I lay there in the dark like a dead man, still paralyzed under the weight of heavy sleep, as the horrifying realization began to seep into my groggy brain. I couldn't hear the cat anywhere! Jesus, it might be gone! The realization struck like a punch in the face, because, if I lost that cat, I really would become a dead man!
I jumped off the couch, whacking the coffee table with my shins, sending empty cans rolling, clinking across the floor. I held my breath, sifting through the faint night sounds for the low growling in his throat he'd been doing constantly since the dye job. Or, for a meow, a purr, even the delicate crackle of food wrappings being stealthily nosed. But I heard nothing catlike and no feeling either of the cat rubbing against my leg in the darkness to say he forgave me. I couldn't really blame him for being ticked, after the gray dye job I'd given him. He'd probably just decided for spite to retreat to a corner and do private cat-things, ignoring me, like cats will do.
I rubbed my eyes and tried to shake my head clear of cottony sleep-stuffing. I'd really gone down hard after a week of running and hiding and then wrestling with a big, all-muscle, ticked-off cat. I hadn't meant to fall asleep but just to rest a little before working on some plan of action.
The torn window shade flapped in a puff of wind, making me jump. That sound must've been what woke me in the first place. Outside, the rain still fell steadily, leaden and liquid, as it had when I'd passed out from exhaustion. But now a wind had risen, occasionally gusting through a broken pane, injecting a cool dampness into the musty, still room. Fully awake, heart pumping, I held my breath and listened hard again. The old apartment house produced only a few distant creaks at this hour from my fellow anonymous tenants moving around. No more muffled hollering and explosions from the viddie next door, since the guy had finished watching his movie and gone to bed. But also no cat sounds.
Enough listening; I needed to start looking. I bumped around the table, tramping through the fast-food sacks scattered on the floor, flattening a spare hamburger in one, and felt my way around the room, fumbling on lamp switches. I'd need as much light as I could get. He was dyed dull gray now, not his natural genetically pumped iridescent blue, so he could hide in any shadow. I made a quick, hopeful scan of the living area—torn couch, battered chest of drawers, water-stained walls—and didn't see him.
The hard little knot of fear in my gut grew to a big rocklike chunk of panic. I realized it was a pretty useless exercise, searching an apartment that was only the one bedroom, a prefab plastic kitchen wall unit and a tiny old bathroom. I found the bathroom empty of cat, too, but still showing the gray spatters marking our struggles; still smelling of pungent hair dye. I even checked in the cracked plastic tub, where I'm sure he thought I'd tried to drown him. It still held six inches of scummy, gray water, but no cat.
As if the disappearance hadn't buzz-freaked me enough, another jolt struck when I passed the bathroom mirror and saw the puffy secondskin face and brown-dyed hair of a stranger. My translucent secondskin disguise had sagged a bit off my left cheek, and the right jawline had curled up at the edges. This was my last set from Rudy the makeup guy, so I smeared a little more glue from the tube under the loose flaps and, with careful little fingertip-pokes, smoothed them back into place. I experimentally frowned and smiled and screwed around my mouth and cheeks, to make certain a piece of jaw or a nose wouldn't drop off in public, showing part of my real framed-for-murder face.
Repairing my disguise gave me a chance to calm down, to think a little. Cats could curl up in the smallest space, so I needed to search every little hidey-hole. I flopped down onto the scarred wooden floor and scootched around, peering into the shadows behind and under the couch, the chest of drawers and the cabinet that held the decrepit early '40s LCD TV. No cat— just dust balls and random gobs of grunge that I didn't want to know any more about.
As the very last thing, I looked into the opening in the cat's old cardboard box. Maybe I saved the box for last, so I could savor the anticipated relief when I found him curled up there, staring at me with accusing slitted eyes. Or maybe I wanted to put off the disappointment when he wasn't. But the box was empty except for the rumpled piece of old quilt, smelling cat-musky, with a few shiny blue hairs marking where he had slept.
Down low where I crouched, I could see smudgy paw prints and drips on the floor, and even up the wall, where the dye-soaked cat had literally gone ballistic before I caught him and wrapped him in the towel. Boy, had he zanked out, bouncing like a superball from wall to door to window, yowling and cursing me! But still, no cat.
The poor cat. He really was a great cat, an amazing cat, in fact. He had a presence, a power, as if the scientist who made him had condensed all nine of his cat lives into one intense cat—like squeezing a bunch of plain old light into an ultrabrilliant laser beam.
He'd saved my life a couple of times, and we'd become friends, even though I was this young, dumb guy who'd kidnapped him, or catnapped him . . . or whatever. In fact, I'd really gotten attached to the big genetically engineered cat with amazing cerulean fur that made people treat him like a god, calling him the most beautiful cat in history. I felt like some sadist the whole time I was dyeing him, like a guy slopping house paint all over the Mona Lisa. But it was the only thing I could figure to save his life and mine. Basically, I guess I was just too stupid to come up with a better plan.
Also, I must have missed a way he could get out! My multi-stupidity brought me to a boil against myself. "You syntho-brain!" I cursed myself, sitting up and looking around. "You canky worthless spit-bubble! Think!" Calling myself names pumped me up, focused my thinking. The broken window, of course! When we'd arrived, the wind hadn't been blowing, and I hadn't thought to check for a broken pane.
I dragged a flickering floor lamp over to see better and yanked the grease-stained window shade, letting it clatter up. In the yellow light, the dark mirrored surface of the glass showed smeared paw prints below the hole, which was at the top of the window. He was some really smart cat to figure out how to get up on the chair and wait for the shade to blow out, so he could then launch himself from the chairback and pull himself through. I stared, puzzled, at the chair, the rickety collaborator in his escape. It had been by the door before, I was almost sure. Obviously chairs don’t move themselves. Had the cat actually moved it? Nah, I decided. I must have done it in my stupor; cats don’t move furniture.
I took a deep, shaky breath and stared at the battered wooden door to the hallway and the rest of the world. I knew I had to find the guts to open it to search for the cat somewhere in the murky rainy night in a dangerous Seattle slum. Could I do it, knowing the cops might be out there with their guns and their Cop Network cameras? I'd make good viddie going down in a hail of bullets, leaving a glorious multi-punctured corpse for the viddie vampires to feast on.
Could I do it, knowing that out there might be the killer, Julio Miravelle, sleek and dangerous, aiming his black pistol at the door, waiting?
Or, could I face . . . I fought a wave of fear-nausea . . . a Big Nasty programmed on my scent, ready to rip out my chest in one swipe of his taloned claw? I'd never really known what evil was until I encountered the genetically concocted killing machine I'd dubbed a Big Nasty.
I could open that door. Of course, I could open that door. I stood up and took a few deep breaths. Sure I could. After all, I'm the Gopher. That's what my dad nicknamed me when I was a scrawny little kid and I'd come home around supper time covered with layers of grime from running wild in the North Carolina woods all day, building earthbases, battling evil aliens. He'd smile tolerantly, shake his head and go back to watching the news, and Mom would make tutting noises, guide me upstairs with a single finger in my back and make me skin my dirt-stained clothes off to soak clean in the bath. She always threatened to burn the clothes but never did. I wouldn't have had any clothes left after a week.
Sure, I could open that door. The Gopher would do just about anything, even go out that door and look for a cat. Especially a cat that was my only guide to getting me out of this mess and to finding two people I loved, Lulu and Callie. Somewhere, Miravelle held them hostage, and the cat was both bargaining chip and clue. I ached over the plight of the beautiful, bright-eyed Lulu, who made me even more goofily infatuated every time I looked at her. And over her mom Callie, my greatest friend, who'd saved my life, even though she'd never even met me before this all began.
I'd survive only if I figured out what the cat knew and what secrets lay in the tangle of its stitched-together genes. And I'd figure out the cat only if I found the cat . . . out that door.
I'd stalled long enough. I unlocked the door and eased it open, eyeball peering through the crack, ears listening for raspy animal-breathing or the cocking of guns. The hall was dirty, dim, and quiet. No cameras, no guns, no six-inch claws, only the stained peeling wallpaper whose dark blotches had been bright little flowers a hundred years ago. No cat, either, so I slipped out, down the hall, out the front door and across the porch into the street.
I took a deep breath of damp night air and tensed, waiting. No bullets, no claws here, either. The chill rain on my head washed away the last tattered remnants of my grogginess. The cold water also shocked me into some realistic thinking. Standing out in the muddy gutter, I realized I knew absolutely nil, nada, nothing about where the cat had gone. And I didn't even know how to call it. If I yelled "Cerulean!" some mindslug holed up behind one of these dark windows would surely figure out the famous cat was here and call the cops or maybe the company that built it, Animata, for the reward.
So, as my shirt wetted down into a soggy, cold, clinging shroud, I experimented with a loud, whispered "kitty-kitty-kitty," and began to circle the old apartment house. I kitty-kitty-kittied up the narrow, gloomy alley, peering into the garbage cans and crouching down to look down the steps of the basement side entrance. No shining cat eyes. I kitty-kitty-kittied over to the next block, where more cars splashed along and an occasional person walked, hunkering down against the rain. I trotted a ways down it, past other paint-challenged apartment houses, still finding no cat. The exercise didn't much warm me up from the rain dribbling down my neck, cold and slithery snakelike.
The water loosened the secondskin even more, and I poked it back into place, feeling it squish beneath my fingers. All I needed was for my face to start coming apart. I squeezed a clump of hair and held my fingers up to a streetlight. I thought I saw a little brown dye, and if mine was coming off in the rain, so would the cat's.
I approached the nearest person, a bent old guy wearing a rain slicker, limping across the street from a hole-in-the-wall bar. He kept his head down and pulled back like a turtle's inside the hood, maybe to keep the rain out of his face, maybe to avoid dealing with me.
"Sir? Sir? You seen a cat?"
"Seen lots of cats." He squinted at me suspiciously as he limped faster, pegging me no doubt for some wimpy cat lover who'd lost his precious puss. Well, okay, maybe I was a cat lover. So what? I'd really started to like that cat.
I kept up with him. "A gray cat. Big."
"Looking for a gray cat at night?" He wheezed a kind of wet gurgly chuckle. "They's all gray at night, boy." He shook his head inside the plastic hood and hurried away.
"Well, if you see him . . ." but the old man was gone. I knew if I'd mentioned the Cerulean, he'd have whipped back like a yo yo.
I decided the best way to look was to take a quick run around as large an area as possible, so I took off slogging down the sidewalk, my sneakers splatting on the water-skinned concrete. I circled the block trying to look like a regular jogger-guy just out for his routine nightly run on this cold, wet mess of a night. Yeah, right, a routine jog wearing soggy jeans and a t-shirt.
I slowed, wiping the rain out of my eyes to get a better look at the alleys, the building entrances, the porches. I reached a main street of darkened shops and food joints, where whispering electrics and an occasional gas car sped past, splashing through rain-filled potholes with rattling thuds. In the flash of passing headlights, I caught sight of a crumpled gray form on the street, and the panic-rock in my gut seemed to heat up.
Panting hard, I jogged closer and peered down. Just a greasy rag! I blew a puff of relief and ran on, circling and circling blocks and blocks, going farther and farther away from the apartment house. I passed a striped cat sitting in a house window, and a yellow one slinking away down an alley. But no big gray with that odd searching look it always had on its face.
I hoped its dye hadn't washed out. I hoped I really wouldn't see him dead in the street. I hoped I wouldn't hear a growl from the shadow of a dark alley that told me a Big Nasty had me cold. The thought dredged up the agonizing memory of torn-apart flesh and staring open eyes of dead men, sending shivers through me that had nothing to do with the cold rain. I ran harder to escape the image, to work it out of me.
After a few miles of running, I finally just lost my steam and bent over gasping with hands on rubbery knees. I waited until I got my breath and my bearings and trudged back to the apartment house. I stumbled up the apartment-house steps and back into my rented room. I stripped off the soggy clothes, ran a towel over myself, patted the lifting secondskin back on my face, and pulled on dry jeans and a shirt. The gray towel showed some brown dye from my head, but the mirror reflected a fully brown-haired guy, so I was okay in the hair area. Probably, the cat was, too—a little good news.
Since I only had the one pair of sneakers, I put them in the microwave on low. I unwrapped some of the fish I'd brought him from the Seattle waterfront market and plopped it into his red bowl. I wrapped the musty blanket from the bed around me and went back out in my sock feet onto the front porch. With the bowl as my lure, I'd sit there a while on the rusty metal chair under the light and wait. When I got back my wind and my legs, I'd find a raincoat or something to keep me dry so I didn't get pneumonia, and I'd spend the night running, looking. I convinced myself it was okay to allow myself to rest on the front porch. He was about as likely to come back here as anywhere.
And, I convinced myself I was safe here at the apartment for the time being. I'd taken it as Nick Adams, not Timothy Boatright. And I'd paid with a non-traceable cashcard, which the old lady who ran the place scanned with the little scanner pulled out of her baggy housedress. She looked at me—standing there fidgeting and holding my cardboard box full of hidden cat—with narrowed, suspicious eyes but accepted the money and gave me the room.
As I sat hopefully on the porch, the rain drummed steadily on the roof, reminding me of the winters back home when a rolling storm would sweep across the sky from the mountains. I'd sit warm in my room and watch the quicksilver sheets of rain sweep across the bare gray woods around my house. I missed those woods. I missed home. I forced myself back to my predicament.
I knew I needed the cat, and I also absolutely knew that somewhere in the history of this unholy mess lay clues that would get Lulu, Callie, and me out of it. I had to go over everything about how I got here, chasing a genetically engineered cat and being chased . . . by just about everybody.
It all started on a day I drove my cab like always, and New York stunk the way I liked New York to stink, with the sharp tangy aroma of electrics, the fumes from the gas cars, the aromas of sidewalk food, and just the general rich organic funk of people and the city. As it got hotter, all the great smells just sort of cooked themselves together like a steamy bubbling stew. Everybody immersed in the stew busied themselves acting the way only New Yorkers do. The drivers inched along in bumper-to-bumper Manhattan traffic, cabbies cussing and big traffic-scarred trucks double-parked, with everybody trying to squeeze in on everybody else.
The sidewalks could barely hold all the people: salaries in suits, slickies in their randomweave hemp jackets, funkies in trashwear, shifty peddlers selling junk, sex-joint hustlers passing out wiggly-naked-woman electroholograms, and tough, pretty New York girls, proud and knowing, wearing just about anything. They all flowed and swirled along in the city canyons like the rapids boiling over and around rocks in the mountain gorges back home in North Carolina.
Through my cab windshield, I could pick out all kinds of interesting people from the flow. I saw a terrific long-haired funky-guy striding along wearing a long shimmery trashwear coat woven of plastic strands from six-pack holders. He wore shoes made from milk jugs and a vest from stitched-together flattened beer cans.
I saw a salary-guy wearing a conservative blue suit and dark tie stuffing a sexy holo from a hustler into his pocket. Tonight, I'd bet he'd postpone dinner with the wife and kids to sit in a squirt-strip joint trying to spray a naked dancing girl with a water pistol to make her naughty chem-tattoos show up.
I saw a pretty, long-legged girl shimmering along in an electrofilm dress with constantly changing, swirling rainbow colors. She walked arm-in-arm with a slickie in a light gray randomweave suit, his own electrofilm tie showing alternating Picasso images.
When there wasn't much to see on the particular street I drove down, I could watch my fares in the rear-view mirror and talk to them if they were willing. I enjoyed talking to a family of tourists I took from the Waldorf over to the Met. They chattered so much about all the things they planned to do, I could barely hear the central cab computer report the route with the lightest traffic. They were the kinds of folks who were friendly enough that we could swap stories. They said they were the Newcrofts from Pennsylvania and they'd come to the city because Mr. Newcroft had business he couldn't do virtual-reality in the Mirror, so they all came along. Marie, the mother, designed data-sites in the Mirror for small businesses, and the two girls went to grade school, both real and virtie. The parents believed in real school, not just virtie.
I tried not to stare at the two girls, but I was trying to figure whether they were twins or clones. Probably clones, maybe of the mother. They had her straight little nose, and matching mouths with cute little short upper lips. But I didn't say anything, because it wasn't polite. Clones had enough problems as it was.
They said I was one of the few native-born Americans they'd seen driving a cab. I told them how I'm going to be a writer, and how, after I got my degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, I decided that coming to New York was the best way to do that. Actually, my degree should have read American Literature, I said, or even more specifically Hemingway. Once I started reading Hemingway, I realized I had to be a writer. He wrote about this guy, Nick Adams, who got into all kinds of adventures, and Nick Adams was really him, but he was me, too. I held up the copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls I keep on the front seat.
One daughter asked why I had a paper book and didn't just use an e-reader or download it and read it on my viddie-googles. I told her I preferred printed paper books; they had a kind of literary feel to them you didn't get with a book on disk or downloaded. And besides, I said, the cops ticket cabbies for even having googles in their cars. And passengers didn't trust pavement pilots who might have just come off their breaks buzzbombed from using the virtual reality glasses to immerse in some virtie role-playing game or do something weird in some Mirror sex-joint.
Anyway, just when we reached the Met, I'd gotten around to telling them I came to New York to learn about an entirely new place and to get into the publishing industry. But they had to go before I finished, so we said goodbye and they cashcarded the fare, with a nice twenty-dollar tip.
After taking a salary in a suit to Battery Park, I got a slim older woman in an expensive red pantsuit, who held some kind of furry animal in her arms. I didn't get a good look at it, but I think it was one of those genetic cat-dog combinations. It made a kind of mewy barking sound once, so it probably was a dat or a cog. She wanted to go to Madison Square Garden, which I should have figured. When I'd taken a fare by there the day before, the screen out front showed a big sign advertising a cat show, with animated images of herds of cats running around. As I think back on it, the screen did advertise a special appearance by an amazing cat, which I guess meant the Cerulean.
After the traffic computer reported I'd get there fastest on Hudson to Eighth up to the Garden, I asked the lady about her animal, but she just made a little polite noise like people do when they don't want to talk. She was too busy looking at some booklet.
It surprised me that she didn't want to talk about her pet. Most of the time, people who buy expensive genetically engineered animals are only too happy to give you the whole story. They take their animals on talk-show programs and rattle on about what it's like to live with a bear-dog or a lion-lamb combination. Or, if it's a really cool animal, they get it a big contract to advertise for a soap or something. My favorite ad animal was the feather boa . . . an honest-to-god snake with feathers. It slithered around in its feathers in some kind of perfume ad.
Or, people take their animals around and exhibit them for fifty bucks a look. I'd seen a hard-shelled, snake-necked snurtle and a furry, winged hamakeet up close at the state fair. The animals had gotten to be a zillion-dollar business. Dad said he thought it was pretty interesting, but Mom and the ladies at the church agreed with all the protesters who picketed the company and tried to get their Congressmen to pass laws against the animals.
Anyway, I didn't get to talk to the lady about any of that, because she really concentrated on the booklet, which I think was a cat-show program. Of course, now I know that the Cerulean's premier appearance was probably why she was so intent.
She and her animal and her program made me particularly primed to pay attention to animals in my back seat. I let her off and had just started to pull away from the curb when somebody pounded really hard on the side of the cab. Scared the biscuits out of me! I thought I'd hit somebody! I stopped, and, as I turned around, the back door whipped open, and this guy piled in with some kind of box covered with his raincoat.
He was a thin, bald guy, with beads of perspiration popping out all over his expansive forehead. I asked him where he wanted to go, and he just sat there breathing hard and swallowing. I heard a shuffling sound inside the box. He peered out the window like he was expecting somebody to join him and then told me to take him to the Castle Hotel. I repeated "Castle Hotel" into the microphone, and my traffic computer took a second to find out from central control about open routes. It told me how to get there, but added an ominous "level 4" notification. That's cabbie code for a dangerous area, meaning that we can refuse service if things don't feel right. It didn't bother me, though, because I live in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, and it was broad daylight, so I didn't even flick on the cab's external navcams, which I really should have, it turned out.
I swerved into traffic, cutting off a honking truck, and my passenger put on his googles. I couldn't see his eyes, but I could see that he had this little birdbill of a nose that came to a downward point, with a tip that looked like something was dripping off it. I heard more shifting sounds from inside the box. He mumbled something into the googles . . . a number I guess . . . calling somebody up.
"Where the hell were you, you dumb bastard?" the bird-guy shouted into the mike on his googles.
I knew he wasn't talking to me, but I flinched all the same.
He kept hollering at the dumb bastard. "I don't care! I don't care! Shit, I don't care!" He was really ticked off! "You almost screwed the whole thing up. We got maybe ten minutes before. . ." He glanced up, remembering that I was there. ". . . look, I'll be where we said. You damn well be there!"
I got a stop light and tried as casually as I could to adjust the mirror to get a better view of what he was carrying. His raincoat had slipped a bit, and I could see that his box looked like an animal carrying case, which he'd wrapped his arm around tightly like he was afraid it would get away. More muffled thumping sounds of movement came from inside.
He finished his conversation and perched the googles up on his bald head and again twisted around to look out the back window. He moved like a bird, too, with quick darts of his head, as he checked the scene outside the windows. Finally, my curiosity about him got the better of me.
"So, you been at the cat show?"
"No . . . yes. I . . . uh . . . I had a cat in it."
"That the cat?"
He cackled a triumphant laugh, but sarcastic, like a squirt of acid. "Well, not this one. Another one." Then his face clouded up again. "Just drive, okay . . . Boatright?" He'd checked my name on my cabbie picture ID on the back of the seat.
"Sure, fine, sir."
He twisted around again to look out the side and back windows, and, while he was concentrating elsewhere, I adjusted the mirror again to get a better look at him. He had little ears and a fringe of stubble around his bald head. He had on a dark green shirt with a small anteater logo.
Traffic was light, so we got into upper Manhattan pretty fast. The buildings were old and canky, the newest being mid-twentieth century. Tired, tattered people slumped on the worn stoops and watched the cab go by with blank, bored expressions. A skinny, squirrelly looking guy on the corner stopped in the middle of selling a small white box to a fat guy. He waited until I passed in case I had my cameras on. The cops could use the images as evidence.
"Hereherehere!" The bird-guy said as I neared the hotel, to my surprise stuffing an actual hundred-dollar bill in my money tray. He quickly shoved the door open, and I twisted around really quick, like I was only grabbing the bill, but really so I could look straight-on at him as he got out. That's when I saw it!
The raincoat had slipped even more as he dragged the case out, and a furry, puffy tip of a tail poked itself out of one of the case's little side windows and wiggled back and forth. The tip was colored this shining, glowing blue, like the blue poof-ball from a Roman candle arcing into the night sky. It shimmered when it caught a little sliver of sunlight, mesmerizing me even though I didn't know what it was then.
In an instant, the tail withdrew, and the bird-guy saw the coat had slipped and yanked it back in place. He glared at me for a moment to see if I'd noticed anything. I remember those nasty little brown eyes looking at me and a whole collection of perspiration drops glistening on his forehead. Even though I was sure he hadn't caught me seeing the blue tail, I made it a point to grin innocently back at him and say "Have a great day, sir!"
He slammed the door, and I stayed put, pretending like I was talking to the trip computer, so I could see where he went. Hefting the box at his side, he hurried right past the hotel entrance, to the end of the block, and disappeared around the corner.