by Paul Cronin
“They got Nonna.”
“Willie’s kid saw it from his window about a half hour ago. She just walked onto the street, alone.”
Hector cradled the portable on his shoulder as he moved through his dim apartment. It smelled of rum and humidity.
He asked his brother, “Where were you?”
“Hey, I had roof watch. I didn’t think.”
“She was chronic. She’d mentioned she might do it.”
“It was a selfish thing. Oh man, what’ll mom do?”
“Does she know, Tone?”
“No, she’s still at work. But she called earlier, said she might miss the 5:15 Collective Walk. She may have to wait for the next one.”
“I’m coming over. I’ll be there in a few.”
“There’s no Collective at this time.”
“Stop it. You know I like it out there.”
“Just stay there. Mom doesn’t need to lose two in one day.”
His brother hung up, so Antonio put the phone down and walked to the balcony. From inside the reinforced metal netting, he scanned the street, his eyes then lingered on the alley across the way. The sun came through at a winter’s angle; darkness clung to patches in the alley.
The shadows weren’t empty.
He would watch until his brother had entered the building unscathed. The Collective would take care of their mother. Hector prepared in the usual manner.
The essentials hung on hooks next to the door. He strapped on the Teflon gauntlets, torso and neck protectors, boots, knee pads, and the skull cap.
With each piece, Hector’s energy jumped. Unlike so many, he loved the city as it had become, loved the liberation that walking gave him.
Next, the belt with two long-handled tasers, wide-range mace, and a backup sonic emitter that fit into the small of his back. No guns. If he had wealth or real underground connections necessary for even an old automatic, he wouldn’t be worrying about the street; he wouldn’t be stuck with the hordes battling it out.
Besides, he thought, a Primitivist shuns firearms. One day, I’ll ditch the shockers too.
Finally, the sword, strong and sharp, made in Sao Paulo by a Japanese master. He’d spent the equivalent of six month’s pay for it. Expense was one of the reasons he lived in a garden-level apartment on a narrow side street — a dangerous rental. Protectors never patrolled there, and the creatures found it a natural haunt.
With the sword fastened to his back, Hector sank into Zazen posture. He breathed slow, reduced his heart rate. He thought of nothing. Then, rising, he envisioned his goal.
Today, I won’t use my tasers; only the sword, only the sword.
He sought the use of no weapons, only silent padding through the streets, as perfect in evasion as those in stalking.
He approached the door, pushed the red button and waited. High frequency waves pulsed over the tiny street. Hector heard scampering. Only one hanging around today, he thought.
Hector pushed the black button and the inner door swung. He stepped through, and when it had closed, the outer one opened and Hector exited.
Antonio watched the traffic multiply by the moment. Cars and buses only; he had never seen bicycles, like the ones in Nonna’s pictures. A few adrenaline junkies raced about on armored motorcycles, and only Primitivists, like his brother, walked alone, beyond the help of the Collective. Passive herds, Hector called them.
Those herds protect our mother, Antonio thought.
Peripheral vision alerted him. “Cat coming,” he shouted to the street.
Flowing down a fire escape, past metal shuttered windows, an enormous black jaguar made its way to the final landing, inside the alley’s entrance. It settled into a relaxed crouch, hind legs loose but in position.
“Damn Hector, why won’t he carry a cell?”
When Hector stepped onto the street, he knew he had a few minutes before something would happen. The predators didn’t just jump out helter skelter. They stalked their prey.
No traffic on his street, but thirty meters ahead he saw the line of vehicles heading down the avenue. Creatures themselves, metal beasts moving flock-like with their inhabitants secure in steel and unbreakable glass.
Hector kept his sword sheathed. His skill in Iado, the art of drawing the sword, had grown. It would remain in its scabbard until the right moment.
In an alcove, a small pack of jackals’ ears pricked and their noses caught Hector’s scent. He looked over at them, their coyote-like yipping had begun, and they thought to advance. Hector lobbed a stink bomb in their direction and kept moving. If it wasn’t a big cat, wolves, or some hyenas, he wouldn’t even bother.
“Give me something,” he said.
He approached the snarled traffic on Avenida Bichao.
The horns started then, but he kept cool. It wasn’t the time to lose control because of the idiots behind the wheel and their custom. They thought honking would help him, scare the beasts. It drove him nuts. He walked straight out into traffic, down the double yellow line. It was his privilege to do that, hold up cars, take his time. Anyone with the nerve to walk alone could make their own rules.
He hoped for a cat, but knew the chances were slim; they were fewer than the smaller predators, and they hunted from late night to dawn.
For an instant, before he was knocked forwards, he felt a rush of wind. Then the hard hit and talons scratching.
Hector stumbled, drawing his sword and dropping into a crouch.
Without the Teflon head gear, the owl would have scalped him clean, but the material resisted any effective hold from its oversized talons.
The owl soared, above the cars, then alighted on a lamp post entangled with riotous vines.
A diversion, maybe. Hector hopped onto the hood behind him. He grinned at the vague figure behind the smoked windshield. His head spun, looking for the next attack.
After three deep breaths, Hector sheathed his weapon. He blocked out the cacophony of horns.
The bleating of the automobiles on his block increased.
“Hector, you’re close.” Antonio couldn’t see his little brother, but it would only be seconds.
Across the way, the cat shifted. Antonio knew it had spotted Hector. Shouldn’t be a problem if he uses his taser, he thought. Keep the sword sheathed.
A shadow of tremendous wingspan floated across the opposite building’s facade; not an osprey, too big. It made its way towards the lamp post, where it spooked the settled bird into flight. The owl darted past Antonio’s balcony, twisting in evasion as a silver-gray harpy eagle pursued for sport.
A new one on the block, thought Antonio. Shit, she’s big. Those talons might penetrate a skull cap. They just keep growing them bigger.
Antonio spotted the 5:15 Collective Walk coming, in a tight huddle with its Protectors wary. The horns began to subside; one custom replaced by an imperative. The Protectors demanded silence.
The group moved efficiently, double file, along the sidewalk, long cleared of any man-made impediments. Garbage cans, mail boxes, stalls and the like had long disappeared. Only the obscene vegetation threatened to entangle the walking space. It owned many of the buildings. Protected cleaners hacked away what they could twice a week.
“Well, shit, the Walk is here,” Hector said.
He leapt from car to car, advancing on the unit. He wanted to see if any neighbors were shuffling home. He couldn’t speak to them; the Protectors would keep him back, discouraged their charges from making any noise.
An honorable job, he thought, but still working within a pack. At least they keep Mom safe.
The cars started moving faster, so Hector jumped to the curb, rolled once, and stopped. He looked up to see an enormous bird harassing the owl who’d buzzed him. He saw Antonio on the 14th floor, peering through the mesh. They raised hands to one another.
Antonio’s sudden change alerted the Primitivist. His older brother’s head turned, pressing into the screen.
“Something’s coming,” Hector shouted.
The Protectors knew it too, tightening the group.
An arm bobbed in and out of the group. His little mother hopping, reaching for her baby boy.
The herd grew restless, one of their own was drawing attention, squawking at her odd son, one who should not be bothered. He is alone, let him be left alone. The Protectors kept their back to the group, which would take care of the noisy one on their own.
Fear possessed Hector.
He no longer strode in a world of equals, he and the Predators and the Protectors.
A concern left at the hearth, behind the gates and bars called to him. His mother took the Collective every Work Day, yet he had never seen her there. He knew her inside, in the safe places where he became the baby boy, not a Primitivist.
The crowd muzzled her. They were neighbors, work partners; they wouldn’t harm her unless she truly compromised their safety. In that case, she would be left outside the Collective.
Hector spun in the direction of his brother’s gaze.
Panic rode him hard-his mother, a nervous Collective, a new raptor overhead, the sound of hyenas approaching.
“Pack coming,” he yelled.
Five, misshapen hyenas loped along the opposite sidewalk, then crossed. They weaved through traffic, coming at the group.
Most feared a pack more than a solitary tiger or an irrational grizzly. They stood twice the size of timber wolves, with powerful necks and jaws that evolution and, recently, man had designed to crunch the densest bone.
A nervous, low buzz emanated from the herd and the Protectors unwound their stun whips. The cars on the avenue stood still; the passengers would rubberneck until the survival drama played out. A crowded thoroughfare, almost silent, waited for the chaos.
Only three advanced to meet the carnivores, otherwise the herd would be left defenseless, picked off by opportunists.
Hector returned to the street. With a leap he perched on a slow car, its passenger ogling the impending clash.
Hector knew the rules: never jump into a Protector’s sphere for any reason. Spacing and the absence of random elements insured protection. If they couldn’t handle it, and they could, he would retrieve his mother as the herd scattered.
“Not gonna happen,” he said. He heard his brother screaming from above, unintelligible.
Antonio’s vision caught two things: the black jaguar had risen and two more hyenas, larger ones, had come around the opposite corner. The Protectors would have a time of it.
They’ll need him, he thought, then started his futile wailing.
The Protectors caught sight of the flanking beasts and two went to meet them. One remained to guard the defenseless, who backed them to the wall of a brownstone, close to the alley.
Hector saw the cat move. It didn’t hurry, just padded to the back of the fire escape and dropped the ten feet to the pavement. He lost it for a second, then it reappeared, calm and a few feet inside the alley.
The philosophy of the Primitivist, the love of the singular experience, fell away. Hector saw his mother pushed to the outer edge. The strong had retreated to the center, displacing those who could be because of their age or weakness.
Fuck the rules, that one can’t hold them all together. They’re gonna bolt. That cat knows it.
He advanced as the Protectors and hyenas drew upon one another. The backlash of the whips played close to the alley.
Snarls and screams began, punctuated by the cracks of the weapons.
“Cat,” he bellowed, drawing his sword. He thought he heard his mother scream. She probably did, he passed so close as he entered the alley. It wasn’t narrow, but it, too, had been taken by the plants. Under the florid smell of the orchids, Hector caught the scent of rotting flesh, and then the urine-musk of the cat who approached.
He came in controlled, with a front cross step and both hands on the sword. It faced down, blade side out, ready for an upwards slice, no time for a downward stroke on a fast opponent coming up from the ground.
He startled it, but his first movement only cut air, followed by an instantaneous down-slice into a defensive position. The cat had sprung back with rapidity. Its low growls pitched higher into shrieks.
Hector didn’t think to kill; he wanted to drive it away, protect his mother.
He couldn’t gauge the street action. He was in the alley and not even a head turn was allowed against a big cat. It didn’t move but its back end stood high, front paws on a hair trigger.
Its tail flicked and Hector dropped into a low stance, one leg pointed at the cat, the other ninety degrees to the side. He had two hands on the sword, his right forearm propped like a lever on his right thigh-strong reinforcement.
The tail flicked.
You can’t back away, he thought, it’ll jump. Make it jump, now.
Hector fixed eyes with the cat, stamped his back heel, and then dropped lower, sword angled up and out.
The cat sprang. Hector held perfect position, but it had leapt to the side and bounded for the open street.
By the time he had spun, the cat had landed upon somebody at the front of the alley, its trapjaw mouth on the back of the neck, its incisors deeply puncturing the lower skull.
Hector charged blind, and was grazed by an errant whip, its shock dropping the man. The last Protector had caught onto the jaguar’s danger. His whip drove the cat from its dinner, but hadn’t spared the victim from immediate death. It howled, scampered past Hector and up to the heights.
He struggled to keep aware, keep his composure with his pants wet and saliva flowing down his chin. He tried to see the body, he couldn’t be sure. He had to maintain position, an opportunist could take him any moment.
The sound of home propelled him to his feet, guard up.
“Aww, ma, stay in the herd, stay in the herd,” he cried. The harpy dove from atop Antonio’s building, shrieking in delight at the quantity of prey scattering amongst the cars on the broad avenue.
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Cronin