Beck rode back in silence; both rider and mount had a lot to think about and the winding path around Spirit Lake and back home afforded them plenty of time to do it in. Once they reached the blacksmith outside Shanghai, Beck passed his surefooted steed back and retrieved his bicycle for the last part of his journey through the tunnel and onto the rickety wooden bridges that clung to the side of the crowded harbour. Normally he cycled slowly along these, having more than once nearly tumbled over the edge in the past, but now he peddled urgently with a seemingly scant regard for his safety. He’d been eager to get back to his practice before nightfall but something he’d seen when he looked at Antfarm had shaken him to the core and now he had a very different destination in mind.
Down in the belly of Shanghai, as night seeped its way across the water and squeezed itself into the alleys, snickets & ginnels criss-crossing between buildings, parents fussed and worried over their children. Those rich enough set guards to watch over their wards whilst others less well off locked and barred their homes and prepared to spend another uncomfortable night propped up in a chair with a gun nestled on their lap. The parents in the slums had no such comforts, and indeed, far more reason to worry. Their homes could not be barred and bolted, the heaps of rotting wood and crumbling brick they had no option to live in couldn’t even keep the night breeze out, let alone a child-snatching nightmare. They couldn’t afford gaurds to patrol their streets and watch their windows. Oh they had tried, exhausted men and women banding together after long, hard days in the cannery. They took hour long shifts from their precious sleep to walk the streets and alleys and watch over their sleeping children, but the Tong smelt money and sent in their thugs to deliever a series of painful lessons; pay us to protect your streets or no one protects them. Now families gathered even more tightly together, taking it in turns to sleep through the darkness of the night whilst someone sat awake, boning knife or fish-hook at the ready.
Beck could taste this atmosphere, could taste the fear and anguish and resentment, and it made him sick. Not since Manchester had he felt such terror infesting one place and he’d been living in it every day and every night since little Li Fe’s bones had been brought to his surgery. Well not tonight, he had decided. He couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take the constant pall of dread, the sense of impotence, the bloody memories. Not tonight. As the sun set behind the harbour, the shadow cast by the glorious Sun Tower falling across the slums as if to deny its wretched residents any crumb of comfort by cutting off their light first, Beck propped his bicycle against the rear of the Dragon Lady’s hotel and slipped in a secret door.
“Ahhh, Meester Smeeth, welcome back,” the greeter’s tone a perfect blend of ice cold warmth, his spell gutting fish had apparently worked wonders on his attitude. Beck all but ignored him and instead allowed himself to be led through the heady, sickly smoke to a cot by one of the pipe girls. Unlike the poor women owned by the Tong, the Dragon Ladys girls were never forced into anything as seedy as common prostitution. That wasn’t to say such a path was closed to them, but if they chose it they ceased to be pipe girls and instead moved behind the curtain, deeper into this dimly lit underworld, and became concubines, dreams wrapped in flesh and silk, soft-skinned angels bestowing their graces upon mere mortals. Beck had always resisted their siren song no matter how insistent the call, but despite his resolve in his mind he was an adulterer; another failing, he thought, to add to his legion. He climbed into his allocated cot and loosened his collar while the girl handed him a pipe and turned to leave. As she walked away, her hips swaying back and forth beneath her exquisite red hanfu, Beck tried to ignore the knot of desire that twisted in his groin and the shame that it brought. Instead, to block it out, he put the pipe to his lips and drew in a cloud of sweet, thick smoke. Somewhere deep in his brain the rational, lucid, controlling part of him collapsed like a marionette having its strings cut. He was free once more…
The smoke moved about him and through him. It infused his skin and flesh and bone, it swirled into his ears and nose and mouth filling him up with warm water from the bottom of the ocean. He was a fish swimming through himself in the depths of his own smoke and he was empty of purpose and memory as he drifted on strange currents, uncaring and unknowing. Until the hand. It reached through the smoke and the water and caressed his cheek, rocking him, tugging him. He turned away, pushed it aside. Not here! Not now! The currents raced and he pushed off into them, determined to get away, to stay free! But the hand was fast and strong. It fought for him, grasping and grabbing. He swam and dodged, flipping and wheeling to get away but it was tricksy and swift. And then, it had him. Strong fingers took hold of him and held him fast.
“Dr Beck…?” words darted around him, quicksilver through the smoke and water. He opened his eyes, staring up from the murky depths and into a woman’s face. For a moment he couldn’t place himself, a young well dressed white woman here? What would a respectable woman be doing here?
Er, yes? What can I do for you Miss…?” his mouth felt strange and full of seaweed and fish scales.
“Rhianon Jameson,” she said offering a gloved hand and Beck moved his own dull, dead hand to meet it, “I was hoping you could help me find someone. It’s quite important.”
“Hmm, yes, who is it?” he mumbled.
“A man who goes by the nom de plume the Scientist. He apparently knows some powerful medicine. I must find him, and time is running short.”
Beck’s face froze. Him! This woman was looking for him! God help her because if she found him no one else could. “I’m, ahhh, afraid I don’t know anyone with that name,” he tried to sound as sober as possible, please believe me please believe me please believe me he thought.
“You lie, sir. I can see it in your face,” her voice had a steel-edge that matched her eyes.
“I’m telling you, I don’t know…” A wave caught him, currents and undertows pulling him away as he started to drift off. The hand grabbed him again, he opened his eyes and she had him by the arm, anchoring him in the swell of the opium’s ebb and flow.
“Dr. Beck!” she was angry now, “You call yourself a medical man; you took an oath. And yet you are willing to let a man die – for what purpose? To protect the Scientist?”
One of the attendants appeared by her side, politely asking that she stop but she was having none of it. Around the small den people in various states of drug-induced apathy were gawping at the most unusual scene unfolding, all except Beck. He was staring at his hands as if trying to remember what they were called. No, not to protect him, he thought, to protect you! “Dangerous,” he said at last.
“I understand danger. I can take care of myself. Just tell me where he is!” Her tone was diamond hard.
“I don’t…know. I really don’t. He didn’t want anyone to find him. All I know is…Babbage…” Beck mumbled through the fog behind his eyes.
“New Babbage? Where?”
“Hmm, not sure. Find…” his voice trailed away as a wave narcotic slumber crashed against the rocks of Miss Jameson’s enforced lucidity. The attendant called for reinforcements. Footsteps coming near. He must warn her. He must.
“Find who? The Scientist?”
“No, not him. Find Lo Ping. Elderly chap. At least I think so…can’t really tell. He’s the only one…only one…who knows how to locate Scientist. SssssallIknow. Nowleavemealone.” Beck’s connection with the world was severed. The waves roared over him and pulled him far out to sea. The woman became but a distant speck on the horizon, a pinprick of light lost in the stars who were themselves extinguished by the ocean closing over him. He sank into it, to the bottom of its warm, cosseting depths to where his beloved waited for him with their children and he was disturbed no more…
To be continued…
All the “Mutations” posts can be read here.
Links to other blogs and stories:
1) For more on Miss Jameson’s hunt for The Scientist, read her blog here
2) For more on the death of the Chinese boy Li Fe, read about Creaky Gloom on this blog here and on the Steelhead Ning here.