Companions of Fear
Gage and Mink hit the drive-thru at Cootcher and parked way at the back of the parking lot where its border met the woods. They got out of the car, leaving the doors open, each cradling in one arm a black and white checkered cardboard bucket. Leaning back against Gage's sedan, facing the tree line, they ate chicken.
Gage bit into a drumstick and quickly bent forward as a drizzle of yellow liquid fell, nearly staining his jacket. "This shit's soggy," he said.
"They forgot to add the secret Cootcher crunch."
"It's like a wad of wet paper towels wrapped around a bone."
"I hate the sound of lip smacking."
"It's like eating possum or something."
Gage dumped his chicken out on the cracked asphalt next to the car and put the empty bucket on the hood. He wiped his hands off with ten paper napkins and threw them in the empty bucket. Mink put his full one down next to the empty and took out his cigarettes. He belched and said, "Kidnapping a cat to snatch a kidnapped cat."
"I want a black one," said Gage.
"It's not gonna be like you get a choice," said Mink. By the time he flicked the butt away, the cats had appeared at the edge of the woods At first there were a dozen, but after a minute, so many came that Gage considered reaching for his gun. His partner was getting ready, stuffing hands into leather driving gloves, pulling them on the last couple of inches with his teeth.
"These are ferals," said Mink. "They'll scratch the crap out of you if they don't want you touching them."
Gage put on his driving gloves and flexed his fists. "Grab one by the back of the neck?" he asked. A herd of wild house cats moved across the parking lot toward them.
"We wanna lure one into the car. See, look at how they go for that shit. It's like it was more than bad chicken."
"There's a ton of them. Let's get a black one." Gage slowly crept toward the feeding frenzy. The creatures were rubbing themselves in the greasy outer coating that Cootcher advertized as "the slickery" and had a secret patent on. A cat scream erupted from within the pile. An orange tabby cat with a pure white left eye, like a pale marble, attacked a smaller, younger, calico. The sound startled Gage and he took a step backward.
"That pile of bird is almost shot. See them dragging pieces away? Grisly, man."
"Well, get the bucket and lead one into the car, like you said."
Mink chose a piece of chicken and turned to show it to Gage. "What part of a chicken is that?" he asked.
"Looks like an ankle. Hey, I want a black cat."
Mink squatted down over the remaining scavengers still milling about over the meager scraps and bones that were left from Gage's lunch. He waved the L shaped chicken piece in the air just over their heads and made a purring noise deep in his chest. The orange cat with the weird eye and unusually large head suddenly noticed him.
"Black," said Gage.
Mink led the orange cat, chicken only inches from its face, toward the open car. Gage crept toward the driver's side door, preparing to slam it shut once his partner got the cat in on the passenger side. He could see Mink through the windshield, leaning into the front seat, his hand holding the chicken, slowly fanning the air with its scent. The cat came closer and closer, sat still for a moment, staring intently. It's hair bristled, its muscles gathered for a leap. Gage thought it had leapt, but it hesitated, head turning one way and the other. Mink's free hand shot out and pinned the cat to the asphalt by the back of its neck. The thing struggled and screeched, hissing and hissing , clawing to get free. Mink dropped the chicken and got his other gloved hand around the cat's throat. "Shut the door," he yelled.
Gage came from a trance and slammed the driver side door.
Mink lifted the cat by the neck and swung it. The instant it was in the air it instinctively went for his already wounded face and scratched both his forearms, which he used to protect himself. Before he could get the passenger door closed it recovered and made a move to get out. Mink brought his boot up and met the cat's diving face with the sole of it. It made as if to try another escape but instead leaped over the seat into the back and hid down on the floor, growling in the shadow. The door slammed shut.
"I gotta get these wounds fixed or I'll get the cat fever."
"Now we gotta get in there and drive with that thing?" said Gage.
"We'll keep it quiet with more chicken."
They moved toward the car, and Mink's cell phone went off. He took it out of his jacket pocket and put it up to his ear. "Hold on a second," he said.
Gage nodded as he lifted the full chicken bucket off the hood.
Mink spun away from the car. "It's Darlene."
While Mink was on the phone, Gage peered in the back windshield, trying to spot the cat. He saw the cat box full of gravel, the green collar, the box with the tracking device. He figured the creature must be hiding down under one of the seats. "Fucker," he whispered.
"OK, let's get in," said Mink. "If he makes a move for it, you gotta keep him in the car no matter what."
"1...2...3." They opened the doors and scooted into the car. The doors slammed.
"Did he get out?" asked Mink, looking down through the side window.
"I think he's under the seat back there."
Gage put the car in gear and drove out of Cootchers parking lot, the empty bucket and napkins flying off the car hood, bouncing off the windshield, twirling up over the sedan. Three napkins fluttered down in their wake. The bucket rolled out into traffic and was flattened by the passing UPS truck Gage had almost hit earlier.
"That was Darlene," said Mink.
"She went to see the bird professor at the university."
"She took the feather, right?"
"Yeah, but it didn't matter because the guy was iced."
"Right in his office. Sitting dead in his chair at his desk, shot in the fuckin eye. Darlene ran away, never told anybody, and went and taught The Puritans. She's freakin out, though. Saying there was a car following hers. I told her to meet us at the Haberson Warehouse Parking Lot."
"Did you tell her not to get out of the car?"
"I told her to drive around the block until we were there. Just to keep moving."
Gage hit the gas and the sedan slipped across town like the dream of a wave.
Mink spun his pistol in between hits of Sudden Afternoon. "If somebody's following her, we plug them. That's why I told her to meet us over in the Crumble. In case we had to leave some bodies behind."
"What else?" said Gage and growling came from beneath his seat.
"Was that you or the cat?"
"I think the thing's pissed, throw it a piece of chicken."
Mink laid his gun on the dashboard and reached into the bucket, propped on the console between them. He grabbed a long thin piece, pointed at both ends, and flipped it into the back. Turning the best his ribs would allow him, he saw an orange and white paw reach out and snag the meat. He turned back and said, "I was just thinking. What if because this cat is wild it doesn't know anything about taking a shit in a box full of gravel?"
"Are you saying this thing's gonna shit in my car?"
"It could happen."
"No way," were the only two words of a longer sentence Gage had intended to speak. He was interrupted by a shrill screech and the cat landing on his head. It dug into his crew cut, snarling and spitting. He could feel its teeth in his forehead.
Mink flung himself against the passenger door and lifted his gun. A shot went off, and a bullet flew past the cat's head and dug into the ceiling over Gage, who yelled, "What the fuck are you doing?" The car swerved out of its lane and into oncoming traffic.
The cat suddenly disengaged and leaped down, back under the seat. Gage opened the window to try to clear the smoke from the gunshot, and eased the car back onto its side of the road. A pair of headlights and a blaring horn passed them in a blurr.
"He bit my fucking head," said Gage, dabbing his fingers on the wounds where the claws had dug into his scalp. "After we get Darlene, I'm gonna blow its brains out."
"We need it. Keep your cool."
Gage took a deep breath, "Alright. Alright. I'll give it one more chance, but if it makes a move for me, I'll shoot myself in the head to kill it." A moment of silence passed before he added, "What are we gonna call it?"
"We have to name it?"
"Sure, how's it gonna know us otherwise?"
"It's got pretty big balls. We could call it Balzac."
"It's got kind of a fat head."
"Its head's like a couch pillow. Seems solid as a rock."
"I say, Fat Head."
"OK," said Mink, "Balzac can be his last name."
When they pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned Haberson warehouse, they saw Darlene sitting in her parked car. Loud music spilled from her open window. As Gage pulled up next to her, she lowered the volume. Mink rolled down his window and said, "I thought I told you to keep moving till we got here?"
"I think I lost them," she said. "They were definitely following me, though."
"Did you see them?" asked Gage, leaning forward so he could see her around his partner.
"A couple of big guys with hats. I didn't get a good look at them. They followed me from my class to the parking lot, keeping a distance, but I could feel their eyes on me."
"Calm down," said Mink. "Follow us to the all-night diner on Mulsie. We'll leave your car parked there and you come with us."
"That sounds like a good idea," she said. "Where are you guys going tonight?"
"We're going over by Ms. March's neighborhood. We got a cat in the back."
"Yeah. And a tracking device."
Gage called over, "You got any pills on you?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Gimme a couple of those purple ones, the cat bit me in the head."
"After we pick you up at the diner, we'll get more Count and make it a cat tracking party," said Mink.
"Fuck, I'll be better off at home than with you two."
"Nah. Take another pill and chill out. Stay with us. That's the way the Puritans would have wanted it."