"Read that bit on the last page again, Ox." Master Li waved his wine jar at the copy of the Peking Gazette I held. I obligingly turned back to page 2.
"The rebels at Kaifeng suddenly turned and ran. Later it was ascertained that they, and no one else, saw a great general dressed in green and with a long beard shouting orders to his troops, while a flag waved over the city--"
"No, no, Ox. The bit about the cats."
The needs of our most recent case had forced us to lie low for a couple of weeks. In the wineshop of One-Eyed Wong, I occupied myself with reading the Peking Gazette aloud to Master Li while he occupied himself with the better part of several wine jars, grumbling about how bored he was. The Gazette is a weekly compendium of Imperial memorials, reports, and decrees from the capitol, with the occasional weeks-late report from the provinces shoved in on the final page. Copies circulate among officials and anyone else with an interest in knowing what's going on in the government, although, as Master Li says, often the most interesting news is what's not included in the carefully-crafted reports. But I cannot say that I saw anything of import in a report of stolen cats.
"The District Magistrate of the Western District of Peking reports that a number of valuable cats have vanished from the houses of ministers and merchants around the city. No culprit has yet been identified. He respectfully presents this communication and awaits further instruction."
"What do you make of that, Ox?"
I furrowed my brow. "The esteemed editor needed to fill space?"
"That, too," conceded Master Li. "But don't you think it's odd that so many cats have been taken? If it's the work of an unscrupulous cat collector, he must be looking for a very special cat indeed."
Cats? Special? This was beyond me, but if Master Li thought there was something in it, perhaps there was. Or, more likely, he was bored stiff and itching for action.
"Come on, Ox," he said. "We're going to catch ourselves a cat."
A few hours and a number of scratches later, Master Li and I were making the rounds of the city's finest eateries in the guises of a rich merchant and his servant. I carried an ornate lidded basket full of angry Peking alley cat. At each place, we stopped for a bit while Master Li, as the merchant, fussed ostentatiously over the basket and poked expensive tidbits through holes in the weave, adroitly avoiding the claws that thrust out at him. At the end of the evening we retired to a room on the ground floor of an inn, positioned the cat-basket next to the window, then extinguished the lamp and arranged ourselves on the mattresses as if sleeping.
Shortly after the Hour of the Ox was called, a slight, dark figure peered in the window. Ascertaining to its satisfaction that the room's inhabitants were asleep, it carefully levered the basket outside and ran down the street.
"Quick, Ox!" cried Master Li. "Follow him!" We threw off our bedclothes and the old sage hopped on my back, light as a feather, fitting his feet into my tunic pockets. I jumped out the window and chased the figure, staying far enough behind not to be noticed. Not that it seemed to matter-- the figure was intent on its destination and little else, leading us through Peking's maze of streets, farther into the Outer City and into a shabby, formerly genteel neighborhood. It entered the door of a small house.
I skidded to a stop. Master Li nimbly leaped off, and together we burst through the door of the house into a small main room. Inside, a woman of a certain age screamed at the intrusion, and a young servant girl dressed in black dropped the ornate basket. The cat exploded like a tube of Fire Drug from the basket and scissored its way through the room and its inhabitants in a whirlwind of claws and teeth, screeching its displeasure, before making a break out the front door.
"Clumsy oaf!" cried the woman, smacking the girl. "Catch it!" The girl dropped her hand from her bleeding arm, turned, and ran after the cat. I blocked the door with my body, and the girl bounced off my chest and hit the floor. She sat up, rubbing her head with an expression of confusion. As I am rather large, I often have that effect on people I stop.
Master Li put on his best stern expression-- the one he uses to confront Neo-Confucians. "What in the name of the Five Sacrifical Beasts are you doing with my cat, madam?!"
"Aiiiiiiiiiee!" she wailed. "Forgive a poor widow woman only trying to do right by her son!"
The servant girl collected herself and went to comfort her mistress. Master Li took advantage of the lull to discreetly inspect the small, shabby main room. His perceptive gaze landed on the family altar, scrubbed clean, and its ancestral tablets.
"So, madam. Exactly how did your son die?" he asked gently.
She crumpled into a heap and the servant girl caught her with a practiced air before she hit the floor. "My son loves his mother!" she wailed. "Even the grip of the grave does not turn him from his duty to his mother!" The girl dutifully joined in her wailing a moment later. Master Li rolled his eyes a bit at this overwrought display, but refrained from distressing her further. Eventually she calmed down enough to relate her story, pausing for the occasional hiccup.
The Widow Yang, as her name was, had lost her only son, Yang Wei, in an accident a few weeks previously. He had been an extremely minor, but ambitious, clerk in the household of Chou Hui, a government official. Official Chou was an avid collector of jade, and the pride of his collection was a trio of jade mice possessed of the odd quality of becoming animated like living mice when the light of the moon fell upon them. When they escaped from Official Chou's cabinet due to a careless servant, Wei determined to catch them and present them to his employer in the hopes that he would be rewarded with a higher position. Unfortunately, this plan failed catastrophically when Wei fell off a roof chasing the jade mice and brained himself on the pavement below.
The Widow Yang graciously paused to allow Master Li time to murmur appropriate sympathies.
"Wei appeared in my dreams a week after he died. He's now a guardsman in the court of the dead, with the job of escorting those who die to their judgment. Official Chou will be dying in three days, and underworld rumor has it that he will be appointed as a magistrate in the realm of Tai-shan. Wei says that if I can catch the jade mice and return them before Official Chou dies, I might be able to beg for his appointment to a higher position in the magisterial court, from where he could take care of me in this world and prepare a place for me in the next." She broke into tears again. "As a properly filial son ought! How thoughtful Wei is!"
Master Li nodded knowingly. "You seek the Golden Silk Cat."
The Widow Yang nodded. "Wei told me he'd been able to find out that the Golden Silk Cat is the only creature who can catch the three jade mice. So I have been searching for the cat ever since, to no avail!" She dissolved into tears, as her servant fanned her. The girl rolled her eyes at me, clearly communicating Just who is it risking arrest and getting scratched up?
"I wish you luck in your quest, madam," Master Li said as he turned away, losing interest now that the mystery had been solved. "My cat is not of use for your purposes. Good da--"
The girl and I both winced as the widow interrupted him with a fresh outburst. "My son only wishes to honor his mother! How could I fail in this one small request! I have only three days left, and that horrible Yao Chen may find them first!"
Master Li's eyebrows pricked up, and he turned back. "Yao Chen, you say? Yao Chen the Finder and Purveyor of Things Esoteric And Valuable?"
"Yes! He also hunts for the mice, in hopes of selling them back to Official Chou, and I fear he will find them before I can."
"My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character. This rather large youth is my former client and current assistant, Number Ten Ox, and we will happily find the Golden Silk Cat and retrieve the three jade mice for you."
The widow threw herself at Master Li's feet and gasped out her thanks. The girl looked me up and down and winked.
"What is the Golden Silk Cat, Master Li?" We were making our way through the crowded alleyways of the Outer City, Master Li riding on my back again.
"A very special cat, Ox, renowned for its beautiful silky coat and its preternatural prowess at catching vermin. It is supposed to bring great luck to its owner. Some say it comes from Heaven, sent down by the gods to save humanity from a plague of rats and mice. Others say the sneaky little bastard escaped when a divine servant failed to shut a door properly and made its own way down to earth. Either way, if you need to catch supernatural mice, it's the best thing for the job."
"How are we going to find this cat in three days? It sounds impossible!"
"Nonsense, Ox! You see, the Widow Yang and her girl were going about it entirely the wrong way, stealing pedigreed and otherwise valuable cats. It's really quite simple."
I couldn't see where this was a wrong step. It only made sense that a prized cat like the Golden Silk Cat would be in the hands of a noble or official, pampered and well-fed. When I sad so, Master Li snorted. "Think about the alley cats you've known, Ox. They live to fight, feed, and fornicate, and the oldest ones look it. A cosseted house cat is too stupid to last two seconds out on the streets. We're looking for a cat that is possibly immortal, which should make it the smartest, wiliest cat there is."
"So..." I scrunched my brow up in thought. "We should be looking for the cat that won the Ugliest Cat in Peking contest three years in a row?"
"Good thought Ox, but not quite. We are looking for the cat which was disqualified for clawing the hell out of his competition. And I hope we're not too late. Onward!"
Asking up and down the city streets revealed that we were following, in some cases just a few hours behind, a squat, disagreeable man who sounded suspiciously like Yao Chen, Finder and Purveyor of Things Esoteric And Valuable. Try as we might, we remained in his wake.
Two days of questioning the residents of Peking later we tracked down the ugliest cat in China. It was said to have half a tail, ears chewed to stubs, only one eye, and a hide so scarred that only a few hairs were left. But those that remained were long and golden.
We rushed to the room rented by the retired stonemason with whom it currently lived, just in time to find him occupied with counting the coins he'd received from the sale of his cat to Yao Chen. Much to Master Li's annoyance.
"We'll have to do this the hard way," Master Li muttered. "Ox, go buy a net."
Dusk saw us ensconced in a doorway in the Da Shi Lan district a few doors down from Yao Chen's Antiques Emporium. I had a fine-meshed net tucked into my tunic and wore a ragged robe over it that stank of rotten fish. Master Li huddled under a robe no less disreputable and shook a beggar's bowl, calling for alms, as we waited for Yao Chen to emerge. The lamps inside the shop were doused and the windows locked tight against the night when Yao finally slunk out of the door with a couple of armed thugs. When a hiss like that of the Szechuan snake that devoured elephants issued from the basket he carried under his arm, he whirled around and shot nervous looks up and down the street, catching sight of us.
I stuck my finger up my nose and drooled. Master Li held out his bowl and shook it. "Surely such a fine gentleman could spare a couple of copper cash?" he said, then dissolved into a convincingly disgusting fit of coughing.
Yao recoiled, holding his sleeve across his face. "Get rid of them!" he told one of the guards and hurried off into the night with the other.
We allowed ourselves to be rousted with a minimum of fuss, then ducked down an alley and threw off our rags. I bent over and Master Li jumped on my back. I doubled back in the direction that Yao had gone and took up the chase.
"Don't get too close to him!" Master Li warned.
"Aren't we going to take the Golden Silk Cat from him?"
"No, we're going to let him lead us to the mice!"
Yao Chen led us a merry chase, taking a twisting path so as to throw any followers off his trail. It was not so easily done, however, as I only had to listen for the yowls and hisses periodically emanating from his basket.
The soldiers in the Drum Tower were beating the thirteen kettle drums to mark the beginning of the Hour of the Rat when Yao Chen and his guard finally came to a stop outside the Gate of Desire at the White Cloud Temple. The full moon and lanterns on poles outside the gate illuminated the scene as he looked around furtively and I ducked behind a building to avoid being spotted. Master Li and I peeked cautiously around the corner. Yao set the basket down and, making sure his guard had a fine-meshed net at the ready, carefully removed the lid. I held my breath in anticipation.
A cloud sailed in front of the moon. Nothing else happened.
Master Li chuckled in my ear. "Typical cat. The damn thing's probably fallen asleep."
Yao poked the side of the basket impatiently then, when nothing continued to happen, reached inside. An evil hiss sounded, and he jerked his hand back with a curse, clutching a bleeding scratch.
The Golden Silk Cat's head rose from the basket, sniffing the air. It was the ugliest cat I'd ever seen-- one yellow eye slitted with menace, ears chewed to nubs, whiskers frazzled. The cat leaped gracefully from the basket and stretched out its front paws. The stories were right. Its hide was a mass of scars with a few long golden hairs left. Yao whispered urgently to it. The cat sat down and washed its backside at him. Yao got a bit more agitated and pointed up to the temple's roof. It looked at his finger, then looked back at him, yawned, and washed its face. Yao threw his arms up and stomped around in frustration.
Just then, the moon came out from behind the cloud. One of the cat's ears twitched. It lifted its head, eye narrowed, and sniffed the air again with intent, focusing on the roof of the temple. Looking up, I could see, silhouetted against the full moon, three small figures dancing along the roofline.
"There they are, Ox," Master Li said in my ear. "Get the net ready. We're about to run."
The Golden Silk Cat bounded straight up the temple wall with three leaps. Yao held his net ready. I tensed. "Wait for it..." said Master Li. The cat stalked its prey along the roof ridge, one excruciatingly slow step at a time, then crouched, tail stub twitching. It pounced, and the jade mice scattered.
"Now, Ox!" Master Li howled in my ear. "Follow that cat!" I took off at a dead run, bowling over Yao Chen's guard as Yao turned and spotted Master Li.
There was a scream of "Li Kao, you son of a bitch!" behind us.
Master Li cackled. "That'll teach that thieving bastard! Keep running, Ox!" I chased the cat along the streets and alleyways, following as it chased the mice along the rooftops of Peking. It cornered the first one on the roof of the Changing Hall at the Altar of the Moon. The Golden Silk Cat pounced, caught the jade mouse by the scruff of the neck and shook it. The mouse froze into stillness, becoming a jade figurine once again. The cat dropped it, losing interest.
"Don't let it hit the ground!" Master Li bawled in my ear. I leaped forward with the net, just barely catching the jade mouse. It was surprisingly heavy and would surely have smashed to pieces if it hit the cobbled pavement.
"Good job, Ox!" Master Li cried. "One down, two to go!"
I looked for the Golden Silk Cat. It attended to an itch on the side of its neck, then sniffed the roof where the mouse had been, looking slightly puzzled. It stretched its hind legs out, then suddenly looked to the east, yowled, and shot off in that direction. I followed.
It led us a merry chase through the streets. I had to dodge evening revelers and vault a night-soil cart to keep up with the cat. It, and I, skidded to a halt at the Temple of Heavenly Peace in the market district. It jumped onto the roof of the pagoda's third level and slowly stalked around its circumference. I kept up with it, attempting not to trip on the steps surrounding the pagoda and spill Master Li to the ground. Halfway around, the cat halted. I danced around below it with the net, trying to predict where the jade mouse would land. The Golden Silk Cat pounced, and batted the jade mouse off the roof. The mouse transformed to stone, thumped me on the head, and bounced into the net. The cat stared down off the roof at me, as if it was angry that I'd caught its prey. Nervously, I edged backwards.
"One more left, and if I know that wily old bastard Yao, he's followed the third mouse and is lying in wait." Master Li waved his fist at the cat. "Hurry up, you mangy ratbag! What are you waiting for?"
The cat twitched an ear-stub and sniffed at Master Li, then yawned nonchalantly, looked around and smelled the air. It stared fixedly to the north for a moment, then bounded off the roof. We followed.
I ran through the market district, Master Li on my back shouting directions. At times, I had to take shortcuts through courtyards or zigzag through tiny alleyways, avoiding the ever-present street life. As I bounded over a mound of refuse in an alley and hung a left onto a broader street, Master Li pounded my shoulder.
"I'll bet you that's our destination, Ox!" He pointed ahead. On the other side of the canal in front of us, on the right, stood the Temple of the Emperor's Longevity and Peace. Sure enough, the Golden Silk Cat dashed in through the gates. I clutched the net containing the two jade mice to my chest and ran harder after the cat.
I lost sight of it for a moment, then turned a corner into the central courtyard of the temple, where the great round dagoba stood. Strings of wrought-iron flowers hung from the eaves of the bright white building, chiming in the breeze. There, also, stood Yao Chen and his guard. The cat leaped up the side of the dagoba after the jade mouse.
"Thank you for collecting the first two mice for me, Li Kao!" cried Yao. "I might let you in on a cut of the take this time!"
"You two-bit, no-good, mark-stealing treasure hunter!" shrieked Master Li. "Ox, keep after that cat!" I circled the base of the dagoba to the right, avoiding Yao. I head Yao say "Go around that way!" to his guard as he gave chase after us. Just as I got out of Yao's sight and before the guard came round the other side of the dagoba, I stopped and kicked off my sandals, tucking the net and jade mice into my tunic. Fixing my fingers and toes into the loose mortar between the bricks, I climbed the first tier of the dagoba.
"Good thinking, Ox!" said Master Li. "That ought to confuse them!"
I heard Yao and the guard collide below as they ran into each other at full tilt. Curses almost worthy of Master Li blistered the air.
"Never mind them! Up there!" Master Li pointed to the bronze canopy rimmed with bells far above us, on top of the dagoba. The Golden Silk Cat had its prey in sight, the jade mouse sitting on the tip of the spire. The cat paused, wiggled its hind end in preparation, then sprang at the mouse. The cat knocked the mouse off the spire. It transformed back to jade at the touch of the cat's paw and fell through the air towards the hard pavement below, too far out for me to catch from where I stood. Yao and his guard jockeyed for position with their net below, and I launched myself off the dagoba after the falling mouse.
"Aiiiiiiee!" I screamed.
"Aiiiiiiee!" Master Li screamed.
I landed on top of the guard, knocking him out. Master Li landed on top of Yao Chen. The jade mouse landed in my open hands, inches from the stone pavement.
"Arrrrrgghh!" Yao Chen screamed. To no avail, for Master Li tangled him up in his own net.
"Serves you right!" said Master Li. "Ox, thirty years ago this miserable wretch you see before you ruined one of the best cons I ever pulled. We spent months convincing Prince Liu Po-hu that we were itinerant alchemists who could turn two thousand taels of silver into 'seed of silver', good for changing any amount of base substance into silver, by baking it in a cauldron with secret ingredients for three weeks. And then this son of a bitch had the nerve to double-cross me and steal the silver!"
Yao Chen shrieked, "You'd have done the same to me, Li Kao, and you know it!"
"That's completely beside the point! Ox, I've had enough of this fool. We're going." He hopped onto my back and I took off running.
Early that morning we handed the mice off to Widow Yang, and that was the end of our part in the affair.
Yang Wei appeared in my dreams a few days after the death of Official Chou to thank Master Li and me for our services to his mother. Official Chou had been quite pleased to have the three jade mice returned, especially since he didn't have to haggle with Yao Chen over them. He didn't believe the Widow Yang's tale of her son's dream visitation and his own impending death, but he promised to promote her son if he should happen to die and then gave her a purse of coins to make her go away.
Official Chou was quite surprised later that afternoon when he was knocked down and killed by a runaway cart. Luckily, he was a fair man at heart who remembered his promise and appointed Wei to serve as an accountant in his court. Wei added that with this bit of influence he could bribe the demons who carried disease in their big leather bags to stay far away from his mother, so that she would lead a long, healthy life in the mortal world. As far away from Wei as possible.
Master Li said that was quite intelligent of young Wei.
And that was the end of the Adventure of the Three Jade Mice. However, we were soon distracted by the needs of the larger case we were working and in short order were arrested, beaten, thrown into a dungeon, and condemned to death.
But how Master Li got us out of that is another story.