The cold autumn rain had fallen for days, cascading from gutters and downspouts, swirling in storm drains. The entire city was awash in it.
Arno stepped over a flooded storm gutter, hunched under his umbrella and focused on getting from the subway stop to his office without his socks ending up any wetter than they already were. He wouldn't have heard the sound except for a momentary lull in traffic as the light changed. It was small and high-pitched and came from behind a dumpster. His first, horrified thought was that it sounded like a baby crying, and that was what made him look.
There was a shoebox with a newspaper over it, and in the box were three kittens: one gray tabby, one calico, and one black tuxedo. They weren't too wet, but looked damp and sad. A hand-printed sheet of paper lay next to the box, half-in and half-out of an oil-slicked puddle. It said FREE KITTENS in water-smeared letters.
"Aww, you little guys," Arno murmured. Leaving them there didn't feel like an option.
He tucked his umbrella in the crook of his arm and gathered them up by tugging on the ends of the towel lining their box, bundling them into a small, squeaking tangle. He had intended to stuff this bundle into the pocket of his coat, but immediately realized it wouldn't fit, and also, could they breathe in there? Instead he pulled his coat over the towel-wrapped kitten ball, at which point the kittens began trying to crawl out.
Now what, genius? He was a designer at an architectural firm. He couldn't spend the day with damp kittens crawling all over blueprints and computers.
Maybe stash the kittens in a desk drawer this morning, then drop them off at a shelter on his lunch break? Yes. That sounded good.
"Nice weather," his workgroup partner Ivy said when Arno dripped his way into the group cubicle. "I'm thinking about building an ark."
The design department in Dempsey & Stoltz was arranged into small workgroups of three or four people, with cubicle walls dividing up what had evidently been a large open-space work area back in the heyday of open plan offices, circa 2010 or so. Now it provided some measure of privacy. He had made it past security downstairs by moving fast, nodding briskly to the front desk, and using his umbrella to run interference.
"Where's Kim?" he asked, edging past Ivy to his desk. He and Kim, the third member of their group, sat back to back with each other, but Ivy's desk faced his. Unfortunately.
"Called in drowned, I mean, sick," Ivy said. "I think it's just that she didn't want to face the commute, and I don't blame her." She twiddled a tablet stylus as Arno tried to figure out what to do with his umbrella, clamped under his arm and still fully open while he had to use both hands to contain what felt like about 35 kittens under his coat. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." He let the umbrella slip to the floor to be dealt with later and tried to crouch down to desk drawer level without losing kitten containment. His shirt had somehow gotten rucked up, and tiny claws scrabbled across his bare stomach. "Ow!"
"Ow?" Ivy stood up to better see over her desk. "What's that noise?"
"Shh!" He found it was impossible to open a desk drawer with his elbow, but he had no hand to spare. Then the end of the towel slipped, and he stifled a curse as a squeaking kitten plopped to the floor.
"Ohhhhhhh." Ivy was instantly in love. She went down to her knees and scooped it up. "Where did you—"
"Behind a dumpster."
"Why did you—"
"Couldn't just leave them there, could I?"
"What are you—"
"Shelter at lunchtime." By now he had pushed aside some files and was attempting the towel transfer.
"Uh, Arno," Ivy said.
"Busy," he muttered, trying to extricate the damp towel and two (or 29) wriggling kittens from under his coat.
did you say you found this?"
Her voice sounded so strange that he had to look around, at which point he completely lost his grip on the towel and the remaining two kittens tumbled squeaking out of his lap.
But he barely noticed, because Ivy was holding out the tuxedo kitten in her cupped hand, and he saw immediately what she meant. A pair of delicate, fluffy wings extended from the kitten's shoulders. They were primarily black with a white patch, like magpie wings, matching the kitten's coloring.
The kitten gave the wings an experimental flap. Ivy hastily clapped her hand over the top of it.
"Do they all have those?" she asked, her voice rising toward the end.
Arno looked around and found that the other two had vanished.
Ivy stood up quickly, clutching the tuxedo kitten to her chest. "Where did they go?"
"Maybe they flew away?"
The tabby kitten, he discovered, had fallen into the drawer, which it was now trying to climb out of. Arno scooped it hastily into his lap and examined it for wings. There were none.
"Maybe the rest are normal?" he suggested hopefully.
"Oh, there's the other one!" Needing both hands to hold the winged kitten, Ivy pointed with her chin at a flash of calico just vanishing under the gap between the floor and the cubicle wall.
Arno shoved the tabby at her and lunged. He caught it gently and pulled it back, squeaking unhappily.
As soon as he picked it up, he was surprised it had managed to go anywhere. The top half was a perfectly normal kitten front end. Its bottom end, however, was a lightly scaled fish tail, colored like a koi fish to match the calico fur.
"Were there only three?" Ivy asked frantically, while Arno stared at the mer-kitten. He finally looked around to see Ivy trying to keep a grip on the other two. The tuxedo kitten was trying to climb up to her shoulder and from there, presumably, launch itself into a recon flight of the office. "Please tell me there were only three."
"There were only three," Arno said, feeling a bit numb. "At least I think so." He sat in his desk chair and pulled the towel into his lap. "Here, give me the others."
Ivy passed him the tabby and then extracted the magpie kitten from her hair. Holding it, she crouched down to investigate the mer-kitty more closely.
It didn't appear that being on dry land was hurting it. Arno ran a finger down its tail and found it smooth and dry and slightly warm.
"What about this one?" Ivy asked. She traded him the magpie kitten for the tabby, and turned it over in her hands to look for unexpected appendages.
"It looks perfectly normal to m—"
The kitten opened its mouth in a yawn that turned into a hiccup. A small ball of fire shot from its tiny jaws and ignited the corner of a pad of Post-its on Arno's desk.
Arno almost dropped his kittens as he lunged half out of his chair. Ivy whacked the burning Post-its into the wastebasket with her elbow, which then began to ignite the other paper items in the bin. She yelped, looked around wildly, and snatched a potted aloe vera plant off the back of his desk.
"Wait—" he began, but she had already dropped the plant on the flaring wastebasket fire, pot, dirt, and all. There was a crunch and a hissing and the fire appeared to be extinguished. Smoke seeped up around the dirt, but not enough to trigger the fire alarms and sprinklers.
They both stared for a moment, Ivy holding the tabby kitten in one hand. Nobody said anything. Then she very carefully put it back in Arno's lap.
"I don't think these should be in here," Ivy said.
"Yeah, me neither."
Ivy looked longingly at the winged tuxedo kitten.
"Do you want that one?"
"Yes?" Ivy said in a small voice.
She scooped it up in delight.
Arno looked down at the two remaining kittens squirming in his lap and realized he was already thinking of ways to design a kitten-friendly fishtank. He designed things for a living, after all. This shouldn't be too hard.
There was still the other one, though.
He wondered if they could convince Kim that she needed a fire-breathing cat.