The Better to Hold You - By Alisa Sheckley Page 0,1

the elaborately designed fashion victims, entrancingly ugly breeds with faces wreathed in wrinkles, their noses squashed up between their eyes. They are dragged behind their fit and fabulous owners, panting from their deformed jaws.

And then there are the exotics: lizards, parrots, rabbits, the odd squirrel monkey or de-glanded skunk. I don't usually see these outside of work, but then, they're not my specialty: They belong to someone else's Manhattan. So I suppose I was a little startled to see the man with the baby barn owl on his shoulder, although not as surprised as the other subway riders.

The man had a quality of alertness about him that didn't quite seem to match his appearance. He had that look you get from sleeping rough: T-shirt not quite clean, the worn cotton molded to his wiry chest. I noticed that the man's eyes were a pale hazel, almost yellow, as he kept moving his gaze around the subway car, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. I wondered where he had found the little gray bird, which had sunk into itself, but stopped myself from asking him. Most people think they're rescuing owlets when all they're really doing is stealing the baby on its first day out of the nest. My friend Lilliana can explain this to people and they'll frown and say they had no idea, but when I open my mouth, people tend to get red in the face and become defensive.

The little owl huddled closer to the man's neck and he reached back and patted it, shifting his other hand from strap to pole. A blond businesswoman sidled away and I saw the man notice.

Then, for a moment, the man met my eyes, a half-smile on his lips, as if he had something amusing to impart. I turned away from him, because I don't approve of people wearing animals as accessories. Particularly wild creatures, which are far more delicate than you might think.

I knew this because we get the odd raptor at the Animal Medical Institute. We're the only veterinary ser vice in the New York area that caters to exotics, so we're pretty much the only game in town if your anaconda loses its appetite or your parrot breaks its foot. We ‘ r e also the only place in the tristate area that can do dialysis on cats and the best place to give your dog chemo. But somehow I didn't think the raggedy man was taking his little pal in for a checkup. I was wondering if I owed it to the owl to intervene when the subway screeched to a stop and the doors opened. There was a reshuffling of bodies and I realized that the person pressing against my back had gotten off, giving me room to breathe again. Reflexively, I lifted my hand to adjust my pocketbook strap, only to find that there was no pocketbook there.

I felt a moment of disorientation. Was it possible that I'd left home without it? Had it fallen to the floor? And then, on the heels of these thoughts, the realization: Someone had stolen my bag. I said it out loud, half in disbelief, just as the subway gave a hiss and a jolt, the doors closed, and the train began to move again.

I looked around, wildly, as if I expected the thief to still be there. But of course, whoever it was would have gotten off the train. Around me, people were watching with various degrees of sympathy, alarm, and disinterest. I met the raggedy man's eyes and he gave a little shrug as if to say, Sorry, but it wasn't me.

A heavyset woman with a vast ledge of a bosom patted my shoulder, and there were murmurs from the other women and some of the men. “What happened?” “Somebody stole her bag.” “Didn't you feel anything?”

I shook my head. “I didn't feel a thing.” I felt a rising panic as my fellow passengers checked their own bags and briefcases and wallets. But they were fine, while I was suddenly stranded without money, credit cards, cell phone, and keys. I tried to remember how much cash I'd been carrying. Crap. I'd just gone to the bank yesterday after work.

“They carry knives,” said a thin teenage boy, his oversized jeans hanging off his hips and revealing white boxers. “They just cut right through the strap, and bam—emergency surgery on your finances.” He looked at me with mock concern, aglow with his own cleverness. For a moment,