Read an Excerpt
Chapter One One
In the heart of Scarlet Gang territory, a burlesque club was the place to be.
The calendar was rolling closer and closer to the end of the season, the pages of each date ripping free and blowing away quicker than the browning tree leaves. Time was both hurried and unhurried at once, the days becoming scarce yet dragging on for far too long. Workers were always hurrying somewhere, never mind whether they truly had a destination to pursue. There was always a whistle blowing in the background; there was always the constant chugging noise of trams dragging themselves along the worn tracks grooved into the streets; there was always the stench of resentment stinking up the neighborhoods and burrowing deep into the laundry that waved with the wind, like shop banners outside cramped apartment windows.
Today was an exception.
The clock had paused on the Mid-Autumn Festival—the twenty-second of the month, according to Western methods of day-keeping this year. Once, it was customary to light lanterns and whisper tales of tragedy, to worship what the ancestors revered with moonlight cupped in their palms. Now it was a new age—one that thought itself above its ancestors. Regardless of which territory they stood upon, the people of Shanghai had been bustling about with the spirit of modern celebration since sunrise, and at present, with the bells ringing nine times for the hour, the festivities were only getting started.
Juliette Cai was surveying the club, her eyes searching for the first signs of trouble. It was dimly lit despite the abundance of twinkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the atmosphere dark and murky and wet. There was also a strange, sodden smell wafting under Juliette’s nose in waves, but the poor renovations seemed not to bother the mood of those seated at various round tables scattered throughout the club. The people here would hardly take notice of a small leak in the corner when constant activity consumed their attention instead. Couples were whispering over decks of tarot cards, men were shaking one another with vigor, women were inclining their heads to gasp and shriek in recollection of whatever story was being told over the flickering gaslight.
“You look rather woeful.”
Juliette didn’t immediately turn in haste to identify the voice. She didn’t have to. There were very few people who would approach her speaking English to begin with, never mind English with the flat tones of a Chinese mother tongue and the accent of a French upbringing.
“I am. I am perpetually filled with woe.” Only then did she crane her head, her lips curling up and her eyes narrowing at her cousin. “Aren’t you supposed to be onstage next?”
Rosalind Lang shrugged and crossed her arms, the jade bangles on her slender brown wrists clinking together.
“They cannot begin the show without me,” Rosalind scoffed, “so I am not worried.”
Juliette scanned the crowd again, this time with a target in mind. She found Kathleen, Rosalind’s fraternal twin, near a table at the back of the club. Her other cousin was patiently balancing a tray full of plates, staring at a British merchant while he tried to order a drink with exaggerated gesticulations. Rosalind was under contract here to dance; Kathleen showed up to wait tables when she got bored, and took a measly wage for the fun of it.
Sighing, Juliette dug out a lighter to keep her hands occupied, releasing the flame, then quenching it to the rhythm of the music gliding around the room. She waved the small silver rectangle under her cousin’s nose. “Want?”
Rosalind responded by pulling out a cigarette tucked within the folds of her clothing.
“You don’t even smoke,” she said as Juliette angled the lighter down. “Why do you carry that thing around?”
Straight-faced, Juliette replied, “You know me. Running around. Living life. Committing arson.”
Rosalind inhaled her first puff of smoke, then rolled her eyes. “Right.”
A better mystery would have been where Juliette even kept the lighter. Most girls in the burlesque club—dancer or patron alike—were dressed as Rosalind was: in the fashionable qipao sweeping through Shanghai like a wildfire. With the outrageous slit down the side revealing ankle to thigh and the high collar acting like a choke hold, the design was a blend of Western flamboyance with Eastern roots, and in a city of divided worlds, the women were walking metaphors. But Juliette—Juliette had been transformed through and through, the little beads of her pocketless flapper dress swishing with every movement. She stood out here, that much was certain. She was a bright, burning star, a symbolic figurehead for the vitality of the Scarlet Gang.
Juliette and Rosalind both quietly turned their attention to the stage, where a woman was crooning a song in a language that neither were familiar with. The singer’s voice was lovely, her dress shimmering against dark skin, but this was not the sort of show that this sort of cabaret was known for, and so no one save the two girls at the back was listening.
“You didn’t tell me you would be here tonight,” Rosalind said after a while, smoke escaping her mouth in a quick stream. There was betrayal in her voice, like the omission of information was out of character. The Juliette who had returned last week was not the same Juliette that her cousins had waved goodbye to four years ago, but the changes were mutual. Upon Juliette’s return, before she had even set foot back into the house, she had heard talk of Rosalind’s honey-coated tongue and effortless class. After four years away, Juliette’s memories of the people she had left behind no longer aligned with who they had become. Nothing of her memory had withstood the test of time. This city had reshaped itself and everyone in it had continued moving forward without her, especially Rosalind.
“It was very last minute.” Over at the back of the club, the British merchant had started pantomiming to Kathleen. Juliette gestured toward the scene with her chin. “Bàba is getting tired of some merchant called Walter Dexter pushing for a meeting, so I’m to hear what he wants.”
“Sounds boring,” Rosalind intoned. Her cousin always had a bite to her words, even when speaking with the driest intonation. A small smile perked at Juliette’s lips. At the very least, even if Rosalind felt like a stranger—albeit a familiar one—she would always sound the same. Juliette could close her eyes and pretend they were children again, sniping at each other about the most offensive topics.
She sniffed haughtily, feigning offense. “We can’t all be Parisian-trained dancers.”
“Tell you what, you take over my routine and I’ll be the heir to this city’s underground empire.”
A laugh burst from Juliette, short and loud in her amusement. Her cousin was different. Everything was different. But Juliette was a fast learner.
With a soft sigh, she pushed away from the wall she was leaning upon. “All right,” she said, her gaze latched on Kathleen. “Duty calls. I’ll see you at home.”
Rosalind let her leave with a wave, dropping the cigarette to the ground and crushing it under her high-heeled shoe. Juliette really ought to have admonished her for doing so, but the floor couldn’t have gotten any dirtier than its current state, so what was the point? From the moment she stepped into this place, five different sorts of opium had probably smeared into her soles. All she could do was push through the club as gingerly as possible, hoping the maids wouldn’t damage the leather of her shoes when they scrubbed them clean later tonight.
“I’ll take it from here.”
Kathleen’s chin jerked up in surprise, the jade pendant at her throat gleaming under the light. Rosalind used to tell her that someone was going to snatch such a precious stone if she wore it so obviously, but Kathleen liked it there. If people were to stare at her throat, she always said she would rather it be because of the pendant than the bump of her Adam’s apple underneath.
Her startled expression quickly smoothed into a smile, realizing it was Juliette sliding into the seat opposite the British merchant.
“Let me know if I can get anything for you,” Kathleen said sweetly, in perfect, French-accented English.
As she walked away, Walter Dexter’s jaw dropped slack. “She could understand me this whole time?”
“You’ll learn, Mr. Dexter,” Juliette began, swiping the candle from the center of the table and taking a sniff of the scented wax, “that when you assume someone cannot speak English right off the bat, they tend to make fun of you.”
Walter blinked at her, then cocked his head. He took in her dress, her American accent, and her knowledge of his name.
“Juliette Cai,” he concluded. “I was expecting your father.”
The Scarlet Gang called itself a family business, but it did not stop there. The Cais were the pulsing heart, but the gang itself was a network of gangsters and smugglers and merchants and middlemen of all sorts, each and every single one of them answering to Lord Cai. Less-enthused foreigners would call the Scarlets a secret society.
“My father has no time for merchants with no credible history,” Juliette replied. “If it’s important, I will pass along the message.”
Unfortunately, it appeared that Walter Dexter was far more interested in small talk than actual business.
“Last I heard, you had moved to become a New Yorker.”
Juliette dropped the candle back onto the table. The flame flickered, casting eerie shadows over the middle-aged merchant. The lighting only deepened the wrinkles in his perpetually scrunched forehead.
“I was only sent to the West for education, regrettably,” Juliette said, leaning back into the curved couch seat. “Now I’m old enough to start contributing to the family business and whatnot, so they dragged me back kicking and screaming.”
The merchant didn’t laugh along to her joke, as Juliette had intended. Instead, he tapped his temple, ruffling his silver-patched hair.
“Hadn’t you also returned for a brief period of time a few years ago?”
Juliette stiffened, her grin faltering. Behind her, a table of patrons erupted with uproarious laughter, collapsing in mirth over some comment made among themselves. The sound prickled at her neck, sweeping a hot sweat over her skin. She waited for the noise to die down, using the interruption to think fast and scramble hard.
“Just once,” Juliette replied carefully. “New York City wasn’t too safe during the Great War. My family was worried.”
The merchant still didn’t drop the subject. He made a noise of consideration. “The war ended eight years ago. You were here a mere four previous.”
Juliette’s smile dropped entirely. She pushed her bobbed hair back.
“Mr. Dexter, are we here to discuss your extensive knowledge of my personal life, or did this meeting actually have a purpose?”
Walter blanched. “I apologize, Miss Cai. My son, he’s your age, so I happened to know—”
He cut himself off upon noting Juliette’s glare. He cleared his throat.
“I requested to meet with your father regarding a new product.”
Immediately, despite the vague word choice, it was quite clear what Walter Dexter was referring to. The Scarlet Gang was, first and foremost, a network of gangsters, and there was seldom a time when gangsters weren’t heavily involved with the black market. If the Scarlets dominated Shanghai, it was hardly surprising that they dominated the black market, too—decided the comings and goings, decided the men who were allowed to thrive and the men who needed to drop dead. In the parts of the city that still belonged to the Chinese, the Scarlet Gang was not simply above the law; they were the law. Without the gangsters, the merchants were unprotected. Without the merchants, the gangsters would have little purpose or work. It was an ideal partnership—and one being threatened continually by the growing power of the White Flowers, the one other gang in Shanghai that actually had a chance at defeating the Scarlets in black market monopoly. After all, they had been working at it for generations.
“A product, hmm?” Juliette repeated. Her eyes swiveled up absently. The performers had switched, the spotlight dimming as the first opening notes from a saxophone played. Adorned in a brilliant new costume, Rosalind sashayed into view. “Remember what happened the last time the British wanted to introduce a new product into Shanghai?”
Walter frowned. “Are you referring to the Opium Wars?”
Juliette examined her fingernails. “Am I?”
“You cannot possibly blame me for something that was the fault of my country.”
“Oh, that’s not how it works?”
It was Walter’s turn to look unimpressed. He folded his hands together as skirts swished and skin flashed on the stage behind him.
“Nevertheless, I require the help of the Scarlet Gang. I have bulk amounts of lernicrom to be rid of, and it is certain to be the next most desired opiate on the market.” Walter cleared his throat. “I believe you are seeking an upper hand right now.”
Juliette leaned forward. In that sudden motion, the beads on her dress clinked together frantically, clashing with the jazz in the background. “And do you really think you can give us an upper hand?”
The constant grappling between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers wasn’t a secret. Far from it, in fact, because the blood feud was not something that raged only between those with Cai and Montagov to their name. It was a cause that ordinary members loyal to either faction took on personally, with a fervor that could almost be supernatural. Foreigners arriving in Shanghai to do business for the first time received one warning before learning of anything else: pick a side and pick it fast. If they traded once with the Scarlet Gang, they were a Scarlet through and through. They would be embraced in Scarlet territory and killed if they wandered into the areas where the White Flowers reigned.
“I think,” Walter said softly, “that the Scarlet Gang is losing control of its own city.”
Juliette sat back. Underneath the table, her fists tightened until the skin over her knuckles became bloodless. Four years ago, she had looked at Shanghai with glitter in her eyes, blinking at the Scarlet Gang with hope. She hadn’t understood that Shanghai was a foreign city in its own country. Now she did. The British ruled a chunk. The French ruled a chunk. The Russian White Flowers were taking over the only parts that technically remained under Chinese governance. This loss of control was a long time coming—but Juliette would rather bite off her own tongue than admit it freely to a merchant who understood nothing.
“We will get back to you regarding your product, Mr. Dexter,” she said after a long moment, flashing an easy smile. She let out her exhale imperceptibly, releasing the tension that had tightened her stomach to the point of pain. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
The entire club fell into a hush, and suddenly Juliette was speaking too loudly. Walter’s eyes bugged, latching on to a sight over Juliette’s shoulder.
“I’ll be,” he remarked. “If it isn’t one of the Bolshies.”
At the merchant’s words, Juliette felt herself go ice-cold. Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned around to seek Walter Dexter’s line of sight, searching through the smoke and shadows dancing at the entranceway of the burlesque club.
Please, don’t let it be, she pleaded. Anyone but—
Her vision turned hazy. For a terrifying second, the world was tilting on its axis and Juliette was barely clinging to its edge, moments away from taking a tumble. Then the floor righted itself and Juliette could breathe again. She stood and cleared her throat, concentrating all her might on sounding as bored as possible when she stated, “The Montagovs emigrated far before the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Dexter.”
Before anybody could take note of her, Juliette slinked into the shadows, where the dark walls dimmed the sparkling of her dress and the soggy floorboards muffled the clicking of her heels. Her precautions were unnecessary. Everyone’s gaze was firmly latched on Roma Montagov as he wound his way through the club. For once Rosalind was carrying out a performance that not a soul was paying attention to.
At first glance it could have seemed like the shock emanating from the round tables was because a foreigner had walked in. But this club had many foreigners scattered throughout the crowd, and Roma, with his dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin could have blended in among the Chinese as naturally as a white rose painted red amid poppies. It wasn’t because Roma Montagov was a foreigner. It was because the heir of the White Flowers was wholly recognizable as an enemy on Scarlet Gang territory. From the corner of her eye, Juliette was already catching sight of movement: guns pulled from pockets and knives pointed outward, bodies stirring with animosity.
Juliette stepped out of the shadows and lifted a hand to the closest table. The motion was simple: wait.
The gangsters stilled, each group watching those nearby in example. They waited, pretending to go on with their conversations while Roma Montagov passed table after table, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
Juliette started to creep closer. She pressed a hand to her throat and forced the lump there down, forced her breath to become even until she wasn’t on the verge of panic, until she could wipe on a dazzling smile. Once, Roma would have been able to see right through her. But four years had gone by now. He had changed. So had she.
Juliette reached out and touched the back of his suit jacket. “Hello, stranger.”
Roma turned around. For a moment it seemed as if he hadn’t registered the sight before him. He stared, his gaze as blank as clear glass, utterly uncomprehending.
Then the sight of the Scarlet heiress washed over him like a bucket of ice. Roma’s lips parted with a small puff of air.
The last time he’d seen her, they had been fifteen.
“Juliette,” he exclaimed automatically, but they were no longer familiar enough to use each other’s first names. They hadn’t been for a long while.
Roma cleared his throat. “Miss Cai. When did you return to Shanghai?”
I never left, Juliette wanted to say, but that wasn’t true. Her mind had remained here—her thoughts had constantly revolved around the chaos and the injustice and the burning fury that broiled in these streets—but her physical body had been shipped across the ocean a second time for safekeeping. She had hated it, hated being away so intensely that she felt the force of it burn into a fever each night when she left the parties and speakeasies. The weight of Shanghai was a steel crown nailed to her head. In another world, if she had been given a choice, perhaps she would have walked away, rejected herself as the heir to an empire of mobsters and merchants. But she never had a choice. This was her life, this was her city, these were her people, and because she loved them, she had sworn to herself a long time ago that she would do a damn good job of being who she was because she could be no one else.
It’s all your fault, she wanted to say. You’re the reason I was forced away from my city. My people. My blood.
“I returned a while ago,” Juliette lied easily, checking her hip against the vacant table to her left. “Mr. Montagov, you’ll have to forgive me for asking, but what are you doing here?”
She watched Roma move his hand ever so slightly and guessed that he was checking for the presence of his hidden weapons. She watched him take her in, slow to form words. Juliette had had time to brace herself—seven days and seven nights to enter this city and scrub her mind free of everything that had happened here between them. But whatever Roma had expected to find in this club when he walked in tonight, it certainly hadn’t been Juliette.
“I need to speak to Lord Cai,” Roma finally said, placing his hands behind his back. “It’s important.”
Juliette took a step closer. Her fingers had happened upon the lighter from within the folds of her dress again, thumbing the spark wheel while she hummed in thought. Roma said Cai like a foreign merchant, his mouth pulled wide. The Chinese and the Russians shared the same sound for Cai: tsai, like the sound of a match being struck. His butchering was intentional, an observation of the situation. She was fluent in Russian, he was fluent in Shanghai’s unique dialect, and yet here they were, both speaking English with different accents like a couple of casual merchants. Switching to either of their native tongues would have been like taking a side, so they settled for a middle ground.
“I imagine it must be important, if you’ve come all the way here.” Juliette shrugged, letting go of the lighter. “Speak to me instead, and I’ll pass along the message. One heir to another, Mr. Montagov. You can trust me, can’t you?”
It was a laughable question. Her words said one thing, but her cold, flat stare said another—One misstep while you’re in my territory, and I’ll kill you with my bare hands. She was the last person he would trust, and the same went the other way.
But whatever it was that Roma needed, it must have been serious. He didn’t argue.
He gestured to the side, into the shadows and the dim corners, where there would be less of an audience turned toward them like a second show, waiting for the moment Juliette walked away so they could pounce. Thinning her lips, Juliette pivoted and waved him along to the back of the club instead. He was fast to follow, his measured steps coming closely enough that the beads of Juliette’s dress clinked angrily in disturbance. She didn’t know why she was bothering. She should have thrown him to the Scarlets, let them deal with him.
No, she decided. He is mine to deal with. He is mine to destroy.
Juliette stopped. Now it was just her and Roma Montagov in the shadows, other sounds muffled and other sights dimmed. She rubbed her wrist, demanding her pulse slow down, as if that were within her control.
“Jump to it, then,” she said.
Roma looked around. He ducked his head before speaking, lowering his voice until Juliette had to strain to hear him. And indeed she strained—she refused to lean any closer to him than she had to.
“Last night, five White Flowers died at the ports. Their throats had been torn out.”
Juliette blinked at him.
She didn’t mean to be callous, but members of both their gangs killed each other on the weekly. Juliette herself had already added to the death toll. If he was going to put the blame on her Scarlets, then he was wasting his time.
“And,” Roma said tightly, clearly biting back if you would let me finish, “one of yours. As well as a municipal police officer. British.”
Now Juliette frowned a little, trying to recall if she had overheard anyone in the household last night muttering about a Scarlet death. It was strange for both gangs to have victims on scene, given that larger killings usually happened in ambushes, and stranger still for a police officer to have been pulled down too, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say it was bizarre. She only raised an eyebrow at Roma, disinterested.
Until, continuing onward, he said, “All their wounds were self-inflicted. This wasn’t a territory dispute.”
Juliette shook her head repeatedly to one side, making sure she hadn’t misheard him. When she was certain there was nothing jammed in her ear, she exclaimed, “Seven dead bodies with self-inflicted wounds?”
Roma nodded. He placed another look over his shoulder, as if merely keeping an eye on the gangsters around the tables would prevent them from attacking him. Or perhaps he didn’t care to keep an eye on them at all. Perhaps he was trying to avoid looking straight ahead at Juliette.
“I’m here to find an explanation. Does your father know anything of this?”
Juliette scoffed, the noise deep and resentful. Did he mean to tell her that five White Flowers, one Scarlet, and a police officer had met up at the ports, then torn out their own throats? It sounded like the setup of a terrible joke without a punch line.
“We cannot help you,” Juliette stated.
“Any information could be crucial to discovering what happened, Miss Cai,” Roma persisted. A little notch between his eyebrows always appeared like a crescent moon whenever he was irritated. It was present now. There was more to these deaths than he was letting on; he wouldn’t get this worked up for an ordinary ambush. “One of the dead was yours—”
“We’re not going to cooperate with the White Flowers,” Juliette cut in. Any false humor on her face had long disappeared. “Let me make that clear before you proceed. Regardless of whether my father knows anything about last night’s deaths, we will not be sharing it with you and we will not be furthering any contact that could endanger our own business endeavors. Now, good day, sir.”
Roma had clearly been dismissed, and yet he remained where he stood, glaring at Juliette like there was a sour taste in his mouth. She had already turned on her heel, preparing to make her exit, when she heard Roma whisper viciously, “What happened to you?”
She could have said anything in response. She could have chosen her words with the deathly venom she had acquired in her years away and spat it all out. She could have reminded him of what he did four years ago, pushed the blade of guilt in until he was bleeding. But before she could open her mouth, a scream was piercing through the club, interrupting every other noise as if it operated on another frequency.
The dancers onstage froze; the music was brought to a halt.
“What’s going on?” Juliette muttered. Just as she moved to investigate, Roma hissed out sharply and caught her elbow.
His touch seared through her skin like a painful burn. Juliette jerked her arm away faster than if she had truly been set alight, her eyes blazing. He didn’t have the right. He had lost the right to pretend he had ever wanted to protect her.
Juliette marched toward the other end of the club, ignoring Roma as he followed after her. Rumbles of panic grew louder and louder, though she couldn’t comprehend what was inciting such a reaction until she nudged aside the gathering crowd with an assertive push.
Then she saw the man thrashing on the ground, his own fingers clawing at his thick neck.
“What is he doing?” Juliette shrieked, lunging forward. “Somebody stop him!”
But most of his nails were already buried deep into muscle. The man was digging with an animal-like intensity—as if there was something there, something no one else could see crawling under his skin. Deeper, deeper, deeper, until his fingers were wholly buried and he was pulling free tendons and veins and arteries.
In the next second, the club had fallen silent completely. Nothing was audible save the labored breathing of the short and stout man who had collapsed on the floor, his throat torn into pieces and his hands dripping with blood.