Erik felt a little drunk. The tips of his fingers tingled, and he found himself staring at them, as if there was something touching them that he yet couldn’t identify. When he and Sharon were together, they often drank wine with dinner, but he was never a social drinker; he didn’t like the feeling of losing control. But the other patrons in the bar seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely; perhaps there was a secret to drinking that he was unaware of. He began to feel unbalanced again, alone and unarmed. Perhaps this excursion was a mistake.
He paid the bill, left a fair tip, pulled his pea coat tightly around him, and stepped out into the cold air.
“Excuse me?” The woman’s voice behind him startled him. “Do you have a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” he said, almost apologetically, and turned to face the source of the question.
The woman was young, maybe mid-twenties, with bright brown eyes and bright red hair, which was propped up on the top of her head by a pair of oversized sunglasses and billowed across the shoulders of her turtleneck sweater. She wore a short black coat, which stopped at her waist and accented plaid pants, snug against her long legs. She exhaled sharply, her breath condensing into an almost pure white cloud, and she rubbed her hands together briskly in an attempt to warm them.
“S’alright. It’s a filthy habit anyway. Francis gives me grief about it all the time.”
“Sorry, who?” he asked.
The woman looked momentarily embarrassed, and then quickly smiled. “Oh, no one. I was just being silly.”
Erik began to wonder if the girl was flirting or just making fun of him, like perhaps there was some inside joke that he was blissfully unaware of, and if he tried chatting up this girl she would only laugh and point out his folly.
“It’s a bit cold, isn’t it?” he said, pointing out the painfully obvious. He felt foolish the moment he said the words. She smiled wide nonetheless, a warm and forgiving smile, and he felt suddenly at ease. He felt like he should say something else, like he should introduce himself or comment on something, anything other than the weather. Instead he stood there, uncomfortable, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, blowing warm breath into the cold air.
“You have a good way about you,” she said. “You take care, alright?”
She turned and walked down the sidewalk, her long red hair bouncing and rippling with each footstep. He stood for an unusually long time, watching her walk. Yes, she was undoubtedly attractive – strikingly beautiful, even – but that wasn’t why Erik stared. There were beautiful women everywhere, several in his office in fact, but Erik was a man of tact, not one for outright gawking. Erik stared because he seemed to have no choice; there was something unusually alluring, something so unexpectedly inviting and compassionate about the woman, that he could not break his gaze.
But there was something odd and almost unnerving about the woman as well, something mysterious and inhuman – no, perhaps more than human was more appropriate. Her hips twisted and curved with such raw sexuality, almost animal in its intensity, but she moved with a certain feline grace.
He realized a moment later what was also so strange about her: as she walked down the alley, she was being followed by a surprising number of feral cats. It seemed as though all the stray cats of the neighborhood were drawn to her like moths to a light; they stalked her, silent and agile. They stuck mostly to the shadows, flitting in and out of dark pockets like shadows themselves. She seemed not to notice, and by the time she crossed the street, the cats were nowhere to be seen.
Cats, he thought. How funny. Cats.
Perhaps if not for the distraction of the red-haired woman, perhaps if not for the several gin martinis, Erik would have noticed the large black sedan with tinted windows slowly following him down the street. Perhaps he would have noticed the driver’s side window roll down halfway as a man in sunglasses and a dark suit took several snapshots with a small digital camera. But Erik kept walking, stumbling slightly as the last of the alcohol settled in, and he pulled himself clumsily up the stairs to his apartment.