They come at night.
Sometimes it’s not quite dark; the sky still ribboned with orange light, the cold not quite biting yet.
He prowled the long street, neatly stepping over rubbish and other debris. The buildings rose solidly on either side. He had time to get back to his comrades yet; just enough time to prepare them for the night’s raid.
The street is quiet this evening, but his senses strained, questing, quivering. He froze next to a side alley littered with empty boxes.
“I know you’re there,” he growled.
One of his band emerged with a clatter of tins. It’s the young one; ginger, spotty. He can’t remember the name.
“It’s only me, sir”
He sniffs in disgust.
“You’re not very stealthy, Private. What if I’d been one of the Colonel’s lot?”
Ginger paused, visibly struggling to come up with a response. In the end, it becomes boring.
“Never mind. What’s the report on the south side?”
“All quiet, Duke sir. No stirrings.”
Duke is not his real name, but it’s what they call him.
“Good. Then let’s return to base.”
The house they are using as a base greeted them with hollow eyes, but he finds the encroaching darkness comforting, now. The darkness makes it easier to hide the band’s movements. Together he and Ginger slipped into the cellar beneath; the house has long been abandoned, and any activity above would be viewed with suspicion.
He swept the room, taking in the rest of his comrades. Red, Duke’s second in command, lounged by the entryway, dozing even though he’s supposed to be on watch. Duke swotted him as they pass. He stumbled awake, eyes wide. Smithy stretched in a corner, getting warmed up. Juggs sat, staring at nothing.
There’s no one else; they are all that’s left. They don’t so much hold this territory as it holds them – too weak to advance now, and too stubborn to retreat. Duke chirped at them and they fell into line tiredly.
“You know the drill by now.”
“Do we know what their plan is tonight, sir?” Red asked, yawning.
“No intelligence on that front, sergeant.”
“I can’t go out there again sir.” Juggs whimpered, cringing where he stood. Red eyed him, lip curling, and Smithy, the oldest of them all, looked away.
“I know how you feel, Juggs. Believe me. When I first got here it felt like I wouldn’t last the night.” Duke searched himself, finding the words he needs.
“Look, there may be more of them than there are of us. They may be stronger, more experienced.” He paused, catching Juggs’ eye and holding it.
“But we are more than the stretches of muscle, fat, and skin over our bones. We’re here, and we’re not giving up. It’s not enough to live. You have to mean it!”
For the longest time, he traded stares with Juggs. Finally, Juggs lifted his chin.
The rest of his comrades stood straighter, heads held a little higher. Ginger even grins.
Duke grinned back. It’s a start. He still wished he knew what the other side was planning.
The Colonel pawed at his fine, long moustaches, and imagined that every eye in the room admired and envied him. And so they should. His latest plan should see them finally take the street territory from those mangy incumbent currs. To be sure, it had already taken longer than he’d expected – the bastards were stubborn.
This latest outpost was better equipped than those they’d used previously. We’re getting closer, he thought gleefully. Soon we won’t have to scrabble for food and supplies like rats in the dirt. Once they’d taken the market street, they’d be made.
“Fall in, you fine fellows,” he purred, pacing back and forth as his compatriots obliged. He licked his teeth, taking his place at the front.
“We know why we’re here,” he said, eyes flashing.
As one, his five officers stood up. “To run the bastards out!”
They were sleek, sharp-eyed. One or two fidgeted on the spot, eyeing the exit every now and again and stretching.
“It won’t be long, my friends.”
“Up until now, we have ambushed them at the northern or southern end and tried to eliminate them – and this tactic has served us well.” Murmurs of agreement rolled around the room.
“Remember that last pathetic streak of snot we blooded?”
There were yowls of appreciation from the assembled, and the Colonel swelled.
“But their superior knowledge of the territory enables the Duke and his band to retreat far too easily. Tonight, we’re going to come at the problem from a different angle.”
“What’s the plan, sir?”
“We will enter the street at the centre.” He paused grandly, letting that sink in. Muffled whispers at this announcement. He let the whispers grow to a rush of air. Finally, he fixed them with a piercing glare.
“What what? Spit it out!”
Awkward shuffings, and then finally a timid voice spoke.
“The mid alleys are guarded, sir. They’ll know we’re coming and go to ground.”
The Colonel huffed. “They don’t have enough people to watch every entrance to the street. Anyway, I didn’t say we were going to enter at ground level. We’re just going to ‘drop in’ on them. This way, we may even be able to track them back to their home base.” He chuckled, enjoying the occasion as his troops speculated amongst themselves. The Duke’s uncanny ability to escape from under their noses wouldn’t help them this time, the Colonel was sure of it. Tonight, they would be trapped.
Duke slipped through the shadows, Ginger at his heels. Red, Smithy and quiet Juggs were running the south patrol. The Colonel was more likely to strike at the northern end, they’d decided – he’d had a spate of victories there. Duke wanted to be where the action was, and Ginger was only too happy to join him, although he was under strict orders to observe only and report back if Duke fell.
A breeze ruffled the tarps of the various stalls, wrapped up for the night against sandstorms. Duke sniffed – a fell scent on the air, whipping past and gone before he could really process it. They were entering the mid section of the street, the safest part of the patrol usually, but something didn’t quite feel…
“Attack!” a voice screeched, as dark bodies dropped to the ground from the roof above, surrounding them.
“Duke! What do we do?” Ginger yelped.
Duke was struggling for breath, backing toward a nearby wall, Ginger behind him. They hit a door, shut tight.
“Take the little one. Leave Duke to me,” the Colonel purred, eyes blazing. Ginger whimpered, Duke hissed at him to be quiet. Think! Think! There was only one way they could escape.
“So you finally found your way to the rooftops, old boy?” Duke said loudly, scratching his heel against the door.
“I had thought your bandy old legs couldn’t hack it.”
“I’m as fit as a fiddle, which is more than anyone will be able say for you in about five minutes,”
Duke increased the pressure, scratch scratch scratch.
“What are you-”
The door sprang open behind him. Duke whipped round, streaking past the unfortunate owner of the door, Ginger in his wake, the Colonel’s troops hard on their heels.
“What the-” a voice boomed, but they were running, through a sparsely furnished living room, up the stairs, across a corridor, through a bedroom window and onto a balcony; leaping across the small gap to the next house, down some steps and back to street level, running, running, panting, running.
“Duke… where are we going?” Ginger moaned.
Duke couldn’t answer, not with the Colonel so close. They’d dropped behind but were still in hot pursuit.
“Split up,” he said finally, “I’ll make sure they follow me. At this next junction… go!”
Ginger peeled off, and as he did, Duke spun round, heading straight towards the charging Colonel and his entourage. The hunters, thrown by this new tactic, scattered around him; all except the Colonel, lagging at the back. He made to grab Duke but Duke slipped out of range, pelting back the way he’d come. Must get back to Red and the others, he thought desperately.
Dark corners and black windows flurried by, as Duke increased his pace, trusting his instincts more than his eyes to lead him back to the others. He could hear the Colonel’s wheezing breath getting further away, and he ran faster, hoping, praying….
He turned a corner.
“Duke!” Smithy’s scratchy voice brought him up short.
“No… time….” he gulped. “Get to… roof.”
They nipped down a side street. The Colonel and his troops were still trying to organise themselves; Duke could hear them snapping and hitting each other. Finding a set of stairs, the three began to climb. He hoped Ginger had made it safely back to base.
At the top, the silent night sky embraced them, stars scudding imperceptibly overhead. An arrogant peace in contrast to the aggression below. A single trap door in the far corner broke the rooftop plane. Duke started towards it, but the Colonel’s face appeared at the edge of the roof, shortly followed by the rest of him.
“There you are,” the Colonel snarled.
Duke felt a pit settle in his stomach. How had the Colonel found them so quickly? This was supposed to be a safe spot. Behind the hairy old boy, a flash of ginger hair appeared.
“Sorry Duke. It was you guys or me.”
“You rotten, yellow bellied rat!” Red bellowed, starting forward. Duke stopped him.
“How long have you been working for them?”
“That doesn’t really matter now, does it?” The Colonel purred. “You won’t be around long enough to kick yourselves.” The rest of his troops filed in, arranging themselves on the roof, an arrowhead formation pointed at Duke and his band. Ginger hung back, eyeing them all nervously. This is it, thought Duke, tensing for the fight. He felt Juggs and Red brace themselves beside him, heard a low, muttering growl from Smithy’s throat.
“Steady, boys,” he said.
With a great yowl, the Colonel leapt forward. Before he’d reached the halfway point, the trapdoor exploded open, and an enormous Human appeared, towering over them all.
“Bloody cats!” It cried, throwing one of it’s foot coverings at the Colonel’s boys, who had pulled up short and were cowering behind him.
“Get off my roof,” it shouted, lumbering towards them, limbs flying. They scattered for cover, screeching. Duke hunkered down, the others following suit. The Human straightened, and wobbled over to them on it’s odd shaped two legs.
“Duke, old boy. Getting into trouble again?”
“Mroaw,” Duke replied mournfully. Everyone knows Humans can’t speak cat. But they have their uses.
“You better steer clear of that hairy one from now on – mean look to him, that one. Why don’t you come in?” It lumbered off, and they followed after.
“Duke?” A small voice purred, as Ginger slunk back on to the roof. “I’d like something to drink, Duke. Can I come with you, Duke?”
Red growled a warning, and Duke flicked his tail dismissively.
“Go back to the tabbies, Ginger. We’ll see you tomorrow night, I’m sure.”