By Lois Hebbler

An alley is a good place to live, but an even better place to die. Anyway that's what my best friend says so and I guess I should believe him.

"You're the smart one around here, aren't you, Herbie?"

My friend was propped against the opposite wall. All he did was glance over at me and give me a do-I-have-to-state-the-obvious look. He isn't much of a talker. And I like that. Because some days I have my own private orchestra tuning up inside my skull and once that happens things get scrambled.

Herbie and I have been discussing alleys for a while now because we live in one. It goes nowhere real important, but sometimes someone will stumble onto my place. Mostly it's other street people looking to take it over for themselves. But I have it fixed up really nice and have no plans to move.

"Your place?" Herbie sat forward, gazing at me with those piercing brown eyes of his. "Sorry, Herbie."

I said my place; I guess I'd better make it clear that it's really Herbie's. He found it first. And he knew what he was doing. It's a prime location. Most of our streetlights have been busted so many times no one gives a damn anymore. So we have the protection of darkness when we go roaming at night. Sometimes I even pop the manhole cover and use the entrance to the sewer that's right out front. Best of all it's a high crime area, so the taxpayers go out of their way to avoid us. And since they do, then so does the law. I know all about taxpayers. I used to be a one. Then they said I wasn't acting normal, that something was wrong in my head. But I knew nothing was wrong. I knew why they wanted to get rid of me, why they put me in the hospital. They were jealous and maybe a little scared since they'd discovered I had the ability to read minds.

"But they couldn't keep me locked away, could they Herbie? Once the insurance ran out they didn't lose anytime cutting me loose. I disappeared first chance I got, didn't I?"

He was eating the last of the PB&J sandwiches I'd made for him earlier so he didn't bother to comment.

Where were we? Oh, I remember, we were talking about the law and our alley. Yeah, sure, every once in a while the cops get feathers up their butts and roust all the junkies and winos that are living on the street. But they leave Herbie and me alone. He says that if we keep hidden from the regular folks and don't pester them, then the law won't bother us. He's right, the cops only look out for the ones who pay their salaries anyway.

But the very best thing about our alley, and the number one reason we live here, is the little alcove. Walk about twenty feet in and there it is in the brick wall, like a small room that measures around six feet wide by eight feet deep by ten feet high. We figure that at one time something must have been here, maybe a generator or some other big machine. There are still a couple of pipes sticking out of the cement to give credit to our theory. No matter though, because it's now our cozy little hideaway, complete with a brick ceiling and three walls.

I heard a rustling noise close to the mouth of the alley. Herbie heard it too, because he stopped chewing. I took a quick peek and saw Lottie standing in the entrance. She wore a pink towel wrapped around her head, the same threadbare cotton dress she always had on, droopy once-white socks and mismatched hightop tennis shoes with no laces.

"Hey, Spider, I know you're back there. Come out. I need to talk to you."

She never came around unless she wanted something so I didn't answer her. She doesn't like alleys, and I figured if I kept silent she'd eventually go away. On the other hand, if she'd asked permission to pay a visit like a respectable person instead of giving orders, I might have spoken to her.

Sometimes, when I'm in the mood and the music isn't playing, I like to talk to someone other than Herbie. But she had just displayed her lack of manners, so no turning back. And no guilty feelings about it either.

"You come out here and let me talk to you. I got something to tell you that's real important. And I ain't going away or shutting up 'til you do."

Good as her word, she kept up a steady word barrage, yammering away at the top of her lungs. I bumped my head against the wall several times in order to stop the John Philip Sousa marching band music that started bouncing around in my skull. I needed to think. She was going to attract the cops. They didn't like disturbances that called the taxpayers' attention to this part of town. I ran my hands through my hair, even pulled out a few clumps of it, thought about putting my fingers in my ears, changed my mind, then I started wishing the law would come. They'd haul her off to jail for drunk and disorderly and Herbie and I wouldn't have to put up with her for a while.

I began to sway to the music that started up in my head again. This time it was "Getting To Know You" from "The King and I". A long time ago, in my other life, I had the pleasure of seeing it on Broadway. It's a damned good musical, with or without Mr. Brynner.

I enjoyed a stanza or two while I waited for Lottie to get carted away. Nothing happened. She just kept yelling. I thought about maybe paying some taxes again one of these days. Then the cops would have to come shut her up. After a few more minutes of listening to her ceaseless prattle, I looked over at Herbie. He didn't have to say a thing. But I knew what he was thinking. Like I said earlier, I can read minds. I stepped out into the alley where she could see me.

"What do you want, Lottie? If you have something to tell me, be polite about it and come pay a proper visit." Then I ducked back in far enough so I could see but not be seen.

She wrung her hands and paced back and forth on the sidewalk near the entrance. Behind her I saw that rat-faced Luther scoot on by. He was holding a brown paper sack squeezed tight around a bottle, probably Thunderbird, his poison of choice. He doesn't like to share so I knew he'd be way into the next block within a matter of seconds.

"Gone already," Herbie murmured in my ear. I don't know how he does that since he was still propped against the other wall. "And no one else is around, Spider. You know everybody already has a place picked out to flop for the night."

I shifted from foot to foot, but kept my eyes glued to Lottie and watched her take a few uncertain steps farther in, then hesitate. She stretched her arms wide, laying her palms flat against both walls as if she were trying to keep them from closing in on her. That's another plus about the place where I live. When the warehouses were being built the land was at a premium, so alleys wound up being narrower than usual. Fat cops hardly fit. And it's for certain no policemen can go buzzing down them in their cars, chasing innocent people, arresting anybody in order to meet their quotas.

"I need to warn you about something." Lottie lowered her voice, like she did when she passed on some gossip. Then in the sudden flash of brilliance that sometimes happens to me, I could hear what she was really thinking. "I know what you did. I figure you got a couple of extra bucks on you because of it. I want some of it. Or I'm telling. If I tell, you might get the chance to run or maybe they might catch you first, either way you're going to have to leave your precious alley. So I got you on this one, Spider. You have to give me what I want."

The words were so clear in my head that I had to check to see if her lips were moving. They weren't. My heart started thumping fast as panic rolled in like garbage trucks the day after Mardi Gras. I couldn't leave my home. It was the best one I'd ever had.

"Stay calm and focused," Herbie whispered. "We can deal with this."

As always, Herbie was right. I took a couple of breaths, paid attention to a few bars of "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" from "Annie", and got myself under control. Herbie began mumbling faster, the words all spilling together, mixing with the music. I couldn't make out most of it, but I could guess. I kept silent. And hidden. I waited, trying to stay as still as a stiff in the morgue.

Lottie took a couple more steps down the alley. The air became rank with the odor of cheap alcohol that was seeping out of her pores.

"Spider, I can hear you back there breathing fast. Gotta tell you, you don't need to feel threatened by me. I can feel the DTs starting, but I don't want much. Maybe you could give me a swig or two of booze in exchange for what I know. If I had me some extra, I'd share with you."

Now that was an outright lie and Herbie and I both knew it.

"Keep silent," Herbie murmured, the growl of displeasure rumbling forth from deep in his throat, "let her come to you."

The sun began to dip below the horizon, and shadows lengthened into night. Lottie dropped her arms to her sides, sucked in a lungful of air like maybe she was gathering false courage and took ten quick steps closer to where Herbie and I waited.

"You are so bad for making me walk down this alley." She took several more steps. "But I suppose you want the company and I can't fault you for that."

Huh, all that butter not melting in her mouth, when what she really thought was, "You'll get a lot of company in jail, Spider. While I'll be out here, free, living in your cozy little home."

Five more steps and she was at the edge of our room. Two more and she was in the entrance. I knew the moment she realized what was going to happen because surprised shock spread across Lottie's face. She let out a little squeal. Her arms and legs moved awkwardly as if she'd lost the power to command them. In her frantic haste to get away, Lottie backed into the opposite wall. She didn't even have time for more than a muffled scream before Herbie brought her down and was at her throat, ripping the life right out of her.

We don't plan on moving out of this alley. She wasn't quite dead yet. I noticed this as I helped drag her into our place. She was still trying to suck in some air, but making gurgling noises instead. We dumped her in the far corner of the room where she took up more than her fair share of space.

As Herbie and I sat waiting for her to die, my friend leaned his head against my shoulder. I put my arm around him and ran a hand over his dark brown fur, thinking that I was going to have to give him a special treat tonight. Herbie is such a good dog. He deserves the best.

I glanced over at Lottie. She had finally stopped making those odd wet, sounds. "We'll wait until full dark and then we can toss her down the sewer with the rest of them." Herbie told me he liked that idea.

As night fell, "Some Enchanted Evening" started playing in my head.

The End

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