Finn paused by the wrought iron gate outside his house and called out one more time for his missing grey tabby cat. “Tilla!Tilllaaaa!”
It wasn’t unlike her to stay out all night, but she was prompt for breakfast in the morning when he set out her food. Today she was nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t wait around for her much longeras he was running behind to open up the Cumminsville branch library, which he was head of, just five blocks down from his small Queen Anne house. His wife Adaire would get the note he left on the table and be on the lookout for the feline.
Finn was just about to turn onto the cracked sidewalk when he noticed a robin pecking at something in the alley leading to the backyard herb garden. Taking a closer look he scared the bird away, who left some of its treat behind. Picking it up, Finn rubbed the meat between his fingers and smelled it. Chicken liver. And there was a small coiled piece of twine next to the meat. He poked around the yard one more time for the AWOL cat, and went into work, worried, wondering how the meat and string had gotten there. He hoped it wasn’t his neighbor, eighty-eight year old Donald Fauntleroy, environmental activist, botanist and bird watcher, who had complained to Finn and Adaire over and over again about how their cat murdered perfectly innocent songbirds, and how house catswere a threat to avian repopulation. He often talked with pride of how he poisoned clusters of feral, mange ridden cats. He was respectful to Finn and Adaire, despite their disagreement, but he also had a bitter current running through him, a harbor of resentment at the failure of universities, the government, the corporations, and citizens that he would unleash to any willing ear.
“We need a mouser,” was Adaire’s response anytime the issue of dead birds was brought up.
He shook these thoughts aside as he walked up the steps to the Library and in the front door. Finn’s apprentice Lloyd had managed to make it in before him for once and had busied himself putting away the books left out from the day before. The young man turned to the librarian who pulled his long gray hair back into a ponytail and adjusted his glasses. For a middle aged man who’d spent a large portion of his life working with books he also glowed with the hale strength of someone who was just as at home in the outdoors.It was important for a Memnon, to remain in top physical shape as the mental calculations and inner synthesis they performed for patrons was taxing on the body.
Lloyd bustled over to the front desk with the morning edition of the Queen City Gazette. Joking he asked “Did you have a late night at the Tavern again?”
It had been just over a year when the oh-so punctual Finn had last come in late with a slight hangover thanks to one too manybourbons at the local watering hole. His colleague Rudy had come up from Louisville on a matter related to the work of their Lodge, and after that work had been attended to they kicked back like brothers who hadn’t seen each other in ten years. The young apprentice never failed to remind Finn of this breach in behavior; the Memnon had just demanded of Lloyd a strict one year abstinence from alcohol after the lad had made a drunken fool of himself in front of Patricia McDermott, presiding head of the Library Guild, at the annual communal feast held in the subterranean hall beneath the Main Branch.
“No, I wasn’t at the Tavern last night, as you well know. I was bottling some tinctures to trade at the square and fitting my telescope with the new lens I acquired a few weeks back. I thought I heard Ms. Percival invite you to go dancing with her at the tavern though. We’re you there?”
“Uh, yeah, I was, but I didn’t have anything to drink, not even a beer.We just danced. The coffee is still hot in the back, bye-the-way.”
Finn went into the employee’s office in the back, warmed himself by the cook-stove, and drank a cup. The brew was cut by half with chicory to extend the supply of the expensive bean. This was the time of day when he relaxed his mind for the work ahead. Besides pointing people to the right books for the information they wanted, librarians were often sought out and asked to solve some of the more complex issues people were faced with every day. In these sessions he would retire to his office after the problem was detailed, and enter his memory palace, an internal library in the shape of an ark, where he would synthesize a solution. Young apprentices like Lloyd trained for years and years to reach the level of mastery Finn had obtained in this art. The Library Guild offered this service for a nominal fee compared to privateers who also practiced some variant of the arts of memory and combination for problem solving. It kept them busier, as most people were too broke to hire a Memnon. An application was required to filter out those who couldn’t be bothered to figure out their own problems, alongside a measure of common sense, or what Finn liked to think of as his bullshit sniffer. But there were always walk-ins on days when no appointment was otherwise scheduled.
He refilled his mug a tad and went to the desk. The main reading room was cold and it was only October. The retrofitted heat stove in the room only seemed to take the edge off the chill in the old Carnegie building. Finn often wondered what the deceased industrial giant would think of the state of the libraries he’d poured his railroad, oil and steel money into. The Guild made valiant efforts to repair each branch as resources allowed, and the Cumminsville operation had been worked on several times in the past decade. There was the flood of ’93 for instance. First the Ohio river swelled, and then its tributaries, including the Mill creek that Cumminsville perched on the shores of, drowning the basements and first floors of neighborhood residents all the way up to Pullan Ave. It was a hard toss up on what damage had been worse in that case, the erosion and slippage to the foundation of the building, or the books reduced to mildewed bricks of pulp, never to be replaced. The year after the floods was the year of the F-6 tornadoes, which had blown up from the Gulf of Mexico, ripping off tiles from the library roof when the twisters hit Cincinnati.One of Finn’s problems as branch director was how the ongoing needs of structural work cut into the budget to acquire both new and old books. This year he hoped the weather would continue to leave his neighborhood alone.
Lloyd went to the front door, turned over the open sign, and lugged an armful of tomes back to the desk from the book drop. “So why were you late today?”
“I was sticking around for my cat Tilla. She was out all night and didn’t come in this morning. That’s not like her. Then I found some pieces of chicken meat in the alleyway. It’s kinda weird.” He rubbed his hands together. He picked up the gazette and was only able to read the first headline, HISPANIC POACHER KILLED BY CLIFTON ECOVILLAGERS before the first patron walked in carrying a sheaf of broadsheets.
It was Marv, the greasy neighborhood agitator who jumped on whatever cause floated through town. It didn’t matter how opposed the issues were on the binary poles of politics. He just liked to have a hand in spreading whatever slogans were dominating discourse, and was famed for the flashy baseball caps he wore with the cardboard signs mounted on the bill. He switched these out as appropriate. Today his hat read DOGS ARE MADE FOR HUGS NOT THUGS.
“Hi Lloyd, hi Finn,” he waved. Finn wrinkled his nose. He could already smell the man. Lloyd started shuffling through the file of cards denoting which books were due that day. Everything was done by hand since the library intranet had gone kaputz.
“You really tied one on last night, didn’t you Lloyd?” Marv said. “What did you think of that pumpkin ale the boys from Rheingeist Brewery put out?”
Finn shot Lloyd an agitated look. “Why don’t you go shelf-read the Children’s non-fiction section?” The books there were thinner, always out of order, and closer to the ground, making the work of putting them away correctly hard on the knees. Finn then turned to Marv. “What can I help you with today? More books on 20th century folk musicians and their connections to socialism?”
“No, no, not today” Marv said, “but I do hope to get back to that. Today, it’s all about the dogs, man. Can’t you read my hat? I’ve just had these broadsheets printed up by the folks down the street at Seven Sisters Press. I was wondering if I could put one up on the bulletin board.”
Finn took a look at the flyer. A picture of a small dog in a pit surrounded by bigger dogs dominated the upper left hand corner. The text was in a bold Baskerville font, and Finn could still smell the letterpress ink. He’d had some booklets printed for private circulation among members of his Lodge by the Seven Sisters and they did good work. The broadsheet read: STOP THE BETS! BRING IN THE VETS! THE DOGS ARE SICK OF FIGHTING! THE DOGS ARE SICK AND DYING! BRING THE DED END DAWGS TO JUSTICE! PROTEST RALLY AT THE BLUE GOOSE, OCTOBER 20, DUSK.
“Hmmm. Well, you know this time I agree with your sentiment Marv. Besides, any kind of flyer is fair game on the community board. I just hope no Dead End Dawgs come in here. Sometimes they do. You’d be surprised at the research topicssome of these gang bangerslook into, to give them an edge in one of their operations.”
“Great,” Marv said. “Just what this world needs more of, educated crooks. You gonna come to the protest? We gotta put a stop to these dog fights. We gotta do something. We gotta get the word out about whose responsible.”
“I agree something should be done, but it sounds like a massacre waiting to happen. Who is going to stop the dawgs from firing into the crowd, or taking a good look at who was there and picking them off later? You know as well as I do they have the cops in their pocket.”
Marv shook his head in disappointment. “I heard that Great Dane you used to have was dognapped by the gang for the fights. Don’t you want to get back at them for that?”
“Marv, I would like to see the scales adjusted for the D.E.D heads, but I don’t want to find myself in the middle of a wild mob either. I’ve got other work to do.”
“If you change your mind, come on down after you lock this place up.” Marv walked to the bulletin board. He put the flyer up and slammed the door on his way back out. There were other spots he had to hit up, word had to be spread.
Most people in the neighborhood and the city at large turned their cheek at the sight of dog fighting. It had remained illegal in Ohio even after the Midwest Federation seceded from the United States, a country whose number was ever closer to the original thirteen. In the commonwealth of Kentucky it was a different matter. All manner of things illegal in the MidFed were an open playground in the red light districts of New Covington just across the suspension bridge. Gambling of all kinds, including dog fighting, prostitution, free use of the lesser and harder drugs were all behaviors untouched by the law, and it was only eight miles away. The tattered remnants of the Cincinnati police force had tried to keep things in check on their side of the river. What it amounted to was a resource battle. Gangs like the Ded End Dawgs made a profit on the bets at their dog fights, and with their hands in a number of other operations besides, made them a dangerous nest of scorpions to stir, not to mention the kickbacks the D.E.D. Heads floated to the police to keep clear of places like the Blue Goose, the barge on the Mill Creek that had been turned into a bloodsport nightclub.
“The trouble is people look at the dog fights as a way of population control, like rounding ’em up and throwing them into a pit to fight each other is some kind of public service” Lloyd said from across the room.
“That’s what I was just thinking,” Finn said. “I’m surprised you can read my mind so early,after drinking beer and dancing last night.”
Lloyd pulled at the collar of his plaid blue shirt, ignoring the last part of his boss’s comments. “I was just thinking about Marv too. Wishing someone would control his instinct to populate. It always surprises me how many girls he gets.”
Finn swirled the last of his coffee around in the cup and drank it down. “It’s bad enough we have these wild dogs and feral cats running around. All we need is one more kid Marv won’t be taking care of.”
Finn opened up the pages of the gazette again. In the middle of the paper he read WESLEYEAN CREMATORIUM CLOSED:
Wesleyean Crematorium, on the corner of Blue Rock and Colerain in Cumminsville was temporarily closed down yesterday. Neighbors had reported the place was being used to dispose of pit bulls and other breeds that died in the ring during dogfights. “It wouldn’t have been an issue with me,” an anonymous source said, “until my father died of pneumonia. We had him cremated. After I picked up his ashes I started hearing rumors that dogs were being burned along with the humans. A group of us had the police look into it, and it was true. The ashes I got back might only be partly my Dad’s.”
The detective who led the investigation said the Crematorium will be shut down until after Jeremy Hamrick’s trial, it being unlawful under MidFed legislature to dispose of more than one body at a time in cremation. There is also the matter of abetting criminal activity.
Cumminsville residents however fear a backlash from the Dead End Dawgs. The joint criminal organization was started by members from Dead Men Inc. when large numbers of their gang were released in the massive jail closures of the 2030s. They recruited from the Highway Dawgs, a biker gang involved in drug running and human trafficking along the I-75 corridor from Michigan to Florida, a group which had its origins among veteran soldiers of the desert wars.
Reading the news was always a surreal experience for Finn. He had avoided it for so long in his early years in the Guild. He preferred reading about the grizzly past compared to the grizzly present. Yet the longer he worked on the front desk, first as an apprentice like Lloyd, then as journeyman under Memnon Deana Trahern, the more important he felt it was critical to know what was going on around him, especially in his beloved city.
The day ticked on, reference questions were answered, but when Finn was asked to do some basic synthesis work, concern for his cat kept nagging at him. Memories of his dog, kidnapped and taken to fight in the pits, also bubbled away and writhed inside, interfering with the complex process of remembrance, juxtaposition and intuitive logic required to reach a solution. He thought he had learned to set aside the monkey mind and his own feelings when he traveled into his imaginal ark. Tilla was five years old, a champion mouser, sometime songbird stalker, and often sat on his lap while he smoked his evening pipe and wrote in his den. He hoped she was alright but had a feeling she wasn’t. He apologized to Tyvon, and asked him if he could come back tomorrow.
“I’m going to go home for lunch today Lloyd. So grab yourself something quick now. I’ve got to look for Tilla. You’ll be on your own here until Laura comes in.”
“Great, I’m hungry. I’ve been thinking about that beef tongue and kraut sandwich all morning.” Lloyd reflected for a moment and the said in all earnestness. “I hope you find Tilla.”
At home there was still no sign of the feline. He grabbed an apple and a wedge of cheese to keep his energy up and started asking his neighbors. Jose, across the street, was the obvious place to start. The drunk sat on his porch all day, only leaving to pick up a gallon or two of beer and some bologna as needed. Sometimes he didn’t even leave to take a leak, depending on how far gone into the drink he was. If it hadn’t been for his sister, the priestess and curandera at the Sacred Heart Church on the corner of their street, he would’ve been a complete vagrant, but she let him stay in the bungalow traditionally reserved and kept for the clergy.
Jose didn’t like to talk much, and his English was limited. Most of the time his only acknowledgments to people were a nod and a wave. Finn didn’t push things by going into the yard, but addressed from down on the street.
“Hola, senor. I was wondering if you had seen my cat or anybody in my yard?”
“Matter of fact, I did” Jose said. He took a swig out of a near empty gallon bottle, and belched.
“Where is she? What was it?”
“Two kids were playing in your yard last night, just after sun down. When they left they were carrying a cardboard box with them. That’s all I done saw.”
“Marianna, for one. The other I didn’t recognize. A boy.”
Marianna and her grandmother lived in the house two doors up from Jose. It was suspected that Marv was her dad, one of many children he’d sired with the young women who believed his gestures and promises. Grandma didn’t know where Marianna’s mom was. Humans were just as capable of going stray as any other domesticated animal.
Finn thanked Jose and continued his search. Marianna’s grandma denied any knowledge she might have, and that her granddaughter would never play on another person’s property. Yard after yard, there was no sign of the cat, and door after door, no one else who he talked to had any news. Agnes who lived up towards the top end of the street listened to his story with concern and then suggested, “You might want to try old Nellie.”
“Yeah, you’re right Agnes. I hadn’t thought about her place, though I’m not exactly going to relish the visit.”
“By-the-way I’ve got plenty of pumpkin butter to trade. And I’ve got a taste for some of Adaire’s Silverberry jam. Tell her I said hello.”
“Good luck, then.” She winked at him and continued pinning laundry up on the line.
As Finn turned the corner he heard children’s laughter. When the two children saw him they got quiet. “Come on, let’s go get that dog,” he heard the boy say. They dropped the sticks they had been playing with and ran in the opposite direction. Finn dashed after them, yelling. “Hey, I need to talk to you!”
The boy was a red head, no older than eight, covered with freckles and bruises. He had outworn and outgrown his shoes, as a stubby big toe protruded through the front on the left. The back heel of his right shoe was becoming detached and flapped as he ran, the state of his footwear not slowing him down. The pair ran in the direction of Salway City, a neighborhood of tents and shacks in what used to be a park of softball and soccer fields along the Mill creek. It was a place that accommodated dislocated drifters and those who lived by their wits. It was also where the Blue Goose was moored. The neighborhood was run de facto by the D.E.D. Heads.
Marianna and the boy were several blocks ahead. For a man in his early fifties he was in good shape thanks to the ninjutsu and qi qong he practiced, but he still didn’t have anything on the adrenalized energy of youth. They hopped a rusty fence where the trailers of some permanently parked semi-trucks had been converted into homes. Finn slowed down, and followed along the western edge of the lot, hiding behind some honeysuckle and watched as they emerged further down the street, before slipping into the muddy tracks between the hovels of Salway.
Finn’s suit and tie get-up cost him a few hostile looks as he walked into one of the most poverty stricken camps of the city. Applying some of the stealth techniques he’d learned, Finn adjusted his gait and mannerisms so as to better blend in with the rough and belabored crowd. People saw him, but nobody questioned his business which was the most he could hope for. The place was seedy, but most of the folks living there didn’t have any other workable options. Not everyone was lucky enough to get training in one of the guilds or work collectives. Most scraped by milking their scrawny goats, feeding a few scraps to the pigs, in hopes of fattening them up enough to get their families through winter.
There were no roads in Salway City, just worn tracks, paths, and mud. Tarps covered ramshackle structures made from worn shipping pallets, rain barrels held water, and sun bleached nylon tents were everywhere, all rubbing elbows. The boy walked Marianna through the maze with expertise, thinking the librarian had been left in the dust. They were closer to the banks of the Mill creek now, by the kennels, where the dogs were chained and trained to fight. Some of the dog houses were made out of rusting oil barrels. Others were in large cages. All the animals were emaciated, the skin tight, rib bones visible. Some had scars, some bloody wounds. Others were sad puppies who cowered in the urine drenched atmosphere. A few of the two dozen or so dog paced around as far as their leash allowed, as if expending nervous energy. Many appeared listless and drugged, worn out by previous battles.
Finn crouched behind some barrels of what appeared to be a storage hut. He had thought the dogs would be under armed guard, but no one was around this part of the neighborhood. Marianna and the boy picked their way around the cages and land mines of shit. One of the hounds started barking, and soon another picked up the chorus, until the whole place was washed in the harsh bray. He thought this would alarm whoever was in charge of the dogs. No one stirred, and folks seemed to go about their chores and work all the same. Salway was a noisome place. The terrified howling of the canines was just part of the background radiation for the folks who lived there. A few old men on the edges of the camp proper warmed themselves around a trash fire, and with white lightning, but they were too high to notice or care about what was going on.
The boy had a ring full of keys, and one by one he unlocked the dogs from their chains, released them, set them free. A few seemed starved for contact, and licked the girl and boy, pushing each other out of the way in a clamor for attention. A few others ran off towards the drifting smell of mulligan stew, but a majority were shell shocked and remained inside their cages, not knowing what to do, or where to go. The duo took one gold and brown dog with a spotted tongue by the leash and led it out into the streets, running right past Finns hiding spot. He thought it looked like their old dog Molly, but they were gone too quick, he couldn’t tell.
Finn had to get out fast before someone noticed the release of the hounds. It was all too easy for a kangaroo court to form and impose cruel justice before an official investigation could begin. Those in the Salway would blame the interloper, to avert the eye of suspicion from themselves. He would be an easy scapegoat for angry Dead End Dawgs.
Finn tried to keep an eye out for Marianna and her friend, but by the time he made it back to the main road, they were nowhere to be seen. I wonder how all this is going to play out when Marv gets here with his protesters, he thought. And I still haven’t found out any more about Tilla. Better check with Nellie.
Nellie’s house was on Dane, a street that connected to both Salway and also ran up to the woods and cemetery. She lived in a dilapidated home known for its acrid ammonia smell. Her yard was overgrown with weeds, wildflowers, and strange herbs some as noxious as the odors drifting out from her unkempt and overstuffed house. She was a classic hoarder and Finn had a difficult time navigating the ruined cement path to her front door. Sodden cardboard boxes lined the way, each full of mildewed magazines from the first half of the 21st century, rusted circuitry, cheap brass knick knacks and plastic knock off toys. The paint had long ago peeled from the surface and the box gutters were sagging, full of dead leaves, perhaps the rotting body of a raccoon swollen from the recent rain. Most of the windows had newspaper taped up on the inside to prevent folks from seeing in, though in a few spots, it was falling down, and showed a jumble of dolls, trinkets, and gadgets no one had batteries for anymore. Parts of a Volkswagon sat in her driveway. He was surprised the metal hadn’t been hauled away by scrappers, yet even the most hardened criminals respected her property.
When he reached the door Finn stood up on his tippy-toes to peer through the small eyehole above the goblin shaped knocker. What he saw made his eyes swim. He thought at first it must be a carpet whose patterns were somehow dancing before his eyes. Then he blinked and realized it was only a sea of cats. Tilla could be anywhere in with the bunch, though he was certain at least half of these must be the inbred offspring of many felines Nellie had already collected over her long years as community cat lady. But perhaps she’d collected the house cat thinking her to be another stray as the old woman was known to do.
The librarian knocked three times and was about to turn away, hoping the old woman wasn’t dead inside. He saw an image of her in his mind, her flesh chewed away by the cats. He was shaking this off when he heard coughs and rasping from inside. It sounded painful, terrible, as if she were spitting out a fur ball. With all those cats she just might have been, Finn realized.
His stomach heaved at the smell released when she opened the door. It had been a few years since Finn had run into the Dane Street Hag, as people called her, but he remembered it. She had been dragging her squeaking four wheeled shopping cart home from the Mitchell Flea Market, pulling her load like a hoss despite how out of shape she looked. At the abandoned warehouse she had stopped and started clicking her tongue. Around twenty cats must have crawled out of the brittle concrete building as she poured out a bucket of slop that was her homemade cat food into several small bowls. Finn wondered if she would be able to make it to Mitchell’s now, and if she still looked after that particular harem of strays. She looked thinner than she had, her skin sagged into little pools of flesh below her eyes. When her thin lips pulled back in a smile three yellow teeth were revealed, dangling from her gums. She had a bandanna tied loose around what tufts remained of her gray white hair and her faded flower print dress was stained gravy brown.
“Hi Nellie. My name’s Finn McHenry. I was wandering if I might ask you a question, or if you might be able to help me?”
“I was waiting for you to show up Finn. I remember you well, too. Don’t you think I’d remember the boy who smashed my pumpkins on Halloween? Though you weren’t the first or the last. But you also moved over my outhouse to a different spot on the same night. I bet ya remember that. I sure do.” Her memory was sharp as a piece of cheddar cheese left out in the sun. “I remember ya wrinkling your nose, kinda like you’re doing now, when I still made it into the library, back when you were just a wee apprentice under the guidance of Deana Trahern. You seen her lately?”
Finn cleared his throat. He was having trouble being respectful when his discomfort was so obvious. “My wife and I just had dinner with Deana and her husband about two weeks ago. She still does a lot of work at the main branch and pops in to see how I’m getting along from time to time.”
“Hmmm. Married are ya?,” the hag said. She looked down at the plain white gold band on Finn’s finger, envious contemplating some manner of regret.
“Don’t you have a gift for me?”
He’d forgotten she asked those who visited her for a gift, to relinquish something, especially if she healed a sick animal. As crazy as she seemed she fixed up all kinds of creatures, whether wild or kept by humans. She seemed to look at his ring again, as she licked a splotch of white sputum from the corner of her dry mouth. The ring had been his fathers, and was given to him the year he married Adaire, the year he’d buried his mother. He got a sudden fear that she might take it from him.
“I don’t want that from you fool. I was to be married once, back when this skin I’m wearing curved instead of sagged.”
Finn had heard the stories, and in his mind he saw the crone melt into a maiden, with a long streak of auburn hair, green eyes sparkling. The way she must have looked to William Tarbell, a promising young constable from one of the city’s political families, murdered by a drunk Dead End Dawg while walking the beat in Cumminsville. With her young love in an early grave Nellie quit her training under Dr. Jirah Buck, and retreated with her herbs and plants to her mother’s home, caving herself in, refusing to treat humans, only doctoring on animals, and on occasion offering cryptic advice.
He dug into his pocket for a token to give her, and reflected that it must be something he truly cared about. He had a Sackagewea dollar coin, not worth two cents, but it was stamped with his birth year and had been in his slacks ever since he spied it on the sidewalk. Then there was the fountain pen, given to him by Deanna when he’d taken over from her at the branch. He kept it handy in his pocket most of the time, wrote with it at night. He realized this was what Nellie wanted, and as he handed it over to her bone-thin hands, wondered how many of the things in her home, were from others who had come to the hag for a favor.
“My cat’s been gone since last night,” Finn said, “A grey tabby, named Tilla. You haven’t seen or taken her in have you?”
“I have, but not in the way you think. I don’t need any more cats, now do I? I’ll be right back.”
She returned with an old Vans shoebox and he knew his worst fears were true. His heart clenched. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said, and handed it to him.
When he lifted the lid he saw the cat was tangled up with thin string, the same kind of string he’d found in the alley. It was wrapped around her neck, but it didn’t look tight enough to have strangled her. How she died he still did not know. She was perfectly fit yesterday
Finn stifled the urge to cry as he set the box down. “Where did you find her?” There was an edge of desperation in his voice.
“I don’t find them, they find me. A little red headed boy and a girl with nappy dreads brought her to me last night. They asked if I could fix her. I told them it was too late for that and they ran off. Then I had a dream where you were coming by to collect her, and here you are.”
He wanted to find those kids and wring whatever they knew out of them. Hopefully the dog they liberated wouldn’t be next on their hit list.
“I’ll be going now.”
He scoured the blocks around his house again for the kids, cradling the box to his chest. He knocked on Marianna’s grandma’s door and had strong words with her. She didn’t know nothing, couldn’t keep track of the kid, was to old to be chasing her around, and the brat should be glad to have a roof over her head that wasn’t the orphanages. No luck, no word, no other sign of them anywhere.
Adaire was back when he walked with weariness into the house carrying the box. His brunette wife had just finished reading the note. When she saw him holding the box, crying, she knowing who was inside.
They took Tilla outside and sat with her on the bench in the chill autumn sun. He told her all he had learned and what had happened.
“Who could do such a thing?” she said in her soft voice.
They held hands and remembered their pet together in silence.
“I want to unwrap her before we bury her.” Adaire said. She brought some scissors out and cut away the string where needed, unwinding it from around the cats neck. She combed out her fur. She picked the last wide leaves of comfrey and laid them in the shoebox. Finn burned frankincense and myrrh and wafted the body of the kitty in the fragrant fumes. They took her to the back of the yard, dug a hole, and placed the box down within it. Finn put his coin on top of the box as a good luck charm for a safe crossing. The dirt was filled back in, the spot where she lay marked with a rock.
“May there be a beautiful welcome for you in the home you have gone to, Tilla.” Finn said.
Next door Donald was throwing stale bread down for the birds. “How’s it going?” he asked from across a fence.
“Not too good. We just buried Tilla. Some kids were playing in our yard last night. We think they had something to do that.”
“Sorry to hear it,” the old man croaked. “You two going to that protest at the Blue Goose tonight?”
“Hell, no. There’s liable to be a riot.” Finn was tempted to say especially when the D.E.D. Heads find out there dogs have been let go, but he kept quiet.
“I might watch from a distance,” Donald said. “Should be entertaining. I think those rabid things need to be killed. Out breeding in the street, invading the habitats of other animals. But I guess at this point there isn’t anything I can do about the mess this world is in.”
“We’re going in.” Adaire said. They had lived next to Donald long enough to not have to listen to his negative tirades.
They ate dinner, and after a glass of pear brandy settled into bed. What little peace they had was disturbed by gunshots that seemed to originate from the direction of the Blue Goose. It was going to be a long night and Adaire was due to wake up at four am to get started mixing the batter for the solar ovens at Daughters of Cain, the vegetarian food co-op and bakery she ran. The first batch of bread always went to homeless woman and children, and in the afternoons she got a large cauldron of soup going, available for anyone who was hungry.
Both had trouble falling asleep with the noise, and the ordeal with Tilla still on their minds, even as it had rattled their emotions and worn them out, wondering how the two kids could do such a thing. Tomorrow Finn would see if the police could do something about the issue. He doubted it. They had bigger fish to fry.
Finn had just about let go of all these things occupying him enough to fall asleep when there was a knock at the door. After repeated pounding, they finally got up. It was Marianna, the red headed boy and a scared looking golden-brown mutt who nervously itched behind her ears with a hind leg.
“Is this your dog?” the girl asked.
“It’s Molly!” Adaire exclaimed as the old girl they lost bounded into her arms.
Finn touched his hands to his forehead, and tried to clear the cobwebs from his brain. He took a deep breath and composed himself. His work in the Lodge had taught him the importance of facing difficult situations in unperturbed stillness.
“But what did you do to our cat? It went missing last night and turned up dead today. Old Nellie herself told me you were the pair who dropped her off.”
“We didn’t mean to kill your cat!,” Marianna yelled, her voice edged with tears.
“Then tell me what happened,” Adaire asked of them, radiating a maternal warmth. Marianna pointed to her friend. “Cecil’s dad stole y’alls dog.”
The boy wiped the snot from under his nose. “My dad’s always bringing ’em home for the D.E.D. Heads. He makes me watch the fights, but I hate it. I loved this dog when my dog got him. He wasn’t wild and mean like some of d’em other ones. Marianna came with me one day to feed her and she knew it was yours. Then we heard about that protest, which is now a big fight with the cops and everything, and we knew we had to free those dogs, and get this one back to you. We were going to bring her right to you, but you disappeared and she got off her leash and we had to chase her back down.”
Finn was amazed by this turn of initiative, but couldn’t reconcile it with them strangling their cat. And he was worried about what the boys dad would do to him if he found out his son was responsible for releasing the others. The dawgs weren’t known for being understanding parents.
“Let’s talk about Tilla. What did you do to our cat?”
Marianna took up the story. “We were outside playing tag in the street with a couple other kids. We saw Donald coming home right when it got dark, and he threw something in your alley. After he went inside, we saw Tilla chewing on what he threw, and went over to pet and play with her. Cecil had this ball of string in his pocket, and we rolled it out and the cat started playing it with it, only she started acting crazy. Stuff started coming out of her mouth. The string got tangled around her neck, she panicked and she ran into the bush by the church. When we found her she was all tangled up, the string had gotten caught around her neck. She must’ve strangled herself. We didn’t mean to do it.”
Cecil piped up. “I thought Old Nellie could fix her. She fixes other animals, though she won’t work on the dogs from the Goose.”
“Death isn’t something you fix,” Finn said with a sigh. The boy was maybe eighty years old, the girl ten.
“I don’t think you killed her,” Adaire said.
“Me, either,” said Finn.
Finn went down to the alley and got on his knees to look for any scrap of the chicken livers Donald threw to the cat. He found a bit and smelled it again. Nothing noticeable to him, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t poisoned. He went in and got a jar and put the liver into it, while Marianna and Cecil helped Adaire feed and water Molly. He knew someone in the Library who was into chemistry, who could take a look at it, yet even if something was found, there was little guarantee the law would do anything, especially given Donald’s age. Prisons weren’t packed like sardines anymore, the MidFed didn’t have the manpower.
Finn felt like pounding down Donald’s door right then and there, but he didn’t think Donald was home. There was usually a lamp light on in the night owls living room. Tonight there wasn’t. More gun shots could be heard coming from the tent city, which Donald said he was going to watch from a distance, as if it were a diversion instead of reality. Adaire talked to Marianna’s grandmother and she agreed to let the boy sleep on the couch until things blew over, if she helped feed him.
Exhausted the couple went to bed with Molly wedged between them. It didn’t make for the most comfortable sleep, with the dog rolling around, luxuriating in their combined affection, but it was restorative.
In the morning Finn turned on the radio for the local news. Radio was the main way people stayed informed. Television cost too much, and the internet, like the telephone grid, existed only in patches. The voice of Jason Morre had a coating of static over an otherwise strong signal. “Reports are still coming in from Salway City, the tent community on the edge of Cumminsville, where last night a protest led by Marv Gresham sparked a confrontation with the Dead End Dawgs, a gang involved in human trafficking, dog fighting, and a number of other illegal operations. As the confrontation between the fifteen protesters and more than twice the number of gangsters escalated, shots were fired. Six of the protesters were killed by automatic weapons, causing a stampede among the tent dwellers trying to get out of the crossfire. Marv was among the victims murdered, and police now have arrested a dozen D.E.D. Heads. At least one person was trampled to death in the stampede, Donald Fauntelroy, who had been a professor at the University of Cincinnati during the last days of the institution. Several others were injured, and many of the makeshift homes ransacked and destroyed in the ensuing chaos. Police have taken over the Blue Goose barge and are floating it down the Mill Creek to the scrap yards, where it will be sold for the benefit of the force. They have also decided to take some of the dogs that had been released earlier in the day, by who no one knows. We’ll be sure to keep you updated here on the radio station you grew up with, WAIF, Cincinnati.”
Finn petted Molly, locked the house, and walked down to Adaire’s bakery. He had a hankering for doughnuts, so thought he’d get a few for treats for Lloyd and himself. Besides he wanted to kiss his wife, make sure she’d heard the news and run this wild thought he had by her, of going over to Nellie’s place to adopt a few of her cats after work. They lived in an old house and needed a mouser. Maybe she’d even have a stale loaf of bread he could feed to the birds.
-Justin Patrick Moore
Solar Eclipse, New Moon in Taurus
April 29, 2014 e.v.