Chen Juan decided she did not like the Russian.
He smelled of rendered fat, and wore a black suit he must have stolen from a funeral. He leaned against the stone rail, facing out over the Huangpu River, away from Shanghai. He wanted her to think he was watching the marshes and warehouses of Pudong across the boat-studded black, but every few seconds, when he thought she wasn’t looking, he glanced at Chen out of the corner of his eye. She noticed, and ignored him.
The Bund curved north, bounded to the east by the river and to the west by the alien, yellowed marble facades of traders’ clubs and banks and, far away, the embassies, British and American and French. Nineteen twenty-eight had not been a good year, but good or bad the Bund endured, and served itself, as always. Few Nationalist flags flew here.
Chen had dressed for a party: heels, a long high-collared black dress slit past the knee, a fox-fur stole, silver earrings, gray silk opera gloves with silver trim, and—underneath all that—a tasteful cross. She had not dressed to be ogled on the Bund by some threadbare knife-faced foreign ghost.
She drew a long breath through her cigarette, and pondered the exigencies of her profession.
Tallow-stink and uneven footsteps heralded the Russian’s approach. When she looked right, he leaned against the rail beside her. His coat was too tight, or there was too much muscle underneath: his head perched between mounds of shoulder.
She tipped ash and straightened to leave.
“Stay,” he said in bad Chinese, tones broken, vowels slurred. “I tell you a story.”
“You don’t know any story I want to hear.”
He caught her by the upper arm as she turned away—his fingers and palm were rough, his grip hard enough to bruise. “I think I do,” he said. She stopped. “In the stone den,” he continued, pronunciation almost perfect now but singsong, learned but not understood, “there lived a poet.” His eyes glittered like ice covered with alcohol and set on fire.
She frowned. “Your boss knows this is the world’s worst pass phrase, right? Any child would know the next part. If this was England would you use ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’?”
“We’re not in England. Say it.”
She sharpened her voice and wished her consonants could cut him. “He was a lion addict, resolved to eat ten lions.”
“What’s your name, dear?”
“Grace,” she said. For some reason foreigners liked people to have foreign names. Any foreign name would do, didn’t have to be Russian or German or whatever. All their languages sounded the same anyway. Maybe even they couldn’t tell the difference.
He let her go, and smiled a crooked smile with crooked teeth. “I’m sorry, my dear. I don’t make the rules. But it is a pleasure to meet you. Do you have the envelope?”
She snapped open her pearled pocketbook and lifted from within a red envelope sealed with white wax and stamped with a winged lion. “Here.”
“You open it.”
“Don’t you have hands?”
“I do. I have yours.”
They were alone, despite the lights and crowds. Farther up the Bund, couples strolled. A black car idled near the sidewalk.
She slid her thumb beneath the envelope’s flap and tugged once. The seal popped. She withdrew and unfolded the note inside. “There’s nothing written here. Just red paper.”
“It’s not a letter,” he said. “It’s a packing label.”
And his arm was around her neck, his other hand pressing a wadded wet cloth to her mouth and nose.
She let out a muffled cry, stopped breathing, and sagged into him.
Behind them, the car’s engine roared to life.
He grunted under her weight, shifted his grip from her neck to her shoulder so he’d seem to be supporting a drunken girlfriend home, and turned them both away from the river. The cloth left Chen Juan’s mouth.
She snaked her arm around his, twisted her hip, dropped her weight, and broke his shoulder. He screamed higher than she expected.
Dark spots swam through her vision. The chloroform, or ether, or whatever, slowed her a little. The Russian tripped and fell, and tried to rise even through the pain. She straddled his back, took his neck in the crook of her elbow, and squeezed. His gasps reminded her of a carp she’d landed when she was six. He twitched under her. “Here’s a story,” she hissed into his ear. “On the mountain was a monk, and the monk said, ‘Master, tell me a story,’ and this was the story he told—”
She let the Russian go when he passed out.
Car doors slammed up the road and heavy voices, foreign voices, cried: “Stop!” She dove to the ground and rolled. Shots split the night—but the shooter wasn’t aiming at Chen. The Russian’s friends dove for cover. A second black car pulled to the curb, its door flew open, and Wujing dove out. He ran toward Chen Juan, a black blur, while Ahsan covered them both with his pistol from the passenger seat. Wujing got his arm under the Russian’s, lifted from his side while Chen Juan lifted from hers, and together they pulled him into the car’s spacious backseat....