Wednesday, June 2nd, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
I did not leave right away.
Things began to go wrong.
Perhaps I should be grateful. It might have — probably did — result in a life being saved.
Perhaps more than one life. Perhaps even my own.
* * *
As I changed clothes, the elder Mister Chen was called back to Father's room, and asked to summon his son, to serve as my guide and escort, as usual. The elder Mister Chen was clearly not the appropriate choice for making a bicycle trip to the Hongkew District, disguised as a clerk.
Messages were duly sent. Mister Chen assured us that his son would arrive very shortly, in a matter of minutes.
But Mister Chen the Younger did not appear.
Minutes turned into a half-hour. The half-hour became an hour; and then, more. The elder Mister Chen received several telephone calls; the Shanghainese he spoke, then, was very fast, clearly unhappy, and, I thought, angry.
"My sincerest apologies, Mister Williamson," he said, after the second call. "My people are experiencing difficulties, in locating my son. But I'm certain they will find him very shortly." He regarded Father, gravely. "This is very unusual, I assure you."
Father said nothing.
When Father is tense, or upset, or worried, he does not show it. He does not pace, or drum his fingers, or visibly stew; rather, he goes very still. It is a trait I admire. He was very still, now.
"Father," I said, at last. "I can go by myself, perfectly well. I know the way. I've been, many times."
I tried to make it sound calm, and reasonable. It was all true.
More minutes passed, in silence.
The room telephone rang, a third time. Mister Chen glanced at Father, who nodded; and he answered. More, rather explosive Shanghainese, but a shorter burst of it, this time; and when he hung up, he looked distinctly relieved.
"My son has been located; he was engaged in a task on behalf of another client, and for that, I again offer my apologies. He is now on his way; he will be here in thirty to forty-five minutes."
"Excellent," from Father. He rose from his armchair. "Thank you, again, for all of your efforts, on our behalf … "
It did not occur to me until later, to wonder how the elder Mister Chen's organization could so completely misplace his son, as he worked for one of Mister Chen's own clients.
* * *
Things continued to go wrong.
The elder Mister Chen went down to the lobby, to await his son. Thirty minutes passed; and then, more —
It was getting late.
I looked out the hotel window, with a sinking feeling. It was getting late; but worse, there would be no sunset, because the heavy clouds which had been building all afternoon had thickened, and lowered … It would rain, soon, I guessed; and rain hard.
By day, Mister Chen — my Mister Chen — and I were unremarkable office clerks, making our way through the Hongkew District streets on our bicycles. But would such office clerks be out making their rounds, at night — ? In the rain — ?
We would have to think of something else.
I said nothing about it to Father; I had faith in Mister Chen. He knew the people, the streets, he would think of something …
The telephone rang, yet again. This time Father picked up the receiver. His side of the conversation was quite short.
"Yes — ? … Yes. Yes … Very well. I understand." A pause from him, then, "Thank you," before gently replacing the receiver.
He looked over at me, with an ironic twitch of one eyebrow.
"There has evidently been another delay, in getting young Mister Chen across the river. A very, very minor one. We have a few more minutes."
"I see, sir."
It was Father's turn, now, to look out the window; a long, hard, considering look.
A long, silent pause, between us.
"It will be dark, before you get back. Perhaps even before you arrive at Monsieur Simonov's establishment."
I said nothing for a moment; then, simply, "I'm sure it will be all right, sir."
Father looked back out the window, for several long, silent moments; and then, his eyes came back to me, for a few more moments of silent appraisal. I saw his eyes search my face; and then, they dropped down to the parcel I was to deliver, and to the book-bag by my side.
"I presume you will be taking your bag with you — ?"
I blinked at him.
"Not this one, sir; but I will bring a canvas bag, very much like it."
Another long, reflective pause from him.
Another long silence; and then Father was up, out of his chair. He went to the desk, and, extracting a key from his pocket, unlocked it; and he withdrew something from a drawer. He looked at me.
"I want you to take this with you."
It was his holstered pistol; his old service sidearm, I'd seen him cleaning, and later wearing, on the President Hoover.
I gaped at it, for a moment; then I shook my head.
"Father, really, I — " I stopped for a moment; and then I went on. "Sir, that is completely unnecessary. It is completely safe in the Hongkew District; I feel as safe, there, as I feel in New York."
A dry look, from him.
"That is hardly the most compelling argument you have made to me, recently."
I looked away a little, and shrugged, slightly; abashed.
"I take your point, sir … Still; I'm sure that taking — this — is unnecessary. I will have Mister Chen with me, after all. And I'd really rather not carry a gun."
In truth, I did not much like guns. Their potential for causing harm or death scared me; and every time I would go shooting with Grandfather, I would end up with bruises, from the shotgun's recoil.
"Nevertheless. It is still Shanghai, and the Hongkew District, at night." He paused, for just a few heartbeats. "I do not for a moment expect that you will need to exhibit this to anyone, much less use it. But I will feel much better, knowing you have this with you, in your bag." He drew a breath. "And, I will not permit you to go, without it."
The finality of his last sentence brooked no argument.
"Very well, Father."
And so, we spent the last minutes before Mister Chen's arrival engaged in a tutorial on Father's pistol; Father's fingers going over the various levers and buttons with a practiced ease, that reminded me of how I worked my Leica.
But what impressed me still more was the manner in which he always, always kept the thing pointed out, and away from us — actually, he kept it pointed towards empty space, across the Whangpoo — even when he knew, for a certainty, that it was unloaded and harmless.
Grandfather, I thought, would approve.
At long, long last, the call came; Mister Chen had arrived in the lobby. I said goodbye to Father, and started down.
I had one last task to perform, in the lobby, that I was dreading. I had to write a note to Tom, canceling our trip to the movies. I would leave it at the front desk, to be delivered to him, when he asked to call up to my room.
I hated to do it. I just hated to. We had so little time left, together; I imagined the look on his face, as he read my note … If only there was a way he could come along …
"Lobby, Mister Williamson — ?"
The uniformed operator closed the inner door with a white-gloved hand, and we started down —
It hit me, like a thunderclap.
Why not? Why couldn't he come along — ?
The elevator hummed its way downward, the lights of the floors slowly flashing by as we went, and the pieces all just fell in place, in my mind, one after another.
Of course he could come with us. Of course he could. It would be far more fun, more memorable, for him, than going to see a film together … And, it wasn't as if I would be compromising Monsieur Simonov, or Father's task, in any way; Tom would wait outside the gates of the Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity, with Mister Chen —
We should both be inconspicuous, if just for the sake of not attracting beggars or thieves. But I had changes of clothing enough, for the both of us; we were close enough in size, at least for the kind of clothing we'd be wearing …
It was the kind of thing Jack and I would have done, in a splintered second.
And then, there was a delicious realization, which dawned on me all at at once, and made the whole idea seem inevitable.
It was getting dark, and it was going to rain; there was no prospect of Mister Chen and myself going in our guise of bicycle-mounted office-clerks. Presumably we would take rickshaws, as we had on my first visit.
But a single boy of my race, of my age, alone or apparently alone, in a rickshaw in the Hongkew after dark, would be — conspicuous. I would stand out. It would be odd.
If, on the other hand, I shared a rickshaw with Tom — we were small and slender enough to do it, I'd seen it often enough, by now — if we shared a rickshaw … Well. We could be two working-class white boys, going into the Hongkew district for our own reasons. Up to no good, probably; almost certainly. Memories of our experiences at the Lotus Land Lounge swirled up …
But. We wouldn't be conspicuous.
"Here you are, sir." The white-gloved hand drew back the lattice-work door, with an elegant grace.
"Oh … Thank you."
"Boss!" Mister Chen — my Mister Chen — was upon me at once, his beautiful face looking stricken. "Boss, I'm so sorry! I was working across the river, in Pootung — "
"No, no, no!" from me. "No, you were hardly on call … I'm sorry to get you out at night, in this weather." I paused for a moment, for breath. I checked the lobby clock; Tom was due to arrive in a quarter-hour. "Ummm … I have an idea — "
He heard me out. And in the end, the smile that bloomed across his face was wide, admiring, and utterly sincere. It was conspiratorial, actually. I almost blushed at it.
"It's perfect, Boss. It's perfect."
* * *
Things continued to go wrong.
Oh, not with the rickshaw-ride through the Hongkew; that went very smoothly, actually, and it was very much fun.
Mister Chen negotiated our passage, Tom's and mine, with a very large rickshaw-puller; who in turn was happy to have the extra fare, on this soon-to-be rainy night, which would presumably drive people indoors.
But they certainly weren't indoors yet. The Hongkew District at night, I discovered, was if anything more crowded than it was, by day.
Some of the street markets were closed; but their place was more than taken up by street food-stalls, temporary open-air kitchens cooking and selling food, to patrons who squatted or stood, plying their chopsticks with gusto, in animated conversation with each other, punctuating their loud talk with laughter, and little stabbing motions of their chopsticks in the air …
I was impressed with the number and variety of the cooking-fires, in the near-darkness; from the pale blue-white of the spirit-lamps, to the open flames of the stacked-log wood-fires, to the glowing red of the charcoal braziers …
Tom, of course, tried to take it all in, to see everything at once.
We fit together in the rickshaw; but just barely. Our sides were pressed together, and we each had an arm around the other's shoulder, ostensibly to make more room. It was a happy excuse; he felt very good, pressed against me that way, and when he turned his face towards mine, he was easily close enough to kiss, had we but dared …
I realized, again, how very much I would miss him, when Father and I left. Oh, how I would miss him.
And then we reached the gate to the Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity.
"Ummm … " from Mister Chen, doubtfully, as we peered in.
Shanghai proper has streetlights, of course, like any modern city. The gate itself, before us, had shining lanterns of some kind, fixed to the walls on both sides of the entrance —
Looking through the gate was like looking into the mouth of a cave. All was black.
Well, no; as my eyes adjusted, I could see a light — a dim one — in one window, some ways down. More than a 'block' away, to the extent that the narrow passageways carved the buildings into blocks. I thought the light looked to be a gas-lamp, or even a kerosene one.
We contemplated the scene for several seconds, in silence.
"Looks like I'm going in with you, this time, Boss," from Mister Chen, quietly; looking through the gate.
I said nothing at first. Then; "Yes. Yes; thank you." Another moment of silence; then I looked over at him. "No streetlights — ?"
A shrug, in answer.
"Most of the older li-long neighborhoods aren't on electricity. Some of the oldest ones don't have gas."
I took that in, for a moment. Perhaps Shanghai was less like other modern cities than I'd realized …
"Well, Monsieur Simonov has gaslights in his house, I know … " I looked back in, through the gates; then, at Tom, mute, silent, questioning; and then, back to Mister Chen. "Are these types of neighborhoods usually so dark, at this time of night — ?"
A long pause, from him.
"No," he answered, simply.
Once we were inside, the neighborhood was less dark than I'd feared. The light from the streetlights outside the neighborhood was reflected downwards, from the clouds overhead; it made for a kind of dim glow, in the narrow alley-ways. Too, we came upon isolated houses whose windows were un-shuttered, and lit from within …
But many more, most, of the houses were dark; their heavy shutters closed tightly.
I tried to imagine why this should be. I did not like any of the possible reasons my imagination supplied.
The dark alley-ways were claustrophobically narrow. The quiet was profound; in the near-distance, a dog barked in a courtyard. We did not speak, as we went.
I felt the strap of my canvas book-bag digging into my shoulder. Father's pistol was astonishingly heavy; the weight of it distorted the shape of the bag itself, and made the bag awkward to carry. I hitched it up higher on my shoulder, as we walked …
Monsieur Simonov's house was not dark. Far from it.
All of the windows were open, in fact, and the windows on the lower floor were ablaze with what I recognized as gaslight. The doorway to the entrance courtyard was open.
There was a sound, coming from within.
"I think I'm coming with you this time, too, Boss," from Mister Chen. He said it, very soberly.
I did not answer. The hair on the back of my neck was pricking up; the sound coming from inside was a wordless cry of pain, high, keening, unwavering, scarcely human. I had a terrible premonition …
The heavy door to the courtyard stood open.
The French doors leading inside … no longer existed. Fragments, broken wood and glass, littered the courtyard, and the interior of the house. And inside —
Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.
The shop was a ruin. Wreckage strewed the floor. The walls were splashed with some liquid, in great horizontal sprays, that had begun to run down, leaving rivulets —
On the floor, in an impossible position, Monsieur Simonov; dead. He was missing his hat, and his eyeglasses. His eyes were open, and dull. His throat had been cut, cut deeply, and savagely; the wound gaped like a second, obscene mouth; in the gaslight, I could see some of the internal structures of his throat, things that should never, ever be exposed … The room stank of feces, and urine, and something else —
Two feet away from him, Granddaughter; kneeling, hugging herself tightly, rocking back and forth, eyes wide and staring, emitting her terrible cry, more like a banshee's wail, than a human sound. Beside her, a string bag filled with potatoes and onions trailed down into the liquid, showing that she had just returned from the market —
It was then that I realized, that the liquid splashed on the walls, the floor, had to be Monsieur Simonov's blood. A great spray of it; enormous gouts of it …
Behind me, retching; or rather, the dry 'uck, uck, uck' sounds of someone trying not to be sick. Simultaneously, the voice of Mister Chen, telling me something, urgently, over and over again, which I did not register —
I went to her. I knelt down, next to her. I did not touch her.
"Mademoiselle," I said. "Mademoiselle."
Monsieur Simonov had never told me her name.
She ceased her wailing; but the rocking, and the wide-eyed staring, continued.
"Mademoiselle … " I dared to touch her arm, with a fingertip.
She tore her eyes away from the horror, to look at me. Her mouth remained open. Her eyes stared at me.
"Mademoiselle … we have to leave this; now. Come with us, now. Please."
I spoke it in French, of course. Instinctively. Automatically. Later, looking back on it, I found it interesting that in a catastrophe, French still comes to me more naturally than English …
And no, I do not pretend that at that horrible moment, I had a plan. All I knew, was that I had to get Tom and myself away from — this. I had to get Granddaughter, especially, away from this. At once. I had to. It was my responsibility.
I believe that she recognized me, then, for the first time.
Her face, open-mouthed and staring, crumpled into a mask of uttermost grief, of ruinous grief. Her mouth pulled back into a sob; but no words came, and no tears. She curled into herself, and turned to face the body of her grandfather, again.
I waited silently, beside her, for second after second. Then —
"Mademoiselle … please — ?" I hesitated, a moment. "We will take care of you. I promise. But we must go, now. Please — ?"
From above our heads, a creak of a floorboard.
The same creaking sound I'd heard on my earlier visits, when Monsieur Simonov would stand at the window on the floor above, watching the street below —
I sucked in my breath. I believe I may have made an involuntary noise.
My eyes snapped to Granddaughter's, and hers to mine; hers were wide, again, but not with shock —
From horror, to sheer terror, in the blink of an eye.
"Come," I whispered now, fiercely. Urgently. Terror squeezed my heart, until I thought it might stop. "We must go, now!" I looked at Tom. He'd heard it too, and seen our expressions; he was ashen. I looked towards the stairs, the rear of the house —
Someone else had clearly heard the creaking; and had correctly interpreted the silence which followed. There came the sound of a man's voice, above us, and the sound of feet — of many feet, of several men — thumping, beginning to run, above us —
"Come!" I called out in French, in terror, and I began to scramble for the shattered doors —
"Non!" from the girl, and she pulled me into a stumbling run towards the back of the house. "This way!"
"Come on!" from me to Tom, in English.
Back through the central hallway of the house; past the foot of the stairs, as the first heavy feet hit the top steps, past a gaslit kitchen looking impossibly normal and domestic, through a little antechamber, and then out a door into a back yard I hadn't known existed —
Granddaughter didn't break step; we ran, flat out, a few paces to the roof of a low, sloping shed built against the yard's brick wall — it might as well have been built for the purpose — and then up, and over, and down into a neighboring back-yard, the gun in my book-bag, thumping painfully against my ribs, in the process. Then, out the gate — this particular yard had one, and Granddaughter obviously knew the territory — and out into the alleyway, and the glowing, under-lit clouds above us.
A crashing sound, behind us. Our pursuers were going over the backyard wall, using the shed, just as we had.
Without a word, Granddaughter pelted off to the left, running fast. Tom and I followed —
"Mister Chen!" I gasped out, and stopped.
"He left to get help! Run!" from Tom, and he pulled on my arm, hard, and we ran —
Around a corner, at speed, following Granddaughter; another claustrophobically narrow alley, the sounds of our pounding feet echoing off the brick walls. Then, a turn to the right, and another alley —
I heard a shrill whistle, coming from behind us. I looked back, and I tripped. I tripped and went down very hard, taking the brunt of it with my left hand and my right knee, the shock of flesh tearing, worse than I'd ever known before, the shock of it running through me like a knife —
"Rhys — !"
Tom stopped short; and then he ran back to me, and pulled me up, his arms around my chest, frantic. "Come on, come on!" he hissed out, his face full of his terror —
I looked back, and there were two shapes in the gloom, two 'blocks' away, coming along fast. Another, shrill whistle; but it did not come from the shapes, I thought it came from the next alley over …
* * *
It was a nightmare chase, that seemed to take hours, although it could only have taken minutes. It was pure terror.
Time after time we dodged, making our twisting way through the maze-like alleys. Time after time, we would think we'd lost them, and stop, huddling in a doorway, panting; and then would come the shrill whistles — some kind of specific signal, meaning what, I did not know — and then, the sounds of running feet, getting closer —
We could not lose them, by running. We could not. We simply made too much noise, as we ran, we were too easy to hear. And there were too many of them; seven, eight —
We could not lose them.
And we could not keep up the pace. Granddaughter was breathing in great, rasping gasps, she was almost finished —
I could think of only one thing to do.
Around one last turn, and halfway down the alley, and then into the meager cover of a shut doorway; Tom and me trying to huddle behind a planter-box that jutted out into the alley, Granddaughter pressed in a doorway opposite ours —
I went down on my knees, and began to open my canvas book-bag, fumbling frantically with the buckles and straps. It seemed to take years.
"I'm going to draw them off." I whispered it hoarsely to Tom, between great, gasping pants of my own. "Take the girl, as quietly as you can, go away from the sound of my voice — "
"No!" from Tom, in a fierce whisper. "I'm not leaving you!"
"You have to! For her sake! Besides, I'll be all right, I've got this — "
I'd finally gotten the damn bag open, and Father's holstered pistol out; I drew the thing from its holster. Tom stared at it, as if not believing his own eyes —
" — so, get her away quietly," I went on, still whispering, and panting, "and find a place to hide 'til morning." I paused, to gasp for breath. "Take her to the American Consulate, and have them call my father; he's working for the government. Our government. He'll take care of her." I stopped, all at once, panting, out of breath, looking at him in the dim light. "Please — ?"
I was almost in tears, as I whispered this last word out. I felt utterly wretched. Everything was horrible. I would never see him again, and he would bear the burden of this moment, for the rest of his life.
A long pause, from him.
"Okay" he whispered, at last.
The inevitable sound of running feet, in the next alley over; they would be upon us soon. I had to move, now.
Up on my feet, again, this time with the gun in my hand; I almost staggered, at the sharp pain in my torn knee. Then, down the alley as quietly as I could, towards the pursuers, now; and then, around the corner —
Not quietly; not once I'd entered the new alley. Instead, I made as much noise running as I could, trying to sound like three people —
I made other noises, too.
"Help! Help!" I shouted it out, loud, and I did not have to pretend, to sound terrified. "We're being chased by robbers! They're trying to kill us!" A few seconds of panting, as I ran; then, "Help — !"
The point was not to get help, of course; although it would have meant everything. The point was to make more noise, to have them follow me, to get them away from Tom and Granddaughter, so they could hide.
I called out again, this time in French. As I twisted and ran, I banged on a wooden door, here and there, with my bloody left hand, for the sake of the added noise —
Oh, Jack, I thought, as I ran. Oh, Jack, I'm going to get killed tonight, and leave you all alone, and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry —
I twisted around another corner, and dared a quick look back around the edge of a building. I saw three shapes emerge in the alley I'd just vacated; but I also heard more running feet in another alley-way. There was at least one more team. They would try to get ahead of me, to cut me off, of course —
Back on the run, and at the next intersection I cut away from both teams; still trying to head away from Tom and the girl …
I upped my pace, and got several intersections ahead of the pursuit — we were all tiring and slowing, but they more quickly than I — and I sought the shelter of another building's edge; peeking around a corner, again, gasping for air.
I called out, again.
"Leave us alone! Leave us alone! I've got a gun — !" I shouted it out, in unfeigned anguish.
I brought the pistol up, and worked the slide to load the bullet — 'chambering the round', Father had called it — and noticed I'd gotten blood on the thing. I swiped it on my pants, carefully, to clean it, then I brought out my handkerchief, to help me hold it. Father had said to use both hands; I couldn't let the butt get slippery.
Two complicated whistles; and the sounds of running feet, in both alleys, stopped.
I had thought they would. I was playing for time, now, time for Granddaughter to find shelter. Surely she knew someone, a family friend, someone who would take them both in — ?
I crouched down, as I peered around the corner.
I did not have long to wait.
Two intersections down, three figures, close now, to the walls. One was stationary; two slipped forward, running lightly, as quietly as they could, crouching —
I did as Father had taught me. I swung into the alleyway, and braced myself against the wall; I held the gun all the way out in front of me, in both hands, and I aimed more-or-less at the lead figure, and I squeezed the trigger.
I was expecting something like a shotgun-kick; I was relieved that I could hang on, and that it didn't hurt. I heard a simultaneous tinkle, as the shell casing hit the pavement. I shifted aim to the second figure, and squeezed again.
More tinkling brass. Both figures had gone down, taking cover, I was sure. Then, a muffled sound from the direction of the third man, and something hit the wall, hard, far too close to my head —
I turned the corner, again, and I ran, fast —
They would get me in the end, of course. As I'd always known. There were too many of them.
Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry!
I wondered who would tell him the news —
Another corner; another respite, behind a building's brick edge. My silence made their running footsteps, stop.
I raised Father's pistol, holding it in both hands, pointing ahead of me; panting, preparing to step out, one more time, for one more shot —
A sound, a crashing sound, some alleys off — and a shout.
Oh, God, I thought; if it's another team of them, I'm finished that much sooner —
I stepped out, and braced myself against the wall, as I had before. The leading two were closer this time, just one long block away.
Crack!, and then, Crack! And for good measure, a third, Crack!, hastily aimed towards the gunman in the rear —
Two shots left, now. There was an extra magazine attached to Father's gun belt; I could not see being given the chance to load it —
As before, I pelted, as fast as I could, around another corner, footsteps eventually following me, pacing me. I turned a corner to the right at a dead run, and put on a last burst of speed; if I got far enough ahead, maybe I could change magazines after all —
Motion, ahead of me. And noise. Lots of it; a roaring sound, and crashing —
And then, turned on suddenly, all at once, lights. Headlights. A car — ? Here — ?
A car; coming on with horrifying speed, driven by a madman, fenders crashing against first one alley-wall, and then the other, raising showers of sparks each time, the driver obviously not caring —
I could see that it was an open car, a touring-car, filled with men; I could see that the front windshield had been folded down, and that gun barrels protruded forward —
The sound of the big engine intensified, as the car accelerated … and I heard urgent shouts from the pursuers behind me — not in Chinese; rather, some European language I did not recognize —
I dived around the the corner, and into the miserable shelter of a shallow doorway; ready to use my last two bullets. Oh, Jack, goodbye —
Shots, from the car. A fusillade of them. But not aimed at me.
The car roared by my side-alley, and for the first time, I could see the occupants. Chinese men, dressed in the kind of flashy suits that Monsieur Simonov had deplored —
Shots, now, answering shots, from what could only have been my pursuers. Monsieur Simonov's killers.
The car — I could only tell by the sound of it, I was still huddled in my doorway — the car screeched to a halt. There was shouting in Chinese, and the sounds of running footsteps —
Yet more gunshots. Individual gunshots, pop, pop, pop, now faster, now slower —
And then, a rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat, that I'd only heard before, in the movies; a machine-gun. Fired in short bursts.
Another car, in the distance; driven by someone less insane. Perhaps a third …
More shouting. More running feet — and the sounds were moving away from me …
I waited for ten seconds, twenty seconds, an eternity, sure that a figure with a gun would appear in the alleyway, as soon as I so much as twitched —
And then, I could stand it no longer. I turned, and ran, away from the sounds of the battle, as fast as I could still manage. I ran for my life.
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