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There were a dozen of them, maybe more.

Cheslav Oleksei never bothered to count.

There had been three or four to start with, grey tabbies and a tortoiseshell, and a little one, nearly all black with a patch of white on its chest. After a while, others had joined them, big ones and small ones, fur in every conceivable shade of cat. Now they scrambled over each other in a teeming mass, crying with loud mews, bolting down food like they were starving, even though he fed them every morning.

He lit a cigarette as he watched them, and blew smoke and warm breath into the cold air.

Cheslav supposed he didn't blame them. He knew what it was like to be hungry.


Cheslav glanced over his shoulder. There was a dark shape standing in the doorway that led inside, a silhouette so broad-shouldered and tall, it almost could have been Taras, except Cheslav knew better.

He titled his chin, gesturing the man forward.

The resemblance faded as soon as Anton stepped into the alley's wan light.  Anton did not move so much like a hunting cat as a lumbering bear.  He was thick but slightly stoop-shouldered, swarthy, with shaved hair.  Not quite as tall as Taras.  Not as muscular as Cheslav himself.  Anton was a relatively new acquisition, straight out of the gulag, with the ink to prove it.  Cheslav liked to pluck them up right after they got out, when all they could remember was starvation.  Those men were invariably loyal to the first hand that fed them.

A few cats fled as Anton approached.  Panicked at the sudden appearance of a stranger, they left their food and dashed down the alley, leaving the others to take their abandoned share.

"We had to kill them," Cheslav said, mildly, offhand.  He watched Anton's torpid blue eyes flicker, watching the cats, first tracking one, then another, unable to keep up.  "During the Siege.  The rats were gone - at least the ones we could find - and next went the cats.  Offer them a bit of food, even the smell of blood from a cut on your own finger, and they would come close.  Close enough to catch, if you were quick.  My son Taras became quite good at it."

A faint crease formed between Anton's thick brows.  He looked at Cheslav for a few moments, staring uncertainly, then his gaze shifted back to the cats.

Cheslav shrugged, flicking ash onto the half-frozen ground.

"I think I feel bad for them.  A man has to do something, to make up for the things he's done."

"Da, Krysha."

Cheslav slipped an envelope from his jacket pocket.

"We have a problem. There have been reports of people getting sick from drinking bad vodka, going blind, dying from alcohol poisoning.  It's so bad that the Ministry has had to get involved, for the good of the state."

One corner of his mouth sharpened to a thin curve.

"Not that the Ministry will be a problem, but we do have to take care of our own messes.  They've traced the contaminated vodka to one of our warehouses."

He paused.

Anton stared back at him, gaze open and expectant.  After a moment, he took the envelope, turning it over in his gloved fingers without opening it.

"One of them," Cheslav murmured, slowly.

There was a pause, then finally Anton looked up, recognition rousing his gaze, focusing it.

"Someone's cutting the vodka. Thinning it even more."

Cheslav nodded, and flicked his cigarette to the ground.  

"Furniture polish and disinfectant."

Anton grimaced, lips twisting with disgust.  Cheslav wondered now, how he had ever seen a resemblance.

"You'll find his name written there."

Anton nodded, then, with determination.

"Da, Krysha.  I'll take care of it."

Cheslav glanced down. Their meal all but finished, only scraps left on the ground, the cats began to retreat, feral once more, the proximity of humans no longer bearable.  They disappeared down the alley, into the shadows.

They would be back tomorrow morning, he knew.

He turned away, dismissing Anton with a gesture.

"...of course you will."
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February 2010

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