The Major and I sat in a dinky shadowy cell below the prison complex under Bridge Street. Above us the streets hummed with the most metropolitan of machines carrying the most cosmopolitan of people. The droning of internal combustion motor cars jarred the foot falls of one-man rickshaws.
The Major was slowly working his way through a hipflask of Whiskey. A red faced Englishman of mixed kingdom descent, he is the new regional inspector and superintendent for the Bund. The most prominent feature anyone noticed of the Major was his piercing aquamarine eyes. They were a mismatched set, for his face was puffed and large, almost swollen and too voluptuous for a man. This is not to say that the Major was portly, for he could move with surprising speed and voracity for a man of his bearing. Indeed the Major was widely respected as an expert if un-gentlemanly fencer, and has quite the reputation among the ladies for his prowess with either sword or bobby stick. The Major was old English through and through, and arrogance bred between the hawkish nose and predatory brows of a cruel man. Yet the Major’s eyes softened his expression, giving him the guise of a jolly fellow. The light of the electric lamp reflected in their azure depth spoke only of sympathy and forgiveness, but I knew the man to be above any and all sentiments. The Major by my knowledge was as viperous as the taipan, whose venom is considered foremost of the modern world.
“Well Charles? Made up your mind yet?” His voice died away in echoes.
The prisoner seemed unconscious. I knelt and placed a finger under the prisoner’s chin, measuring the gulping pulse of his arteries. My fingers drew away with dark sticky blood. I expertly wiped the offending appendage on my surgical apron and pulled back the prison’s eyes. The pupils contracted as the light above him flared with electric brilliance. A small piece of cool metal beneath his nostrils became opaque with condensation.
“He’s still alive Major.” I replied wearily, “It is my professional opinion that you cease interrogating this man at once lest you have nothing left to interrogate.”
The Major spread his hands as through exasperated by the effort.
“Do I look like I want to be here Doctor?”
“Old Allenby of the Telephone Corp is holding a party at the American Club you know, I dare say his lovely daughters are attending.”
“It is neither your place nor mine to judge Major.”I replied sulkily, “As a civil servant of the British Empire, I can tell you right now…”
The Major’s eyes gazed into mine with all the sincerity of a hyena at a wounded gazelle. I inspected the dusty, sooty floor of the prison. The saw dust was old, and it was smeared with bloody mud. My sleeve also had the same smear of dark red oxide. The cell stank.
“We are not condoned to perform torture, and testimonials extracted as such are not useful in the court of law.”I stammered without looking up.
The prisoner mouthed something. I could not make out what he said. I never did learn the native tongue, having seen no need for it to ply my trade. The locals always supplied me with willing interpreters. The Major signed, as if I were the cause of the prisoner’s lack of cooperation.
“Wei, ask him again what he knows.” The Major commanded. From the recess of the underground bloc appeared a young native man. He was dressed in the crisp blue of the Treaties Police regiment. The stripes on his shoulders said Sergeant. “I am not a violent man Charles. I can’t stomach this and we’re late enough for Lord Allenby’s tea as it is.”
The prisoner gargled something in his native tongue as Wei approached, his body spoke of great terror. My chest twisted with sympathy. As Wei crouched to greet the man eye to eye, I noticed the dry, dark stains on Wei’s otherwise white gloves. The same brown flecks spoke volumes on his uniform.
Wei said something to the man in the Shanghainese dialect. He is asking the man if he knew a Mr Du.
The prisoner seemed reluctant to answer but then Wei placed a soiled hand over his, and with great firmness took the man’s hand in his. The prisoner shuddered. His entire frame like some great force had set the man to jittering. When Wei next spoke, it was in English.
“Did Mr Du supply you with this Opium?”He demanded of the prisoner with only a hint of accent. Wei produced a wooden snuff box no larger than my palm. He waved it in front of the prisoner like a talisman. The prisoner’s eyes followed the box. I drew back. The Major had the same bored look on his face.
The prisoner opened one bleary eye and his mouth moved. I could not make out the words. Nevertheless it was evident by the look of defiance on his face. He would not yield. A moment of silence passed among the interrogators. To my surprise Wei patted the man on the shoulder, as though the prisoner had completed some arduous task.
Wei stood and turned to face the Major.
“He has confessed.” Wei said solemnly. “Du has supplied him with the illicit Opium.”
Behind him the prisoner evidently understood what Wei declared. He trashed against his bindings, attempting to kick Wei. His legs were out of reach however.
“You are certain Sergeant?” The Major asked.
His blue eyes were steely in the electric lamplight.
“Yes sir, very much sir. I will have the report for you shortly Sir.”
“Well then let us attend the much anticipated tea.”
“I would hate to keep Lord Allenby waiting too much longer.”
The communication between Wei and the Major was obvious even to me. I felt a knot in my stomach and bile in my throat. The prisoner squirmed in a frenzied fury. It was my duty to do something. I coughed.
“Major, I do believe it is my responsibility as the attaché to the consul to… “The Major stopped me short. He hooked my arm in his and moved. I was dragged like ragdoll to his gravitational girth. The prisoner gave a long wail of utter and pure despair. His cry echoed between the buttresses of the prison like some deathly harpy croaking its last.
“We’ll leave the monkeys to sort each other out.”
“You look terrible Charles, let us refresh and change into something more suitable for the Club.”
I looked back at the cell. Wei gave a deep reverent bow. He was sending me on my way. I wanted to help the prisoner; but already the dim light of the cell had consumed all in darkness.
The clang of the cell gates gave way to the monstrous stir of Shanghai city. A motor car was waiting for us outside and called for the Major by name. Still dazed and my mind full of the last desperate wails of the prisoner I entered in a daze, and the car set off against the malingering sun towards the French Concession.
Half a century ago this same place would be a quagmire, and we would be stomping through frogs and lobsters vying for supremacy among the tresses of swamp grass. Now it is one of the most populous cities in the world, sixth to London with its multitude of eight million souls, Shanghai pooled at three million or so.
I arrived in Shanghai in the spring of 1931, upon the deathbed of the once glorious Manchurian Empire. By then the city was a blooming hibiscus, although I had never considered it more than what it really was – the corpulent blossom of the titanic Rafflesia.
I had originally supposed this Eden to be my escape. It had drawn many like me who fatigued by the chaffing bosoms of our London had escaped unto the exotic Yellow Land, the oyster of the Orient. Yet the sins of our fathers seem to follow my people wherever we go, and yet again I find myself in another prison, another helpless witness to the slaughter of lambs.
Beside me, the Major gazed out longingly into the harbour. There among a multitude of vessels sailed the behemoths visages of our finest steam ocean liners. Beside them floating like a swarm of upturned cicadas were multitudes of Sampans – small Chinese vessels that traded fruit, fish and scavenged bounties of the China Sea.
“They live on the boats all their lives you know.” I pointed to the small Sampans and Junks that drifted among the gigantic hulls of international liners. “They live and die on their boats even in this day and age.”
The Major snickered and felt his pocket for his flask. Remembering that he had drained it previously, he grunted and stretched his plump neck uncomfortably.
“Barbarians – the lot of them.”
“You should take a boat across the bund on Sunday night.” My eyes were drawn to the dark red stains still lingering like a bookmark on my sleeves. “The sight of a thousand lanterns lighting up the entire harbour is quite the dazzling sight.”
Our motor car powered and weaved through the six lane thoroughfare of Consul Street. The British Consulate loomed across the Public Gardens handsomely. It was a testament to the power of Britain that we constructed the most marvellous city in the world on a derelict swamp. Across Soochow Creek was the Nanking Boulevard of the Bund commercial district. The harbour entrance into Shanghai was one of the most dashing civic welcomes known to modern civilisation. Large park spaces dotted by ladies both native and foreign stood among shaded lanes and coy parkland that flanked either side of the main buildings. Here the Consulate and the Custom house, two of the most striking and important buildings in Shanghai proper stood like twin giants watching over the prospering city. The bank houses of corporations such as the Hong Kong Bank and the Shanghai Bank all have their stake on this prime estate. Atop the white perch of the Custom House sat a clock that is seconded only by our very own Big Ben – this one aptly named by the locals as the Big Ching – the latter word a local translation of the pictogram depicting the defunct Manchuria Empire.
A large statue of Sir Robert Hart can be seen as we passed the Customs Building. Sir Hart was once the guardian to the heir apparent of the last line of Manchurian emperors – he was also the Inspector General of Shanghai in its early days. Sir Heart was a man whose actions paved way for the building of this very city.
South among the stretch of Nanking Road is the Shanghai Club, the favourite haunt of old expats and well to do businessmen. It hosted the ‘longest bar in the world’ as yet contested by any, but enjoyed the most success during the years when our United State trading partners abolished alcohol in their own nation, and the sailors rushed into Shanghai like packs of wolves. The Consul tells me that those days were so chaotic what with sailors and loose law enforcement; to be ‘Shanghai-ed” was to wake up after a wasted evening on a ship set sail without knowing how one got there. Indeed, a gut feeling told me that the Major would be far more interested in the Shanghai Club than another other culturally significant event I could prescribe him.
“Ah… The fabled Shanghai Club…”
The Major sighed lustily.
“Perhaps an inspection of the facilities Major?” I anticipated. I would much rather see the Major drunk off his rock than back at the prison.
“Such is the nature of my… our dedication to her majesty’s subjects!”
The Major roared. My ears rang. He slapped my thigh with a meaty paw.
“You are a good man Charles.”
I forced my tongue into silence, seeing the Major’s red jolly face loom outside the window as we passed the club. “Of course Major, it would be a pleasure.
I pulled my sleeve over the white collar of my dress shirt. The prints of dried blood were so vivid I could make out the prisoner’s fingerprints. ”
“Yes Major?”I replied.
“You physicians are too soft hearted Charles.”
“Why do you say that Major?” I asked, but his was a statement.
“Don’t ever forget that we are invaders Charles. We are colonists. Just like every other piece of land we claimed as our own, we are not welcome here. We do not ‘live’ here Charles, we are just pirates here to nab what we can.”
“A bleak view Major,” I reply, confused by his sudden nostalgia.
“We are fighting a war Charles, and don’t you forget that.”
“The rebellion is over years ago Major. We also have a treaty with the Japanese who has consented to sparing the international settlement and the Concession.”
“It has only begun my deluded Doctor, and London will neither bow to the natives here nor their yellow belly cousins.”
“I am here to see to our best interests’ doctor, and I’ll be damned to see Du rise above the rest of our own people.”
“I am not a violent man Charles, but don’t you dare step on my toes again.”
“Very good Major,” I replied sulkily. “God help us all.”
I had prepared to give the Major a well recounted tour of the city as we made our way to my residence in the French Concession; his dark sentiments however weighed oh my mind and the remaining minutes of our journey went silently despite the roaring commerce of Nanking Road.
Lord Allenby’s estate was situated near the old race course, but presently we made our way along Foochow Road and towards the American Club. The project was a paradox of new and old, the buildings of a French Colonial make, with tall columns and intricately decorated sandstone bricks build in the late eighteen hundreds. The recent decades however had seen the area revitalised by the sickening amount of wealth stealing into Shanghai from every inch of the Orient, with every bank declaring their vaults taxed to the brim and needing new buildings simply to house their success. As such, the Shanghai Municipal Council had redeveloped the area, and now standing on Kiang-se Road and Honan Road intersections are the Metropolitan Hotel, The Hamilton House, as well as the Council Chambers and the Central Police station. Each massive construct loomed ever higher than its neighbours, and on certain hours of the day the entire avenue was dwarfed in the shadow of its own glory.
The entrances of the American Club were massive column of Romanesque statues that directed visitors into the foyer. Reflecting perhaps the more modern thinking of the Americans themselves, the membership of the club were open to both non nationals and select locals of particular wealth, even a few noted women. A host of Negro and Orient waiters in suit and dress-pants bowed deeply as we exited the motor car. The driver was directed by a valet, and well groomed pages speaking accented English followed on our heels as we entered. In the grand foyer stood a large statue of George Washington, both in commemoration of the American national event, as well as a reminder to visitors of the popular Annual Washington Ball held in July.
The Major, recently appointed and recently arrived in Shanghai was a popular figure at these parties. The bourgeois of Shanghai noble life differed vastly from those back in London. Here money was everything, and as such the oligarchy of the pearl of Asia measured each other by wealth rather than lineage. There was hardly a lord or lady to be found in their ranks, yet their wealth in Shanghai spoke with succinct distinction. As such the Major, whom I am lead to believe to be a close relative of the Marquis of Queensbury or relation to that pedigree cut a tight figure in the circles of false genteels whom likened themselves to, but seldom was; anyone of any lineage.
As far the nouveau riche go, the American club was filled with industrialists and artists, the best and loudest of Shanghai’s crème de la crème, tip of the top, apple of the eye; peacocks among peasants.
Through the foyer we went and up the flights of stairs with their dazzling multitudes of chandlers. The Chinese were wonderful craftsmen, and not an inch of the Club was not without some decor of sculpt or polish that reflected the glowing orbs of hung crystal.
We entered the antechamber with our following of pages, and as we ascended glasses were raised towards the Major. From the multitudes of cocktail suits and folded silk dresses Lord Allenby erupted with an almighty “What ho! Major!”
I made a detour towards the balcony and pilfered a rogue sherry from a passing waiter. Behind me the sound of applause and the crisp foot fall of leather boots could be heard herding towards the ecstatic Major. Outside the day was dying, and a rosy glow hung over the Shanghai horizon. Unlike England Shanghai had the extremes of both winter and summer, and the spring air was but a prelude to the sticky hotness of monsoonal summer that lurked around the corner.
A few ladies had taken up residence in the balcony garden but there were still a few empty tables lingering among the sea of dresses, each more lavishing than its predecessor. One face lifted from the crowd with a look of recognition. I recognized her as Sybil, the wife of Mr Westwood whom came into his fortunes in timber and shipbuilding.
“Do join us for a drink.”
Mrs Westwood chirped. She was a delightful woman, but terribly obsessed with money.
“Mrs Westwood,” I took a step in her direction and took up residence upon their table. There were other ladies present. Mrs Wentworth was of the General Electric Company. Mrs Dorbelein was of the Bullion Brokers. The women of our decadent court only spoke to those of similar wealthy distinction.
“I do hope Mr Du will be along shortly.”
“I find him terribly frightening.”
“Not to mention fascinating.”
“I do hope he will demonstrate his Chiromancy again!”
“Do you think he will bring Miss Nina along?”
“I dare hope not! She’s far too impertinent for a party like this! Lord Allenby has enough scandal as it is!”
“I heard that Mr Du is going to become an honorary member of the German Club.”
“Oh the Germans are such spoil sports what with the war and all that; it’s a shocking surprise they even have the gall to be still in the city!”
“I dare say Mrs Westwood, that you have a very fair necklace.”
“Ah, it pleases me that you noticed Mrs Wentworth, Jerald ordered it from Mr Dufour.”
I look up for a moment. The necklace was beautiful indeed. Precious stones had been set into a polished crescent arc. It hug snugly on Mrs Westwood and reflected her eyes beautifully.
“Mr Dufour of three-fourteen Bridge Street?”
“Indeed Mrs Wentworth.”
“You husband must love you very much Mrs Westwood.”
“I wouldn’t care for a husband that paid too much attention Mrs Wentworth.”
“It would be horribly boring if Mr Dorbelein guarded me jealously, why I would be bored out of my mind.”
“It is terribly scandalous how jealous husbands can get now days Mrs Westwood.”
“I wouldn’t know Mrs Wentworth. I rarely ever seen mine, but I know he loves me for the little gifts that men so adorably lavish upon their loved ones.”
Mrs Westwood’s dress was sheer. It was the style for the upcoming summer with it sweltering heat. Mayhap Mrs Westwood wanted to show off her necklace, that she exposed her white shoulders. I found myself mesmerised by the shimmering of the metal against the voluptuous curve of her significant cleavage.
“Care for a Manzanilla Sherry Doctor? Lord Allenby had it imported from Sanlúcar de Barrameda.”
A white gloved finger prodded my arm. I stir with a flustered look. My face flushed. The women laugh. I do not laugh with them but there is a strange calmness when I sit here. The nouveau rich women upheld the mask of respectability religiously. Yet they were so obviously shallow and callous, like perfect reflections of our degenerate existence upon the fat of Asia. I was among the most honest of company.
I engaged with the ladies for a moment more then took the excuse of refilling my drink to excuse myself. As I entered the double doors to the tea chamber opens and a Chinese man entered with an entourage of two tall heavy framed Russians. The White Russians had arrived in Shanghai some half decade prior, fleeing from their Bolshevik cousins in the north. Few arrived with money, and many if not all were forced to find employment within the international quarters. Those well versed in the European languages became clerks and foremen, while those less intellectually inclined became thugs and bodyguards for well to do entrepreneurs wanting a show of force. The most common employ for the immigrants however were the dancing parlours and burlesque shows, where the fair skinned Russian girls had set the bar. Impressive as the two brutes were, all eyes were on the thin framed Chinese man who stood in the middle. This was the infamous Mr Du.
Du Yue-Sheng stood as the most influential Chinese man in the entire city of Shanghai. He was not only one of the wealthiest men on the avenue, but also the unspoken Lord of the Shanghai underworld. The king of the Green Gang Mafia was the Opium Magnate, the Gangster Chief, and known to all as the Al Capone of Shanghai. He was a man with a finger in every pie and a hand in every pocket. During the capture of Shanghai by the Generalissimo Chiang, Du had amassed over five thousand men to defend the foreign settlement areas – for which he was awarded the Order of the Brilliant Jade by the British Consul; then Du was awarded the Commission of Opium Suppression Bureau awarded for his services to the French Concession. Subsequently when the Superintendent of Chinese Customs Loh Lien Kwe attempted to seize Du’s opium shipment and drive him from power, he was gunned down in front of his own family. Woe unto any who would stand in Du’s way. Both Consuls of England and France needed Du to control the Chinese gangs in their settlements, and the Customs house needed Du to continue the flow of endless Opium into and out of the Orient. The city is a deaf machine, and it needed Du to turn its cogs. The mass of Chinese now flooding into the wet works of the International and French Concessions made it impossible for the foreign invaders to maintain their lifestyle without them. The docks are flooded with Chinese workers, the factories fill with Chinese labour, every shop and extravagance is provided for by the Chinse people. Du was untouchable in Shanghai, and his presence is the one guarantee of any social event.
At once the attention lavished upon the Major turned to the gangster lord. The man greeted his foreign counterparts each to each, speaking in turn through French, English and German. I had heard that Du made his beginnings as the son of a fisherman; but seeing the smoothness upon which he impresses his contemporaries in their own native tongues; this was difficult to believe. The gangster lord had a face that seemed to be hewed out of stone, it was expressive but at the same time cold, as though the flesh barely understood the gestures it made. He had narrow eyes common to his people, but a strong square jaw and unusually large full lips. What defined Du however were his ears that protruded from the flanks of his face like two large fans. I had heard the natives refer to him as “Big Ears Du” albeit the implications of such a nickname I knew not.
At long last the Major made his way to the front of the line, and his benevolent blue eyes met the stone cold gaze of the Chinaman that seemed miniscule beside him. The Major extended a hand from his uniform, his palm pink from the liberal drinking of sherry and port. Du extended from the folds of his satin China dress pants a hand as white as bone and as skeletal as the Major’s was meaty. The room held its breath as the hands clasped; the thin bone China of Du’s meeting the pink hot flesh of the Major. They shook.
“Titans gather my friends; shall we assail Mt Olympus then?
Lord Allenby exploded as if on cue with a bout of high pitched laughter.
“Your jests are excellent as always Counsellor Du…”
Counsellor – Du was the chairman of the Opium board. Currently he is also the French Municipal Council President. Lord Allenby roared. Du was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Major was a hyena disguised as a guard dog. The Major and the Gangster were natural enemies.
“I trust you have had an eventful morning.”
The Major barked loudly, enough to silence the uncomfortably forced laughter of Lord Allenby. The Major is referring to the arrests he made at the docks. It is there that he retrieved the prisoner.
“Certain trouble at the docks, indeed.”
Du’s voice was reedy and flat.
“May I be of any service?”
“I would not dream of it Major, you are too important a busy man to deal with such trivial matters.”
“It is my duty to the crown to keep the peace.”
“Mere upstarts, Major, there is nothing for you to worry about.”
“Upstarts are the precise worry that I am all about Mr Du.”
“Yet this is a city of upstarts Major, we live but for our dreams.”
“Dreams are not for fulfilling Mr Du, which is why they are dreams.”
“Surely not Major… this is the city of dreams, the Oyster of the Orient.”
“The Oyster farm is already spoken for, Mr Du.”
“Yet the farmer must pay the landlord, Major.”
Lord Allenby was sweating buckets. His face was the colour of pork liver.
“Gentlemen?” He pleaded.
A knock at the door interrupted the tension of the moment. A messenger in the uniform of a constable saluted. It was a messenger for the Major. The Major withdrew his azure gaze from Du. He took the missive from the hands of the nervous native policemen. He read it quickly and passed it to me. The missive read as follows.
Prisoner 249 confirmed deceased by self inflicted asphyxiation
The Major quaked. His face flushed. I did not enjoy the Major’s company in anyway, but I could not let the Major make a scene. I placed a hand on his forearm. The Major looked into my eyes with his cold blue eyes. I looked away.
Behind us the musicians began to play another tune. Lord Allenby was trying his best to lighten the mood. The Major turned to dismiss his constable. Du raised a toast to the Major. My grip on the Major’s forearm tightened. After a momentary pause the Major toasted likewise.
“Well played for a Monkey.”
The Major spoke in my direction. I replied nothing.
In a way, the Orients had slowly been gaining what little of their land we took during the Opium Wars. At the present moment, there are five British, two Americans, two Japanese and Five Chinese members at the council of the International Settlement. Even the French with their abhorrent attitude of all things non Frankish had no less than four Chinamen advisors to the French Consul, lord and totalitarian sovereign of his domain. The matter was powder keg politics and could not be avoided. Like the decadent Greeks of old we had grown fat on the toil of the slaves. Now like the Romans we were terrified of the fact that more slaves lived in our own homes than our own people. As early as the 1880s mercantile firms like the East India Company and the Sassoon’s Steam Trading Company had exploited the naivety of the natives into selling their exotic cargo, hiding the secrets of silk that they pilfered and stockpiling precious metals like mythical dragons. It is only natural perhaps that having displayed the wealth we stole in such a grand gesture as that of everything within Shanghai, the locals justly wanted a piece of the pie for themselves.
This manifested violently as four Chinamen rioters were shot dead by our own peace keeping forces. Latter the dissent again reared its ugly head as the Bloody May Riot of 1925 where the Boxer troubles saw Louza Police Station guttered by fire and several of our nationals murdered in cold blood. The strike that followed saw twenty four Chinese killed and thirty or so wounded. It was then and only then that both the French Concession and the International Treaty Zone consented to Chinese representation on their council, and their influence had grown ever since.
The truth of it all was that we can no longer live without Shanghai. The city had pampered us, cradled us like babies. Almost all of us whom lived our lavish top of the tier lives were nobodies in our native homes. Third and forth sons of inheritance families lived like kings here, minor nobilities were treated like kings and queens. Exotic dancing girls hung onto every willing shoulder, banks boiled over with trading bills. Drinks and decadence flowed like rich brandy bloodily down the alleyways of the Bund. We were as much prisoners of necessity as prisoners of our vices. We fled from our troubles at the home front. Here everyone had their oyster, everyone had their clean slate, and everyone enjoyed new lives built upon the bent backs of the yellow river and its Orient natives.
The sound of soft bell like laughter broke the recitation of my Roman paranoias. It had issued from the dining hall. Du was surrounded by the ‘lords and ladies’ of the court. He had Lord Allenby’s hand in his palm, and was speaking in a private voice that reached no further than present company. Driven by curiosity, I made my way towards the throng surrounding Du.
It was the voice of Mrs Westwood. She looked quite excited.
“Do come see this Doctor Davis, Mr Du is showing us the ancient art of Chiromancy!”
The word was a fashionable description of palm reading, a charlatan profession growing popular among superstitious foreigners too drunk with the wine of Asia to recall their own Gods. I joined the circle. Du spoke in his usual manner of flatness.
“I must remind you Lord Allenby that this is no means of foretelling the future, but merely a glimpse into the possibilities etched onto your hand by life and creed.”
“Of course Mr Du, I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“If you would please bend your palm Lord Allenby…”
The crowed cooed as Du traced a finger of the lines of Allenby’s moist palm.
“Concerned about the welfare of others. Having ambition as due your station. Great charity for those less fortunate. A little too much preference for the liqueur. Quick to anger, but also passionate.”
“Very good Mr Du!”
“You are a fortunate man Lord Allenby.”
“How so Mr Du?”
“To have survived two affairs that almost cost your life Lord Alleby.”
“Go on Mr Du.”
“Pray tell when I should stop Lord Allenby.”
“I shall. Mr Du.”
“To have survived two affairs that accosted your life.”
“Having a sickly childhood, struck by… small pox when you were ten… no… twelve.
“Having little success until you had become a man, built your personal empire.”
“Yet coming into immense fortune after your thirtieth year.”
“You are man most devoted to your wife. You love the crown.”
“Devoted to religion too I see… and you are soon to travel abroad… but you are unsure if it is the right action to take.”
“Lord Allenby, how was I?”
Lord Allenby’s face quivered with excitement.
“You really must try my wife Mr Du, she’s adamant to never trust in the Orient arts!”
Du leaned closer to Lord Allenby.
“Second Wife… Lord Allenby.”
Allenby blinked and smiled but for a second.
“Extraordinary! Mr Du, I can see why your enemies fear you so!”
“On the same note Lord Allenby, I would hold off your shipment of Cotton until the German winter. Word on the grapevine speaks loudly of a growing deutschmark, and a lack of agricultural goods.”
Allenby made an O with his mouth and took Du’s hand appreciatively.
“Truly a saint Mr Du!”
“We are but mortals Lord Allenby!”
The crowd observed Du with a strange reverence.
There were two reactions from his observers. One group surrounded Du with squeals of delight; begging to have their palms read. Others sulked away hiding their hands, as if fearing that Du should catch a glimpse of their lives. Mrs Dorbelein announced that she would have her palm read over her dead body. Her contemporaries laughed mockingly. Lord Hillshire, the English Consul’s Secretary refused to even remove his gloves. All in all It was an amusing state of affairs.
Du Yue-Sheng however is a very serious man. I am positive the gangster lord possessed no supernatural skills, and had merely done his homework. Maids and butlers are paid poorly in Shanghai. A few dollars for a few words was too good an offer to refuse.
At the last thought, a pair of sleek leather shoes with a fantastic polish tapped before my downcast eyes. The all too familiar shoes gleamed horribly, looming from the edge of the all too familiar satin dress suit. Du Yue-Sheng stood before me; his small frame seemed like an eclipse that blotted out the chandelier sun.
“Doctor Davis, our one altruistic missionary in a world of sin.”
“I fear I am merely mortal Sir.” I reply drily. Du stops a few inches from my face. The man exudes a coolness that is almost tangible. His eyes are a predator’s.
“Do you know the art of Chiromancy Doctor Davis.”
I replied that I did. “I am not much into this sort of superstitious sport I fear Mr Du.”
“Please call me Sheng, Mr Davis. May I call you Charles?”
“As you wish Mr Du.”
“Of course, Sheng,” My pronunciation is terrible, and the name slithers from my lips without the plosive emphasis that the locals annunciate so readily.
Du wants something form me. That much is clear. However, he does not ask. I stand, feeling like an ant standing on a slowing heating grill. My mind is blank. I do not know what to say to him. Will he be insulted? What could the opium kingpin want from me?
“A palm reading, Doctor Davis?”He asked. Or rather, demanded. Knowing I cannot refuse.
I extend a sweaty hand. Du takes it. Surprisingly, we seem to be alone. No one is interested in the fate of a mere employee.
“The pleasure is mine Mr Du.” I say without thinking.
“Sheng Dr Davis.”
Du’s fingers are rough. They are the hands of a working man. Skeletal they are, but very firm. My own hands are soft, the hallmark of a man who has never seen labour in his life.
“Let’s see here… a very strong lifeline Doctor, and a robust line of fortunes.”
“Your father was in the same profession. You became a doctor unwillingly. You are a conservative man. You believe strongly in justice.”
He looks at me imploringly.
“A childhood of separations and less than pleasant memories. Family troubles follow where you go. You are now alone here, with no relations.”
“You have a lover Doctor. Two I dare say. Yet you love no one.”
“You love nothing Doctor.”
His fingers dig into the palm of my right hand. One index runs past the upper crease of my palm. It is where the life line and the career line cross.
“Your fortunes are changing Doctor.”
“Are they? … Sheng?” I ask.
Du released my hand.
“Do you consider me a bad man doctor?”
His face is impassive.
“I do not believe there are bad men, Sheng.”I reply. “Only desperate men doing desperate deeds.”
“Do you consider my occupation… evil Doctor?”
His face again, is impassive. I look down at his gleaming shoes. I dare not meet his eyes. I fear that should I peek into the abyss, the darkness may look back.
“I do not know Sheng.”I reply.
“Too conservative as always, my good Doctor.”
He smiles, as if having caught a little piece of me.
“Doctor… you are close to the Major.”
It was a statement. A foreboding moment came over me.
“I am not.”I reply.
“You are too modest, Doctor.”
Du smiles, the expression on his face cracking his otherwise porcelain stoicism. He taps one of my hands. One he previously examined.
“There is a dark, terrible secret in this hand Doctor.”
My face remained passive. It was a bluff.
“To see the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
Blake – A fitting verse. Coming from Du however, the effect was jarring.
“The city is a clock Doctor.”
“We are the clogs that power it.”
“Some cogs are more important than others Sheng.” I reply.
“Perhaps, Doctor, yet each must play their parts.”
The question on my lips begged to be asked.
“What is my part in this Mr Du?” I asked.
He smiles mysteriously.
“Enjoy the party Doctor.”
Du turns away and returns to the life of the party. I felt no appetite for food or drink, and excused myself to retirement. The music fades as I made my way into the lobby. I declined the valet’s offer of the Major’s motor car and called for a one man taxi. The world was grey as I made my way down the hustle and bustle of Consul Road.