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The Cats of New York

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"Do you see that?"

Nicole glances up from her filing, startled. "I'm sorry?"

"Up there. Do you see... her?"

It's her boss standing at the window, and she has no idea how long he's been there. She didn't even hear him walk in. Mr. Veidt does that a lot, come to think of it, and it kind of freaks Nicole out. Not that she's worried about being caught slacking off -- it isn't like she has time to sit around painting her nails or talking on the phone -- but she can't help finding it a little creepy, all the same.

Still, it's nothing major. And if that's the worst she's going to have to deal with at this job, she'll thank her lucky stars. She'd been intimidated, at first, never really expected to even get an interview, but she actually likes it here. It's a step up on the ladder, the pay is more than generous, and Mr. Veidt does seem like a pretty nice guy, occasional weirdnesses aside. At least he speaks to Nicole like she's a human being and not a Dictaphone with teeth and tits, which is more than can be said for most of the bosses she's worked for.

She swivels her chair out from behind the desk and joins him at the window, following his gaze. But all she notices are the clouds. They're an unhealthy shade of purple, and moving so swiftly they almost seem to boil, dissolving and recombining into fleeting, irregular shapes. If Nicole stares for long enough, she starts to imagine pictures up there -- something like a crocodile, standing on its back legs, something else that looks like a human figure, only with a the head of a dog or a fox.

Then she blinks and they're gone, absorbed back into the tumult.

And that swirling movement is weird in itself, come to think of it. Because there's no wind down here. When there is, Nicole can always hear it, howling past the windows, and today everything is quiet. The new zeppelin near the building isn't moving, either; the platinum-blonde model in the Millennium ad on its side gazes stilly and serenely through her designer shades into some bright, Veidt-branded distance.

Oh, of course. And she's been standing here gaping stupidly at the weather for close to a minute. Way to make a good impression. Mr. Veidt must be wondering what kind of an idiot he's employed here.

"Uh, yeah," Nicole manages. "Looks good. She's really, ah, shiny." Shiny. Jeez. Could she sound any dumber?

Mr. Veidt blinks, looks at her sideways, and she can't quite tell whether the glance is a relieved or a disappointed one. Probably the latter, she thinks, feeling her face turn red.

But then he smiles kindly and chuckles, "That is what we're aiming for, I suppose. While I'm here, Nicole, would you cancel my six o'clock meeting tomorrow? I'll need to be at the fundraiser by eight, and while James Marcus may be very good at his job, he doesn't appear to know the meaning of 'concise'." His eyes crinkle, conspiratorial, and Nicole lets out a slow breath of relief.

Yeah. She likes it here.

* * *

The freak weather seems to have abated by evening. When Nicole leaves the office, the clouds are still lowering, bruise-colored and ominous, but the frantic wind has died down, and she isn't seeing any weird animal-headed people in them now.

She can't help keeping a wary eye on the skyline, though, and so she almost doesn't notice the little black smudge of a shape streaking across her path as she pulls out of the Veidt building parking lot. It's only at the very last second that she sees it and slams on the brakes, heart thudding.

The shape comes to a dead stop on the sidewalk, and Nicole squints at it. It's a cat. As she watches, it arranges itself meticulously on the pavement, sitting upright, eyes level, tail folded in carefully beneath itself. If she didn't know better, she'd swear it was looking at her accusingly.

Christ. It really has been a long day. Deciding that a long, hot bath and a large glass of wine are in order, she turns out of the parking lot and down the street, heading home.

And forgets all about the cat, until just after lunch the next day, when a snippet of water-cooler conversation drifts into her hearing-space as she hurries past with the week's financials.

It's one of the junior guys from Accounts -- Nicole forgets his name, though they've exchanged 'hello's in the corridors from time to time. He is talking animatedly, his eyes going cartoonishly wide behind his glasses as he gestures.

"...just sat on top of the trash can and stared at me," he's saying. "Didn't move. Didn't even blink. Seriously, it was creepy." He shudders. "Always preferred dogs."

"I'm starting to agree with you on that," Nicole offers, turning to join in with the conversation. "A cat ran out in front of me as I was leaving yesterday. And Jesus, my mom can't do withering looks like that."

"You didn't hit it, I hope?" The voice comes from behind her, and the words are unusually hurried, underscored with a sharp edge that Nicole has only ever heard Mr. Veidt use to blustering exectives and time-wasting journalists. Almost sounds worried, except that she's pretty sure he doesn't actually do worried.

She glances around quickly all the same. "Huh?" she says, frowning. "No. No, it got away fine. Gave me the evil eye and ran right off."

Mr. Veidt smiles faintly, and some of the anxiety goes out of his voice. "Good. I'm glad. I'd hate to think..."

He trails to a halt, blinks, glances out through the window, up at the sky again. Nicole isn't sure what he's looking at, because the zeppelin is on the opposite side of the building today, but before she can open her mouth to ask, he's turned on his heel and disappeared back inside his office.

He doesn't emerge again for the rest of the day, and he telephones through to Nicole a little after five, just as the light is starting to fade. That's weird, in itself; Mr. Veidt usually makes a point of speaking to his employees in person, if it's at all feasible.

"I'm afraid I'll be in no fit state to attend the fundraiser tonight," he murmurs, sounding genuinely apologetic. "Migraines always seem to come on at the most inconvenient times."

Nicole makes a sympathetic noise. "Tell me about it."

"Quite. We're going to need to arrange an alternative speaker. I believe Senator Vaughan was planning to attend anyway; I have her number here somewhere..."

There's a long pause, and when Mr. Veidt gets back to the phone he sounds distracted. Nicole actually has to ask him to repeat the number twice before she can be sure she has it copied down correctly.

"I'm sure she'll be willing to help. But if there's any problem with that-- I-- ah--"

Another trail off into silence. Wow. He really does sound off his game.

"Just leave it to me," Nicole says, hoping to hell that she sounds competent and reassuring and not like an arrogant fool. "I'll take care of it. You should go home, you sound awful." There's a dry chuckle on the other end of the line, and she flushes instantly. "Sorry. I mean -- I didn't mean--"

"There's no need to apologise," Mr. Veidt tells her, gently. "I'm sure you're right. And I appreciate your willingness to help. Thank you."

* * *

Just mentioning that she's calling from Veidt Enterprises is enough to get Nicole's call transferred to Helena Vaughan's office right away. The senator sounds dubious, at first, but after a little persuasion -- and a judicious mention of the number of reporters likely to be in attendance -- she agrees to do it.

Nicole hangs up feeling pretty pleased with herself, and justifiably so, she thinks. For a second, she wonders whether this was a test, whether Mr. Veidt just wanted to see whether she could handle being thrown in at the deep end. Seems like the kind of thing he might do.

He did sound pretty sick, though. But she hasn't seen him leave, or heard anyone open the back door to his office, so she figures she'll call back through and let him know.

There's no reply. The answerphone doesn't pick up, either; the phone just keeps on ringing and ringing, the sound carrying through beneath the heavy doors, until Nicole gives up and replaces the receiver.

Looks like the migraine is real, after all. She shrugs, and stands up to go get her jacket.

Then she stops, grabs a Post-It, scrawls, Situation under control, N. on it, and slips it under the door.

* * *

The day is starting to draw to a close, and there's a definite chill in the air. Nicole shivers, drawing her coat around her a little more tightly as she steps out into the December air.

The little alleyway beside the Veidt building is dim, full of a thick, horror-movie kind of gloom, and Nicole almost jumps out of her skin when a low, mournful yowl cuts through it.

A cat. A tabby cat, with green eyes shining like roadside reflectors in the dark.

The eyes blink at her. Then they look up, up at the tower.

She follows their gaze. And for a second, she thinks she sees a figure in the uppermost window, just the blurred impression of a person, staring palely out and wiping at its brow. She squints up at it, screwing up her eyes in the failing light.

There's nobody there. Just a reflection, probably; either that, or she's seeing things.

Her and the cat. She looks back down, waving a finger in playful admonishment. "Silly kitty..." she begins, and then breaks off.

Because there aren't just two eyes gleaming back at her from the shadows now. There are four-- six--

For a second, she thinks that she sees the alleyway massing with sinuous feline forms, an endless line of staring, opalescent eyes stretching back into the darkness, into infinity, something ageless and malign in their collective gaze--

Screw this. Nicole actually runs the rest of the way to her car, forgetting all about dignity, and her high heels, until she's sitting safely inside it, with the doors securely locked.

* * *

Sam and Sandra are only half-watching the evening news. Sandra has a book open in her hands, but isn't really looking at it; she's dozing, her feet resting in Sam's lap, hair slipping across her face.

Come to think of it, he is feeling pretty sleepy himself. His glasses have slipped halfway down his nose, the narrow frames Sam favors being nowhere near as good as Dan's owlishly oversized ones at actually staying on.

He's pulled completely out of his daze when they fall into his lap, and he blinks at the TV, yawning and scrubbing at his eyes. The bulletin is nearing its end; it's the last item, the slot usually given over to rollerskating dogs or fundraisers pulling stupid stunts for charity.

"Cat owners in New York are reporting bizarre incidents all across the city," the voiceover is saying. "But they've been especially frequent in the vicinity of..."

But Sam finds himself tuning out the words as the picture cuts from a worried-looking old woman holding a struggling ginger tom in her arms to a scene that he recognizes; the Veidt Enterprises building, spotlit purple, gleaming and monolithic and coolly forbidding, actually looking like a sci-fi villain's headquarters against the roiling clouds.

"...unavailable for comment," the newscaster is saying, "Although speculation is growing that the company's genetic engineering programme may be involved. Meanwhile, scientists have suggested that freak weather conditions could be behind--"

Something brushes against Sam's arm. Sandra leans across him, blinking the sleep out of her eyes, and plucks the remote out of his hand.

"C'mon," she says, softly. "Time for bed." She switches off the TV.

* * *

Nicole arrives at work early the following morning. The fundraiser went off like a dream, and a small part of her can't help grinning at the thought of being able to tell Mr. Veidt that she handled most of it herself. Honestly, she hadn't really been sure she was up to the challenge. She definitely owes him -- or maybe his migraine -- a thank-you.

But in front of the main doors, she stops short.

They're open -- wide open, though they don't appear to have been forced. Not exactly normal at this hour.

"Robert?" she calls, cautiously, peering inside, but there's no answer, and when she gives up and tries the door to the security office, it's locked.

And there are... marks on the floor. The cleaners obviously didn't show up last night, because there's dirt trodden all over the polished marble, scuff-marks everywhere, as though a whole crowd has rushed through the reception area without even stopping to wipe its feet.

The trail of dirt leads right to the bottom of the stairs, and carries on up. Stomach tightening, Nicole presses the button to call down the elevator.

In the office, the light on the answering machine is blinking. She frowns, presses 'Play', and isn't entirely surprised when it's her own voice that comes out, sounding embarrassingly high-pitched and pleased-with-itself on tape.

"Hi," it says. "Uh, I just thought I'd let you know that everything ran smoothly. The senator's talk went down pretty well, and I think we might even have gotten a few extra--"

Grimacing, Nicole erases the message. Weird that Mr. Veidt hasn't picked it up, though. It isn't like him not to want to know. Damn, he must be feeling really ill.

That's the logical explanation; that's the one that makes sense. But somehow she can't shake the weird feeling of foreboding that's been with her since she walked through those open doors -- maybe longer, now that she thinks about it, maybe since she saw those creepy goddamn cats all staring at her last night--

Nicole shakes herself sternly, and makes to sit down at her desk. Then she frowns. The papers she'd been filing yesterday afternoon are out of order -- like they've been knocked out of place and left to scatter across her desk. They look kind of... dirty. Crumpled. And is that a pawprint...?

That's when she hears the voice.

It's coming from Mr. Veidt's office, but Nicole can't place it for a moment; it's so low and so broken as to be almost unrecognizable. And all it's saying is, "Forgive me, girl. Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me..."

* * *

"...admitted to a secure hospital early this morning. In other news..."

Sam switches the radio off as Sandra appears in the kitchen doorway, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of toast.

"You know," she says, after a moment, "I've been thinking. This place is pretty big for just the two of us. We definitely have room for a pet. How about a--"

"Dog," Sam says, hastily. "We should get a dog."