Once upon a time in China, the most beautiful and gifted women were known as "skeleton women"--the ultimate femme fatales who could bring a man to his knees, or to his doom. . .When Camilla, a young orphan girl in Shanghai, is adopted and brought to live in luxury, it seems like a stroke of luck. But as Camilla grows to womanhood, she realizes that her "rescue" was part of gang leader Big Brother Wang's scheme. Camilla is trained in singing, dancing, knife-throwing and contortion--all to attract the attention of Wang's enemy, the ruthless Master Lung. Forced to become Master Lung's mistress, Camilla meets two other intriguing women. Shadow is a magician and rival for Master Lung's affections, while Rainbow Chang dresses like a man and wields power through her incendiary gossip column. Both pose risks to Camilla's safety and status. But an even greater danger comes in the form of Master Lung's eldest son, Jinying, who despises his father's violent lifestyle--but loves Camilla. Only by plotting to eliminate Lung can she make her escape, but at what cost? Mingmei Yip, author of Peach Blossom Pavilion and Song of the Silk Road, has created a captivating story filled with intrigue and opulence, peopled with extraordinary characters impossible to forget.
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By Mingmei Yip
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Mingmei Yip
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Chapter OneThe Naked Girl Jumping Toward Eternity
Against the sapphire-blue night sky, a young woman was pacing along a ledge atop the Shanghai Customs House tower like a circus girl treading a tightrope.
Except she was stark naked.
The Shanghainese say that nothing will surprise them, that they've seen it all. But now they were surprised. No one watching had ever seen anything like this.
Not even my new lover, Master Lung, head of the most powerful black society in Shanghai, the Flying Dragons, nor his slew of bodyguards scattered among the crowd, alert for danger and shoving anyone who seemed about to get too close to their boss.
Lung's and my eyes had stopped staring licentiously into each other's and were directed skyward—to the clock tower of the Customs House with its fake European style, far above the Bund and the Huangpu River.
The crowd held its collective breath. Their probing, lascivious eyes were glued to the muscular, round-bosomed, naked body above, expecting at any moment that she would jump to her death. I imagined the onlookers' agitated thoughts:
Is she really going to jump?
Why doesn't she want to live?
Jump! I want splashing blood, crashing flesh, crackling bones!
What a pity, a beautiful girl soon to turn into a puddle of vomit.
Tonight the air was balmy, but the naked girl playing the tug-of-war with death hundreds of feet above chilled us all, both those appalled by someone about to plunge to her death and those perverts who secretly thirsted for the morbid sights of splattered blood and scattered human pieces. I bit my lip, my hand tightly clutching Master Lung's arm while my heart pounded like a tribal drum trying to scare away demons.
Not that a smashed face and broken limbs would have bothered me much. For I had been trained since my teens to wipe away all human emotions. I had been molded for one purpose and one purpose only: to be a spy. Though, ironically, I earned my living singing sentimental songs in a nightclub.
As I continued to watch, the two hands of the clock merged into a single one pointing north, setting off the imitation Westminster Chimes to suddenly flood us with an eerily cheerful melody. But then, in the midst of the clear sky, thunder cracked, and lightning flashed....
And the naked figure jumped!
The onlookers gasped collectively, their expressions ranging from horror, to sorrow, to unabashed thrill....
All heads dropped down to gape, some of the women through cracks between their many-ringed, red-nailed fingers. A pause, then another shock. There was no body. Only a pair of red high heels in the middle of a pool of blood!
"What happened?! Where is she?!" A collective question burst into the night air.
A group of policemen arrived to inspect the scene, accompanied by a few reporters snapping pictures and asking dazed onlookers questions no one could answer.
Nothing was happening now, except for an excited buzz from the crowd. Master Lung gave my elbow a tug. "Let's go, Camilla."
"You don't want to find out where she's gone?"
"She's probably dead."
"Then where's the body?"
"Maybe you'll find out in tomorrow's Leisure News. Their gossip columnist, Rainbow Chang, knows everything." He shrugged. "Anyway, I've seen it all."
Of course. Master Lung had seen it all. He headed the most powerful black society in Shanghai. Not only had he seen it all, he'd also performed it all: shooting, stabbing, strangling, poisoning, decapitating, and other acts I'd rather not imagine. And that was only ways to kill. Before the final moment there were often tortures: beating, electric shocks, finger-crushing, eye-gouging, flesh-slicing, tiger-feeding, stuffing inside a snake-filled cage, nailing inside a coffin in a ghost-infested cemetery....
As the onlookers began to disperse, a young couple ogled us, probably recognizing me as the famous singer and Lung as the famous gangster head. Immediately one of Lung's bodyguards approached them and lifted his jacket to show his gun. The two ran off as if they'd been accosted by the ghost of the naked girl who'd just jumped. Just then Master Lung's driver pulled up. We climbed into the huge black car and went back to his mansion on Junfu Lane.
Soon I was sipping his wine next to him on the sofa, the question still swirling in my mind: Who was this beautiful but mysterious jump-and-disappear girl? My spy's training to dig out secrets just wouldn't leave me alone.
Lung cast me a stern look. "Camilla, what's going on inside your head now?"
I stared at the scar that divided his right eyebrow into two lizardlike halves. "Master Lung, the girl who jumped—what happened?"
"You're still thinking of her?" He smirked. "Why are you so curious?" Lung stuck his fat cigar inside his thin mouth and puffed, making a heavy, asthmatic sound.
"Master Lung, you're not?"
He studied me with his protruding eyes set into his monkey face. "I have much more serious matters on my mind, not trivialities like that."
Those "serious matters" were what I, the spy from his rival gang, the Red Demons, was trying to find out.
But I asked, "A girl jumping off a tower is trivial to you?"
"Yes!" He took a big gulp of his expensive whiskey, then slammed the glass down with an intimidating thud. "Unless that girl is you, my little pretty. So, will you stop your silly thinking and come to bed now?"
Early the next morning, I left Master Lung's house and snatched up a copy of Leisure News from a street urchin. Standing on the sidewalk, I impatiently flipped through the pages until I saw the big headline:
Naked Girl Jumping to Her Disappearance
Last night at the Customs House on the Bund, the crowd was startled to see a young, naked woman pace on the ledge of the clock tower and then jump. But, strangely, no body was found, only splattered blood and a pair of red high heels. The police are investigating this mysterious, inexplicable incident.
Some say this was an attempted kidnapping but that the young woman escaped. No one can explain where she went. Others say she killed herself—but no body.
But now more and more are saying that the girl was, in fact, a ghost. They say that before the Customs House was built, that same spot was a cemetery where the bodies of women raped and murdered were dumped by black-society members.
The police claim they are working hard to solve this case to appease people's fear of a ghost's vengeance.
Meanwhile, girls from my Pink Skeleton Empire and I have our own sources.
More to follow.... Rainbow Chang
After I finished the article, I almost burst out laughing. It was certainly strange. But a ghost?
The naked girl was definitely not a spirit but a spirited human.
That was worse than if she'd been a ghost, because now there was a woman who could outdo me in getting headlines from Rainbow Chang. I was used to being the center of attention as the most celebrated singer in Shanghai's most famous Bright Moon Nightclub. Yet none of my patrons or customers knew anything about me besides my singing, my body, and my name, Camilla, which was fake, anyway. For since my early teens, I'd been trained to be in the public eye but to keep my real intentions secret.
Now my place in society was under challenge. Someone had stepped into my well-guarded territory. For I didn't buy that Naked Girl was dead. She was somewhere, and I had to find out where and how she'd pulled off her stunt. Even though I had no idea who this girl was, I knew she was my enemy.
Thus thinking in the chilly air, I knew it was time to hurry back to Lung's house to warm his bed.
Chapter TwoBright Moon Nightclub
Four times a week at six in the evening, a limo would take me to the Bright Moon Nightclub. This was Shanghai's most fashionable—and expensive—entertainment establishment. It was located in the International Concession between Yuyuan Road—the Fool's Garden—and Fanhuangdu Road—the Emperor's Crossing. These roads were fittingly named, because, although there were no more emperors, there were still plenty of fools.
The nightclub had a gaudily lit circular façade topped with a torchlike, cylindrical tower. If you were allowed in, you would see a huge hall with many tables surrounding a polished dance floor. Above was a mezzanine from which the VIPs could watch those equally rich but less important. On its all-glass dance floor, powerful men became addicted to pirouetting with their seductive, hired partners in rhythm to waltzes, fox-trots, rumbas, sambas, tangos, even marches played by the impeccable Filipino band. Under the chandeliers, diamonds and pearls glittered as young bodies swayed beside their tuxedoed partners, fueling the clients' urge to splurge yet more on an evening's decadence.
But Bright Moon was not always a paradise; in seconds it could descend into hell. Shots were often heard, and stabbings might spray blood onto an expensive gown. Even the private rooms and restrooms were not safe havens from scores being settled. Targets of assassination could be almost anyone, from celebrities to politicians, black-society members, even suspected hanjian, traitors who spied for the Japanese.
The most talked-about assassination was of a gangster head a few years back. Late one evening as he was gleefully swirling, lifting, and dipping his girl on the dance floor, four men approached. Sensing trouble, he shoved his girl hard against them and tried to run. Their long knives were quickly stained with the freshly minced flesh of the poor girl as they flung her back at him.
But he was a gangster head, after all, not a sniveling coward. So he pulled out his gun, shot down two of his assailants, then collapsed only after both of his arms had been chopped off. Under the astonished scrutiny of the other customers, he bled quickly and heroically to death. His lifeless body had found its final rest on his favorite glass floor, this time flooded not with his rivals' but with his own precious blood.
People saw only the glamour in my job, but few thought of how the money I made had been recycled in blood. Anyway, only the rich and powerful in Shanghai could afford to come to Bright Moon to be entertained—or murdered.
I was proud to say that, together with seeing and being seen, I was the nightclub's biggest attraction, but that had not happened overnight. Though only nineteen, I'd already come a long way.
I lost my parents at four and had been sent to the Compassionate Grace Orphanage. Unfortunately I didn't have much memory of my parents except for a few blurry images of their faces. Worse, I had no siblings, relatives, or friends I could ask about them.
At the orphanage, outside volunteers would come to teach the children to sing and dance so they could perform on holidays like the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Races, and Chinese New Year. Even before I became the most popular songstress in Shanghai, I'd already had to learn to charm audiences.
However, these free lessons were not given out of compassion but to discover beauty and talent so that the gifted children could be sold to work as cheap labor at nightclubs, dance halls, and, of course, prostitution houses. While hard work—most of the time forced—was abundant inside the orphanage, talent was unusual and beauty, rare. Since visitors seemed to find me attractive, I always wondered why had I not been adopted much earlier. I'd heard from the girls who came back to visit that it was a better life than inside the orphanage. Many times I would watch with bitterness as other girls—less pretty and talented than I—were led away to waiting rickshaws and cars.
Then Mr. Ho, owner of the Bright Moon Nightclub, began his visits to the orphanage, bringing the children toys, candies, food, and clothes. When I was fourteen, Ho decided to rescue me from this institution notorious for cruelty and neglect. He immediately put me to work with the other singing and dancing girls at the nightclub. Though living and training together, we were not allowed to be friends, nor even talk to one another too much. If we did so, we'd be sent to a closet to reflect on our misbehavior on an empty stomach.
The other girls were either orphans like me or had parents so poor that they were forced to sell their daughters to the nightclub, so that they would have a roof over their heads and soup to warm their stomachs.
But sometimes fate was in a good mood, and a girl would become famous and, like a hurricane, lift her whole family out of poverty. The rest of us, who were not famous, lived together in one big room and were not paid.
My sense of freedom from escaping the orphanage hadn't lasted long. One day Ho took me aside and informed me that my real boss was not he but Big Brother Wang, head of the Red Demons Gang. He introduced me to Wang, who told me he was an old friend of my parents. They had been killed in a car accident, and he and his underling Ho had been trying to find me for years. Smiling, he told me that in rescuing me from the orphanage he had fulfilled his duty to his deceased best friend. But next, his smile gone, he told me that finding me had been expensive and how I had to repay him. I was to continue being a singer, but now it was a cover for my real job—to spy on Master Lung of the Flying Dragons.
Before I even had time to think or protest, my training with Big Brother Wang had begun. I realized once again that beggars cannot be choosers, and that to continue to keep a roof over my head, rice soup in my stomach, and, most important, my head on my shoulders, I had to do what I was told.
Much of my training was concerned with perfecting my ability to charm men. I was taught ballroom dancing, which was now all the rage in Shanghai. Dancing with a patron, I would put my arms around his neck and exhale my fragranced breath onto his face. And I would press my equally fragranced body against him and feel the heat shooting out from his groin. He might wrap his arms around my much-coveted twenty-one-inch waist, move his hand between my neck and bottom like an elevator, or lift me up toward heaven, then dip me back toward hell. I learned early on that I should cling only to the important ones, such as Master Lung, and steer clear of the insignificant losers. Did I enjoy doing this? I can only say that it kept me alive while I watched other people's lives.
I knew well that I was but a shadow of someone else's existence.
I took singing lessons from a fiftyish Russian woman, Madame Lewinsky. Mr. Ho picked her because she was a famous teacher who'd turned a few nobodies into somebodies. And she was too busy to be nosy. Also, as a foreigner, she was safe because too ignorant to perceive the complexities of Chinese society, especially the black ones.
Madame Lewinsky put a lot of effort and time into teaching me. But I heeded Big Brother Wang's warnings and so told her nothing about myself. She probably assumed that I came from a rich family or had a wealthy patron, since I could afford her exorbitant fees.
Lewinsky had come from Russia with her husband to escape the revolution. But he'd died in a freak construction accident before they had a chance to have children. So now she was all by herself in this dusty world. Perhaps because of her loneliness, she often tried to act like she was my mother, which, of course, she was not.
Her face was distinctively Russian, with high cheekbones and a strong jaw, but her figure was voluptuous, like that of a Greek goddess. When she opened her mouth to sing, it was like a lark spreading its wings to soar above the clouds.
Was I fond of her? No. But I did appreciate the way she taught.
She also taught me how to feel—something absolutely forbidden in my training to be a spy.
However, all the songs Lewinsky chose for me had sad overtones. She told me that my voice—high-pitched, tender, innocent—was perfect for this bittersweet sentiment. And, contrary to my training, sometimes I just couldn't help but feel the music tugging at my heart. Whether my emotions were genuine or pretended, the audience at Bright Moon was crazy about the "feelings" in my voice.
It was not exactly right to say that I had no feelings, although it had been my training to stifle them. However, as I was not supposed to have feelings for people, I'd secretly developed feelings for my singing. I wondered if my boss, Big Brother Wang, understood the irony that, if I was trained not to feel, how could I become a great singer? Maybe he didn't think that far, or maybe he thought this was just life's inevitable dilemma. Or maybe my vigorous training had enabled me to perform anything, like a magician, from putting great feelings into my singing to hurting people without a twinge of guilt.
Excerpted from Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip Copyright © 2012 by Mingmei Yip. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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