Lung motioned me to sit beside him. Soundlessly, a white-gloved, black-tuxedoed waiter materialized and set down a silver ice bucket in which nestled a bottle of Dom Pérignon. I was sure Zhu had paid the young waiter a tip as generous as the glimpse of my breasts above my plunging neckline, for the latter bowed deeply as he backed out of the room.
After gulping down some Champagne, Lung leaned over toward me to inhale my special fragrance. “You smell nice, Camilla. Any special place you want to see in Paris tomorrow?”
“What about shopping along the Champs-Élysées?” I asked in an eager tone, trying to sound like a child asking to be taken to a candy store.
I caught Jinying’s knit brow; perhaps he was disappointed that I did not ask for something more cultural, such as the opera or concert hall. But my real motive was not simply to be treated to expensive fashions but also to put Lung into an exposed position.
The boss laughed. “You girls never get tired of shopping, do you?”
“Just like Master Lung never gets tired of making money!”
He reached to touch my face. “Ha! I’m sure if there was a glib-tongue contest, even if you took second, no one would dare to claim first prize.”
I laughed, not just to please Lung but to jiggle my exposed breasts. As expected, all three men’s eyes fixated on my half-moons as they exercised their fox trot.
“Thank you Master Lung. If my tongue is washed in oil, then yours is soaked in Champagne.”
Jinying’s brow continued to knit. Finally he blurted out, “Father, maybe we should go to the opera one night.”
I didn’t like the idea, because there would be little chance in such a public place to finish my assignment of finishing off Lung. But I smiled anyway. “I’m sure Young Master is dying to have his ears greased by the heavenly voice of all the excellent singers in Paris. He has such exquisite taste.”
Lung looked at his son appreciatively. “Of course he has. But as you know, I don’t want to hear those slaughtering-the-chicken, scratching-the-pan, ghost-scraping-the-coffin, foreign voices. Camilla, since Jinying is an opera fan and you the Heavenly Songbird, why don’t you do me a favor by accompanying my son to the opera for just one night?”
Jinying exclaimed, “Thank you, Father, I’d love to!”
Zhu immediately offered, “Then I’ll book the best seats.”
To my relief, after dinner Lung didn’t demand sex but retired to his suite. Back in my own room, I sat on the sofa in my bathrobe with Champagne flute in hand and racked my brain. My trip to Paris was to complete a mission, not to be entertained. So far, befriending Jinying hadn’t seemed to aid my cause, and I feared time was running out.
What to do? I looked out the window and silently prayed, “Please, heaven, help me!”
Then my eyes landed on the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the Parisian lights. Tonight, instead of going out to have fun in this beautiful, exotic city, I was sitting in a luxurious but lonely hotel room with nothing to think about but arranging a murder. What kind of life was this for a nineteen-year-old girl? Sadly I began to hum the song “Family Happiness”:
Everyone has a father, but not me.
Everyone has a mother, but not me.
White clouds leisurely float by, the river flows east,
The fledgling bird returns to its nest to find it already gone.
When I long for home, there is no boat to take me there.
I cry till all my tears dry.
We all lose our parents... . So many tragedies in this world!
Singing to myself, I fell asleep, only to be awakened by urgent knocking on my door. I rushed to open it and saw Jinying’s flushed face.
Fearing that he might be seen, I had no choice but to pull him in.
“Jinying, again? What’s wrong with you? You can’t just keep coming to my room like this!”
Once the door was closed, he tried to kiss me, but I pushed him away. “Where are the others?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, they’re in my father’s room discussing business they don’t want me to know about. That’s why I came.”
“Please leave right away. You’re playing with fire!”
“Calm down. Their meeting will take at least an hour.”
He took my hand and led me to gaze out the window at the glittering Eiffel Tower. “Look, Camilla, and see the beautiful and romantic world out there. Why are we suffering instead of enjoying ourselves?”
“Because we were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic.” He turned to look me in the eye. “Camilla, a sweet girl like you, why are you willing to be my father’s mistress?”
“I told you why. You think I can turn down Shanghai’s most powerful gangster?”
He looked hurt and angry, then silently muttered, “I hate him.”
I blurted out, “Me, too ...” and immediately regretted it.
“Did he... .”
“Why don’t we run away?”
I chuckled nervously. “Jinying, I haven’t known anyone who could escape through the cracks of your father’s fingers. So what makes you think we can?”
“I’ll come up with a plan.”
“All right,” I said sarcastically, “then let me know when you have one, Young Master.”
Some silence followed before he spoke again, a little breathlessly. “Camilla, you remember
“The scholar’s love for Liniang was strong enough to resurrect her from the grave. So I know my love for you can find a way out for us.”
I didn’t respond, letting the rich young man drown in his own impossible dreams.
As Jinying was about to go on, to our alarm, we heard knocking at the door.
My heart skipped a beat. “Jinying, quick, hide—it must be your father!”
“How do you know? Did you order room service?”
I didn’t have time for arguing, so I gave him a hard push. “Hide on the balcony, quick!”
He dashed over, and I pulled the curtains so he was hidden from sight.
I rushed to open the door and saw Lung and Gao. After I let them in, the boss sat down on the bed, then signaled his bodyguard to check the closet and bathroom.
“I’m too excited by all the business talk. So, Camilla, you know what I want.”
Soon Gao came back to report, “Master Lung, the place is clean.”
Lung waved a dismissive hand. “All right, then, you can go.”
The bodyguard cast me a sad glance.
I bit my lip as my heart roared like thunder. Damn, I’d just lost another chance. Lung had asked Gao to search the room but not me! But even if I’d had a weapon on my person, how could I kill the father when the son was right in the same room? Even if I did, how could I escape? Fortunately neither Lung nor Gao had realized that there was a balcony behind the floor-length curtains.
Right after Gao closed the door behind him, I immediately went to sit on Lung’s lap and conjured up my best smile. “Maser Lung, how come you still don’t trust me? Look.” I wriggled my water-snake waist. “Do you think someone like me could harm anyone? Especially you? “
He caressed my cheek with his murderous hand. “I know, I know. But, Camilla, a habit of thirty-odd years is hard to change. Besides, it’s not that I don’t trust you. I just don’t trust any situation.”
I could feel my heart beating like a hammer on an anvil. To distract Lung from noticing anything unusual, I pressed my lips urgently against his. My hand, like a poor child’s, reached into his pants to play with his sex as if it were my only toy.
His face flushed, and his eyes burned as he pulled open my bathrobe. I immediately pulled it back, suddenly feeling modest.
Lung laughed. “Ha, Camilla, are you suddenly shy, or is this a new tactic to tease me? I like that!”
Yes, I did feel shy. But why? Lung was not a refined or handsome man but an old rogue who knew nothing about love or romance, only extorting money, cheating, killing, and, of course, fucking. But who was I to judge? Although I didn’t know much about extorting money, did I really know anything about love and romance?
This time I felt disgusted by Lung’s slobbering kisses and artless squeezing. And I suddenly realized I felt shy because Jinying might be watching us from the balcony. He might be witnessing the woman he loved dearly carrying on dirty business with the father he hated bitterly.
All right, since I had missed my chance to kill the father, what about playing the son against his father? Would he kill his old man for me? I didn’t think so. He might warn his father instead, so doing anything to provoke him was out of the question.
I used all my willpower to seem to respond passionately to Lung’s groping and pinching. I moaned and groaned as if I truly enjoyed his wrinkled lips and callous fingers. When we were completely naked, Lung, as expected, wanted contortion sex. Aware of Jinying’s burning eyes, I couldn’t do it.
But I needed an excuse.
I said, “Master Lung, I hurt my leg when I tripped earlier in the day, so I really can’t do that tonight, but I promise I’ll do whatever you want after my leg recovers.”
He looked disappointed but grudgingly said, “All right. You need to see a doctor for that?”
I threw him a flirtatious smile. “I’ll be okay; it just needs some rest.” Then I repaid his “kindness” by again passionately kissing him on his lips as if he were my true and only love. My hands assisted by playing all sorts of naughty games with his swelling sex. Because I was imagining Jinying’s burning eyes and eager ears on us, I didn’t do as good a job as usual, but I trusted Lung to be too excited to notice.
Finally, after our artless war of sex, the gangster put on his clothes. “Camilla, get well soon. You know what I want.”
“Of course, Master Lung.”
After that, he gave my breast another squeeze, then left with a loud bang of the door, startling me.
Seconds after the old man left, Jinying’s angry, jealousy-stricken face thrust itself in front of mine. Then he threw himself onto the bed where his father and I had just copulated. He didn’t utter a word but buried his head between his hands, his face twisting in agony.
He blurted out, “I’ll kill him!”
I almost exclaimed, “Good idea!” but stopped myself just in time. I said instead, “Shh ... Jinying, lower your voice, just in case.” I paused, then spoke again. “Jinying, don’t even think of anything along that line. He’s your father, after all.” I said this just to test how far he might go for love.
He raised his head to look at me, his eyes tearing. “He does too many wrongs, kills too many people. He should be dead.”
“You really think that?”
He hissed, “Yes! I love you, Camilla, and I can’t bear what he does to you or the way you have to succumb to his evil power.”
“Yes, you may want him dead, but I don’t believe you have the heart to kill him.” Testing him again, I felt myself slightly trembling. Persuading a son to kill his father—could there be any worse karma than that?
As expected, he shook his head. I wondered, was this cowardice or being filial?
Then he suddenly exclaimed, startling me, “If I can’t strike him down, I wish that heaven will!”
“But if heaven chooses to be compassionate, what do you plan to do?” I asked.
“I’ll drum up something.”
Unfortunately so far it was only talk but no action.
“Jinying, you’re tired and angry and can’t think straight. Please go back to your room and get some sleep. We’ll talk about this later. Go, quickly. Your father might come back at any time!”
After the young master’s departure, the question arose again in my mind.
Why couldn’t I have contortionist sex with Lung when I knew Jinying was watching? Why should I care how he felt?
But it was very dangerous for me to even try to ponder this. Such thoughts shouldn’t even exist in my head in the first place.
I reminded myself that I was a spy with no emotions, only a deadly mission.
I was a skeleton woman. And I was to turn Lung into my next skeleton.
Opera House and a Deadly Thought
wo days later, Zhu told me that he had obtained two balcony tickets to the Opera de Paris. Even better, he said that neither his boss, Gao, nor the other bodyguards would be dining with Jinying or me. He didn’t say where they would be, but I believed that some especially secret business meeting was planned.
I knew Lung had dealings all over the world, so I was not surprised that this Paris trip involved more than just pleasure. In fact, I had heard about his intention to open a bank in the French Concession, which was not under the Chinese government’s control. So maybe he was going to negotiate with French officials about this. Would his travels to and from this meeting in rented limousines offer a chance to attack him?
Of course the “Japanese couple,” or assassins, were also staying at Plaza Athénée. But in order not to arouse suspicion, they were no longer Japanese nor a couple but now an old widower and his nurse. Each morning, he’d have breakfast on the hotel’s terrace café, ready for my news, if any.
Early the next morning, while the others were still asleep, I went to the café, where I had a coffee while pretending to read the newspaper. Ten minutes later, I put the newspaper back on the rack and left. In my peripheral vision, I saw the widower go to pick up the newspaper I’d just left—with my note in it. How he would transact his business in Paris was not my concern; I just provided the information that Lung was having a meeting somewhere and suggested that he follow them. I hoped this time he would be able to get rid of Lung and end my troubles.
In the evening, only three of us, Jinying, a bodyguard, and me, had dinner at the hotel restaurant. After a full, satisfying meal, Jinying couldn’t wait to dismiss the guard so we could go to the opera alone. Fortunately, the bodyguard was more than happy to have the rest of the evening to himself, so he could go to the red-light district, get drunk, then hire a woman’s pleasurable treasure trough. Of course he wouldn’t tell anyone about his private adventure. Especially since Jinying gave him a big tip. Besides, he would not be so stupid as to tell the others he’d had an evening off and left the boss’s son unprotected.
The Chinese say, “There is always a mountain taller than the one you live on.” So, when I had thought that the Plaza Athénée was the most grandiose building I’d ever seen, I was soon proved wrong. Now it seemed nothing could compare to this palatial opera house. The sumptuous interior was bathed in shimmering gold, orange, and ivory-white. Sculptures, candelabra, and paintings adorned ceiling and floor, corners and niches, archways and stairways.
As Jinying led me past a few elegantly dressed couples to mount a long flight of marble stairs, I felt like a goddess ascending to heaven. The corners of my lips, despite my effort to press them down, stubbornly refused to droop like a capsized boat but adamantly remained in the shape of a crescent moon.
Soon we settled in balcony seats that would no doubt cost an ordinary working person a full month’s salary.
Jinying took my hand and put it to his lips. This time I let him, for Lung and his people were in a meeting elsewhere, and I hoped that this elsewhere would soon be their graveyard. However, I did not want Gao to accompany Lung and Zhu on their way to hell. Like the young master, he loved me and was good to me. At least for my vanity, if not my heart, I wanted him alive to keep loving and protecting me forever.
Jinying now looked a lot happier than he had in my room two days ago. “Are you enjoying this, Camilla?”
I nodded, then continued to look around. All around me was wealth and elegance but also pomposity and snobbishness. Did these rich and privileged people really love opera or merely love the idea of being opera buffs? I looked back at Jinying. He was equally rich and privileged, but his passion for opera was as genuine as his father’s love for money and power.
Tonight’s performance was
Puccini’s famous work, which I knew because Madame Lewinsky sometimes sung arias from it for me. Unfortunately it was a tragedy, which I was not in the mood for. My life was unfortunate enough; I felt no need to be entertained by someone else’s misfortune. Nevertheless, I still felt lucky to be watching a famous opera in the formidable Paris Opera House. So I decided to set aside my troubles for the next two hours to let myself enjoy some fleeting musical moments.
Before the performance started, I reflected on what I knew about the story.
Madame Butterfly, or Cio-Cio San, was a geisha procured to be the wife of B. F. Pinkerton, an American Navy Lieutenant. Although Pinkerton was at first infatuated with his beautiful, fragile Japanese lover, he never took the union seriously. She was but a romantic diversion to fill his lonely days in a foreign country. He always intended that someday he would go back to his country and marry a real American wife.
After Pinkerton’s departure back to the United States, Madame Butterfly and their young son waited patiently and faithfully for his return. During her interminable wait, the devoted Cio-Cio San even turned down the marriage proposal of a wealthy prince. But Cio-Cio San’s devotion was rewarded only by heartbreak. One day Pinkerton did return—with his American wife. Mortified, Cio-Cio San sent her son to play in the garden, then killed herself.
In the dreamy atmosphere of the grand hall, as we waited for the performance to begin, Jinying took my hand and stared at me with his dark, intense eyes. “Camilla, I’m so happy to see this opera with you.”
I said nonchalantly, “Don’t be.”
He looked puzzled. “Why not?”
“Why are you so happy? This is a tragedy, and the world already has enough sorrow.”
“Oh, Camilla, this is just a play.”
I retorted, “You should know our situation better, Young Master.”
He withdrew his hand as hurt spread over his face. “But can’t we just enjoy ourselves for this moment, even though it’s fleeting? Can’t we dream and linger in the evanescence for a while, while we can?”
“As you wish,” I said calmly.
My whole life, I’d been trained to live, or endure, each moment but never to enjoy it. I never forgot that I was a girl with no past or future, just the dangerous present. So how could I
grasp this fleeting moment? I remembered I read that Zen Buddhism says if you can truly live in the moment, you won’t have any worries. Just look at me, and you’ll believe the opposite!
Finally the curtain began to rise, and the orchestra struck its first note. This was the first time I’d seen a Western opera or even heard a full Western orchestra, and suddenly I couldn’t help but feel elated. Although I didn’t understand the strange-sounding language, I loved the music. The acting was quite exaggerated, especially that of the actress who played Cio-Cio San. Her makeup too; it was so heavy that I couldn’t tell if she was a man or a woman or Asian or Western.
I turned to peek at Jinying and saw that he was totally immersed in the tragic illusion unfolding onstage. If he realized that my life offstage was equally elusive and tragic, would he still be as attracted to me as he was to the opera heroine? I sighed inside. Would I taste happiness someday? If happiness was the man now sitting right next to me, should I reach and grasp it tightly in my hand?
Pondering, I had been only intermittently following the story until the last act, when Cio-Cio San, her heart irretrievably broken by Pinkerton’s unfeeling one, was about to end her tragic life. Although I already knew the story, I was still stunned when the actress onstage sent her son away, sang her last song, then plunged a knife into her already shattered heart. How sad that love could drive a woman, even one with a young, adorable son, onto this path of no return.
Why is love—and the falling in and out of it—such an overwhelming force? It brought Cio-Cio San to death but Liniang in the
back to life. Which would be the outcome of Jinying’s imprudent love for me? A happy life—or death?
The performance was a tremendous success. The thunderous clapping seemed to last a whole incarnation. The actors came out three times to bow and thank the audience. It was nice to see that “Cio-Cio San,” who had been the personification of tragedy, was now as happy as a tickled baby.
Finally, when we made our way through the crowd to the outside, leaving the glory of the opera house behind, Jinying asked, “Did you like it?”
“It was sad,” I said softly.
“Then let’s take a walk along the Seine—its tranquility will pacify your mind. After that, we’ll have a drink at a nice café. How’s that?”
“Sounds good,” I responded, not knowing what to feel anymore.
The leisurely flowing Seine, the luminous moonlight, the looming mystery of Notre Dame playing hide-and-seek in the fog were so beautiful that, strangely, instead of making me feel poetic or amorous, they made me sadder. I feared that if I allowed myself pleasure, or anything even agreeable, disaster would strike. After all, wasn’t I a spy and a wicked person who didn’t deserve happiness, nor even a beautiful evening accompanied by a kind, handsome man?
Jinying put his arm around me as we ambled along the quay. There were not many people about, only a few couples here and there. Some sat on the benches watching the occasional pleasure boats float by. Others, like us, strolled along, quietly accompanied by the soft sounds of the river. Under trees or behind the wall, couples kissed passionately, unperturbed by curious eyes or heated whispers.
My daily meditation on the Huangpu River always gave me a sense of calm that was much needed in my chaotic life. But this equally famous river in an exotic land did not give me the same calmness; instead it stirred something deep and dark inside me. But what that was I couldn’t yet name.
We continued to walk. Suddenly, when we were passing a big boulder, Jinying pulled me behind it and pressed his mouth to mine. His searching, burning lips were so urgent that I could almost read what was on his mind:
Time is running out, so let’s enjoy these exquisite moments before they vanish!
Instead of pushing him away, I surprised myself by responding passionately to his advances. I pressed my body hard against his until I felt his sex burgeoning. My hands, like a naughty beggar’s, ambushed his body’s forbidden places.
After we had kissed and caressed for a while, I pushed the young master away to take a good look at him. His face was glowing, his lips moist, and his breathing deep, as he savored the aftertaste of our illicit acts. I searched his eyes, trying to find something there to comfort me, to change my mind. To save me from sinking, and eventually drowning, in love, in life.
He spoke. “Camilla, I can’t go on like this. I love you too much. You’re killing me.”
I remained silent. What else could be done?
He touched my cheek, his hand warm and gentle. “Camilla, let’s elope.”
A few seconds passed before I asked, “You’ve suggested this many times.”
“Then where, and how?”
“I’ll find a way. I have to. I can’t live like this.”
I didn’t respond, fearing any words, or even an exhalation, would blow away his promise and my hope.
Jinying possessed a lot of good traits; unfortunately being street-smart was not one of them. He’d been sheltered too much and for too long to realize what he was up against. How could someone who had never met any challenges in real life imagine that he could get the better of his cunning and powerful gangster father?
“Jinying, why don’t we just enjoy the moment? It’s so beautiful out here.”
He nodded, then took my hand and wrapped it in his.
As I felt the warmth from his whole being, I also felt nausea rising in my chest. A terrible thought, like a malignant ghost, crept through my mind, a thought I could not exorcise. I nodded toward an empty bench some dozen yards ahead of us. “Jinying, my feet are hurting. Can you go save that bench so it won’t be taken?”
He looked at me curiously. “But I can carry you to it.”
I pointed again, into the distance. “See that couple over there? Looks like they’re going to sit down, so please get there first, quickly! I’ll follow you. I just can’t walk fast enough with these heels.”
“All right,” he said reluctantly, then hurried toward the bench.
When Jinying was some distance away, I immediately turned around, rushed behind a clump of shrubs to hide myself from sight, and jumped off the tall quay into the Seine.
As I fell, tears rained down my face, quickly becoming one with the expanse of water. Nineteen years of miseries, sufferings, and loneliness had hit me like a witch’s broomstick. Tears stored up for nineteen years finally had their chance, their last and only one, to make their escape into eternity. Nothing would trouble me anymore, for I’d soon leave this pitiless world that, from the very beginning, had offered me little but cruelty. Of course the world wouldn’t care one way or the other. It had not cared when I was alive, nor would it after I was gone. Rivers, whether in the East or the West, would continue to flow on endlessly day and night. I was a nobody, an orphan. There were no relatives to give me a proper burial, so this beautiful river in a strange country would be my final resting place. Here, no one would find me or remember that I was once a living soul... .