10. Unlikely Knights
They called it Wine Country. What it was, in fact, was an area south of Market Street, adjacent to the Tenderloin, where liquor stores sold a high volume, yet small variety, of fortified wines like Thunderbird, Richard's Wild Irish Rose, and MD 20-20 (known in the wine world as Mad Dog, for the propensity of its drinkers to urinate publicly and turn around three times before passing out on the sidewalk). While Wine Country was technically the SOMA, or the "fashionable" South of Market Street neighborhood, it had yet to draw the young professional crowd that sprayed everything with a shiny coat of latte and money, as had its waterfront neighbor. No, Wine Country consisted mainly of run-down apartments, sleazy residence hotels, deeply skeezy porn theaters, and old industrial buildings, which now housed mini-storage units. Oh, and a huge Federal Building that looked like it was being molested by a giant steel pterodactyl, but evidently that was just the government trying to get away from their standard bomb shelter architecture to something more aesthetically appealing, especially if you liked Godzilla porn.
It was in the shadow of that architectural abomination that the Emperor had taken his search for the alpha vampire cat. He and the men didn't spend much time in Wine Country, as he had lost a decade in a bottle somewhere and had since forsworn the grape. But it was his city, and he knew it like the cat-scratch scars on Bummer's muzzle.
"Steadfast, gents, steadfast," said the Emperor, throwing his shoulder against a Dumpster behind a hundred-year-old brick building. Bummer and Lazarus had commenced low, rumbling growls since they'd come into the alley, as if there were tiny semi-trucks idling in their chests. They were close.
The Dumpster rolled aside on rusty wheels, revealing a basement window with a sheet of plywood loosely fitted into it. The building had once housed a brewery, but had long since been refitted for storage, except for the basement, half of which had been bricked off from the inside. But this window had been forgotten, and it led to an underground chamber completely unknown to the police, where William, and other people who succumbed to the Wine Country's charms, would seek shelter from the rain or the cold. Of course, you had to be drunk to think it was a good place to stay. Except for the spot by the window, the basement was completely dark, as well as damp, rat infested, and reeking of urine.
As he pulled away the plywood, the Emperor heard a high sizzling sound, and the smell of burning hair came streaming out the window. Bummer barked. The Emperor turned away and coughed, fanned the smoke away from his face, and then peered into the basement. All over the visible parts of the floor, cat cadavers were smoldering, burning, and reducing to ash as the sun hit them. There were scores of them, and those were just the ones the Emperor could see from the window light.
"This appears to be the place, gents," he said, patting Lazarus's side.
Bummer snorted, tossed his head, and ruffed three times fast, which translated to, "I thought I would enjoy the smell of burning cats more, but strangely, no."
The Emperor got on his hands and knees, then backed through the window. His overcoat caught on the window sill and actually helped him in lowering his great bulk to the floor.
Lazarus stuck his head in the window and whimpered, which translated to, "I'm a little uneasy about you being in there by yourself." He measured the distance from the window to the basement floor and pranced, preparing himself to leap into the abyss.
"No, you stay, good Lazarus," said the Emperor. "I fear I wouldn't be able to lift you out once you are down here."
With the ashes of burned cats crunching under his shoes the Emperor made his way across the room until he reached the end of the direct light that lay across the floor like a dingy gray carpet. To move farther he'd have to step on the bodies of the sleeping-well, dead-cats, as even in the shadows, he could see that the floor was covered with feline corpses. The Emperor shuddered and fought the urge to bolt to the window.
He was not a particularly brave man, but had an overly developed sense of duty to his city, and putting himself in harm's way to protect her was something he was compelled to do, despite the acute case of the willies that was crawling up his spine like an enormous centipede.
"There must be another entrance," the Emperor said, more to calm himself than to actually impart information. "Perhaps not large enough for a man, or I would have known."
He tentatively nudged a dead cat aside with his toe, cringing as he did it. The vision of the vampire cats engulfing the samurai swordsman filled his head and he had to shake it off before taking another step.
"A flashlight might have been a good idea," he said. He didn't have a flashlight, however. What he had were five books of matches and a cheap, serrated-edged chef's knife that he'd found in a trash can. This would be the weapon he'd use to dispatch the vampire cat, Chet. In his younger, naïve days, last month, he'd carried a wooden sword, thinking to stake the vampires in the heart, movie style, but he'd seen the old vampire nearly torn apart by explosions, gunfire, and spear guns by the Animals when they'd destroyed his yacht, and none of it seemed as effective as had the little swordsman he'd seen in the SOMA. Still, a flashlight would have been nice. He lit a match and held it before him as he moved into the dark, working his foot between cat bodies with each step. When the match burned his fingers, he lit another.
Bummer barked, the sharp report echoed through the basement. The Emperor turned and realized that he'd somehow made his way around a corner and the window was no longer visible. He reached inside his great overcoat and felt for the handle of the chef's knife, which was stuck in his belt at the small of his back. He pushed on, moving into another room, a large one as far as he could tell, but still, to the edge of the match light, the bodies of cats littered the floor, most of them lying on their sides as if they'd just dropped over, or in awkward piles, as if they'd been in the middle playing, or fighting, or mating when something suddenly switched them off like a light switch.
Another distant bark from Bummer, then a deeper one from Lazarus. "I'm fine, men, I'll be finished with this and back out in no time."
Well into his third book of matches, the Emperor saw a steel door, partly ajar. He made his way to it; the dead cats thinned out and then there was a bit of a clearing in the carnage, although only for a foot or two, as if a path had been cleared, but a narrow one. He stood and caught his breath.
He heard men's voices, but coming from back by the window, amid them more barking and now snarling from the men.
"I'm in here!" the Emperor called. "I'm in here. The men are with me!"
Then a distant voice. "Mo-fuckas need to cover this up. The City see it they brick this bitch up, then where we go when it rain?"
There was a thump, then a grating noise, a rusty creaking, and the Emperor realized it was the sound of the plywood being fit back into the window and the heavy Dumpster pushed into place before it.
"Block them wheels," said the voice.
"I'm here! I'm here!" called the Emperor. He gritted his teeth, preparing to run across the deep carpet of cat corpses to the window, but he hesitated, the match burned his fingers, and darkness fell upon him.
"I'm pretty sure it's the Apocalypse," said Clint, not even looking up from his red-letter King James Bible.
The Animals were spread out in various positions around the basketball court, playing HORSE. Clint, Troy Lee, and Drew sat with their backs to the chain-link fence. Troy Lee was trying to read over Clint's shoulder, Drew was packing pot into the bowl of a purple carbon-fiber sports bong.
Cavuto and Rivera made their way around the outside of the court.
"What's up my niggas!" came a scratchy, wizened voice-totally out of place for the surroundings-like someone smacking a fiery fart out of a tiny dragon with a badminton racket.
Rivera stopped and turned toward a small figure who stood at the foul line dressed in enormous sneakers and an Oakland Raiders hoody big enough for a pro offensive tackle. Except for the cat-rim glasses, it looked like Gangsta Yoda, only not so green.
"That's Troy Lee's grandma," said the tall kid, Jeff. "You have to give her a pound or she's going to keep saying it."
Indeed, she had a fist in the air, waiting for a pound.
"You go ahead," said Cavuto. "You're ethnic."
Rivera made his way to the tiny woman and despite feeling completely embarrassed about it, bumped fists with her.
"Troot," said Grandma.
"Truth," said Rivera. He looked to Lash, who had been the ad hoc leader of the Animals after Tommy Flood was turned vampire. "You okay with this?"
Lash shrugged. "What are you gonna do? Besides, it's prolly the Apocalypse. No time to roll all politically correct up in this bitch when the world is ending."
"It's not the Apocalypse," said Cavuto. "It's definitely not the Apocalypse."
"I'm pretty sure it is," said Troy Lee, looking over Clint's shoulder at Revelation.
They all gathered around the seated Animals. Rivera took out his notebook, then shrugged and put it back in his pocket. This wasn't going to be in any report.
Drew sparked up the bong, bubbled a long hit, then handed it to Barry, the balding scuba diver, who inhaled the extra off the top.
"We're cops, you know?" said Cavuto, not sounding that sure of it himself.
Drew shrugged and exhaled a skunky blast. "S'okay, it's medical."
"What medical? You have a card? What's your condition?"
Drew produced a blue card from his shirt pocket and held it up. "I'm anxious."
"That's not a condition," said Cavuto, snapping the card out of Drew's hand. "And this is a library card."
" Reading makes him anxious," said Lash.
"It's a condition," said Jeff, trying to look somber.
"It's for arthritis," said Troy Lee.
"He doesn't have arthritis. It's not a thing." Cavuto was pulling handcuffs out of the pouch on his belt.
"She does," said Troy Lee, pointing to his grandmother.
The old woman grinned, held up her card, flashed an arthritic "West Coast" gang sign, and said, "What's up, my nigga?"
"I'm not giving her a pound," said Cavuto.
"She's like ninety. You must. It is our way," said Troy Lee in his mysterious ancient Chinese secret voice. From his sitting position, he bowed a little at the end for effect.
Cavuto had to bend down to give the old woman a pound. "You know you'll never escape the killer cats in those giant shoes," he said.
"She doesn't understand," said Barry.
"No comprende English," said Gustavo.
"Cats?" said Rivera. "Your message."
"Yeah, you said to call if anything weird happened," said Troy Lee.
"Actually, we said not to call us," said Cavuto.
"Really? Whatever. Anyway, the Emperor came banging on the store windows last night all freaked out about vampire cats."
"Did you see them?"
"Yeah, there were shitloads. And I don't know how you're going to take them down. That's why it's pretty obvious that it's the Apocalypse."
Clint, the born-again, now looked up. "I figure that the number of the beast is a number of how many. So, there were like six hundred sixty-six at least."
"Although it was hard to count," said Drew. "They were in a cloud."
Rivera looked to Troy Lee for explanation.
"It was like they'd all gone to vapor, like we saw the old vampire trying to do that night we blew up his yacht. Except they were all merged into one, big-ass vampire cloud."
"Yeah, it started coming into the store, even with the door locked," said Jeff, now at the foul line, sinking his fourth swish in a row.
"How'd you stop it?" Cavuto asked.
"Wet towel under the door," said Barry. "It's what you do when you're smoking weed in a hotel and you don't want everyone calling security. You're always supposed to have a towel. I read about it in a guide for hitchhiking through the galaxy."
"Skills," said Drew, a little glassy-eyed now.
"But, if not for the wet towel, it was the Apocalypse," said Troy Lee. "Clint is looking in the book of Revelation for the part about the towel now."
"I hope it's like Thunder Dome Apocalypse," said Jeff. "Not zombies trying to eat your brain Apocalypse."
"I'm pretty sure it's going to be, city-wiped-out-by-vampire-cats Apocalypse," said Barry. "You know, just going on what we know."
"It's not the Apocalypse," said Cavuto.
"So, what happened?" Rivera asked. "The cloud just went away?"
"Yeah, it sort of distilled to a big herd of cats and they went running every which way. But what do we do tonight if it comes back? The Emperor led it right to us."
"Where is the Emperor?"
"He went off this morning with his dogs. Said he thought he knew where the prime vampire cat might be and that he and the men would dispatch it and save his city."
"And you let him?"
"He's the Emperor, Inspector. You can't tell him shit."
Rivera looked at Cavuto. "Call dispatch to post a bulletin to call us if anyone sees the Emperor."
"We're not getting off work today, are we?" said Cavuto.
"Take an Apocalypse day," said Barry. "Woo-hoo! Apocalypse day!"
Troy Lee's grandma fired off a barrage of Cantonese to her grandson, who replied with the same. The old woman shrugged and looked up at Cavuto and Rivera and spoke for about thirty seconds, then went and took the ball from Jeff, then shot a complete air ball, at which everyone cheered.
"What? What?" said Cavuto.
"She wanted to know what Barry was woo-hooing about, so I told her."
"What did she say?"
"She said no big deal. They had vampire cats in Beijing when she was a girl. She said their shit is weak."
"She said that?"
"The idiom is different, but basically, yeah."
"Oh good," said Cavuto, "I feel better."
"We need to find the Emperor," Rivera said.
Cavuto pulled the car keys out of his jacket. "And pick up our Apocalypse jackets."
"What about us?" asked Lash.
Rivera didn't even look back when he said, "You guys have more experience fighting vampires than anyone on the planet..."
"We do, don't we?" said Troy Lee.
"Oh, we are so fucked," said Lash.
"That's sad," said Drew, repacking the bowl of the bong. "Really sad."
Darkness. He waited a moment, listening to his pulse beat in his ears before striking another match. "Courage," he whispered to himself, a mantra, an affirmation, a sound to keep him from jumping out of his own skin at every creak or rustle in the dark. He lit the match, held it aloft.
He pulled at the big steel door, throwing his weight, and it moved a few inches. Perhaps this was the other way out. It was clear that all these cats hadn't come in through the window, not with the plywood blocking it. He elbowed the door aside, feeling the resistance of a drift of dormant vampire cats piled up against it. When the opening was wide enough to squeeze through, he put his shoulder inside, then paused as the match went out from the movement.
He was inside, and the floor seemed clear at his feet, although it felt as if he was standing on powder. As he lit the next match he hoped to see a stairway, a hallway, perhaps another boarded-up window, but in fact what he saw was that he was in a small storeroom fitted with wide metal shelves. The floor was indeed covered with a thick layer of dust, and among it, rumpled clothing. Ragged overcoats, jeans, and work boots, but also brightly colored satin garments, hot pants, and halter tops, tall platform shoes in fluorescent colors, dingy under the dust and darkness.
These had been people. Homeless people and hookers. The fiends had actually dragged people down here and fed on them-sucked them to dust, as the little Goth girl had termed it. But how? No matter how strong or ravenous, the cats were still just housecats before they had turned. And they hadn't seemed cooperative. He couldn't imagine a pack of twenty vampire cats dragging a fully grown person down here. It didn't make sense.
The match burned his finger and he tossed it aside, then pulled the knife from his belt before lighting the next. When the next match flared, he saw something on one of the high shelves at the far side of the room. Something quite a bit larger than a housecat. Perhaps it was one of their victims who had survived.
He adjusted his grip on the knife and moved forward, trying not to cringe as the dusty clothing clung to his feet and ankles.
No, not a cat. At least not a housecat. But it had fur. And a tail. But it was the size of an eight-year-old child, and it was snuggled up against something even larger. The Emperor raised the knife and stepped forward, then stopped.
"Well, you don't see that every day," he said.
The cat thing was spooning the naked form of Tommy Flood.