Multi-colored prayer flags flutter outside Ngopa, a dim, incense choked shop in one of Chinatown’s many brick side streets. I push open the creaking door and enter with a jingle of bells, squinting in the Nag Champa murk.
“Hello? You still open?"
It’s a little after five and the evening mists are drawing in on Evergreen City and the lights are going on. I decided to stop by on my way home. You can never fucking find parking in Chinatown.
Ngopa is crammed with rolls and stacks of carpets, bronze Buddhas, and leering wooden demon masks. An old Asian man in a sweater vest and bifocals shuffles out from the back room, muttering and cleaning his glasses. He waves away a strand of incense smoke and peers at me as if from a great distance.
“Busy today, busy today,” he says. “You want to buy rug?”
“No, actually I was looking for something a little more exotic.”
He puts his glasses on, sizing me up. “Ahh. Exotic I got.”
“My girlfriend, she’s really into Tibetan Buddhism. I’d like a unique gift. I’m looking for a phurba.”
The old man’s eyebrows arch in surprise. “Phurba? One minute.”
The old man disappears in back, and after a few minutes of rummaging around he comes back with this thing in his hands. He lays it down on a glass counter.
“Phurba. Very powerful ritual item.”
“This is it?” I ask. It’s a scrawny triangular blade with a rough black wooden handle and a tuft of stringy hair. It’s unattractive.
“Phurba. Yes. You are the second person looking for phurba today.”
I look up. “Is that right? Was there a woman in here earlier?”
“Yes. Pretty flower. Beautiful aura. You want to buy phurba?”
“Five hundred dollar.”
Fucking phurba. I leave Ngopa in a huff with the ugly knife wrapped in plain brown paper. Five hundred dollars. Unbelievable. This thing better slice, julienne, and kill demons.
A woman waits for me at the head of the alley, leaning against a black Lincoln town car. As I draw near I catch her scent.
“Good evening, Mr Mackenzie,” she says.
Hydrangea is dressed in civilian gear: a ¾ length black wool coat with dark jeans and heels. Her collar is flipped up against the chill and her black hair is pulled into a low pony tail. She has pearl earrings and isn’t wearing a lot of makeup. I notice these things.
I’m a little surprised and pissed that she knows my real name, so I say something I think will irritate her. “Heidi,” I say in greeting, and she scowls.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Hey, you know my name. I gotta call you something.”
She ignores my comment and points at my package. “What’s that?”
“A little something,” I say. “So, we keep running into each other. Must be kismet.”
She says, “Is that a phurba? Did you buy a phurba from that man?” She seems to find that funny.
“I feel like we’re having parallel conversations here.”
“Can I see your phurba?” She’s making fun of me. She really does sound like Katherine Hepburn.
“Not on the second date,” I say and walk past her.
“Where are you going?” she says.
“Away. You’re bugging me.”
“Don’t be a child,” she says.
I keep walking.
I take a left, heading away from where I parked the Saab. I don’t want her to see me getting in the car. In short order her town car pulls up next to me on the street. The driver is just a shadowy figure behind tinted glass. The back window rolls down.
“Mr. Mackenzie,” she says. I ignore her. “Mr. Mackenzie, your car is parked in the other direction.”
D’oh! Has she been tracking me? Goddamn it, she gave me that dorje thing, it’s probably like a mystical GPS or something! I try not to act disturbed.
“I’m going to get some lo mein. Don’t you have a ballroom dance contest or something?” Lame. That’s the best diss I could come up with?
“Really, you are like a child. Get in the car.” The car stops. “Please.”
I stop and look at her. She’s gorgeous.
Ten minutes later we’re in a Starbucks and I’m bringing her a chai latte. Yes, even in Chinatown they have Starbucks.
“I apologize for making fun of your phurba,” she says, blowing on her hot drink.
“Wouldn’t be the first time. It’s fake, isn’t it?”
Hydrangea has taken off her coat – she’s wearing a sheer white blouse over a white camisole. It’s tough to look her in the eye. I’m a pig.
“In one sense, yes. It’s not authentic, if that’s what you mean. That one was made in Bali.”
I look at the parcel wrapped in brown paper on the table. “You haven’t even looked at it.”
She smiles knowingly. Women that think they know everything are irritating. Women that do know everything are even more irritating.
We compare notes. I tell her that I haven’t heard any “word on the street” about her man Yungtun-Trogyal, which is totally true. I’ve got to get some informers or something. My trip to the zoo was also a bust.
She visited the city morgue and Bayview Hospital last night in “astral form” and discovered that three bodies were missing; all burn victims from a house fire. She figures that Yungtun jacked the bodies and will use them as hosts for the Hungry Ghosts to “incarnate.” We just need to find this Yungtun dude before he uses these three host bodies to set off a full-on Hungry Ghost Apocalypse. That sounds kind of like a TV dinner: Hungry Ghost Apocalypse with Gravy!
“I’m unclear on this whole portal thing,” I say. “If this Wang Chung guy opened the portal last night during the eclipse, why aren’t there Hungry Ghosts running around?”
She sips her chai. “The portal is very small – only one Hungry Ghost can pass through it at a time. But the sprits of that realm are greedy, they will incarnate if presented with an appropriate host.”
“Like freshly dead people?”
“Yes. I suspect that Yungtun-Trogyal is using the stolen corpses as vessels for the Hungry Ghosts, which turns them into ravenous ghouls. These ghouls will attack the living, infecting anyone they bite or scratch. The infected victim becomes the host for another Hungry Ghost, and so on, until your city is overrun by the undead.”
“That would be no good,” I say. Sometimes I say stupid things. “Who is this guy, anyway?”
“Yungtun-Trogyal literally means ‘wrathful and victorious teacher of evil.’ He was the first teacher of the great Tibetan lama Milarepa, who later turned from his master’s dark teachings and walked the true path of enlightenment.”
“So he’s sort of like the Buddhist Darth Vader,” I say.
She either doesn’t get the reference or chooses to ignore it. “Yungtun-Trogyal is an ancient spirit, powerful and evil, who recently incarnated in the body of Albert Meers, an insurance agent from Omaha who dabbled in the occult. I’ve been tracking him for months in the Astral Realm.”
She talks a little bit about the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and my attention wanders a little. My eyes drift down her blouse to her bosom, gently rising with each breath…
“Mr. Mackenzie? Are you listening?”
“Huh? Yeah, I was just thinking about the Hungry Ghost Apocalypse. What’s our move tonight?”
“Well, I thought we’d --“
“Oh, shit!” I exclaim. Colin! His flight comes in to ECX in half an hour.
She’s startled by my outburst. “What? What is it?”
“I’ve got to pick up my brother and his wife from the airport!”
“Listen, I’ll meet you on the same roof top at midnight, okay?”
“Gotta go! Shit!”
I run out, leaving her puzzled and alone in Starbucks.