Cats like to brag that they don’t get lost. Never, ever. If a cat wants to go missing, he goes missing. Doesn’t stop posters from going up. “Help Us Find Sophie/Princess/Mittens.”
Strays don’t have homes, but, that’s okay. We’ve got The Alley. The Alley Cats.
Poppy used say: The less you speak, the more power you have.
I try to follow what Poppy told me. I don’t brag.
But strays can get lost. I am lost. Right now. I don’t know where I am. It’s dark and wet and smells like cardboard. Cardboard and dog.
“Who’s this then?” I hear a gruff voice say.
“They call him Tabs,” another, equally gruff voices says. Dogs, definitely. Their heavy tails keep knocking against the cardboard box.
“Never heard of him.”
“Me neither. But, he’s an Alley Cat. Least, he used to be.”
“Yeah. Besides. Chief said to grab him.”
The first dog grunts and says: “Pop the lids. Let’s see this puss.
Like Bast calling to me from the great beyond, light blinds me. This light isn’t natural. A massive Newfoundland pokes his snout over the top. How such a cumbersome beast got the drop on me, I don’t know. I must’ve nipped more than I thought.
“Come now, friend,” he says, softly. Dogs always do this. Talk real quiet, so as not to disturb the volatile cat temperament. Most cats lash out no matter what, striking out with whatever they have. More than a few mutts bear the signature of claws. But the dogs win. Always. One way or another.
I am not most cats. I stay calm, like Poppy taught me.
He takes the back of my neck in his teeth and lifts me onto the hard floor. For the first time I get a sense of everything: a human hasn’t used this room in years and the dogs have long since claimed it. Cages. Cages everywhere. Some of the steel wires on the cages are mangled so as to be improper instruments of imprisonment. The majority, though, hold mangy, starved, scarred creatures.
I’m looking at two big monochromatic dogs. The Newfoundland’s fur is so black he looks cut from a swath of midnight. The other is a snow white Shepherd. How he stays so clean in a city this dirty is beyond me.
“Terry,” the Shepherd says, “he’s a runt. What are we going to do with a runt?”
“Murph, I’m telling you. This is who Chief wanted.”
The Shepherd shakes his downy head. “Chief is too old.” But then: “Let’s see if the old dog has learned a new trick.”
I follow the two dogs down a hallway. It’s dark and dirty. We come to a door at the end. The glass on it is grey and cracked. Pieces are missing and the remaining words simply say: “Dr” and “Chief of”. The Shepherd enters first and says something. The Newfoundland and I wait. He can’t be that fast. I think about running.
Poppy always encouraged being still.
I keep my tail and paws calm.
The Newfoundland nudges me into the room. There’s a wooden desk with a black stool near it. The Shepherd directs me to hop on it. I resist the urge to play with the puffs of stuffing showing. It’s a cat thing.
On the desk an old Bulldog sits like a king. Chief. He’s predominantly grey save for brown paws. The way he sits, I can see that he was once a powerful dog, ferocious probably. It pains him to sit atop the desk and pains his pride even more that his joints have betrayed him. There’s a big, warm doggie bed in the corner. That’s where he would rather be.
When Chief speaks he says: “Boots runs The Alley, but he’s careful.”
Silence. He has not asked me a question, but takes my lack of response as affirmation.
“He’s very careful. And quiet. In fact, save for an occasional body we pull from the sewers, the cat doesn’t draw attention since he took over. It’s no secret that we want The Alley back. It’s no secret that this Boots character operates with a flagrant disregard for animal law. These are both true things. When dogs ran The Alley, we did what was necessary, but we provided order. Were mistakes made? Yes. Had I wish we had been more understanding? Sure. But, we weren’t warlords. We weren’t savages.”
Dogs. Always talking. Feel like I’ve used 3 lives just listening to him.
“Dogs and cats have learned to live peacefully elsewhere. Why not The Alley?” asks Chief.
He cocks his head, waiting for a response. There’s a lot to be said. There’s a lot of arguments. I’m not the one that will make them, but there’s a lot.
Chief continues: “Poppy speaks highly of you.”
I try to maintain my calm, but my perked ears give me away.
“Yes. Poppy. That Poppy. Your Poppy. We go way back–to our pup days. Sure, he’s a Schnauzer, but he had his whole thing. You know what I’m talking about. All his little sayings. A good teacher. You… you’re pretty unique. Poppy always swore he’d never teach a cat his ways. But. I guess he changed his mind, didn’t he?”
Poppy used say: Your tail is your tell. Control it, say nothing, and give away nothing. I keep mine moving slowly, hypnotically, softly swishing side to side, side to side.
“You’re pretty unique, Tabs. Most of the Alley Cats think you’re dead. The rest think you lost it. Went crazy. Or how do they put it? Oh, right, right: ‘the cat’s pajamas.’” All three dogs chuckle. “Little puss codes.”
Side to side. Side to side.
Chief slowly, painfully, pulls himself to his feet and steps to the edge of the desk. Our noses practically touch.
My tail doesn’t change.
“Here’s what it is: I don’t care. You’re alive, which means I can use you. If you’re pajamas, fine. But if you’re half as good as your rep, you’ll get me what I want. Kill Boots. I want The Alley.”
My tail stops. They expect me to offer a rebuttal. Or maybe run. “Betray my own kind? The Alley is my home. I’ll never!” is what most cats would say.
I am not most cats.
My tail resumes its clockwork rhythm. I say one word.
I hop off the stool. Terry and Murph step aside.
The word was: “Gladly.”