Chapter One: Decent House Pets
Of all the alleys beneath the Slivered Sky where the animals of fur and feather make themselves at home, Ankle Snap Alley was the most notorious. It was known far and wide as a den of thieves and crooks and cheats. In Ankle Snap Alley, honest folk were rare as roses in winter, and a decent house pet from a good home would never set foot in such a garbage heap.
And yet, one night, not all that long ago, a whisper-thin silver dog came creeping into the winding paths of the alley. The dog was a miniature greyhound. He stepped daintily across the broken concrete, hopped over weedchoked trash, and skirted the rusted skeleton of a bicycle, which he glanced at with disgust.
The dog’s collar was fine leather, and two jingling tags hung off it. One tag said he’d had all his shots from the veterinarian, and the other gave the address of the home where his People fed him and bathed him and invited him to sleep at the foot of their soft feather bed.
The dog froze in place, lifted one paw from the earth, and sniffed at the moon-kissed air. He swiveled his thin neck around and saw a glint of yellow eyes in the shadow between two buildings. A tiny bell made a delicate tinkling noise. The jingle of the dog’s tags answered the bell. That was the signal. The dog was in the right place.
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“Do you have information for me?” he asked the shadowy figure. Although the miniature greyhound’s body was dainty, his voice was deep and rumbling, like dynamite in a silk purse.
Two yellow eyes blazed from the shadows. “Me?” the other creature replied. “No, I do not.”
The dog snarled. “How dare you call me out here at this undogly hour and waste my time with no information.”
“Listen more carefully, Titus,” hissed the creature in the shadows. “I said I don’t have information for you. But he does.”
There was a flash of orange claw as the figure shoved a small animal from the shadows into a puddle of moonlight. It was a black-and-white woodpecker with a shock of red plumage atop its head. It looked about frantically. The little bird’s wings were bound to its body by a rubber band, and a metal paper clip clamped its beak shut. One of the bird’s eyes was swollen shut, and it hopped forward with a distinct limp.
“He took some convincing,” the shadowy figure said. “But I promised if he talked I wouldn’t eat his head.”
The bird squealed through his clamped beak.
“Now tell him what you told me,” the creature ordered the bird. “Have they found the Bone of Contention?”
The bird shook his head no. The dog exhaled with relief.
“But they’ve found a clue,” said the figure in the shadows. “He saw ’em buy a stone from a traveling deer. It had the markings of Azban, the First Raccoon, on it. Isn’t that so?”
The bird nodded yes.
The dog sighed. “So they’re closer than ever to finding the Bone?”
“If you believe the Bone is real,” said the shadowy voice. “Cats don’t put much faith in the old stories.”
“You cats were wild in the old days,” said Titus. “We dogs were not. We know the Bone of Contention is real. And that is why it must never be found.” The dog narrowed his eyes at the woodpecker. “Tell me, bird, where do they live?”
“Mrrpm, mrrm, mrrrp,” said the bird through his clipped beak.
“Hush,” said the dog. “Don’t talk.” He slid a piece of tree bark forward on the ground and placed it directly beneath the bird in the white moonlight. “Write.”
The bird bent its head and pecked at the bark on the ground; the tap-tap-tap of its beak echoed in the quiet. When it was done, the dog looked at the address the woodpecker had pecked.
“Thank you,” he said. Then he spoke to the yellow-eyed shadow. “Sixclaw, you’ll take care of them?”
The figure in the shadows laughed. “You dogs never say what you mean. ‘Take care of them’?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You want them dead?”
“I want them dead,” Titus agreed. “No one can ever find the Bone of Contention. Especially not the stinking raccoons, not their stinking children, not their children’s children . . . who I am certain will also stink.”
The creature stepped from the shadow into the circle of moonlight beside the captive woodpecker. He was an orange-and-white cat wearing a purple collar on which hung a small bell that chimed every time he moved.
“My services do not come cheap,” he said.
“When the job is done, you’ll get more than you could ever desire,” Titus said.
“I can desire a lot,” Sixclaw answered. “A cat’s appetites are bottomless.”
“Well, you can whet your appetite with this little bird here,” said Titus. The bird’s eyes widened, and the cat grinned from ear to ear. His pink tongue danced across his razor-sharp teeth.
Titus turned to go, picking his way back over the strewn garbage and overgrown grass of the alley, cautious with every placement of his paws. He hated to visit this filthy place and hated to do business with cats like Sixclaw, who were half wild in spite of their collars and dishes of milk left out on porches. Sometimes unpleasant alliances were necessary, even between cats and dogs. They were on the same side after all, when it came to ridding themselves of the vermin of Ankle Snap Alley.
As he left the cat and his prey behind, he turned his head back with a jingle of dog tags. “When you eat the bird, leave his head for the vermin to find,” he called back. “As a warning from the Flealess. Their time is up.”
Excerpted from The Wild Ones by C. Alexander London. Copyright © 2015 by C. Alexander London. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.