Lucky Tom had to detour a long way downtown before he found a ragweed stalk suitable to taking him where he needed to go. He could get bicycles from most anything, but a bicycle would not be flashy enough for this mission. The delay did not trouble him. When he finally found what he was looking for—a queen among ragweed, a full four feet tall and with a stalk as big around as his wrist—he drove away in a sleek black car of inscrutable make and model, arriving at his destination several minutes before he had left.
His destination was a popular dry-side deli, one he knew paid protection money to the Ogre. He pulled into a conveniently vacant parking space directly in front, got out of the car, and spent a minute or two arranging his suit, giving the loiterers in the area plenty of time to make him. Then, walking with a swagger that was only a little different from his normal manner, he barged through the deli doors like a gunfighter into an old west saloon. The breakfast rush was over and the lunch rush had not yet begun, so there was less of a crowd than he would have hoped for: only a group of old men lingering over coffee, but he posed just within the doors for their benefit. When he was sure all their eyes were locked on him, he strode over to the nearest table, one from which the breakfast litter had not yet been cleared, and knocked it over.
“Hey!” The crash caught the attention of the man behind the meat counter, as it had been meant to do. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Lucky Tom swaggered over and leaned on the counter. “I’ve got a message for the guy in charge here. You him?”
“I’m the owner, yeah.”
“Well, Mr. Owner, I’m here to tell you that this place belongs to Marco Csarabas now. You get me? Anyone comes asking, you tell him so, or you’ll be sorry.”
Mr. Owner laughed in a not very amused way. “Marco Csarabas? Never heard of him.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“Problem?” Mr. Owner snorted. “You wanna talk problem, fuck-off? You’re the one with the problem, coming in here and disrupting business like that. I just gotta make one phone call and your ass is history. You get me?”
Lucky Tom showed his teeth. “Marco Csarabas. Remember.”
He turned away and swaggered out.
“Hey, fuck-off! Clean up your mess on the way out, and maybe I’ll forget!” Mr. Owner called after him, but Lucky Tom was already out the door.
He played similar scenes in three other businesses before the Ogre’s goons caught up with him.
“Took you long enough,” he murmured as he felt hands close on his arms.
“The boss wants to see you,” one of the goons informed him as they hustled him into a car.
Lucky Tom just smiled.
They drove him to an apparently abandoned warehouse deep in the heart of the dry side. One of the goons fiddled with a control on the dashboard of the car, and a chain-link gate heavily topped with razor wire swung open. They parked around back and dragged Lucky Tom out of the car and into the warehouse, which was anything but abandoned. He was marched through a noisy chop shop and manhandled into a freight elevator—the kind that was little more than a platform enclosed in wire mesh. At that point he thought it might be good to put up a fight, and was rewarded with a punch to the jaw that left him with a split lip. More struggle brought him a black eye and a set of bruised ribs. It was all very businesslike. The goons dealt whatever punishment seemed appropriate without gloating or reveling in their task in any way. They barely even looked at him.
One of the goons slid the elevator doors shut. The other pushed a button. The elevator woke with a cough and a lurch and started going down. It went down for a long way before stopping in a very dark place. There was a pause, during which Lucky Tom chanced to glance up at his escorts and notice that their faces were extremely white, glowing like twin moons in the elevator’s shadows. One of them cleared his throat. The other opened the door, making sure not to move forward any more than was absolutely necessary.
“We brought your package, Boss,” he said and shoved Lucky Tom out the door. Lucky Tom stumbled to his knees. Before he managed to get up again, the elevator was gone.
“Lucky Tom,” said a low, gurgling voice out of the darkness. “We meet again at last.”
Lucky Tom got up, wiping his split lip on the back of his hand. “Hey, Jimmy. Nice place you got here. How about a light so I can admire it properly?”
The ogre chuckled wetly. “Human eyes don’t work so good for you? Well, anything to oblige.” A sourceless, reddish glow began to blossom around Lucky Tom, illuminating a cavernous space that seemed to have been carved out of solid rock. “I keep it dark for my guys. They don’t like coming down here, and when they have to they’d rather not see too much.”
Lucky Tom could see why. The cavern was outfitted like a medieval torture chamber, complete with body parts. In the midst of it all, the ogre was enthroned on a very large carved chair. A table beside it held a heap of bones that looked human and gnawed.
“Really nice place,” Lucky Tom said.
“I call it home,” said the ogre, gesturing at the decorations with one massive, furry hand. “It’s nothing like I had back in the old country, of course. But I do what I can. Sit down. I want to talk to you.”
Lucky Tom removed a severed head from a stump near the ogre’s feet and sat.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” the ogre grumbled. “I thought you’d never give the signal.”
“I thought it went pretty quick, myself. I’ve only been on this game a couple of weeks. You ogres are all alike. No patience. Anyway, your guys were slow. I had to send the message four times before anyone responded.”
The ogre shifted in its chair. It was like watching a mountain move. “Who’s this Marco Csarabas, anyway?”
Lucky Tom shrugged. “A mundane. No one you need to bother with.”
“You trust him?”
“Who trusts anyone? But yeah. I picked him, special.”
“He does whatever I tell him.”
The ogre made a sound like boulders tumbling downhill. It took Lucky Tom a minute to identify it as a growl of satisfaction. “Then Boss King is coming here. Here, to the very center of my power.”
“I told you he would,” Lucky Tom said, offended. “In fact, he should be arriving any minute now.”
Mark did not enjoy riding in Boss King’s limo. The car was luxurious and the ride was smooth, of course. Boss King even offered him his choice of beverage from the console bar. All that, however, didn’t detract from the fact that he was sandwiched between two men the size of Jesse “The Body” Ventura, both of whom were armed and both of whom probably had instructions to inflict messy harm if anything untoward seemed likely to happen to their boss. Lucky Tom had assured him that nothing bad would happen if he just did as he was told, and Mark sincerely hoped that was the truth. But Lucky Tom, as a cat, had also promised he would not involve Mark with gangsters and thugs. Mark was beginning to think he should not put much faith in Lucky Tom’s promises, whatever shape he had been wearing when making them.
It didn’t help that the atmosphere in the limo could only be described as tense. As his only knowledge of the arcane formulas governing organized crime came from Hollywood, Mark had no real notion whether Boss King was doing something unusual in visiting his rival’s territory, but he supposed that might be the case. For all he knew, the Ogre might be keeping tabs on their every move and they might all be gunned down as soon as they poked their noses out of the limo’s smoke-tinted—and, presumably, bulletproof—windows. It was not a comforting thought.
But then, Lucky Tom had assured him nothing bad would happen.
“Well?” King demanded after they had been driving for what seemed like a year.
“Dunno, Boss.” The driver’s voice crackled over the in-car intercom. “It seems pretty quiet out there. Pretty normal. Not what you’d think if….”
The “if” hung in the air. King narrowed his eyes at Mark, who did his best to look unperturbed. It wasn’t easy. He really had to pee.
“I’m not going anywhere without better inside,” King declared to no one in particular. He poked the button on the intercom again. “Pete, go over to Big Meat. Buy a pound of corned beef and see if anyone’s talking.”
The limo swerved suddenly around a corner, thrusting Mark sharply up against the side of one of his escorts. Something that was not a fist dug momentarily into Mark’s ribs; then the car straightened out and the something was gone. Mark glanced up at the big man against whom he had been thrust. It was Jerry, the guard from the terrace. He grinned down at Mark, and Mark looked away.
The limo stopped; Mark heard a door open and close. For several minutes he and the three men with him in the back just sat there, pointedly not looking at one another. Then the door opened and closed again. The panel between the driver’s seat and the back slid open, and a small package wrapped in white butcher paper landed in Mark’s lap.
“We got lucky,” said Pete, starting the engine. “One of our moles was there. He’s been there all morning. Just before noon, some asshole….”
“Language, Pete,” said Boss King.
“Sorry. Some joker came in and tore up the place. I guess he was all about how some guy named Marco Csarabas was running the show now. Bertie, the owner, told him to get lost before he called in the artillery.”
“Is that so?” King’s eyes did not leave Mark’s face.
Pete nodded. Mark wondered how he could drive while looking over his shoulder like that. “That’s not all. This ass—joker, he tried the same stunt at three other joints. Eventually, the Ogre’s boys picked him up.”
“I see. Part of your plan, I take it, Mr. Csarabas?”
Mark thought it was better that he not answer that question. He forced himself to meet King’s gaze and hoped he looked cool.
“So whaddya want me to do?”
King considered. “Keep driving,” he said, finally. “We may as well see this thing through. But be ready. It may just be that we find ourselves doing the Ogre a favour, after all.”
No, Mark didn’t enjoy riding in Boss King’s limo. He didn’t enjoy it at all.
“It’s funny,” Lucky Tom said, “how you can look at events from one direction and they seem to point one way, but when you look at them from another direction they point a different way entirely.”
The ogre put down the crusty goblet from which it had been drinking something unspeakable and gazed across the bone-laden table with a puzzled frown.
“I mean, take this game: You think I’ve set up all the pieces to bring Boss King here where you can deal with him. But Boss King thinks my aim is to bring you down, and the mundane, Marco Csarabas, he thinks that I’m working out of some weird sense of gratitude for getting me out of the cage and that you and the Boss don’t really matter at all. So which is it?” He shrugged. “It’s all in how you look at it.”
The ogre’s eyes fogged as it attempted to muddle through what had just been said. “Well, you’re working for me, obviously.”
“From your point of view I am,” Lucky Tom agreed. “But that’s another funny thing.”
“Well, the setup you have here. You’ve really immersed yourself in the whole crime lord thing. And I can understand that; I really can. After all, you wanted mundane protection, and you had to be believable to get it. But along the way, you forgot you were playing a role. You got so caught up in your rivalry with Boss King that you lost touch with why you’re here in the first place.”
“And why’s that?”
Lucky Tom grinned wolfishly. “To hide from me.”
The ogre began to look anxious.
“So what happened? I sent you a message that I could give you King’s head on a platter and you jumped at it. That’s not so unusual. Enemies become friends. Alliances shift all the time. Maybe it helped some that I was putting myself at some risk to start, giving up my boots and letting you put me in a cage and so forth. The game had to look real, after all. And I guess it did. It looked so real that you didn’t remember the one thing you ever really knew about me.” He chuckled under his breath. “Boss King pretty much had it figured, you know.”
The ogre looked very anxious, indeed. “The one thing I knew about you?”
Lucky Tom stood up.
“I don’t work for anyone.”
If the ogre had moved then, things might have turned out differently. But the ogre didn’t move. It was too busy trying to make sense out of what it was hearing—a story that contradicted all its most dearly held notions of what was real and true. That took a lot of brain power, and, ogres not having much to begin with, there wasn’t any left over to send flight messages to its limbs.
“The thing about points of view is that there are so many of them. How can you know which one is right? You have to pick the one that matters and eliminate all the rest. But, as you have so ably proved, a person can pretty much be counted upon to pick his own point of view as the one that matters. Unfortunately for you, you were wrong. In this game, the only point of view that ever mattered was mine.
“So here I am, where I would never be without your help: inside your protections, with my boots. And with a little something else I picked up last Market Day, just for good measure.”
Lucky Tom opened his mouth wide and spoke a word. The syllables hung in the air, almost visible, taking a long moment to fade from hearing. When the last echoes had died away, the ogre was gone as well. Or, not completely gone. On the seat of the stone chair a large, grey rat sat up, blinked, and scrubbed its forepaws across its nose.
Something orange crouched in front of the chair. A cat.
The cat smiled. The cat purred.
“Hello, big guy,” the cat said. “Let’s party.”
“Be ready,” Mark soon learned, meant, “Keep the muzzle of your gun pressed up tight against this joker’s ribs in case he tries any funny business.” There was nothing personal about it, of course. There would be nothing personal about it if something constituting funny business occurred and Jerry was obliged to shoot him. Personal grudges, Mark was given to understand, were for punks and amateurs who had no real notion how respectable men of business—men like Boss King—conducted themselves. Mark supposed he should have been scared by this, but he found it oddly reassuring. It meant there were rules, and, as long as he didn’t break any, he was perfectly safe despite the cold steel he could feel lodged up against his side, under his suit coat. Trouble was, he wasn’t exactly sure what the rules were. He was pretty sure Lucky Tom knew. But Lucky Tom wasn’t there, and besides, Mark was increasingly of the opinion that Lucky Tom played by his own rules, without any concern for the well-being of others who might be involved. When he thought about it that way, Mark realized that he could very well be spending the last minutes of his life riding in this fancy limo with a group of men he’d never met until that morning. The idea was of no more than passing interest. There was simply nothing he could do about it, and if he was in fact living his last moments he wasn’t going to waste them in worry. He was going to make the most of the trip. How many chances did a person get to ride in a crime lord’s limo?
“If the offer is still open, I’ll have that drink now,” he said.
Boss King raised an eyebrow, and Mark thought he caught a glimmer of respect in the weak blue eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“Sure. Fred, fix Mr. Csarabas a drink.”
Mark accepted twelve-year-old Glenmorangie in a real crystal tumbler and took a mouthful redolent of oak and peat. He swirled it around his teeth before swallowing and thought about the half-finished novel on his hard drive back home. The cat had been right. It was juvenile and self-referential, devoid of any wide experience of the world. He thought about how he would change it when this was all over.
The limo pulled up in front of an expansive chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Through the smoked glass, Mark saw dimly that the fence surrounded a big, boxy structure—a warehouse, maybe—rising like a monument to decay from a sea of fragmented concrete that had once been a parking lot. The structure had few windows, and the ones Mark could see were broken. The place looked abandoned.
“This is it?” Boss King sounded disgusted; clearly he thought that the ruler of the entire dry side could do better. King, himself, kept a large office in a newer steel tower downtown. He was rarely there, but he kept it all the same.
“This is it.” Pete slid the connecting panel open. “Don’t let appearances fool you, Boss. The Ogre’s a powerful guy. For all we know it’s a castle inside.”
“I’ll bet.” He glanced at Mark. “Well?”
“Blow the horn twice.” Lucky Tom’s instructions again, and Mark saw no good reason to ignore them. “We’re expected.”
Pete blew the horn. A gate just in front of the limo opened silently.
“Go on in and park.” Mark took another swallow of scotch. His mouth was very dry and his heart was pounding in a painful way.
The limo rolled through the gate and stopped in the shadow of the building. As it did so, a door opened and three figures appeared. The one in front was Lucky Tom. Flanking him like an honour guard were two very large men. They walked up to within three feet of the limo and waited.
“Get out,” Mark said. “It’s all right.” He hoped very much that it was.
Jerry opened the limo door and slid out, keeping his gun pressed firmly up against Mark’s ribs. Mark followed, then Fred, also with a gun to Mark’s ribs, and last, Boss King. Jerry glanced at King, who nodded curtly. They advanced to the hood of the limo and stopped, all in a row like some bizarre chorus line. Mark felt an almost uncontrollable urge to sing and dance. He stifled a nervous giggle.
Lucky Tom walked forward, leaving the two large men behind him. When he was facing Boss King, he smiled. Then he bowed, very low and deep, sweeping the tails of his suit jacket out behind him.
“Welcome, my lords!” he caroled, coming upright in one smooth, inhuman motion. “Welcome to the humble castle of Marco Csarabas! Would you care to come inside?”
“I still don’t understand,” Mark said much later, “how you got away with it. Why didn’t the Ogre’s people ice you as soon as they found out what you did?”
They were back in Mark’s room at Boss King’s house, where Pete had deposited him after the warehouse incident, leaving King, with Fred and Jerry as back-up, to sort everything out.
Lucky Tom made a face all too reminiscent of his cat-self hacking up a hairball. “Take my advice, kid. Can the slang. It doesn’t suit you.”
Mark frowned, miffed. He had thought he was doing rather well.
“To answer your question, though: it was a calculated risk, sure. But ogres, you know, they don’t inspire much loyalty. If you ask me, his guys were glad to be rid of him. It ain’t easy, working for someone who’d just as soon eat you.”
“Besides, the business wasn’t doing too well. Ogres like to play tough, but they don’t have much where it counts.” Lucky Tom tapped the side of his head. “Just as well for me, really. Boss King, though, he can make things happen. Everyone knows that. Once I explained matters, it wasn’t too hard to get the Ogre’s people on board.”
“Maybe using something a little out of the ordinary in the way of argument?”
Lucky Tom smiled. “I never said that.”
Mark nodded. He finished brushing his hair back and straightened his tie. His reflection in the mirror grinned at him. It wasn’t a tough-guy grin, or anything like that. It was just his own grin: lopsided and maybe a little foolish, but he decided that was okay. In fact, he liked it.
Mark nodded again and stood up. Boss King was waiting for him downstairs.
“You really did him a favour, you know. Anything you want, it’s yours for the asking.”
“I know.” In the doorway, Mark paused. “What about you? Where do you go from here?”
“Wherever I want, kid. Wherever I want.”
“Will I see you again?”
Lucky Tom shrugged in that way that had become so familiar. “You never know.”
“I think I’ll miss having a cat.”
“Plenty of fish in the sea, kid. Plenty of fish in the sea,” Lucky Tom said.
And then he was gone.
When Mark walked into the dining room, King stood up, holding out his hand.
“Mr. Csarabas.” His grasp was firm, one businessman to another. “You did a good thing. Not just for me, though I have to admit it’s always been a dream of mine, having the wet side and the dry side under one roof, as it were. Jimmy the Ogre was…. He was bad news. Everyone’s better off without him.”
King shuddered, and Mark didn’t blame him. King had been taken on a tour of the Ogre’s inner sanctum. Being unconscious, Mark had escaped that experience, but Lucky Tom had told him about it.
“Thing is, the whole city is just too big for one person to run,” King went on once his face had regained its normal colour. “I’m going to need a good man to look after things for me. A lieutenant. And I was thinking, who better than the guy who put the Ogre out of the way? You up for the job?”
Mark actually thought about it. Truth was, he’d been thinking about it ever since waking up; he’d had a suspicion the offer, or one similar, might be coming.
He smiled and shook his head. “I can’t, Mr. King. I’m sorry. But, well…” he hesitated. He had a feeling he was about to do something extremely stupid. He’d thought about that, too, long and hard. But he just couldn’t see any way around it. “I’m not like you. I’m not a…a businessman. Actually, I’m a writer. I’m sorry I had to deceive you.”
To Mark’s surprise, King chuckled. Then he laughed. He laughed until his watery blue eyes were streaming with tears and he had to sit down.
“I know, kid,” he said finally, still shaking. “Cripes! How could I not?”
“You knew? Then why the offer?”
King looked up and his eyes were no longer so amused. “I wanted to know if you’d admit it.”
Mark sat down, hard. He’d come very close to making a very bad mistake.
“But you did good. I like that.” He poured them both some coffee. “A writer, huh? What have you written?”
Mark gazed into his cup. He could feel himself blushing. “I published a few stories a long time ago, but nothing lately. I’m…I’m working on a novel.”
“You need help with that? I know some people….”
“Thank you, Mr. King. That’s very generous. But really, I’d like to do it myself.”
King looked surprised but didn’t comment. For a while, they sipped coffee in silence.
“So tell me,” King said at last. “How did a writer get mixed up in all this?”
Mark set his cup down and rose to go. “That, Mr. King, is a story for which the world is not yet ready.”
“Well if you ever decide it is, Mr. Csarabas, I’d like to be the first to hear it.”
“If I ever decide it is, Mr. King, you will be.”
But that was a promise Mark didn’t keep.
“You’re pulling my leg,” Jody said, late one night several weeks later, when they had both had a few too many.
“I’m not. It’s all true. Cross my heart.” Mark did so and promptly fell off the sofa.
He hadn’t meant to tell her. He hadn’t meant to tell anyone, ever. But she’d asked what had become of his cat, and faced with the choice between enduring a lecture for being an irresponsible pet owner and telling the truth, he’d chosen the latter.
“Jeez Louise, Mark,” Jody snorted. “Give up on the novel. If you can come up with that story, you’d be better off writing fairy tales.”
“I’m thinking about it,” he said, and pulled her off the sofa. And then, surprisingly, one thing led to another and Mark was forced to ask himself, in the intervals when his brain was capable of functioning, what he had been doing with someone like Daniella when his best friend had been there, all along.
“I really should go,” Jody said more than once. But the sky outside the window was grey before she actually did.
“Come over tonight?” Mark asked, walking her to the door.
“I might just do that.” She unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door, pausing to wink over her shoulder. Then she looked down and laughed.
“Oh, Mark. I could kill you! Telling me that convoluted story when you really just put the cat out for the night!”
He could hear her laughing all the way down the stairs. What was that about? He shut the door, twirled the deadbolt and turned around.
Something orange on the sofa looked up, twitched its whiskers, and pawed roughly at one ear.
“Man, it’s great to be home,” said the cat. “Gotta beer?”