The Chinese herb shop smelled like licorice and dried monkey butt. The Animals were piled into the narrow aisle between counters, trying to hide behind Troy Lee's grandmother and failing spectacularly. Behind a glass case, the shopkeeper looked older and more spooky than Grandma Lee, which none of them thought possible until now. It was like he'd been carved from an apple, then left on the windowsill to dry for a hundred years.
The walls of the shop were lined, floor to ceiling, with little drawers of dark wood, each with a small bronze frame and a white card with Chinese characters written on it. The old man stood behind glass cases that held all manner of desiccated plant and animal bits, from whole sea horses and tiny birds, to shark parts and scorpion tails, to odd spiky bits that looked like they'd been flown in from another planet.
"What's that?" Drew asked Troy Lee from under a veil of stringy blond hair. He pointed to a wrinkled black thing.
Troy Lee said something in Cantonese to Grandma, who said something to the shopkeeper, who barked something back.
"Bear penis," said Troy Lee.
"Should we score some?" asked Drew.
"For what?" asked Troy.
"An emergency," said Drew.
"Sure, okay," said Troy Lee, then he said something to Grandma in Cantonese. There was an exchange with the shopkeeper, after which Troy said, "How much do you want? It's fifty bucks a gram."
"Whoa," said Barry. "That's expensive."
"He says it's the best dried bear penis you can buy," said Troy Lee.
"Okay," said Drew. "A gram."
Troy passed the order through Grandma to the shopkeeper. He snipped a tip off a bear penis, weighed it, and placed it on the pile of herbs in the sheet of paper he had laid on the counter for Drew. Grandma's paper was much larger, and the shopkeeper had been tottering around the shop for half an hour gathering the ingredients. At one point when the old man was up on the top of the ladder at the far back corner of the shop, the Animals had leapt the counter and laced their arms together as a human rescue net, which served only to scare the bejeezus out of the shopkeeper and set Grandma off in a tirade of Cantonese scolding, to which they all responded like dogs, paying her rapt attention and tilting their heads as if they actually had some idea of what the fuck she was talking about.
Lately the Animals had been all about saving lives. Most of the time, guys their age would be fairly convinced of their immortality, or at least oblivious of their mortality, but since being murdered by a blue hooker turned vampire, then resurrected as vampires, then restored to living by Foo Dog's genetic alchemy, they had been feeling what they could only describe as Jesusy.
"I'm feeling extra Jesusy," said Jeff, the tall jock.
"I always feel extra Jesusy," said Clint, who always did.
"Yeah, extra Jesusy, bitches! Let's go save some mother-fuckers!" Lash had shouted, which had sort of embarrassed everyone a little, since they had been sitting around a table in Starbucks at the time, discussing the attack of the cat cloud and the information they'd exchanged with the two homicide cops. "It's up to us," Lash added softly, sort of slinking into his hoody and putting on his shades.
Now they watched as the old shopkeeper folded up Grandma Lee's bundle of ingredients and tucked in the paper so it was as tight as a toothpick spliff, then flipped the package over and wrote some Chinese characters on the back with a carpenter's pencil.
"What's it say?" Barry asked Troy Lee.
"It says, 'vampire cat remedy.'"
"Yeah. Then there's a bunch of warnings about side effects."
An hour later they were sitting around the Lee kitchen table, waiting for the big twenty-quart soup pot on the stove to come to a boil.
Grandma Lee rose from her chair and tottered over to the stove with her package of herbs. Troy Lee joined her, helped her unwrap the package, and held the paper away from the burner as she scooped handfuls of herbs and animal parts into the boiling water. Foul and magical fumes bubbled out of the kettle, like the flatulence of dragons on a demon-only diet.
"This really going to work, Grandma?" Troy Lee asked in Cantonese.
"Oh yeah. We used it when I was a girl in China and some vampire cats invaded the city."
"And they still have the recipe in a shop down on Stockton Street?"
"It's a good recipe." She scooped the last of the package into the water.
"How do you use this stuff, anyway?"
"It's wet, how are you going to use firecrackers?"
"I don't know how, I just like firecrackers."
The Animals covered their noses and started filing out of the kitchen. "That smells like fermented skunk ass," said Jeff.
Grandma said something in Cantonese, followed by "My bitches," pronounced in frighteningly accentless English.
"What? What'd she say?" asked Jeff.
"She says, 'That's how you know it's a good recipe, gents,'" said Troy Lee.
A dark basement. A thousand sleeping vampire cats. One formerly human vampire. One huge, shaved vampire-cat hybrid. Five matches left. No way out. A half hour, maybe less, until sundown.
The Emperor was not a man to use profanity, but after he assessed his situation and burned his fingers with his fourth to last match, he said, "Well, this blows."
There was no helping it, sometimes a man, even a brave and noble man, must speak the harsh truth, and his situation, did, indeed, blow.
He'd tried everything he could think of to escape the basement, from building a stairway to the window with empty fifty-five-gallon drums, to screaming for help like a man on fire, but even on a platform of oil drums he couldn't find the leverage or the strength to move the Dumpster away from the window.
He could hear Bummer and Lazarus whimpering outside in the alley.
All the other windows had been bricked up, all the steel fire doors were bolted, and, of course, the elevators and cables were long gone from the shafts (which he'd discovered after an hour prying the doors open with a metal support bar he'd taken off one of the shelves where Tommy Flood lay curled up with the Chet-thing). A dusty spray of twilight filtered down the elevator shaft from somewhere above, and it was by this that the Emperor ascertained that there was no way to climb the shaft, and that now it was dangerously close to sundown, as the light had turned a dim orange color.
He would fight, oh yes, he would not go down without a battle, but even the magnificently agile little swordsman had gone down to the attacking pounce of cats. What chance did he stand in the dark with only a metal bar? He'd already checked the empty oil drums for accelerants, hoping he might burn his enemies before they awakened, but he'd had no luck. The barrels had had dry goods or something solid in them, and even so, he wasn't sure how he'd avoid being suffocated by burning cat fumes.
Then, in thinking about how he might escape the flames, it occurred to him how he might escape. He made his way back to the storeroom where Chet and Tommy lay, and lit one of his precious matches to get his bearings. Yes, there was still a bolt on the door, and in addition there were enough barrels and shelves to construct a barricade beyond that. The match went out and he felt his way across the room until he touched Tommy's back-cold flesh. He took his ex-friend under the armpits and dragged him off the shelf and across the room, bumping through the door-way as he went. He shoved the body to the side and cringed with the crunch it made, falling onto the immobile bodies of dead cats.
Back through dark, feeling around until he found Chet's fur. He felt for what he thought were the front paws, then backed across the room again, the huge shaved vampire cat in tow. Chet was lighter than Tommy had been, but not by much, and the Emperor was winded. He couldn't afford to sit. The ray of light in the elevator shaft had gone deep red.
He heard Bummer let out a ruff beyond the window.
"Run, men, away! Go away from this place. I'll find you in the morning. Go!"
He never raised his voice to the men, even when they were in peril, and he heard Lazarus whimper at his command, but then the sound of Bummer growling while being dragged away by the scruff of his neck. He would get the message after a block or so. The men were safe.
He pulled the metal door shut, then yanked on it until he heard a click. Then spent the second to the last of his matches looking at the simple bolt, and taking a last look around the room, trying to memorize the layout of the barrels and shelves that he would have to move in the dark.
As the match burned out, he heard stirring in the room outside. There was a rack of metal shelves to the right of the door. He grabbed them and overturned them in the doorway. Yes, the door opened out, but what could it hurt. The more he put between himself and the vampire cats, the better. He scooped up armloads of the clothing at his feet and tossed them over the shelves, then backed across the room, throwing everything he touched in front of him, as if he were tunneling out the other side. Finally, he crawled up in the heavy shelf where Tommy and Chet had been and crouched, facing the door. He felt for the handle of the kitchen knife that he'd tucked in his belt at the small of his back, drew it, and held it before him.
There were distinct cat noises-yowls, hisses, and meows, coming from the room outside. They were awake, up, and moving. There was a tentative scratch at the door, then a whirr of scratching, like someone had turned a power sander on outside, then it stopped as quickly as it had started and all he could hear was his own breathing.
No. There was movement. The slight rustle of cloth, then a low, trilling purr. And it was coming from inside the door, he was sure of it. The Emperor clamped the knife in his teeth and lit his last match. The room was as he thought it would be, a pile of debris and barrels, but swirling out from under shelving in front of the door was a layer of mist, moving across the floor toward him, undulating in tiny waves that approximated the sound of a purr.