Wednesday, June 2nd, 1937
— late —
The Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity
The reaction set in, as soon as I caught my breath; huddled in the darkest doorway I could find, in this dark and horrible place, in an alleyway far from the pursuit.
I'd been about to die. I'd been sure of it.
I almost had died. If I'd made one wrong turn; if the man shooting at me, had aimed just a little lower —
I began to shiver. Well, 'shiver' didn't really describe it; I began to shake, uncontrollably, so badly that I was afraid of dropping Father's pistol, but I did not dare put it away …
I hugged myself, tight, gun still in my hand, and felt spasms pass through my body, in waves.
Oh, I was by no means safe, now. I was still, I guessed, in very great danger. The gunshots had seemingly stopped — for now — but the excited Chinese voices had not; perhaps they were searching for more of my former pursuers — ? Perhaps one of more of them was still moving around, free, and armed — ?
And, more to the point, if I should encounter some of these men who were hunting for my tormentors — would they not shoot me on sight — ? After all, I was white, too, and I was armed …
I thought I could guess, now, very roughly, at what I'd just seen.
'I am under the protection of the most powerful man in China,' Monsieur Simonov had told me, in his brusque way, on one of my first visits; Du Yueh-seng, he'd said.
I knew little about Du Yueh-seng, other than that he was some kind of criminal kingpin. Mister Chen had told me that much when I'd asked, then added, 'Better not to know too much about him, Boss; and it's better not to ask took many questions about him, around here. You do not want to come to his attention.'
I was pretty sure I'd just witnessed what 'the most powerful man in China' could do, when he was crossed.
Another wave of shudders passed through me, and I hugged myself tightly, in the warm night air, until they died down …
I looked around my temporary hiding-place; at the dark brick walls, the dimly-lit sky overhead, the stony, forbidding doorways. I could still hear Du's men — if that's who they were — shouting, and talking, and moving in the distance.
I considered what to do, next.
Well, I agonized over what to do next; to put it more accurately.
It was clearly very dangerous to stay here, in this Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity; at least, out in the open, in the alleyways. The sensible thing to do, would be to get out, get back to Father, and raise the alarm —
But I could not — I just could not — bear the idea of leaving without Tom. Not in the middle of — this. I just could not.
I thought he was relatively safe; hiding somewhere with Granddaughter. I believed they were both, comparatively safe. I was sure the whole crew of our pursuers had followed me …
Well. I was almost sure of it.
In any case, I could not leave, without him. Without the two of them, actually; I felt deeply responsible for Granddaughter, too …
But if I didn't leave — what then — ?
I could try to find a hiding place of my own, and then start watching the neighborhood gates, in the morning — ?
It seemed implausible.
I looked up at the sky, feeling tired, torn, and despairing —
In the end, my heart won out. I made an emotional choice.
I knew, generally, which way they'd gone, when I left them. I would make my way there, as carefully as I could, and — look. Look for them.
It was a ridiculous thing to do, of course. They would be in hiding; how could I find them — ?
In truth, though, I would go just to be nearer to Tom; physically closer to him, even though I could not find him. I felt the pull of it, in the darkness, painfully, acutely. My feelings were running high. Oh, God, how I yearned to see him again, just to be with him, again —
And then, too, — worse — there was still that nagging, horrible crumb of doubt, of fear …
If nothing else, I told myself, looking for them would give me the meager reassurance of not finding their bodies, lying in the street …
So, I gave in to my emotions, and slipped slowly and cautiously back to where I'd left them both; I'd remembered the house number —
And there I found them, Tom and Granddaughter, sheltering in the dark, closed doorway with the planter box, preparing to go out on their own impossible search, for me.
* * *
Tom hugged me so hard, that he hurt my ribs. I believe I hugged him back, as hard — although, more carefully, because of the gun in my hand.
It went on, for second, after second, after second; me, with my eyes closed, feeling all the emotions crashing through me, relief, gratitude, sorrow, joy, love —
"You're alive," he whispered at last, down into my shoulder. His whisper trembled, a little.
"Yes," I whispered back, after a few seconds.
Finally, we loosened our embrace; and he stepped back a little, hands still on me, trying to look at me, up and down, in the gloom.
"Are you all right — ?" he whispered. "Are you wounded — ?"
"No. Just scraped." I was glad he couldn't see all the blood, in the darkness; I had my handkerchief wrapped around my hand, now, but I could still feel blood trickling down my leg, from my torn-up knee. I thought it was beginning to fill up my shoe.
"We hid in the back yard of an empty house, that she knew about," he went on, whispering. "We heard you shouting, and then we heard the shots, and they went on, for awhile … and then, we heard a lot more shooting, all at once, and then, and then, it stopped, and everything went quiet, and, I thought … "
He'd thought I'd been killed. Of course.
"No; no." I took a breath. "Some people came. They started shooting at the men who were chasing us … I think they are friends of her grandfather. The man I was to visit." I turned my head to look at Granddaughter, in the shadows.
"Bonsoir, Monsieur," came her whisper; a whisper which was dull, from shock, and utter exhaustion. Beyond caring.
Oh, God; I knew the pain of losing a parent … She had lost both of hers, and now she had lost her grandfather, too, in the most horrible way imaginable —
And when she truly began to feel it — ?
"I call myself Rhys," I whispered to her, gently, in French.
A pause, from her.
"I am named Irina," she whispered, in perfect English.
Why it should surprise me that she spoke English, in Shanghai, I don't know.
I took another breath; and I transferred Father's pistol to my left hand, and I gently took her hand in my undamaged right hand. It felt cool to the touch.
"I am very, very sorry, Mademoiselle Irina," I whispered to her, softly. "I am so, so sorry … "
Nothing from her. She did not meet my eyes. The silence stretched on, for heartbeats.
I took a breath.
"Mademoiselle Irina, will you come with us, now — ? We will take you to where you will be safe, and you will be cared for."
She shook her head.
"There is a place I am supposed to go, if — this — were to happen. They are friends of Grandfather. I will go there. It is not far."
I looked at her, in the gloom.
"May we walk with you, on your way — ?"
A moment's pause, from her.
"Thank you, Monsieur Rhys. That would be very good of you."
She whispered it evenly, and a little formally; but even in the near-darkness, I could see a brief flash of some emotion, color the shock and exhaustion, in her expression.
We went slowly and with great care, in complete contrast to the way we'd run before.
We were very quiet; and we stopped, frequently, to listen for footsteps, for seconds at a time. Each alleyway-intersection was peered at, before entry; and when we turned corners, I peered around the building-edges, first.
I kept Father's pistol out, ready, in my hand.
In truth, I do not know if I could have used it, if called upon. I was pretty well exhausted; my knee hurt worse than ever, now, I was limping badly, and I was feeling increasingly shaky …
So, I was not at all in the best condition, when we cautiously passed down the alleyway to one of the neighborhood's gates, and went through it —
To find another of those large, open touring cars, parked just out of direct view from the gate. And standing around it, a contingent of hard-faced, well-armed — their guns were out — Chinese men, dressed in those characteristically flashy suits.
We stopped dead in our tracks.
The Chinese gangsters regarded us, stonily. Especially me; in my ripped-up clothes, well-covered in blood —
And with a pistol, dangling openly in my grip.
I could feel my heartbeat, pounding up, and up …
Oh, no, I thought. Not now. Not after all we've been through —
Granddaughter took us each, by the hand — Tom's right hand; my left hand, wrapped in my bloody handkerchief — and spoke.
"My name is Irina Simonov," she said, loudly, in clear, slow English. "And these are my friends." A pause. "They saved my life, tonight."
She repeated herself, in Shanghainese.
Nothing, from the Chinese gunmen; they could have been statues.
Then, at last, one of them turned his head, and said something in Shanghainese to the oldest of them, the one whom I'd assumed was their leader —
And finally, after more, tense, silent seconds, that older gunman gave a quick, wordless, sideways-jerk of his head; obviously motioning us to move on down the road.
We went; slowly, still hand-in-hand.
It was almost a full city block, under the bright streetlights, before I remembered to awkwardly tuck Father's pistol out of sight, into the waistband of my trousers …
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