China Boat

Chapter 63









. . . Well, old man, I have a bit of confession to make.

I took a spill while I was out running, the day-before-yesterday; and I went down pretty hard, and got myself banged up, some. I made the beginner's mistake of trying to look behind me, while I was running — sprinting, actually. It's embarrassing.

So, my left palm was scraped up; and it's bandaged pretty well, just now, which is an infernal nuisance. Do you know how hard it is, to live an ordinary life, bathing, and everything else, while keeping one hand dry?

But the real damage was to my right knee. Nothing broken, thank goodness; but there were a few — well, more than a few — stitches, required. They actually make a sort of interesting pattern.

I was helped, stitched up, by a Good Samaritan, a hospital nurse, not too far from where I had my crash. The Cathay's doctor was very complimentary about the neatness of her work; and then he laid on the new wonder-drug, sulfa powder, in bulk, and with enthusiasm.

And of course, there's a longer story involved. I'll tell you all about it, when I get home.


I still can't believe, that we have our tickets. That it's really happening … 

* * *

Friday, June 4th, 1937
10:30 a.m.
on the Bund
Shanghai, China

Father exercised his letters of commission — both of them — the day after Monsieur Simonov's murder.


It seemed likely, I thought, to make a certain difference, to my remaining days in Shanghai.


"You doin' okay, kid — ?"


The question came from the very large, and rather craggy-faced Marine — a U.S. Marine — who was in charge of my guard detail.

My three-man, personal, guard detail.


I considered my response. Since I was walking with the aid of a cane, and was limping even then, I was clearly not completely 'okay'. But, on the other hand, I wasn't in too much pain; and with the help of the cane, we were going at a pretty good pace … 


And, it felt wonderful to be outside, again. And moving. Using my body. Outside.


"I'm doing fine, sir. Thank you."

"Don't call me, 'sir'," from the Marine; his craggy face darkened. "I'm not an officer." His expression said, it would be an insult to be mistaken for an officer. "You can call me Sergeant," he went on, "or Sarge, or Gunny; that's short for Gunnery Sergeant, which is what I am. But don't call me 'sir'."

The three of them were in brown uniforms, with broad-brimmed, peaked campaign hats, and boots, and puttees.

And guns. They each carried a pistol, in a holster at the hip.

"Okay … Sergeant," from me; a little awkwardly, as I hobbled along.


A walk down south, to the Victory Monument, first; and then, back up north, and east, along the Bund; the three Marines patiently matching their pace, to mine.

It was a warm day, with a kind of pearly, opalescent mistiness to the air. The usual bustle of water-traffic filled the Whangpoo, to our right; the usual, smelly, roaring, terrestrial traffic filled the busy street, to our left.

The day would, I thought, get warmer, still; but I was about as comfortable as a decently-dressed person could be. I was wearing one of Monsieur Simonov's beautiful, light, linen suits, and one of his exquisitely light linen shirts; the feeling was almost like wearing pyjamas, in public — 

I hadn't wanted to, at first. The idea had filled me with an instinctive revulsion.

But I had made myself do it, in the end. And I was glad. It was a way to keep something of Monsieur Simonov, with me. The living Monsieur Simonov was the one who mattered, not the horrible, violated ruin of a body we'd last seen — 

At least, I thought, people could see an example of his fine tailor-work. He'd have been proud of it. In fact, he was proud of it; although, he'd had many more things, and much more important things, of which to be proud … 

I even kept my tie correctly knotted-up; deliberately. In his honor. As I grieved for him.

* * *

The hours after Monsieur Simonov's death, the hours after I'd returned to the Cathay, had been filled with awkwardness between Father and me.


Father had cut me short that first night, after only the briefest of reports; he could see the state that I was in.

And then, for the first — and please, God, the only — time in our lives, he had undressed me, and put me to bed. I was that far gone.

I'd been right, about my shoe filling up with blood. It was a gory mess, when it came off. I was dimly aware of being sorry, that Father had to see it.

And then, my legs were swung up into bed, and the sheet and blanket had been pulled up around me, and the light had been turned off — 

And I had lost consciousness.


That loss of consciousness had been a double blessing. I hadn't had to think about Monsieur Simonov; and I hadn't had to think about my gaffe. The gaffe, that could have been the end, for Jack and me.


It had happened, during that brief, first, stumbling report to Father, when I'd told him of Tom's involvement — 

I'd seen the shock, cross his face; shock, and then disappointment, and then he'd gathered himself to speak — 

I'd cut him short.

"Oh, Father," I'd said, in my guilt, and my anguish; swaying on my feet. "Don't you see? Of course I wanted to spend the time with him; but he was also my excuse, my cover, for being in the Hongkew at night. One white boy my age, alone, in a rickshaw at night, would stand out; two white boys would not, we'd just be exploring." I drew a breath. "Oh, don't you see? I used him, Father. I love him almost as much as I do Jack, and I used him … "

I was near tears, as the words came tumbling out of me — 

And then I stopped; aghast.


Oh, God.

What had I done — ? Oh, dear Lord, which had I just done — ?


A shocked silence from me, for second after second; swaying on my feet. Father's face, pale, ill, pinched.


"As I have used my own son," he said, at last; with a degree of subdued anguish, of his own … 

* * *

"Ah, Soochow Creek," from the craggy Marine sergeant, as we entered the Public Garden. "Shit Creek. Whenever there's a dustup between the Japs and the Chinese, we end up getting billeted here. Well, a little up the creek, where the neighborhood's not so fancy." His tone was ironic.

I limped along, using my cane.

"Is that so, s — uh, Sergeant — ?"

He glanced at me, sideways.

"Yeah. The last time was five years ago, in '32. We were here for months. We used to see bodies floating downstream, every day. It didn't help the smell, any." He took another look at me. "Hey; you want to sit down — ?" He studied me, more closely, for a second. "I think, maybe, you've gone far enough, for today."

"I think, maybe, you're right … "

It wasn't the pain, or the stiffness in my leg. It was the mention of the floating bodies.

We walked deeper into the Garden, and the sergeant steered us to a bench facing the Whangpoo, partially surrounded, and roofed, by a vine-covered trellis. The vines were jasmine, and smelled sweet, even in the daytime. I sat down, a little heavily, and with gratitude. The sergeant sat as well, and made himself comfortable, draping his arms along the back-rest.

"You two," he said, to his companions. "Walk a perimeter. Keep it close."

"Right, Sarge," from one of them; and they disappeared.

Jasmine-scented silence, for a minute, and then two. I watched a tugboat pulling a barge upriver, slowly, headed, I thought, for the Quai de France — 

I tried not to think of bodies. Of Monsieur Simonov's body. Or of Mister Chen's. It seemed likely enough, that he was dead, too; we had had no word of him … Oh, God — 

"All right, kid. Spill it."

I turned to him, and blinked.

"Sir — ? Uh, I mean, Sergeant — ?"

A dry, sideways-glance from him.

"Okay. So, scuttlebutt is, that you got into some kind of trouble; that you were in an actual shootout, with somebody. You got busted up some, that's for sure." He glanced at my cane, and my heavily-bandaged left hand. Then he looked me in the eye, again. "And, scuttlebutt is, your daddy showed up at the Consulate with a set of orders from Eff Dee Fucking R, His Own Fucking Self, telling us to give your daddy anything he wants. And what he wants, is a guard detail, for you."

So much, I thought, for the 'classified as secret' line, in Father's letter.

"Now, that's fine by me," the Sergeant went on, comfortably. "We're Marines; it's what we do. But if I'm going to protect you proper, I need to know what I'm up against." He paused, for a second. "So, spill it, kid. What happened — ? Did you get some local girl knocked up, and now her family's after you — ?" He looked at me, closely, shrewdly. "That happens, often enough. And it's easy enough to fix, with a little money."

I felt myself flushing, and I looked down.

"No … Sergeant; it's nothing like that … " I swallowed, and I looked back up at him; considering what to say, how much to tell him. "Ummm … it happened in the Hongkew — "

"It usually does," he interrupted; with a wry expression.

"Uh … yes. Well. Two nights ago, I was supposed to deliver a package to — this person — on behalf of my father … "


It was the third time I'd told the story, start to finish. I found it interesting — and depressing — that each retelling had been slightly different, based on what I wanted to conceal from each listener.

The Sergeant heard me out, quietly, attentively, asking just a few intelligent questions — 

That is, until I got to the part with Du Yueh-seng's men roaring down toward me, in the touring-car — 

"Jesus H. Christ!" He sat straight up, and looked at me with wide eyes. "Jesus H. Christ! You pissed off Big Ears Du — ?!"

"No, sir! I mean, no, Sergeant … I think it was the other way around. The man who I was visiting, the man who was murdered — well. He told me, once, that he wasn't afraid of anyone, because he was under Du Yueh-seng's personal protection." I swallowed. "Those men — Du Yueh-seng's men — they got into a gun battle, with the men who were chasing us … " I winced, and swallowed, again. "I think Du's men killed all of them. All of the ones who were chasing us, I mean … "

I told him about all of the cars, inside and outside the neighborhood. I told him about all of the shooting; including, the sound of the machine-gun.

I told him about being waved on, by the gangster.

He heard me out in silence, until I came to the end of the story, and I paused, wondering how much more to tell him — 

"Okay," he said, into the silence. "Right." He paused, a second; then he twisted, and called back over his shoulder. "EDDIE!"

He was impressively loud.

Both of his companions came, at a run.

"Yeah, Sarge?" one of them asked. I could see that he had more stripes on his uniform-shirt, than the other Marine. He was wide-eyed; they both were, actually.

"Get back to the barracks, on the double. I want you, Monaghan, Alvarez, and Bogle back here, pronto, in full gear; rifles, side arms, live rounds, and kettle hats. Bring the truck, if it's running. We'll be right here. Got it — ?"

The Marine goggled at me, openly.

"Yeah, Sarge," he said again.

"Good. Now, shove off. Conklin," he said, to the other Marine — "Maintain a perimeter. Keep it tight, and keep your eyes open; this ain't chickenshit. Go!"

"Right, Sarge," from him, blinking at me; and then he was gone as well.

"Jesus H. Christ," from the sergeant, again; shaking his head, gloomily.

I waited, blinking, myself, for just a moment.

"Uhhh … Sergeant — ?" I asked it, a little tentatively.

"Yeah — ?"

"Ummm … I don't understand. I told you; Du's men … well, they were on our side. They were protecting my friend's grandfather; and when she told them who she was, they let us go."

"Oh, I believe you, kid. If I didn't, I'd tell the Captain to get your asses, yours and your daddy's, out to the Augie Maru, today, and to keep you there until you both left China for good. And even then, I'd have an armed guard posted on you."

It took me a moment to realize, he was referring to the Augusta, the American cruiser anchored in the river.

An echoing silence, for just a moment.

"Thing is, kid, anything involved with Big Ears is dangerous. It's poison. It don't matter if you think you're on the same side or not, you really don't want any part of it … " He paused, and grimaced. "And then, there's the fun little fact that somebody was crazy enough to go up against Big Ears in the first place. If they're crazy enough to do that, they might be crazy enough to go up against the Fourth Regiment, U.S. Marines … Christ," he went on, shaking his head.

I looked over at him, then, for a few, silent seconds.

"Sergeant … May I ask — who is Du Yueh-seng, exactly — ?" I felt embarrassed, in needing to ask it. "Nobody's been willing to tell me; not really."

He gave me a quick, ironic sideways-look.

"Yeah … yeah. Like that's a big surprise." He shook his head, again, and looked out at the Whangpoo. "Well, he's got big ears, for one thing, he really does. And he's the boss of the Green Gang, here in Shanghai. And he runs all the opium in China; all of it."

I blinked at him.

"All of it?"

That look from him, again.

"Yeah … Think of it, this way. Think if it was still Prohibition, Stateside … and now, think if Al Capone was still in business; but he ran all the booze in the whole fucking country, not just Chicago. Oh, and add on, that him and the President were good buddies, and he was giving the President ten percent of the profits, right off the top … That's Big Ears."

I stared at him.

"That's really happening, here — ?"

A look from him.

"How do you think Chiang Kai-shek gets the money to run this country — ?"

A pause.


Another sideways-look, from him.

"I could tell you more, probably more than you want to hear … Big Ears runs all the other rackets, too, protection, prostitution — but you get the drift. I'm sorry, kid; but looks like, you're going to have us living in your back pocket, until the day you sail."

I took a breath; and then I let it out.

"Thank you, Sergeant … I appreciate it."

* * *

The awkwardness between Father and myself, had continued on into the day after the murder; when I'd given him my detailed accounting.


Oh, not all of it was awkward. His expression cleared, and showed understanding, when I explained that Tom and Monsieur Simonov were never to have met; that he and Mister Chen were to have waited outside the neighborhood gates … 

But then, I'd described what had happened, when we'd reached the neighborhood. And what had happened, after we'd reached Monsieur Simonov's house.

I had to go into detail. I had fired his pistol, after all.

His face — it had been looking a little less pale, these past few days, with just a little more color in it — his face had gone so white, I'd been afraid he might faint.

I didn't mention anything about — well, what I had expected to happen to me — when I'd drawn our pursuers off. I'd made it all as matter-of-fact as possible. I think I said something, about my running skills.

I am not sure I deceived him.


And then, at the end of the tale, there had come the time to empty out my canvas bag, and return the pistol, and the packet to him — 

"I'm sorry, Father," I said; looking down, at his pistol. I'd gotten blood-stains, on the holster, and the belt, and all around the pistol-grips. It was quite a mess, actually. "I'm very sorry … I hope these can all be cleaned up, properly." And I was sorry; Father had kept it all, pistol and gear, immaculate.

Father had looked down on it, for second after second; wordless. Finally, he drew the pistol from its holster, ejected the magazine, and pulled back the slide to make it safe; and then he'd set it down, very carefully, very gently, on the table … 


But perhaps the most-awkward moment, for me, had been when I'd handed him the packet he'd sent with me, the packet for Monsieur Simonov; and he'd opened it, and spilled the contents out on the coffee-table, in his room, in front of me. As I'd known he'd do.

Father is a banker. He'd looked down at the bundles of cash, before him on the table, for just a moment; and then he'd raised his head.

"What is this — ?" he'd asked, abruptly.

'This' was the four thousand dollars, with which he'd sent me off. But instead of four bundled packets, there were two; each with one-hundred, twenty dollar bills. The paper-tape wrappers on both packets read, 'Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco', rather than 'Federal Reserve Bank of New York'.

I'd drawn a breath.

"I gave the money to the people who were to take care of Mademoiselle Simonov, to use for her benefit. It was not mine to give. I made it up, from my own funds."

I said it, quietly, and simply.

A fraught silence, for several seconds.

"And where did you get this — ?"

I drew another breath. A long one.

"I brought it with me."

Another fraught silence, then. A longer, and very uncomfortable one.

There could only be one reason, for me to have so very much currency with me; to use, if I were to break, from Father. To use, if I were to run.

Father regarded me, for second, after second; and then his eyes dropped back down to the table.

"You acted correctly," he said; at last. "But the responsibility is mine." He gently pushed the bundled banknotes across the table, toward me. Still not looking at me. "I will make it up, myself."


I thought of that time, in the forecourt of the School in the Sky, when I was eight, when he'd first, hesitantly, asked if I wanted to spend the weekend with him. I thought of the summer trips we'd taken by auto in Europe; growing closer.


I thought of Berlin; where he might well have saved my life.


I remembered him holding me at the age of four, me utterly disconsolate at Mother's death. I remembered the security, the warmth, of his arms around me … 


"Yes, sir," I'd said.

And it was all I could say. It was all either of us could say.

Not, I'm sorry, Father, for not trusting you, and for hurting you, just now. Not, I'm sorry, son, for treating you so thoughtlessly, since this business all started.

Not even, I'm sorry, and we both have to do better, going forward.

But I was certainly thinking it. And I deeply hoped he was, as well.

* * *

"So, kid," from the craggy-faced sergeant, on the bench, next to me. Both of us looking back out to the Whangpoo, as we waited for his extra men to appear.

"Yes … Sergeant — ?"

"When you were shooting at the bad guys who were chasing you … You hit anybody — ?"

I winced, at the brutally casual way in which he put it.

It did not occur to me, until later, that the casual manner was deliberate.

I cleared my throat.

"Uhhh … no, Sergeant. Or at least, I don't think so. I wasn't really trying to; I just wanted to keep them back. To slow them down."

I felt him glance at me, sideways.

"No shit? … Well. That was your first mistake. That's the first rule. You should never fire your weapon, unless you really mean to hit your target. And believe me, if you'd hit one of them, it would have slowed them down. A lot more."

A pause.

The whole idea, made me extremely queasy. In spite of everything.

Or perhaps, because of everything.

Another pause. An uncomfortable one, on my part.

"Actually, Sergeant — I didn't really know how the sights worked. I was using my father's pistol, and they were a few blocks off, and I'd never fired it, before — "

"What kind of gun was it?" he interrupted.

I blinked.

"It was an automatic. It was his service sidearm in the War." I tried to remember what he'd said; something about, 1911 … 

The sergeant glanced sideways at me, again; then, he opened the flap on his hip-mounted holster, and drew out his own pistol. "Did it look like this — ?" He showed it to me.

I felt my eyes widen.

"Yes, sir! I mean, Sergeant … exactly like that." I studied all the details, which had become all-too-familiar to me, two nights ago. It looked more worn, perhaps, than Father's pistol; and in places, the bluing was wearing off. But other than that, it was the same.

"Easy guess," from the sergeant, with a shrug. He looked at me, sideways, again. "Your daddy was an officer — ?"

"Yes, Sergeant … in the Army. In France."

Another shrug, from him. "Can't win 'em all … " from him; meaning what, exactly, I did not know. Then he looked at me, more closely, still. "Except for the sights — you know how to work this thing — ?" He nodded down at his pistol.

"I know what my father showed me … and, I've been shooting before. With shotguns." I shrugged, myself; a little embarrassed. "I don't like them, much. They bruise me."

"They would," from him; looking at me, up and down, appraisingly. He paused, a moment; and then went on. "See here, kid; do something for me — ?"

"Sergeant — ?" I blinked at him, again.

"Here. Take this — "

He handed me his pistol, carefully. I took it, with equal care.

" — and, now; see that water tower across the river, there? The orange one, on the tin building — ?"

I peered along his outstretched arm.

"I see it … "

"Good. Now, pretend you're taking a pot-shot at it. You couldn't hit it, it's way out of range; just, pretend it's closer. Close. I wanna see how you line it up."

I hesitated. And then, I shrugged.

"All right … "

First, I made the gun safe, the way Father had shown me. I ejected the magazine — which was full — and kept that in my left, bandaged hand; all, while keeping the muzzle of the gun pointing safely down at the grass, a little before us. Then, I slid back the slide, to eject any cartridge which might be in the chamber — there wasn't one — and then, I worked the latch to free the slide, and eased it forward, gently. Finally, holding the thing steady with both hands, at arm's length, I raised it slowly, and began to aim at the innocent water-tower — 

"Here. That's enough."

His massive hand came down, gently but firmly, on the disarmed gun; and I carefully and slowly surrendered the gun and magazine to him.

"That was your second mistake, kid; you should have told me to go to hell. You never, ever aim your weapon at something or someone you're not willing to shoot, not even if you're one hundred fucking percent sure, one hundred fucking percent totally fucking sure, it's unloaded." He quickly eased home the hammer of his pistol; then, he replaced the magazine, and then he carefully restored the gun to its holster.

"Yes, sir … I mean, Sergeant."

I was abashed. He was right; I should have known better. Grandfather would have reproved me.

The craggy sergeant looked at me.

"Still, kid … you did okay. You handled it well; and you know something about range safety." He looked at me, more closely still, for a moment. Then — "You wanna learn how to use, I mean, really use, one of these things — ?" He patted the holster. "I could teach you. I've even taught officers, before."


I blinked at him, for a second.


My first instinct was to say 'no' … of course. Of course. A pistol like his, like Father's, had been an intimate part of one of the two most horrible experiences in my life — 

I'd had the Berlin nightmare, again; the night before. It was not hard to guess, why. It had been very vivid.

I started to open my mouth, to decline his offer — 

And, I stopped.

It occurred to me … that, just possibly, having Father's gun with me — against my will — might have saved my life, that night. My pursuers would have run me down, very quickly, without it.

Having Father's gun with me, might, by extension, have saved Tom's life. And Granddaughter's.

I thought back to my Berlin nightmare … and I couldn't help but wonder, what it might feel like, to be a little less helpless, in the face of pure evil … 

"Well, kid — ?" from the craggy-faced sergeant, next to me. He'd been watching my face; of course.

I sighed.

"Guns scare me," I said, out of nowhere; honestly. Surprising myself. Still torn.

He regarded me, for another moment.

"They should," he said. And then — "That's a good place to start from. I've had to beat it into some of my guys' heads; but I haven't had an accidental shooting on my watch, yet. And, my guys are some of the best shots in the Corps."

I finally looked up, and over at him.

Well, I thought; it's not as though I'm going running, anytime soon.

"Thank you, Sergeant. I'd like that, very much."

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