The bike ride through the dark, quiet city was a sobering affair. After the storm of the previous night, the air had turned cold and the edge of a bitter wind knifed through the streets and alleys. Even the old statues look perished, thought Beck as he left the Town Hall and headed back to Shanghai. He had the curious feeling of being watched and turned back to see the young novice who had called upon him that morning staring back from one of the cells. She was a strange one, he thought, so quiet and shy it hardly seemed possible she was being trained as one of the Perpetual Vigilance’s most deadly weapons. Still, young women in these parts were hardy and knew their own minds and he was sure that under the stewardship of that old battle-axe, the Mother Superior, she’d flourish. As he passed out of sight of the Town Hall and headed east across the city gardens and towards Shanghai’s western-most windmill gate, his attention shifted to another young woman, one he’d said some harsh things to, things he didn’t mean, things he had to try and make right. He had to see Meili at the hotel.
“Ahh, Dr Beck,” the usual oily welcome from the host set Beck’s teeth on edge but he just grunted and pushed on past both him and the hired muscle behind him. Straining his eyes through the thick smoke until he saw her bending by the cots, tending to the pipes of the dreaming customers. He wove his way through the room and reached out through the opium haze to touch her shoulder gently. She turned with a smile that fell from her face as she saw him, “Doctor…” she started.
“Meili,” he replied, searching her face for some sign of welcome and finding none “I… That is…”
“Why have you come here?” her voice was low and she busied around him as if her were her customer.
“Meili. What I said… I want to explain,” he was whispering too, the bruiser by the door was watching them, looking for the first sign of trouble, “Please, can we go somewhere? I need to talk to you, I need to explain.”
Meili glanced at the doorman and gave him a barely perceptible shake of her head. He instantly relaxed and stepped back slightly, although his eyes remained on Beck, “You made it clear what you thought,” she replied, a cold, hurt edge to her voice, “What is there to explain?”
“Please… I wasn’t myself… if you would just grant me a few moments to explain,” he tried hard not to plead, “Is… is there somewhere we could talk?”
She looked up at him, her brilliant emerald eyes searching his face, “Follow me,” she sighed and led him through the deep red silk curtains behind the cots to the deeper, more private places hidden below the hotel. The sickly odour of opium smoke mingled with other less exotic yet infinitely more illicit scents – rich perfumes curled around him, sweet flowers of sweat bloomed from doorways full of shadows and sighs. This was the arena of angels, the temple in which they visited their gifts upon mortal men. Despite himself, he found his heart racing as she led him to a small, private room and shut the door behind him. Again she fixed him with her green eyes, “I can not be long,” she said cooly.
“Meili, please,” he said, “when you came to me, when we met, I mean to say after I was… rescued I wasn’t in my right mind and I said things I shouldn’t have…”
“You threw me out!” she hissed, “you told me you never wanted to see me again, you told me I was cursed!”
Tears welled in her eyes and the shame of his words stung him. “But what I said, I meant to protect you…”
“Protect me?” she repeated, her voice dripping with incredulity, “Protect me from what?”
He looked her, memories of his wife’s snarling face burned brightly in his mind, an arctic wind bit at his skin and images of lost children, his own and poor little Li Fe, danced behind his eyes. He didn’t want to give voice to the truth of his failings, his sins, but he needed her to understand, “Please… I have no excuses…”
“Protect me from what,” she asked again, her anger raw and brittle.
“I was out of my mind. The creature, it did something…”
“Protect me from what!” she snapped.
He looked into her perfect green eyes, tears rolling from them down her cheeks, and knew he was lost. He’d said both too much and not enough. How could he tell her now? How could he tell her what he’d done to his family, how he’d let down every member of hers? He was right, she was cursed, cursed to have ever met him. He turned and opened the door before looking back at Meili, “From me,” he said simply and walked out.
The night was cold but he didn’t feel it, after all he’d been to far colder places than this. His lungs itched and gnawed away inside him, his mind twisted and turned, nagging and pleading with him.. He needed to loose himself in the smoke and as the hotel was no longer an option he headed into the slums.
Even at this late hour eyes watched him from the darkness. Not just him of course, these eyes, small eager eyes, watched all that happened in Shanghai day and night, but because these eyes were set in the grubby little faces of the street children, no one paid them any attention. Scamps were invisible to all but a few and although on any other day Beck would have noticed them, his opium-hunger blinded him to all but his path through the filthy back streets of Shamian and towards the seedy dens hidden in the deepest, darkest parts of the slums.
The eyes also saw another figure walking through the dark streets, this time heading out of Shanghai and towards the tunnel to St Helens. The eyes had much to report back to their mistress, the pretty lady who paid them and fed them, the doctor was up to his old tricks and a nasty Tong bully was heading into the forests…
Links to other blogs and stories:
1) Dr Beck hurt Meili in the epilogue to “Steal Head” here.