D and Sympathy
Part I: Despair
The real irony is, Leon Orcot doesn't like Chinatown. He doesn't even like Chinese food, beyond a certain pleasure in cheap takeout with extra grease. It isn't that he's racist. He's American, with the distinct, American assumption that all other cultures are weird. Chinatown is weird. Chinese food is weird. The underlying weirdness only serves to color how goddamn weird D is, and D is pretty goddamn weird. In fact, weird doesn't even cover what D is. Weird covers the pet shop part, the incense part, the Chinese culture part, the long nails, the cheongsam, the mismatched eyes, the unexpected obsession with sweets. But the feeling Leon gets, creepy-crawly down the center of his spine whenever he catches the aforementioned mismatched eyes; or the wrench in his gut whenever he hears the rustle of the aforementioned cheongsam silk; or what he thinks he sees, long nails navigating too easily each sweet puff of pastry -- that's not weird. There's a word for it Leon's vocabulary doesn't possess. It isn't wrong, but it gets the hair on the back of his neck to prickling just the same.
Leon rubs the back of his neck. He feels at odds with himself and with the surrounding environment. The incense smells thick and sweet, heavy on the air, which is better than having to smell an assortment of God knows how many different animals. Simple incense shouldn't do so much for keeping a room smelling not fresh but nothing short of pristine. That's weird, too. It doesn't smell like animals in this place, buried deep beyond the normal confines of even Chinatown, somewhere just off the edge of every map. Normal, American rules don't apply. Normal, Chinese rules don't apply. The rooms -- sprawling and, Leon suspects, maze-like, endless, tangled just beyond the reach of a few tempting doors -- smell like the pivotal but unreachable word, ultimate but just beyond the tip of his tongue. Indescribable. In-D-scribable, Leon thinks, and seconds after feels the need to punch a hole in something.
What Leon can't describe gets him aggravated. It always has. It's a coping mechanism, an understandable tendency, undeniably human. From the very first minute he stepped into this place, he knew how it was going to be. High ceilings, exotic plants, the air tasting like tea and unrefined sugar. The confusing eddies of incense like smoke, like mist. Each shadow testing each shadow, with darker corners and the shifting of unnamed creatures in hidden cages. Sound everywhere, though muted beneath the crush of the oppressive air: birds shifting their wings, dogs scratching themselves, monkeys making unnecessary comments. Or the itchy feeling of cats watching you. Leon doesn't even trust the plants. A flower is just a flower; a rose just a rose. In Count D's pet shop, Leon wouldn't be surprised if there were piranhas beneath the petals, or if they were those huge, man-eating plants you saw in old horror flicks. Complete with a tongue and teeth and everything. Leon doesn't exactly make sure he's sitting as far away from an arrangement of Calla Lilies as possible; he resists the urge bravely, with minimal uncomfortable shifting.
Coming to the Pet Shop for the answers in a strange case has been one thing. Indulging in afternoon tea after a funeral is another. Leon doesn't want to stay. But, in the grand tradition of humanity and contradiction, instinct is no match for curiosity. Leon is no exception to this common reoccurrence. He'd leave, but he doesn't trust the count left to his own devices. He'd go, but there are clues to be found here. Even in cups of tea, which are taking a hell of a long time to make. Maybe it's special voodoo tea. Maybe the count is going to drug him and feed him to a vulture in the back room; maybe he's gotten too close to the truth of the matter and he's got to be silenced before he tells anyone else of his suspicions.
Maybe the incense is getting to him and he's hallucinating.
Leon shifts like a kid in the first grade, rubbing his palms on his thighs. He's not just hallucinating his own reactions, a mixture of insecurity and annoyance. Everything around him is an antique, the main room a clutter of fat vases and slow clocks, brocade lounge couches, squat coffee tables. The telephone is this early 1900s number, black and gold. There are no windows; there isn't any natural light. A few porcelain lamps with flickering bulbs shift red and yellow color through the canopies of incense. Who knew smell was tangible? Leon wonders if he's out of his league in a place too dark for comprehension, timeless and nameless both. It only serves to make him angrier. He doesn't like to question himself.
"You're not putting any damn opium in that tea, are you, count?" Anything to break the mockery of silence, the hidden sounds beneath the still atmosphere. Even if he isn't very good with words, Leon can still make noise. Noise doesn't call for culture, or even good improvisational skills: just a loud voice and shameless intervention. Leon doesn't know on whose behalf he's intervening, even if he does have a sneaking suspicion it's his own. The straps of leather pulled tight over his shoulders and sliding up underneath his armpits -- he hates wearing a goddamn jacket on the job; he hates the discomfort that comes with looking respectable -- are two points of reassuring pressure. Guns work anywhere, he tells himself. 'Weird' isn't bulletproof.
"Patience," the count replies, "patience, Mr. Detective." The count has thin lips well accustomed to secretive smiles. Leon watches the pale curve of the guy's chin with the same curiosity that keeps him in his seat. Shit if he doesn't look more like a woman than some women Leon knows. His cheongsam is silver and black, with a high tight color and these intricately embroidered clasps. Leon almost remembers what they're called, but not quite. There are momentary bursts of white along a splash of silver; small budded flowers on a bloodless vine. Looks like a dress to Leon. The sleeves are long and flared and the entire business reaches down to the counts ankles. Leon can't find any seams on the thing -- not that he's staring. When the count bends over, it moves little whispers in the honeyed air.
"I'm a busy man," Leon protests. "I've got work to do; I can't wait around all day for tea to brew." The count levels him with an unfaltering look. It leaves him off balance, though he's sitting down. One purple eye, one gold, and a range of unreadable wisdom flashing in each. How does a guy get eyes like that, Leon wonders, and what the hell do they mean? That you have a predisposition for crossdressing? That you're going to work for the Chinese mafia in L.A.? That you're going to kill a blonde detective from the L.A.P.D. when he least expects it and use him as fishbait? The whole situation gives Leon the willies. It's not natural. Count D and his pet shop and his dresses and his uncanny eyes -- all of this is not natural.
"I thought perhaps you might have questions," the count says, suddenly amiable. "I assume you do not take much sugar in your tea?"
"None. No sugar, I mean," Leon amends. Snorts. "I have too many damn questions for one cup of tea."
"Very well." The count sniffs, thin nostrils half-widened, as if, of the two of them, Leon is the crazy one. The count pours tea like a professional, forefinger pressed against the top of the plain white pot, nails like wounds, like bloodstains, against the smooth pot belly. He pours a cup first for Leon, and then one for himself. The bat -- creature -- thing -- that hangs around him watches Leon now, with beady black eyes, wings propelling him back and forth between the opposite couches.
"I don't feel like I'm welcome," Leon mutters. His hands are too big for the small cup. He swallows the tea in one gulp and burns his tongue and the back of his throat. "Shit! Jesus Christ, count, are you trying to kill me?"
"If I could boil the water cold," the count murmurs, "I assure you, I would." He passes his left hand, palm up, in a semi-circle between them. "Questions, Mr. Detective, questions. Neither of us has all day; we both know how it is to be busy men." Leon clears his throat. Questions, he thinks, questions. He has questions coming out the ass. If it's the count's intention to get him hung up on which question to start with, Leon sure as hell isn't going to let him.
"You think I was born yesterday?" Leon begins.
"You have to think I'm some sort of idiot."
"Tell me, Mr. Detective, why I would think that?"
"So you honestly want me to believe a lizard, a lizard that actually looked like some kind of a woman, had these -- these abracadabra eyeballs, and that's what killed Robin Hendrix?" The count could fool Leon once out of shock, pure disbelief that such bullshit was coming out of someone's mouth, but twice? Leon is too old to believe in ghost stories. He's a policeman, for Christ's sake; the world is full of homicidal nutjobs, drug lords and corrupt politicians, sure, but not women-lizards whose very gaze could turn a man to stone. And besides, the last time Leon saw him, Robin Hendrix was very much not stone. He was just dead. There's a big difference. "Life's not a video game," Leon points out. "Shit like that just doesn't happen; it's just not real." Leon hopes that banging his fist emphatically on the coffee table will hammer his point home. He also hopes that it doesn't break the coffee table. He gets the feeling that the tea set the count is using is worth more than a month's rent for Leon's apartment. The coffee table is probably a priceless heirloom the count bought with his drug money.
"You were ready enough to believe it earlier." The count takes a polite sip of his tea before offering Leon a second cup. "Is it the funeral which has changed your mind? The reality of death leading you to question the supposedly impossible; the heavy handed truth of a man's absolute despair?"
"Stop talking mumbo-jumbo," Leon snaps. "I don't want another cup of your tea. I've got a meeting at -- shit. I've got a meeting in fifteen minutes."
"It's very expensive," the count informs him. "With just a hint of jasmine; I've been told it cools the temper, but perhaps yours is a special case. I would rather tell you the nature of despair, but it seems philosophy is hardly your strong point."
"Someone died." Leon balls his fists. The count really is something else. Expounding on the truths of life and death as if that's the fantastical, but making the whole lizard story out to be the fundamental truth of the matter! His brain's on backwards, Leon thinks, or something. "A guy died and you want to talk to me about 'the nature of despair'? Hell no. I'm outta here."
"Come again soon," the count calls after him. His voice glides up the long set of stairs, chasing Leon out into the sunlight. It takes Leon's eyes a full half minute to re-adjust. Crazy count. He'd keep Leon down in the darkness for too long and have him believe the sun's what's wrong with his eyesight. And the real irony is, Leon Orcot doesn't even like Chinatown. The back streets smell like something sweet frying; the fake pavilion storefronts are just that, so they aren't fooling Leon; and behind him, as he lights up a sorely-needed cigarette, is just some crazy asshole's pet shop cover story. Leon's going to bust him. The smell of tobacco and cigarette smoke grounds him, chases off the last lingering pet shop perfume. He's going to nail that sonovabitch, and he's going to nail him good.
"Count D." Leon shakes his head. "Just you wait."