China Boat

Chapter 62

. . . Hell is empty
And all the devils are here!

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Act I, Scene II


Faust. Where are you damn'd?
Meph. In Hell.
Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

 – Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
Act I, Scene III

* * *

Wednesday, June 2nd, 1937
 – very late – 
Somewhere in the Hongkew District
Shanghai, China

Granddaughter's destination was in another, fairly nearby, li-long neighborhood.

I was not enthusiastic about venturing in.

But as it turned out, my fears were groundless. This neighborhood was as full of light and life and people, as the Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity had been dark, and shut-up, and silent.

My tired mind finally worked out the likely reason for the difference. One of Monsieur Simonov's neighbors had, probably, seen or heard something, of his murder; and knowing what was coming — Du's men, descending in overwhelming force — he, or she, had alerted another neighbor or two, who had alerted neighbors of their own — 

It was difficult to blame anyone. The image of that big car, roaring and crashing down the alley towards me; the memory of those gunshots, a storm of gunshots, with the sounds of the machine-gun mixed in … 


The alley-houses in this neighborhood were older, stonier, and considerably larger than the ones in the Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity. The doors were larger, and sturdier, too. Granddaughter led us to one, and knocked — 

The stout woman who opened the door, took one look at us — or more significantly, at Granddaughter, with two strangers, and without Monsieur Simonov — and after a moment of shock, she burst into tears. She clearly knew what our presence meant.

Granddaughter burst into tears, as well. More than tears. Wails of renewed anguish, too. I guessed it was the final collapse, of the willpower that had taken her — us — this far.

Words were exchanged, brokenly, in Russian. We were ushered in — to yet another, fore-courtyard — and more figures appeared; two more women, large, a little older, middle-aged; a man, white-haired and white-bearded, who might have played Santa Claus in a film, without makeup, another man, dark and slender, with deep-set eyes — 


It was all beginning to seem a little dream-like, to me; something observed from somewhere else. I was very tired.


Two of the motherly-looking women led Granddaughter back into the house, the third following behind. The rest of us were left standing, in the courtyard, in an awkward silence.

The white-bearded man said something to me, in a language I assumed to be Russian. I shook my head, and asked if he spoke English, or French.

That did it.

"He is dead, then — ?" the older man asked, in fluent French.

"Oui, Monsieur."

"You are certain — ?"

"Yes, Monsieur. We all, all three of us, saw his body."

Silence, for several seconds.

"The old fool," from the slender, dark man. This prompted a quick retort in Russian, from the white-bearded man; who then returned his gaze to us.

"What happened?"

I drew a breath, to answer.

"We found him in his house, tonight — "

As I went on, one of the women came out. She stopped short at the sight of me, and stared; there was a burst of angry-sounding Russian from her, directed at both of the men. Then, she turned to me.

"You are injured," she said, in French.

I said nothing in return. I may have swayed, a little.

"Come with me. Both of you." She took my hand, with a look of disgust aimed at the two Russian men. "To be kept out here, in this state … "

I did not resist. But I did object, feebly.

"I might bleed on your floor, Madame … "

Which earned me an exasperated, European-style 'pouf' from her, worthy of Monsieur Simonov himself.


The kitchen was very large, and uncomfortably warm; the stove was evidently coal-fired, judging by the scuttle in the corner, and although the fire had been banked for the evening, the thing still radiated heat.

That proved lucky for me. The woman was able to wash my hand and my knee in warm water, from the water-can kept in the corner of the oven.

I tried not to look at my knee, after the first glimpse. Instead, I looked at the Western-style wainscoting, the green paint, the samovar steaming on the sideboard — 

While continuing the story of Monsieur Simonov's murder. Or, assassination. Regardless; the pain of having my wounds tended to, made it easier to tell.

It was a tiring business. I kept translating for Tom, back and forth.

For his part, Tom seemed mesmerized by my torn knee, and by Father's pistol, which I had placed very carefully on the table, before sitting down; his eyes kept going back and forth, between them … 


At last, I came to the end of the story; or as much of it as I cared to tell, anyway. There was a silence, for some seconds.

The woman tending to my knee, excused herself, for a moment.


"And how many of them were there, again, Monsieur — ?" from the younger, darker man.

I hesitated.

"I think, either seven, or eight. When they chased after us, they were in two groups. There were at least three in the group I saw, and I thought there were more, in the other one."

The white-haired man looked at me, with grave respect.

"And yet, you led them off, away from your friend, and the girl … That was a very brave thing to do, Monsieur."

By his expression, I could see he knew the truth. That I had not expected to survive.

I looked down, and I swallowed.

"I did not feel brave," I said, in a low voice, after a moment. "I was terrified, and I was miserable."

Mostly, I remembered the aching, lonely prospect of never seeing Jack again, ever. Or Tom. Of leaving them, both.

"Just so, Monsieur." He said it, gently.

A slightly-awkward silence, then, which extended for several seconds. I did not offer to translate the exchange for Tom; but the French words were understandable enough, for an English-speaker. I could feel him looking at me.

I looked down, again.

The darker, younger man spoke up.

"Were all of the men upstairs in Simonov's house, do you think, Monsieur?"

I had wondered, about that. This I translated for Tom; and he shook his head no, emphatically. I agreed with him.

"We do not think so, Monsieur. From the sounds, three or four, perhaps; where the others were, I do not know."

"I do," from the darker man, with a grim smile. "They were outside, in front; hidden, perhaps in the courtyard of another house. They were to have taken you, if you had escaped their comrades, upstairs. It is a standard tactic, in such assassinations, to take friends, family, associates, too. I saw the same thing happen in Poland, in '21." He paused, and the smile disappeared. "I lost friends, that way."

And I had wanted us to run, in that direction.

I shuddered, as I translated for Tom.


And then, I thought of Mister Chen, with a flush of horror — 

Oh, no. Oh, God no … Oh, please-God, no … 

It hit me, very hard. Oh, God … 

I did not follow the conversation for some seconds. Thinking; hoping, that just perhaps, he had gotten away — ? We had heard no noises outside the house. Surely we would have heard something, if he had been taken — ?


" … but the old fool was smart enough in one way, at least," the darker man was saying, when I could focus again. "He left a back way out. He had that shed built against the wall; and he paid his neighbor to put a quick-sliding bolt on the garden door. He told me so. Fat lot of good that it did him, in the end. The old fool."

The darker man was clearly angry, at Monsieur Simonov. The white-haired man shook his head, wearily.

"He is dead, Mikhail Ivanovich. Can't you just let it go — ?"

"Why should I? He couldn't let it go. He had to keep writing, essays, poems, jokes, all poking at that bastard Dzugashvili, needling him, over and over, reminding him that he was still alive … I told him to stop, I begged him, and sometimes he said he would; but. He just couldn't stop. And look where it got him. Look what almost happened to these children — !" His arm went out, to indicate Tom and me.


An awkward silence, at that. I had the feeling, that the white-haired man, did not disagree.


I spoke up, a little tentatively.

"Monsieur … I heard something of this, from Monsieur Simonov; that he wrote things … But, he said he used, a pseudonym — ?"

The darker, slender man looked too disgusted to reply.

"Yes; several pseudonyms … but." The white-haired man explained it to me, gently. "You understand — the security apparatus, always knows. They have informers, here, people who talk to other people. And, so, they know."

"And the old fool knew that, too," from the darker, slender man. "He counted on it."


Another awkward, troubled silence.


The woman who had been tending to my knee returned, followed by another of the original three women — I thought they were perhaps sisters — who carried a short, wooden box, filled with bottles, jars, and rolls of gauze. She put the box down, next to me.

"Nadia will stay with her, tonight," the new woman announced to the world at large. "I have administered laudanum. She will sleep." The large woman transferred her attention to me. "And now, Monsieur, may I look at your knee — ?"

"Yes, Madame," I managed. "Thank you, very much."

The slender, dark-haired man, spoke again.

"The men who were pursuing you — " He looked at me, directly, and with some intensity — "do you think that they were all killed by Du's men — ? Think carefully; this is of some importance."

I winced at the question. They had brutally murdered Monsieur Simonov, and they had very nearly killed me, and Tom, and the girl. Still; they were people, they were human beings … And, death was very final.

As I had discovered, for myself. Recently.

I translated the question, for Tom. He and I exchanged a few words in English; then I turned back to the dark man.

"I do not know, Monsieur." I hesitated, and tried to put it into words. "There were a great many gunshots, all at once, and then, there were none … And, there were many of Du's men, in the neighborhood, and at the gates … " I shrugged. "But, how can one know, for sure? These men, Du's men — "

I'd realized, earlier, from his question, that I'd gotten that much right, at least — 

" — from the sounds of it, they were searching the neighborhood, when we left … "

Which might mean that one or more of the assassins had gotten away. Or it might mean only that Du's men were being cautious, not knowing how many opponents they had faced.

As in fact I did not know.

An eloquent silence, in the room, for a moment. We were all groping in the dark; rather literally, on this dark and horrible night.


The woman examining my knee had done so with less gentleness, but, I thought, more experience, than my first benefactor. She looked up at me, now, and broke the silence.

"This wound will require some sutures, Monsieur." She regarded me, for a moment. "A number of them. I can put them in now, for you, if you like. I am a nurse, at the hospital. Or, you can wait."

I drew a breath.

"That would be very kind of you, Madame."


While the preparations were made — liquids poured, gauze unrolled, alcohol and iodine swabbed, painfully, everywhere; oh, and my bloody trouser-leg cut, to far up above my knee; I thought of the Russian chanteuse in her slit skirt, in the nightclub — while all the preparations were being made, the Russians talked among themselves, in Russian. They sounded worried.

Well, except for my nurse. She seemed to concentrate completely on her task; for which I was very grateful.

"What's going on — ?" from Tom, in a whisper.

My nurse extracted a hypodermic needle from a closed metal case, searched for a vial, and began to prepare an injection.

"I think they're deciding what to do, about the girl," I said, in a low voice.

"I meant, with you," he whispered back.

"Oh … I'm to get my leg stitched up."

He blinked at me. His eyes were big.

"This is to numb the area, Monsieur," she said, as she expertly administered the shot … 


Eventually, I was stitched up, and properly bandaged — my hand had not required sutures, but only, I thought, because there was a shortage of skin left to join together; the bandage was a thick one — and the general conversation switched back to French, as a courtesy to me. Well, to Tom and me both, by translation.


After a few moments, I asked the question which had been on my mind, since we'd arrived. I addressed it to the white-haired man.


"Will Mademoiselle Irina be able to stay in Shanghai — ? Will she be safe, here — ?

I asked it, hesitantly.

This brought a long silence, and looks between all of the Russians, this time including my nurse.

"Perhaps, Monsieur … " A shrug, and an exhalation, which again reminded me, painfully, of Monsieur Simonov. "Perhaps." He looked at the darker, younger man.

"My wife has relatives in Harbin, up in the North," the younger man said. "I think it has been decided, that she and I will take the girl there. Soon." He glanced at the other Russians, slowly, one after another, in turn. "And we will stay there, for weeks, or a few months, or perhaps even a year … And when we come back, the girl will have a new name. She will, perhaps, be our niece, come to stay and go to school in Shanghai … " He shrugged.

Silence, for a moment.

"And that will be — enough, you think?" I dared to ask it.

Another shrug, from the dark man.

"Maybe. Maybe, not." A glance, at the white-haired man. "The security apparatus has informers, everywhere, here and in Harbin … Still. The girl will keep quiet, she will not be a fool and publish, as her grandfather did. It might be enough. Even that thug Dzugashvili might not send out his assassins, to murder a little girl who is keeping quiet."

The white-haired man looked deeply unhappy.

"'Dzugashvili' — ?" I asked, quietly; trying to match his pronunciation.

"Iosef Issarionovich Dzugashvili, who now calls himself The Man Made of Steel, or Stalin." The dark man's expression was full of contempt. "He must be running out of old men and women, and children, to murder in his own country — our home country — to reach out so far as this, for this old man and his granddaughter."

"Mikhail," from the white-haired man, gently, reprovingly. He looked at me, and at Tom. "You understand, what he has said is not to be repeated, outside of this room. Please."

This, when we did not even know their names, apart from Granddaughter's; nor they, ours.

I began to understand the kind of pervasive fear, under which they lived.


I arrived at a decision. A quick one.


My canvas book-bag was on the floor — it was covered with my bloody hand-prints, and street grime, it was not fit for the table — and I carefully reached over, now, and hoisted it into my lap.

I opened the flap — I had never refastened the buckles — and I brought out the packet that Father had prepared for Monsieur Simonov. I undid the metal clasp on the oversized envelope, and, with a silent, apologetic look at Tom, I gently strewed the contents onto the table top.


The Russians all stared down, in fascination.


The contents were much as I expected. Blank forms, in Spanish, on thick, watermarked paper; residence permits, in cardboard booklets, which resembled passports; more booklets, prominently marked, 'Visa' — 

Bundles of currency. American currency.


What I hadn't anticipated, but should have, were the photographs, meant to go with those documents.


For whatever reason, these were loose, apart from being paper-clipped to slips of paper with the names, ages and birthplaces of their subjects; just as I had done with the photographs of myself that I'd given to Monsieur Simonov. The faces stared up at me, now. Men, women, children; real people, desperate people, people who would presumably be trapped in Germany, now that Monsieur Simonov was dead.

I looked down at the faces, especially those of the children, and I felt more than a little sick.


At last, the younger, dark-haired man, spoke.


"So. This was his project." He pushed one or two of the blank forms, with his fingertips. "Or part of it, anyway. He was very happy about it. He called it, his mitzvah." The dark-haired man looked at me. "You understand, he meant it ironically. He was not a Jew."

I blinked. "No, Monsieur — ?" I had assumed … 

"No. But his son married a Jew, a secular Jew, and the old man loved his daughter-in-law very much, and his granddaughter … and so, when he had to take a new name, here, he took a Jewish one. Well," he went on, thoughtfully, "a Jewish cover-name is also a good thing to have, for Shanghai. Or for Harbin. But that is not why he did it."

He paused for a moment, and then he looked at me, quizzically; asking the question, without words.

"Is there anything here, that could help the girl — ?"

I asked it, simply.

I saw the white-haired man, and the darker one, exchange looks; and then I saw the darker, younger man shake his head, regretfully, after a few seconds.

"No, Monsieur … I do not think so." He pushed some of the papers around, again, with his fingertips; he picked up a blank residence permit, opened it, glanced at it, and set it down. "'No … the old man did much of his work, himself; he was a master at it. He did have associates, particularly for jobs as large as this, I know … but he never talked about who they were, or how to get in touch with them." His dark eyes flashed, briefly; and he gave an expressive shrug. "It is not the kind of information, which is casually shared. Not in Shanghai. Not even with her, his granddaughter."

I breathed out.

"I am very sorry to hear that, Monsieur." And I was, deeply, inexpressibly sorry. I felt it.

Nothing more, for a few seconds; then, I began gathering up the documents, and photographs, and folders, and slowly putting them back into the oversized manila envelope; glancing at the photographs, in the lamp-light, as I went — 

And my eyes fell on the bundled banknotes.

Four bundles of them; one hundred, crisp, new, ten-dollar bills in each bundle, with wrappers bearing the legend, 'Federal Reserve Bank of New York', and the quantities, and the denomination, of their contents.


Why not — ? I thought, after a moment.


And then; it's the right thing to do … 


I finished loading the manilla envelope; and I set it aside. Then I stacked the bundled banknotes neatly, side by side — noting in the process, how shaky I was, how near real exhaustion I was — and I pushed them across the table, towards the white-haired man.


"For the girl, Monsieur."


A profound silence, from everyone in the room.


"Are you sure, Monsieur — ?" from the white-haired man, at last.


Four thousand dollars, U.S. dollars, was a very great deal of money, anywhere in the world; but I'd been in Shanghai long enough to know, that it was a fortune, here. The kind of fortune that could, and would, change a life, be the foundation of — much more.

Unless, of course, they decided that flight, that travel, was best. In which case, the same amount would take three people very far, very fast … 


"Yes, Monsieur. I trust you to use it for her, in the best way possible."

I was tired. My syntax left something to be desired.

The white-haired man's eyes regarded me, gravely, but with kindness.

"Then I will accept, on Mademoiselle Irina's behalf, Monsieur And may God grant that I, that we, make the best choices, for her … "


Tom and I were offered a place to sleep, for the night, and company to guide us in the morning.


I was pretty far gone, and I yearned to accept the offer; and Tom, I could see, was not much better off. But in the end, I had to refuse.

"Thank you, very much, Monsieur; but we are expected. If we do not come home, tonight, the police will be called, and I think they will start a search for us, immediately … "

Actually, I thought, if Father employed his letters of commission, it might well be U.S. soldiers and sailors, doing the searching. In the morning, anyway.

The white-haired man conceded the point at once. And so we started back, in the dark of night, with the younger, darker man, as our guide.

* * *

We went on foot.


And, under other circumstances, I would have been fascinated by the trip. The Hongkew District, at night, on foot; experienced even more intimately, than by bicycle — 

In truth, though, it all seemed increasingly surreal, increasingly dream-like, to me. I was very tired; and the anesthetic shot had worn off, and my knee throbbed like hell, and now my hand was throbbing, too.


I was aware, that we did not take the most direct route.


The younger, dark-haired man led us along side-streets, that I did not remember having seen, before. More, we stopped, and waited, more than once, in front of a food-stall, or street-market, without buying anything; and then moved on. I was fairly sure we actually doubled back on our path, twice.

He was obviously concerned that we not be followed. And the ease and familiarity with which he executed these maneuvers, was telling.

I wondered, at his past … 


A few minutes into our trek home, the skies opened up, at last; it began to rain, heavily, a relatively-warm rain, on a warm night. Our guide took no notice; we just kept walking.

Well, I thought. Maybe it will rinse some of the blood, off of my clothes.

But the rain had one other, more real, benefit. By leaning close together, Tom and I managed to exchange a few words, privately, under cover of the downpour.


"Shall I have my father call your father, tomorrow to explain — this?"

It was like trying to talk underneath a waterfall; but by saying it into his ear, I made myself understood.

I dreaded the necessity of the question, like anything; but I owed it, and much more, to Tom.

Nothing from him, for a moment; then he leaned in close to me, as we walked.

"Is your father really working for the government — ?"


I considered the response.


"Yes. Well; it's more like, he is doing a favor for the government; he's not getting paid, or anything … And, it's supposed to be a secret."

Another few steps. My clothes were completely soaked, by now, clammy, heavy with water; I could feel it. I wondered about my bandages.

"The business we were on tonight, though — that business wasn't for the government. At least, he doesn't think so. He's not completely sure, though."


Tom had almost been killed. He deserved the truth.


More splashing steps. We weren't so far from the Garden Bridge, now, I thought.


"No," from Tom, at last. He shook his head in the downpour, and then he leaned in close to me. "I mean, no, don't. I'm not going to tell my father anything about tonight. Well, I'll say we got caught by the rain, and you loaned me these clothes, so I wouldn't ruin mine. But that's all."

I pulled away, to look at him. He looked back, and shook his head in exasperation; and I leaned in close, again, to listen.

"Don't you see — ? He wouldn't believe me, at first, or at least he wouldn't until your dad called; I know it. And after that, he'd never let me … out by myself, again. No."


He'd been about to say, that his father would never let him see me, again.

I wouldn't have blamed Mister Fletcher, at all.


Tom looked at me, again, in the deluge. I leaned in, closer still. I tried to think of how to put it.

"He should know, Tom … You saved me, and you saved, her. You were incredibly brave. He should know … "

I felt him pull away, a little, to look at me; and I couldn't meet his eyes. I waited for him to say something about my own role; but in the end, perhaps, it didn't need to be said.

More footsteps, splashing in the downpour.

Tom leaned in close, again.

"I told you; he's never really respected me." A pause, from him. More splashing footsteps. Then — "This will be my secret. This will be something I'll always have, over him … "

Another, wet, moment of silence.

"Okay," I said. At last. Reluctantly.


Across the Garden Bridge; through the wet blocks south of Soochow Creek, so much quieter, so much more respectable, than the Hongkew District … 

I stood with the darker man and watched as Tom went into the American Consulate — 

I wasn't prepared, for my reaction. My shaking returned, for a moment; and even my good knee felt a little weak.

I hadn't thought we'd been in any real peril, on our trek back. Not really. But; the American Consulate was American territory, guarded by armed Marines, armed U.S. Marines, standing watch twenty-four hours a day. When I saw the door close behind Tom, I knew he was safe, truly safe, for the first time since the whole, horrible business had started at Monsieur Simonov's, I knew that he was safe, at last … 

* * *

Walking through the lobby of the Cathay, after what I'd just been through, was surreal. A little nightmarish, actually.


"Good evening, sir," from the astonished doorman. Who would never have let me enter, if he hadn't recognized me.

"Good evening," from me; keeping my head down, not meeting his eyes.


I started across the cool, elegant, marble-floored lobby, lit with those beautiful crystal light-fixtures … 

Me, drenched to the skin; dressed in my office-clerk's clothes, now torn and bloodstained, one leg showing bare and bandaged far too high up, almost to the hip — 

Stinking, still, of spent gunpowder; in spite of the drenching. Well, to my own nostrils, at any rate; I wondered if everyone else could smell it, as well.


"Good evening, Mister Williamson," the desk-clerk called out, as I limped by; then — "Sir? Is there anything we can do for you — ?"

The staff of the Cathay is extremely well-trained, and extremely discreet. That he asked the question at all, was a measure of my bizarre state.

I kept my head down, my face averted.

"No, thank you — "

I stopped in my tracks; and I remembered the courtesy Father had shown me, in having the front desk call up to my room, when he'd returned from his own abortive attempt to visit Monsieur Simonov. It had been, earlier today; or, rather, yesterday, it was after midnight, now. It seemed like a week ago.

Father had been waiting for my return, for a long time, now. I was very much overdue.

"On second thought … Could you please call my father, and tell him that I'm on my way up to see him — ?"

"Of course, sir," from the desk-clerk; his eyes still wide with astonishment, and concern.

"Thank you, very much."


A ride up, in the elevator; head down, even more concerned, with my presentation, in front of the elevator-operator.

He could smell the gun-smoke, I thought. He must be able to smell the gun-smoke.

"Here you are, sir," from the young operator, sweeping aside the inner cage-door, with his usual flourish.

I muttered my thanks, and exited, and limped down the crystal-lit hall, to Father's room — 

Whose door swung open, before my third knock.

I had, unfortunately, grown used to Father appearing pale, and ill, recently. Now, I watched him grow paler still, and stricken, at the sight of me; and I was sorry.

I took an unsteady breath.

"Father," I said. "There has been a problem."

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