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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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Skeleton Women (10 page)

BOOK: Skeleton Women
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I put down the newspaper and cursed.
Damn! Where did she get the idea that the amulet was given by Lung’s
fengshui
master? It was
my
gift! But wait ... maybe she thought I’d snubbed her, and she had gotten her revenge by mixing up the information?
I sighed, because one can be destroyed not only by a bullet but also by a few words.
It was no secret that Rainbow Chang’s most powerful weapon was to spread rumors, a strategy also favored by the “rumor creation“ departments of several political parties. Spies would be disguised as students, businessmen, office or factory workers, then sent to parks, teahouses, movie theaters, restaurants, and other public places to spread tales about their enemies. Once a powerful rumor starts, even if it is later proved wrong, the damage has been done, and the stain is permanent.
I picked up the glass of milk and took a meditative sip as another question arose. What if Shadow
was
at the ceremony, and I didn’t see her? Had the columnist also lied about this, or could the magician really make herself invisible?
Feeling uneasy, I went into my bedroom to get dressed to visit Lung at the hospital.
9
Hospital Visit
O
nce I got out of the car in front of the hospital, I saw many reporters crowding the entrance, trying to push through the staff and guards to get inside. Two of Lung’s bodyguards pushed them back to let me in. I hurried through the lobby before any patients or staff milling around could catch sight of me.
On the third floor, I saw Gao standing guard right outside Lung’s private room. We exchanged greetings, and he assured me that Master Lung was doing well.
I looked around. “Where’s your partner?’
“He just went to get something to eat. We’ve been here since yesterday.”
“So, are you feeling all right?”
He nodded. “Just doing my job.”
“Gao, you really take your job seriously.”
He lowered his big torso so his head was at the same level with mine. “Miss Camilla, I’ll also do anything for you. Just tell me.”
I leaned back and whispered, “Even dash out into the street and be hit by a car?”
His expression turned intense and serious. “Only if you’re not joking and it serves a purpose. But do you really mean it?”
Shocked by his reaction, I giggled. “Of course not, Gao! Just joking!”
“Then please don’t joke with me, Miss Camilla, ever. Because I’ll always take your word seriously.”
Staring at his rugged face, I wondered, could I lure and bribe him to kill Lung?
“Please go in, Miss Camilla, I’m sure Master Lung has been waiting for you.”
Gao knocked, then opened the door. When I moved past him into the room, I felt his body heat gently wrapping around me like a blanket.
The door closed behind me with a soft click. Inside the spacious, medicinal-smelling room, Zhu was watching his boss slurp a bowl of steaming rice soup.
I smiled and nodded to Zhu, then went to peck Lung’s cheek. Sitting down next to my patron, I reached to smooth his hair as if he were my little boy. Only after Lung had proclaimed me his lucky star would I have the nerve to make this daring move in front of his right-hand man.
“Master Lung, it is said that heaven favors the lucky,” I cooed. “You are indeed the luckiest man in China.”
He put down his soup and grabbed my hand. “Is that so, my little pretty?”
“Of course. Even the bullet was afraid of you, so it made a last-minute detour.”
He turned to Zhu. “Ha-ha-ha! That’s why Camilla is my favorite. I just love beautiful women with a sugared tongue and a brain stuffed with clever phrases!”
In the orphanage, I had never been considered a sweet child; otherwise I might have been adopted by a family much sooner. In that comfortless institution, I never smiled, didn’t make friends, and withdrew into my own world of reading and thinking. Though the orphanage had a decent library, it was rarely visited, so most of the time I’d be left alone there to enter a happier and more orderly world merely by flipping pages.
The reason I’d finally been taken out of the orphanage by Mr. Ho, boss of the Bright Moon Nightclub, was not only that he found me pretty but because he deemed me the most intelligent of the lot. Most of the girls there couldn’t write their own name properly or even tell the difference between a book and a box. Because I like to read, I was able to educate myself. But the last thing I’d ever imagined was that liking to read would lead me to warm the bed of Shanghai’s most powerful gangster head.
I picked up Lung’s bowl of rice soup and said, “Master Lung, why don’t you let me feed you so you can save your energy for more important things? Shanghai is praying for your speedy recovery.”
Lung smiled. “Ha-ha! Of course, but give me a kiss first.”
I leaned to press my lips to his soggy ones.
Zhu lowered his head to read his newspaper, pretending not to see our flirtation. Lung was as happy to see me today as a sick child his mother. But an old saying is that being with the emperor is like walking beside a tiger; at any moment he might turn mean and devour you. So at every moment I was watching Lung’s expressions and gestures, trying to guess his thoughts, always apprehensive I would make a wrong move.
After I finished feeding him, I asked, “Master Lung, do you need anything? Snacks, magazines, newspaper?”
He touched my cheek with his bony fingers. “My men will get me whatever I need.” Then he thought for a moment. “But, Camilla, you can sing a song for me.”
As I hesitated, Zhu lowered his newspaper to cast me a stern look. “Just pick a song to entertain your boss.”
I decided to sing “I Can’t Stop Thinking of You.” I cleared my throat, half closed my eyes, and began:
As the breeze moves my hair, I can’t stop thinking of you.
The moon is in love with the sea,
The sea falls in love with the moon,
During this silvery, honeyed evening,
How can I not think of you? ...
Unexpectedly, as I sang, the face that appeared in my mind’s eye was not the old man’s but his son’s. While I was trying to blink away this disturbing image, the door opened, and in walked the same man who had just intruded upon my vision. Startled, I abruptly stopped singing.
When our eyes met, the young master said, “Please don’t stop your lovely song, Miss Camilla.”
Zhu waved a dismissive hand at his boss’s son. “It’s all right. Camilla had a long day yesterday and must be tired. Let her take a break.”
“Of course,” Jinying said. Then he went to sit on the bed next to Lung, asking, “Father, how are you feeling today?”
Lung smiled, the corners of his lips soaring as high as a crane. “Jinying, I’m fine. What a luxury that I’m forced to rest, don’t you think, huh?”
Surrounded by his
fengshui
son, his lucky-star mistress, and his most trusted man, no wonder Lung looked relaxed and genuinely happy. That was the best moment to kill a person—when his guard was down. Too bad I was not ready.
The son cast me a quick look, then said to his old man, “Glad to hear Father’s having a good rest.”
“That’s why I’ve asked you so many times to help me run the business. But you don’t care to help your old father. Don’t you know many men in Shanghai would run over their own mother to grab this chance? A son should follow his father’s wishes for him. But you won’t. Why is that? I don’t understand.” He tapped his temple to emphasize his point. “Was your mind poisoned by those nonsense lectures at HarFud?”
“Father, I’ve told you many times that it’s pronounced Har
vard,
” Jinying exclaimed as he quickly glanced at me.
Today was only the second time I had seen Lung and his son together. I found it amusing that this powerful, ruthless man actually showed another side to his nature.
Good.
This could be his major weakness, his son. He was a loving, indulgent father—the same man who had thrown his mistress to feed pet tigers.
Then I wondered, why was I so keen to find out other people’s weaknesses? True, I had to seek Lung’s. But did others figure out mine? I knew I had to hide from others my detachment, my emotional void, my scheming heart... . But were these weaknesses or strengths? Breathing the hospital’s unpleasant air, I felt confused and didn’t like the feeling.
Just then I noticed that Zhu was staring at me. From his look, I had a feeling that he might sense something between Jinying and me. But the fact was, there was nothing between us. Or was there? I felt confused again, and this time I liked it even less.
But Zhu smiled at Jinying. “Young Master, don’t you agree that a son should fulfill his father’s wish?”
Seemingly not knowing what to say, Jinying remained silent, looking discomfited. Finally he muttered a weak, “I’ll try.”
“Good,” both Lung and Zhu said as they exchanged glances.
Then the boss grabbed my hand and said to his son, “Jinying, you know that Camilla saved my life?”
The son nodded.
“Good, then be nice to her. She’s now your father’s lucky star!”
The son nodded again, his eyes almost as hopeless as an abandoned puppy’s.
The father glanced at Zhu, then turned to me. “Camilla, how come you were the first person who noticed I was shot?”
“Master Lung, what a question! Because I care about you so much, I watch you always.”
Zhu cast me an angry look. Suddenly I realized he might be thinking I had just made him look bad in front of his boss.
I immediately tried to smooth things over. “Master Lung, everyone was paying attention. It’s only that as a woman, I was the first one to scream, because I was so scared.”
I was relieved to see a smile emerging on Zhu’s face.
Lung exclaimed, “Yes, all my men are first-rate. How could they not be, since I was the one who handpicked every single one? Ha! After my release, I’ll have a big banquet to celebrate my cheating death. How’s that?”
We all responded, “Excellent idea!”
Zhu smiled obsequiously. “Boss, I’ll make preparations for that. How about a Manchurian Han banquet?”
“Excellent! How come I never thought of that?” He made a fist, striking the stale hospital air. “And I’ll toast to the King of Hell and see how he’ll respond! Ha!”
10
Manchurian Han Banquet and a Private Magic Show
A
week later, Lung hosted the Manchurian Han imperial banquet at a famous high-end restaurant in the French Concession. I had heard about this kind of elaborate banquet but had never had the chance to see, let alone taste, one. It was based on the one that was served to celebrate Emperor Kangxi’s sixty-sixth birthday.
That evening, I put on a purple
cheongsam
embroidered with a soaring golden dragon, a gift from Lung. This exquisite piece had been made in the Xiang province, where the embroiderers are renowned for the variety of their patterns, stitches, and color gradations. Thus the saying, “On a piece of
xiang
embroidery, you can see the birds fly and hear the tigers roar.”
The golden dragon was enhanced by my gold earrings, necklace, and high heels. My other “props” included a silk golden flower pinned above my right ear, an Hermès handbag, a gold fan painted with blossoming camellias, and my fragrance, which scampered around me alluringly like a cat with a spool.
After Lung and I entered the restaurant’s spacious VIP banquet room, we saw preparations fit for an emperor. On the stage, a small ensemble with
erhu,
a
zheng,
and percussion instruments was playing the lively tune
gongxi facai,
“Wishing You Good Fortune and Happiness.” Twelve tables were set with embroidered tablecloths, napkins folded in the shape of a flower, enameled plates, and glasses with gilded borders. One tablecloth was yellow, a color once reserved for emperors; all the rest were red, the color of good luck. I immediately knew that Lung, Jinying, Zhu, Gao, and I, were to sit at the yellow one. Gao was included because his status had been upgraded since he had dashed to take a bullet for Lung.
The owner of the restaurant, its manager, and a group of waiters and waitresses flanked the entrance. The waitresses were dressed in the Qing dynasty imperial costume—a long, loose, yellow gown and a black vest embroidered with pink flowers. Another embroidered flower, also pink but much larger, perched on the girls’ elaborate, beaded headgear. Two pearl tassels swayed from the sides like miniature waterfalls. The girls, the flowers, and the tassels all seemed to have entered a smiling competition. As I looked down, I noticed that the waitresses’ shoes were five inches high on tiny platforms.
Lung nodded to the group as Zhu handed each a red lucky money envelope. The owner, a plump, middle-aged man, and the equally plump manager greeted us and told us that each table would be served by three imperial maids. The number was picked for good luck—
three
is a synonym of
birth, life.
Upon seeing us, the other guests who’d arrived earlier stood and kowtowed. After that, we took our seats at the golden table. This evening the king, of course, was Master Lung—the triad king who had even beaten the King of Hell!
I noticed that the imperial-yellow tablecloth and its matching seat covers were embroidered with colorful clouds and dragons, as if to honor the Flying Dragons gang. The gilded silverware glittered regally under the intricately carved imitation palace lamps.
Three Qing dynasty “princesses,” actually waitresses, came to fuss over us: holding out hot towels, pouring tea, serving respect dishes, lighting cigarettes. Of course there was no need for us to order, because the dishes for such an extraordinary banquet had to be selected well ahead.
As one of the “princesses” poured tea into Lung’s three-legged cup, an imitation of the ancient, wine-offering tripod, the manager said, “Master Lung, this is the most expensive Big Red Robe tea. It costs more than my whole month’s salary.”
Another waitress presented wine, and the owner gushed, “Not only do we offer Master Lung the best wine, we also serve it to you in these ceramic bowls from the famous Jingde province.”
The manager continued to babble while keeping his face pasted with a dog-shit-eating grin. His unctuous flow of words amazed and amused me.
“Master Lung, we would like you to know that it normally takes our chefs three months’ of traveling to different provinces to gather all the ingredients for this feast, then three weeks with twelve assistant chefs to prepare, and finally three days to try and test all the one hundred and three dishes. But since you are our most honorable guest, we speeded up the whole process by having the ingredients specially shipped here. Only our restaurant with our personal connections could achieve this. So I hope you and your guests will enjoy what we serve tonight.”
Lung laughed happily. “Of course I will. Especially after I cheated death, everything will taste heavenly, let alone the famous Manchurian Han banquet!” Then he turned to introduce me. “Meet Miss Camilla, my lucky star. She’s the one who gave me the dragon amulet that fended off the evil spirit and saved my life.”
“Welcome, Miss Camilla!” both the owner and the manager exclaimed.
Finally the manager finished his harangue and passed around the menu printed in golden characters against a crimson background:
HEAVENLY DRAGON MANCHURIAN HAN IMPERIAL BANQUET.
Then the manager pointed to the dishes on a small round table next to ours. “See? Honorable guests, these are the eighty-eight small dishes with their eighty-eight different condiments. And the eighty-eighty medium dishes with their eighty-eight different
peicai
.”
Peicai
is matching food, such as celery to go with Peking duck, dried vegetables with marinated pork, black fungus with fish fillet, chives with pig’s liver.
I had been to lavish banquets before but had not imagined that there could be so many condiments and
peicai
to match the main dishes. The serving array was extraordinary, on plates arranged in concentric circles in matching colors. All the condiments in the innermost circle were in different shades of yellow, the next in shades of orange, then shades of brown, and finally black. From a distance, the whole thing looked like a huge blossoming flower, matching those on the waitresses’ vests and headgear.
Soon chopsticks began clicking, lips smacking, glasses clinking, and flattering words pouring out.
Guests from the other tables came over to greet Lung, proposing toasts.
“Master Lung, that’s why you’re the number one boss—you even beat the King of Hell!”
“Congratulations, Master Lung! May your fortune be as infinite as the Eastern Sea and your longevity as immeasurable as the Southern Mountains!”
When everybody had fulfilled their obligatory rounds, we resumed eating. Soon the manager advised that we should taste only a small portion of each dish, saving room for more yet more to come. As best I could remember, the dishes we’d already tasted included: four-delicacies soup, gold-thread porridge, lotus prawns, sweet-scented osmanthus and dry scallops, Mandarin-duck thin milk, panda-tasting bamboo, phoenix spreading the wings, braised shark-fin phoenix tails, tiger skin and rabbit meat, dragon and phoenix heartthrob, French bean goldfish, pearl and white jelly fungus, osmanthus and pigeon eggs... .
The dish that really overwhelmed me was Immortals Pointing the Way, which, the owner told us, was made from the roots of green sprouts hollowed with a thin wire, then stuffed with shredded, newborn baby chicken. Almost as amazing was the One Hundred Happiness, consisting of one hundred carps’ whiskers meticulously collected, cooked, and arranged in the shape of one hundred different writing styles of the character
shou,
longevity.
Yet another one was Mandarin duck legs. This time the manager hastened to explain, “Ladies and gentleman, don’t let this ordinary-looking dish fool you—”
Jinying blurted out, sounding like a spoiled child, “But we eat duck leg all the time.”
“Young Master, but we only serve drumsticks from the left side of the duck.”
Jinying widened his eyes. “Why eat the left and waste the right?”
A few guests smiled at his naivety.
“Because a duck always urinates by lifting its left leg. The results are, first, the left drumstick tastes much better because of the constant exercise. And second, the urine always flows to the right leg, resulting in an unpleasant, acidic taste.”
An expression of amazement appeared on Jinying’s face.
Lung looked at his son admiringly as he said to the manager, “My son is Western educated, a lawyer from HarFud. He knows much about the West but is still a beginner in Chinese culture.”
Jinying pointed to the plate. “Is this considered Chinese culture?”
This time Zhu chimed in, “Of course. This is our five-thousand-year-old culinary culture.”
The boss’s son made a face. “Then I’d rather not learn about it.” He paused before muttering softly, “It’s disgusting.”
No one seemed to, or pretended not to, hear what he’d said. The son looked in my direction, and I returned an understanding smile. Just then I noticed that Gao was studying us curiously. So I smiled again, making sure the one I aimed at him was a tad more flirtatious than the one I’d just sent to his possible rival. But he turned away, refusing to acknowledge my good intention. Nor did the bodyguard make any conversation with anyone else; he knew well his place in the black-society’s hierarchy. He was lucky enough to have been invited to this table. So why push his luck further? Tonight the only thing appropriate for him to do was to eat. And I was glad to see he’d been doing it with abandon.
More dishes, wine, and tea were consumed, and more congratulatory remarks poured out until at last the final dish arrived. Flanked by the owner and manager, two waitresses, between them balancing a huge golden plate, walked with delicate steps to our table. After they set down their burden, what we saw was a painting.
Jinying was the first to exclaim, “Wah! What a beautiful painting!”
Zhu added jokingly. “So now, after all the food, it’s time for art appreciation?”
His boss scoffed. “Ha! Everyone knows I’m not interested in appreciating art, only making money.”
The restaurant owner proudly announced, “Exquisite, isn’t it? This painting is called
ruyi shanshui,
Good Luck Landscape. But don’t let appearances fool you. Because this painting is edible!”
Jinying spoke again. “So this is food?”
“Of course!” Both the owner and the manager laughed at the young master’s naivety.
On the “painting’s” top left-hand corner shone a red sun with golden rays. Under it soared white cranes above luscious trees and colorful houses.
“This dish is vegetarian.” This time the manager spoke, pointing. “See? The sun was made of carrot, its rays pickled radish, the flying cranes, tofu cut into different shapes. Take a close look, and you will see that the trees are seaweed and the houses different kinds of mushrooms.”
Everyone
oohed
and
aahed
over this stunning culinary art.
I asked, “How can we have the heart to eat something so beautiful?”
Lung leaned close to me. “Do you also think that I shouldn’t have the heart to eat you?”
I flung my fan playfully at him as I conjured up a matching smile, hiding my distress at his ominous words. “Master Lung, if I were a dish, do you think it would also have a boosting effect?” Of course the “boosting effect” I meant was sexual.
Lung patted his chest emphatically. “Huh! What do you think? I even cheated death!”
Now everyone focused on studying the “painting” and pretended that they didn’t hear any of our conversation nor see the old man’s dirty little hands taking tasty trips on my body. Everyone except the young master and the head bodyguard. The former’s face was turning red and the latter’s pale.
Finally, when we were all complaining about our bulging bellies, Zhu stood up, tapped his glass with his spoon, and announced, “Thank you, everyone, for coming here tonight to celebrate Master Lung’s cheating death! Now that our bellies are satisfied, what about our eyes and ears?”
People clapped. “Yes, let’s hear Miss Camilla’s heavenly voice!”
Zhu waved a dismissive hand. “Wait, not so fast. Miss Camilla should always be the last, since she’s the best, right? So we’ll have a surprise show first!”
Just then, the orchestra played something loud and boisterous as a woman walked briskly onto the stage and deeply bowed. To my utter shock, it was Shadow!
My heart beat wildly. Lung had never told me about inviting Shadow to the banquet for entertainment. Was this simply a pleasant surprise, or a sign of danger ahead?
The magician appeared half-naked, wearing flesh-colored tights with sequins covering her breasts and the valley between her legs. People looked shocked and amazed that she appeared naked but was in fact not, part of her constant, seductive navigation between illusion and reality.
Shadow thanked Zhu for the introduction, then smiled to the audience. Finally her eyes landed on Lung.
She picked up a glass of wine. “May I suggest that we all toast to Master Lung’s health and longevity?”
After everyone upended their glass, the magician continued. “I know you’re all waiting eagerly for Miss Camilla to round out this wonderful evening with her heavenly singing. So my show will just be a warm-up.” Then she looked toward me. “Will Miss Camilla come up onstage?”
BOOK: Skeleton Women
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