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The Far East Trilogy
The Chinese Bandit, The Last Mandarin, and The Blue-Eyed Shan
By Stephen Becker
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Stephen Becker
All rights reserved.
I / Peking
That summer they hanged a fat man at the Western Gate as a warning and example to all. In those days the penalty for most crimes was death. They swung him from a fresh gallows on the city wall, where twelve horsemen in silks could ride abreast, and once had. For sure he deserved it. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
From within Peking, Jake could not see the face, but when he marched out the gate beside his camel he stopped to look one look, as the Chinese say, and the hair of his flesh stood up. The fat man was a traitor, a thief, a pimp, a merchant and Jake's partner.
The caravan master came worrying back on his shaggy pony. "I saw," he said. "Let's move." And then bitterly, "Dogs defile the old whore, anyway!"
Jake was a big golden man and this was a sunny summer morning, yet he shivered and prickled. He said in English, "God damn them!"
Ch'ing frowned at the foreign words, and tugged his pony's ear for luck. "Foreigners are a jinx and a blight," he said.
Small black birds strutted on the hanged man. A black blindfold covered his eyes; still, it was old Kao, no doubt at all. Now Jake was not shivering but trembling in rage. "I must go back," he said in Chinese. "I must kill someone for this."
"Fool!" Ch'ing said. "Where will you go? What can you do?"
"The left hand must avenge the right," Jake said, and turned toward the gate.
Ch'ing danced his pony into Jake's path, and dug a hand into Jake's shoulder. "Think! Think! What would he have done in your place?"
Jake did think. "Curse his thief's heart," he said, "he'd have cut his losses."
"Yes. And fled nimbly. Remember: you are tall and yellow-haired, and will draw lightning."
"It is like cowardice," Jake muttered.
"Think why he seat you to me," Ch'ing said. "Think what he left you: camels and trade goods. Will you throw those away?"
Jake stood silent.
Ch'ing released him, and said, "Stand to your camel. Come back in a year, rich and strong, and do then what must be done."
"Rich and strong," Jake repeated.
"Hurry," Ch'ing urged. "Hurry. When the hounds are loose the hare must speed."
"Hounds and sons of hounds," Jake said. "But there's no hurry. There's no link to us."
"Who knows what he told them?"
"He told them nothing."
Ch'ing shrugged. "A villain. He traded with the Japanese."
"He never lied to me."
"How do you know that?"
Jake said nothing, only glowered.
"This is no way to begin a journey," Ch'ing said sourly. "I was wrong to deal with you, and we will all suffer for it."
"You took the money," Jake said. "Cheer up."
"I should have charged you more. Hurry now." Ch'ing was a wiry old bastard, part Mongol, Jake thought, a lightweight who rode bareback, hissed softly now at the bad luck, wheeled his pony and trotted after the line of fresh camels and tired men. Some of the men were saddlesore from women and some were hung over. Jake was neither, but had been both, and did not mind so much in China. It was a world away from the beery bars and sluts he had been raised on.
He bided angrily and stared up at old Kao. Under the fat jowls the rope was invisible. Old Kao was smiling a pure, sweet, childlike smile. He dangled and twirled in his usual black gown, black cloth shoes and silky black skullcap — miraculously in place — topped by a red button. Travelers passed through the gateway; some glanced at old Kao, some did not. A small boy entered the city driving swine before him, and grinned up at the corpse. Skinny vendors toted their wares on yokes: cups and plates, cakes and candies, live birds blinded to sing louder, cigarettes of all nations. Bicycle rickshas steered clear of rickety buses, and the citizens wore white masks against disease, and men held hands as they strolled, they were friends, why not, though Jake found it difficult.
Well, he had seen plenty of dead men. This was the summer of 1947 and in his own lifetime many millions had been slaughtered for no particular reason, all of them equal in the eyes of God. Jake had killed several himself, mostly Japanese. But this, this today, this was not good. Jake was not accustomed to fear and did not like it pricking at him; he had not known it since Saipan. He mastered it quickly. He had a way to go and money to make.
"You make a little here, you lose a little there," he said softly to the round, peaceful face; then, "See you again," the Chinese farewell, and he hunched into his shirt and tugged the coolie hat down and trotted back to his place. The holstered .45 bounced at his hip, a comfort. Folks stopped to stare. Only crazy men ran, or criminals, and Jake was a conspicuously large foreign devil, and if anyone came asking questions there would be plenty of the wrong answers. Damn!
He dodged bicycles and leapfrogged children relieving themselves in the road — the young ones had slit pants, and could just squat and do — and came up with his first camel, a gelding seven years old named Bad Smell. The camel seemed small and goaty under a hill of trade goods: bricks of tea, silk brocades, fresh American cigarettes, sets of wrenches, kegs of nails, coils of electric wire, maybe three hundred assorted pounds. A few cameras. His second camel was called Sweetwater and was likewise laden. The camels would last to Gurchen, and if they did not Jake supposed the camel-pullers would eat them.
Soon he could not make out old Kao. A bad omen and no way to begin a journey. He that is hanged is accursed of God. And what loose ends left behind? Police. Soldiers. Damn!
Still, the hot morning was all a man could ask, and the city behind him was spectacular, the city he loved best of all, the dun wall and the low towers, flags and banners here and there, and bright tile roofs, so the golden sun slanted and dazzled off a thousand flecks and splashes of red and blue and green. And ahead of him, to the west, fields and farms and the sharp sunny green line of the first hills.
As he walked, Jake laid a light hand on Bad Smell's freight, and bowed his head. He was not one to pray. He had not prayed in war, nor in peace. But he remembered Our Father, and now he spoke it aloud, softly but clearly, and did not feel ashamed or foolish. Deliver us from evil.
Still, we cannot go through life carrying the dead on our backs. He let his hand swing free, and raised his head, and rubbernecked with pleasure and interest.
Jake was thirty years old and a bull. He was also an exile, probably, and he was on his way to the heart of Central Asia, to Turkestan, where peaches, plums and melons grew, and men had four wives, and a foreigner could grow rich in gold and silver and mountain furs. He would cross half of Asia with the caravan, mountains and deserts, on his way to a new life, and he owed it all to poor old Kao. Old Kao! An elder brother to Jake. Or a good father even, wise and generous and funny.
It all began in a whorehouse.
The Palace of the Night Chickens lay in the southern part of Peking, handy to the Temple of Heaven, the foreigners' hotels, the legation quarter and the railroad station. It was not the brawling whorehouse of legend, where the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: the premises were tacky, with two-bit scrolls of standard calligraphy on the walls, or black-and-red paintings of squirrels and tigers. But the girls were not tacky. They were young and liked their work, and a busy night was a carnival, the night chickens wearing anything or nothing, short tunics or a sailor hat or a bathrobe from a fancy shop in London or Paris or Hong Kong.
Often Jake and old Kao had ridden there together, tossing wisdom from one ricksha to another. Bicycle rickshas were most common but old Kao preferred the man-powered two-wheeler. "We live in a seedy time," he said. "The former ways are dying. No more style." In winter the ricksha men were muffled, and cursed softly. In spring they wore cotton pants, and sweated. Kao haggled fiercely over the fare, just for practice and to maintain style, and then tipped heavily. At the house he ushered Jake in with bustle and good cheer.
One night they were the first to arrive, only them and the girls, and everybody half asleep. Kao was indignant. "In the first place, more lanterns," he ordered. "Whiskey also, and glasses. And who are these dead women? Is this a buggering hospital?" He clapped his hands and hopped like a fat lion tamer. "That's better. And music. Soft music. The p'i-p'a, and no singing." He urged Jake forward, hustling him along like some grand vizier with an ambassador of importance.
Jake winked at Mei-li, who was his girl. They were all his girl at one time or another, but mainly Mei-li. There were many rooms in the house, and not cribs either, small but comfortable rooms, and thanks to Kao, who owned the place, Jake lived in one of them when he was in Peking: an old wooden bunk stenciled here and there in Japanese, a mattress of feathers, a small chest and his the only key, a low rosewood table and two armchairs.
The large parlor was everybody's room, with couches and carpets, three leather chairs, a few tables for four, boxes of cigarettes and old-fashioned siphons of soda water, hall trees and even a low bookcase for the elegant pornography. Jake thought of it as his living room, and after Kao had brought the place to life the two men retired to Jake's bedroom. Kao squeezed himself into an armchair while Jake changed; "at home" Jake shed his uniform and wore blue cotton trousers and cloth shoes. The girls liked the curly golden hair on his chest, and made bright paper birds to nest in it.
Jake paid rent for the room, over and above the customary fees: he brought whiskey and cigarettes, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and even sanitary napkins, at which Kao raised an eyebrow. "The Americans," Jake explained, "like to be ready for any crisis."
"An astonishing people," Kao murmured.
"Tomorrow the world," Jake said.
Kao smiled politely. "A very generous and skillful people." He remained fully dressed, as always, even to the black skullcap and red button.
Jake drew on the cotton trousers — about forty-four inches around, they were — and doubled them over in front. He was knotting the red silk sash when Mei-li walked in with the whiskey. She was wearing Jake's old sergeant's shirt, and nothing else. "I like you in stripes," he said. She giggled. She was rangy and golden, with large eyes, and she was proud of her bosom. She had not boasted much bosom, as she told Jake, until she entered the trade, and then it had blossomed. She said that: blossomed. Jake thought they were lovely flowers, or fruits, warm and friendly, not perched like apples on the collarbone but soft, full and giving, low, with rich rosy nipples.
He wanted to unbutton the shirt now but his first business was with Kao; he settled for a reassuring glance at the furry mischief below, and Mei-li mouthed a kiss. Kao busied himself inspecting the bottle. "Ballantine's," he said. "Splendid. In my early days I once bought a bottle of Red Label, and some scoundrel of a forger had resealed it to perfection. I never found out what it was, but it dissolved a porcelain cup. Poison. Blindness, paralysis. Unscrupulous traders, giving the world of commerce and industry a bad name. Never trust a foreign seal in Peking."
Jake waved Mei-li out; she flirted the shirttail. Kao was pouring. Over the first cups they contemplated each other with the warm approval of true tycoons. "Dry cup," Kao said, and they tossed one off. He poured again, and meditated. Jake relaxed on the bunk, back to the wall, and scratched his belly. He liked Peking, and whorehouses, and whiskey, and decided that he was feeling mighty fine.
"We're doing very well," Kao said with his sunny fat smile. "Amazing that there is a use for any item. Though we have enough spark plugs for a century. You people are enthusiastic about spark plugs. Last week a sailor offered me a dozen machines for making toast. That would be lovely if we used bread here."
"So you bought them for a few coppers," Jake said, "and sold them to the Wagon-Lits Hotel for a small fortune." In Chinese it was the Six Nations Hotel — much nicer, Jake thought, and showed you who owned the country.
Kao chortled. "You become brilliant," he said. "Did you know about it?"
"No. I just guessed."
"You Americans," Kao said cheerfully, "with your instinct for business. I think of myself as an American at heart, you know, set down by a malign fate in a land of small change. Fortunately, I have a genius for choosing partners."
Jake raised his cup.
"You will be a great merchant," Kao predicted. "They will invent proverbs about you. Your Chinese is extraordinary. Your accent is almost pure. Barring a touch of Tientsin." Kao spoke no English, beyond a couple of dozen words like t'ao-san and ta-la. Or t'u mach'u. "T'ao-san ta-la t'u ma-ch'u," he would say. "Fai ha-na ta-la okay."
"It's not bad," Jake said. "Probably every man can do one thing well. That's mine."
"And you shoot well," Kao said. "A master of arms."
"Anybody can do that," Jake said. There was a considerable component of bullshit in Kao's compliments, but Jake enjoyed them.
"And you do business well. In the blood. You Americans."
"Not yet," Jake said. "I am the meanest of students. It is my pleasure to perform small favors, but in your presence I cannot call myself a true merchant."
"How well you speak!" Kao said. "Nevertheless, these gifts from your fellow sailors are invaluable."
Jake was a Marine and not a sailor, but the distinction was difficult to explain to foreigners. "Until they clap me in the brig," he said gloomily.
"Now, now," Kao said. "Listen to me. All these things, these miracles of American production, will be given to my government eventually, which is a tragic injustice to the common man, not to mention the business community, except that half the stuff — half, believe me — will find its way to the open market — or directly to the Communists at an exorbitant price, and a number of our distinguished public servants will open bank accounts abroad. And along the way there will be some buying and selling for little fish like you and me. Your government is insane, you know. Also the British. Also the French. Also the Russians. Insane. But not you. Not my Ta-tze."
Jake laughed. Ta-tze was his name in Chinese, conferred by Kao; it was not a true name but a nickname. He had no use for a true name. It meant Tartar and he was happy with it.
"Of course," Kao said primly, "I am a wholehearted supporter of President Chiang Kai-shek and a firm believer in the law. Without a government of laws the man of imagination, the, ah, innovative man, drowns in a sea of anarchy."
Jake raised his cup again. "To President Chiang Kai-shek."
"Indeed," Kao said. "In the present favorable business climate —"
"Favorable? The country's one big crisis."
Kao smacked his lips. "Do you know the character for crisis? It consists of two characters taken together. One means danger. The other means opportunity."
"Ah," Jake said. "I can't read much. Can't write at all."
"Nothing," Kao waved airily. "My department. I might have been a poet in other times. My literary style is considered superb. 'In winter the ruddy children skate, poppies on a silver meadow.'"
"Beautiful," Jake murmured.
"What matters is our experience, our sources, and our courage. And the variety of goods and services we can offer." He mused. "Yes. Pistols and ammunition, those cigarette lighters, Zippo, you see I speak English, Zippo, the batteries and tires. The watches were an inspiration." He sighed. "A whole jeep would be impossible, I suppose."
"Couldn't drive it up from Tientsin anyway," Jake said. "The Reds have the roads cut. Still," he added solemnly, "in a crisis nothing is impossible."
"What a good man you are!" Kao said. "Your friendship honors me. Your determination is an example to us all. But I am too poor and insignificant," he grieved, "to thank you properly."
"We'll find a way," Jake said. "But there need be no talk of thanks, Master Kao. You have been my priceless guide through this greatest of kingdoms."
"The kingdom is made richer by your presence," Kao said. "Condoms would be good. And drugs. Penicillin."
"Don't be too specific," Jake said. "Depends on the time and place."
"Of course, of course!" Kao agreed. "I leave such decisions in your hands entirely. But it has to be the twenty-seventh, as we agreed. The men have been hired and instructed. One hundred beggars! Twenty rickshas!"
Excerpted from The Far East Trilogy by Stephen Becker. Copyright © 1982 Stephen Becker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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