Kitty's Big Trouble Page 18

“My name is Anastasia. I need to speak with you.”

“Why not come to the front like everyone else?”

“Because I need to speak with you quietly, Grace Chen.”

The woman’s eyes widened. Her lips pressed together, as if determined not to ask the next obvious question—she clearly didn’t know Anastasia, so how did the vampire know her?

“I can’t let you in. Tell me what you want right here,” Grace Chen said, nodding at the threshold.

Anastasia said something in a language I presumed was Chinese and handed over a rolled slip of heavy paper that she’d drawn from her trouser pocket. Still glaring, the woman unrolled it and studied the text written on it for a long moment.

In the alley, I fidgeted, feeling cornered. I kept looking one direction and the other, but the far corners of the street were hidden in shadows. Ben was right there with me, and brushing his arm only comforted me a little. Cormac didn’t seem bothered.

Chen rolled up the slip of paper and pointed it at Anastasia. “Where did you get this?”

“From the man who wrote it.”

“This is five hundred years old,” she said, and I gaped.


With a sigh, the woman stepped aside. “Fine. Come in.”

We followed Anastasia inside as Chen looked us over. The back room was tiny, barely managing to hold a workroom sink and cleaning supplies in one corner, and a few rows of shelves stuffed with cardboard boxes and dusty merchandise. Visible through the back doorway, the front of the store—a video rental place specializing in imports—wasn’t much bigger than the back room. Narrow, dim, closetlike, the place was crammed as if it had been collecting items for decades. Shelves, racks, and piles of DVDs and CDs pressed together. You could analyze the accumulation; discover the layers of Bruce Lee under the Chow Yun-Fat movies. On the dark walls were more posters for Chinese movies—some of them recognizable, films like Titanic and Spider-Man with the titles and credits listed in Chinese. Something epic, full of costumes and kung-fu moves, played on a tiny, twelve-inch TV screen shelved in the corner behind the counter.

Since Anastasia didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us, I introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Kitty. These are my friends, Ben and Cormac.” Ben smiled thinly; Cormac didn’t seem to be paying attention, studying his surroundings instead.

“Grace,” she said. “What’s your deal?”

I glanced at Anastasia. “I’m not sure I exactly know.”

“Kitty, you and the others can keep a lookout,” Anastasia said.

“I guess we’re the hired muscle,” I said, donning a wry grin. “I’d actually rather stay and watch. Five hundred years old you said?”

Anastasia set her jaw and refused to be baited, but Grace seemed intrigued, as if annoying the vampire gave me a point in my favor. Grace offered me the scroll.

It didn’t seem like five-hundred-year-old paper. It should have been dusty, crumbling at the least touch, but it had been very well preserved and felt smooth and strong. Which meant, if it really was that old, it had to be magic. A column of Chinese characters was inked on it. Cormac stepped over, and I offered it to him. He ran a finger over the surface, then shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said, handing it back to Grace.

“What would you expect to know about this?” Anastasia said.

He hitched his thumbs on the pockets of his jacket and looked away, smiling wryly. I knew what people saw when they looked at Cormac: tough guy, man of few words, maybe not too bright. He cultivated the image.

Anastasia said to Grace, “You have the Dragon’s Pearl, yes?”

“If you get the Dragon’s Pearl, what are you going to do with it?” Grace answered.

“If I get it? Does that promise mean nothing to you?”

“I have to ask, it’s part of the deal,” she said.

Combat sound effects echoed from the TV at the front of the store.

“I don’t want it for myself,” Anastasia said. “I want to protect it. A very dark power is looking for it.”

“I thought I was protecting it.”

“This is bigger than you are.”

Grace laughed. “That’s what you say to someone you want to help you?”

I stepped in. “It’s a vampire thing. They have this innate sense of superiority. Just ignore it.”

“Vampire?” Grace said, skeptical. “You don’t look dead.”

“I’m not jiang shi,” Anastasia said with forced patience. “I’m much more than an animated corpse.”

I had to admire Grace for seeming confused rather than frightened. As if five-hundred-year-old messages showed up on her doorstep all the time. “So we’re talking Dracula here?”

“You’ve been watching too many movies,” Anastasia said. “But yes. And I’ll get what I came for.”

Looking tough with her punk hair and punk glasses, Grace stood with her arms crossed. She was solid as a wall, and not afraid of the vampire.

“Anastasia,” I said. “You need to stop acting like everyone’s a bad guy. We’re all on the same side here.”

“I thought hired muscle wasn’t supposed to talk much,” Grace said.

“They aren’t,” Anastasia said stiffly.

“Hey, you knew what you were getting when you asked me for help,” I said. Love me, love my big fat mouth.

Anastasia took a settling breath. “Grace Chen, I need to know that the pearl is safe. I need your help.”

She gave a curt nod. “The pearl’s not here. I’ll have to take you to it. Wait here while I close up the store.”

Anastasia’s lips pressed together as if she held back a retort. But all she said was, “Thank you.”

Grace went to the front. I followed, after glancing at Ben and catching his eye. Nodding, he stayed behind, pacing a couple of steps back and forth.

I could have browsed in the store for an hour, picking through the crowded bargain CD bin, ogling DVD packages stacked two deep along the wall. My gaze skimmed the posters and signs—it was sensory overload, especially not being able to read the language that three quarters of everything was written in. Grace was at the front door, locking up. I was about to say something friendly and ice-breaking, but she beat me to it.

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