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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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Skeleton Women (32 page)

BOOK: Skeleton Women
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On Sunday night, Shadow, in a black tunic outlining her shapely, muscular body, and I in my high-slit
cheongsam,
walked onto the stage to be greeted with thunderous applause. For a warm-up, I sang three of my most popular songs, and Shadow did some simple tricks. Then the orchestra struck up a rousing melody as a big glass water tank was pushed to the center of the stage. When the clapping died down, I demonstrated that the tank would be locked on top and showed them the stocks that would hold Shadow’s hands and feet.
Then I made a sweeping gesture with my gloved hand. “Does anyone want to come up and check?”
Immediately two girls in pink dresses dashed up onto the stage. They put their hands into the tank to stir the water, knocked on the glass, tugged at the locks, then smiled with satisfaction.
“So you’re happy with what you saw and touched?” I asked, realizing that they were pink ladies from Rainbow Chang’s entourage.
They nodded.
“You can tell our audience that this is the real thing?”
They answered “Yes” simultaneously, then went back to their seats.
The music now shifted to an eerie mood as the lights dimmed and the audience grew quiet.
I locked chains onto the hands and ankles of a pale-looking Shadow. I could not tell if this was the effect of the dim lights or her fear of another disaster. Right after I finished, the two male assistants lifted her up and, with a loud
swoosh,
released her headfirst into the tank, where she could be seen wriggling like a huge fish.
I closed the lock, then, smiling mysteriously, asked the audience, “Do you all see Miss Shadow in the water?”
A collective answer burst from the crowd. “Yes!”
Someone yelled, “She is beautiful, like a mermaid!”
After making sure that everyone had a good view of the aquatic Shadow, I draped a black cloth over it. Gasps and whispers were ejected here and there, and everyone started to count, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight ...” with me.
Three minutes passed, and I, with another dramatic wave of my arm, lifted the cloth.
To my astonishment, Shadow had not disappeared as we’d rehearsed but was struggling spasmodically to get out of the tank! The music stopped abruptly. Her two male assistants, armed with axes, rushed onto the stage. They struck at the glass relentlessly till finally cracks formed a spidery pattern through which the water eerily oozed like colorless blood.
When the glass finally shattered, the magician’s body washed out onto the stage and did not move. What the two men fussed over was now but the magician’s lifeless shadow!
A huge commotion burst out in the hall.
“Is she dead?”
“Call an ambulance!”
Women covered their faces and screamed hysterically. Children cried, and teenagers giggled. People in the front, splashed by the water and hit by shards of glass, tried to push their way out toward the exit. Others pushed them back, probably eager to get nearer to the stage so they could get a closer look at the dying magician or her corpse. Shadow’s two assistants swiftly carried her backstage away from the crowd.
I yelled, “Please stay calm! An ambulance is on its way!” but to deaf ears.
Unable to placate the audience, I went backstage to check on Shadow. But I received yet another shock—the magician and her staff were nowhere to be found! Had the two men taken her body away for some obscure purpose? Or was this another of Shadow’s astounding illusions? Of course I knew she planned to leave Shanghai, but it was not the plan that she would drown, thus setting off a near-riot in the hall. Now that she was gone, I was left alone to face the angry audience, the sensationalizing press, my damaged reputation, and possibly severe rebukes from Ho and Wang.
The following day, all the major newspapers reported about our second disastrous show.
Rainbow Chang’s column read:
A Shadow in the Shade
Last night there was a BIG surprise at the Bright Moon Nightclub.
In what was billed as The Great Escape, Camilla, the Heavenly Songbird, locked her magician friend, Shadow, hand and foot upside down inside a water tank. Shadow was supposed to disappear from the tank while it was covered with a curtain.
But the stunt went horribly wrong. When our Heavenly Songbird lifted the drape, instead of an empty tank, the audience saw a drowning Shadow. Her assistants chopped through the glass, but the magician showed no signs of life and was quickly carried offstage.
Since then, she has not been seen. Is she in the shadowy next world with the great magicians of the past? Or did she make herself disappear, just as she once did with a castle?
We wonder: Is Shadow dead or alive? If dead, where is her corpse? If alive, where is Shadow? Maybe the disaster was but another stunning magic show?
We Shanghainese are more and more mystified by this singer-magician duo. With them, whatever seems real turns out to be fake, and what seems fake may be real.
We hope that a living Shadow will come back from this fantasy. Until then, we miss her. Does our Camilla know the truth? We hope she will let us in on the secret.
 
More to follow... .
Rainbow Chang
I had spent the night tossing sleeplessly; then reading Rainbow’s column made me even more confused. Pacing restlessly in my apartment, I noticed an envelope slipped under the door. When I opened the door, there was no one to be seen, so it must have been put there during the night. I picked it up, opened it and read:
My dear friend Camilla,
As you might have guessed, I am alive, and I did this trick on purpose. Why not? I’m as beautiful and talented as you, so why should heaven favor you over me? Now you know what it is like to be upstaged.
Yes, I am jealous; that’s why I wrecked the show. Now we’re even. You sliced my finger; I ruined your show.
Anyway, you told me I had to disappear, and so I did. Just not in the way you expected.
Just when I was getting famous in Shanghai, I am forced to leave. It’s really not fair.
I swore I’d never go back to my hometown in Shandong, where there is nothing but poverty. But as we Chinese say, “As long as we don’t destroy the mountains, we’ll always have firewood to burn.”
We will meet again in this lifetime, but I won’t say when. We might need each other someday—who knows? Everything changes, as we both know well.
Something dropped from the envelope as I continued reading.
Here’s your ring. I won’t need it where I am going. I don’t know where Master Lung’s jade is, but I did not steal it.
Your Shadow
I stooped down, picked up the ring, and slipped it onto my finger, suddenly feeling a wave of loneliness. I had been planning and scheming to get rid of Shadow for such a long time, but now that she was really gone, I felt a loss. And I wondered, what was my most worthy rival up to? Would she live out her life in anonymity? Or was she plotting another spectacular comeback?
Though I had wanted to be rid of her for so long, now I realized I would miss our pretended friendship—and our feuds.
 
When I told Big Brother Wang that I had finally succeeded in getting rid of Shadow, I didn’t get any thanks, only a severe scolding.
My boss seemed to spit out fire as he spoke. “You already spent way too much time fussing with this Shadow! You’d better hurry up and get Lung’s secret bank account numbers, and then get rid of him.”
“Yes, Big Brother Wang.”
“You’ve also spent too much time with Lung’s son.”
“That was to get information about his old man.”
“That’s a good excuse. What information did you get?”
“These things take time, Big Brother Wang.”
“Maybe, but you know you don’t have a lot of time left, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know.”
“You already passed your deadline.”
“I’m so sorry, Big Brother Wang, but we were waiting for his protective star to pass. I swear I’ll complete my mission soon.”
“All right, I’ll give you one more month, but if you still can’t deliver, you’re no longer needed. I mean it this time.”
“I will deliver, Big Brother Wang.”
After I hung up, I had to use all my willpower to stop myself from trembling. I still had no idea how I could eliminate Lung. And he was my lost son’s grandfather. I missed my little son, Jinjin, but was not ready to follow him into the
yin
world. There was no one I could turn to for advice on such a matter. The only one I could confide in at all was Madame Lewinsky. But she could only advise me on singing and how to live my romantic life. I could hardly ask her about murdering someone.
But I wondered: Why hadn’t I heard from her after my tragedy? She had always seemed so concerned about me before.
30
The Secret Villa
I
believed that Rainbow Chang’s line,
Maybe the disaster was but another stunning magic show,
saved the event from being labeled a total failure. Heated discussions followed her article. Some newspapers said that the show failed; others argued that it was a big success because Shadow
did
make her Great Escape. To remain enigmatic, I refused to give an opinion, despite reporters’ relentless urging. Gradually, the public forgot about the disappearance as I went on with my life, singing as usual at the Bright Moon.
Jinying came by himself a few times to hear me at the nightclub, when his father and his gang were away negotiating deals in Hong Kong or elsewhere. Lung’s absence was a mixed blessing for me. I did not have to flirt and have sex with the old, ruthless, slash-browed gangster. However, if he didn’t show his monkey face, I had no way to finish my assignment from Big Brother Wang. And now that Lung was my son’s grandfather, I had even less appetite for this evil task. But given Wang’s impatience, it was either Lung or me, and of course I would rather it be Lung. But time was running out, and unless I figured something out, it would be me instead of him.
One day, while I was still agonizing over my mortal dilemma, Jinying called, eagerly telling me, “My father’s away, and he said I can use his place till he comes back. It’s a beautiful mansion. Please come, Camilla.”
“But there are always lots of people going in and out of there!” I was thinking of Lung’s residence in Junfu Lane.
“I don’t mean my father’s town house but his country villa.”
I’d never heard that Lung had another house, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Now Jinying naively leaked this valuable information as carelessly as someone who forgets to turn off the tap and lets the water run.
“Where is it?”
“Outside the city, but it’s too hard to explain. Anyway, I’ll drive.”
This might be my chance to get Lung’s secrets, such as his account numbers and ledgers of his illegal activities. Maybe this would satisfy Big Brother Wang for a while, while I tried to figure out the rest.
“Of course I’d love to go there with you, Jinying.”
“That’s wonderful, Camilla. We will have the place all to ourselves!”
“But Jinying ... won’t there be bodyguards and servants?”
“No, it’ll be all ours.”
“How come?”
“I’ve given everyone who works there some time off. Camilla, keep this top secret. Only me, Mr. Zhu, Gao, and a few close bodyguards know about his secret hiding place.”
“But your father knows that you’ll be there?”
“He gave me the key. He only trusts me because he figures I have no one to tell, since I’ve just come back from America. Promise me you won’t say anything about this to anyone.”
“I promise. And you trust me enough to let me know?”
Even though I was Lung’s favorite woman,
he
didn’t trust me enough to take me there, but his son did. Was it love or naïveté? Probably both.
But the boss’s son’s answer was simply, “Camilla, I love you so much.”
I quickly changed the subject. “Jinying, how about you pick me up tomorrow? And we should dress down. We don’t want to attract attention.”
After my conversation with Jinying, I started to think that this might be a good chance to escape from both Lung and Wang. Escaping from Lung would be dangerous for me, but so would killing him. And maybe his protective star was still shining strong. After all, he’d escaped the other times I had set him up. I was starting to think that, evil as Lung was, heaven did not want him killed, at least not yet, or not by me. And whether Lung lived or died, Wang was probably just as dangerous to me. After all, in these men’s eyes, women could never be trusted. So, given what I knew and that I had served my purpose, as the Chinese say, “When the rabbits are caught, the hounds are cooked.”
So at this point, escaping seemed the most likely way to prolong my stay in this dusty world. After all, of the famous Chinese thirty-six stratagems, the one universally considered best was: “When you run out of schemes, just run away.” Once I was gone from the Shanghai scene, everyone would quickly lose interest in me. As the saying goes, “When the birds are gone, the bows are put away.”
At first I thought I would not report to Big Brother Wang the location of Lung’s villa. But I realized that that would be not just be death for me but a lingering and horrible one. If I were away for more than a day, my driver and amah would report to Wang, and he’d track me down. He was probably having me followed at all times, anyway. He’d warned me many times that his men were everywhere, but I had no idea who they were.
So with great reluctance, I called Big Brother Wang to report. Needless to say, he was more than happy to grant me this “working vacation.”
“Report back to me right away as soon as you find anything.”
“Of course I will, Big Brother Wang.”
Then, to my great disappointment, my boss said, “I’ll send a few men to follow you to the villa and stake it out, in case Lung shows up there.”
 
So the next afternoon, Jinying came and picked me up. As he was driving us across the bridge over the Huangpu river, there was a sudden downpour, so there was not much chance to talk while Jinying concentrated on finding our way. I stared out the window, my thoughts as gloomy as the weather.
I kept looking back as discreetly as I could to see if we were being followed. I was sure Wang’s men must be behind us somewhere, but they did a good job, for I couldn’t tell which was the gangsters’ car. Or maybe there were several, acting as camouflage for each other. After a while, I dozed off, until I was awakened by a warm hand on my thigh.
“Camilla, we’re almost there.”
Now Jinying drove off the main road onto a narrow path half-hidden by tall poplar trees. Water was still dripping from the boughs, but the rain had stopped. After another five minutes he pulled to a stop in front of a grand white mansion.
I looked around and felt great relief that I didn’t see any other car. Had Wang’s men lost us in the rain? I hoped so.
The two-storied mansion peeked at us through towering trees, shrubs, luscious plants, and exotic flowers that emitted a rich fragrance after the rain. I saw at once that the front faced the sea, and the back was toward a mountain. Lung must have chosen this place through the advice of his
fengshui
master.
Beishan Mianhai,
“backed by the mountain, faced by the sea,” is the best
fengshui
location. Not only because it brings good luck, but also because the mountain in back protects, and the sea in front can be an escape route.
Jinying carried our suitcases into the foyer, dropped them, and before even closing the door kissed me passionately.
I mumbled between his mouth’s attacks, “Jinying ... where’s ... everybody else?”
He smiled mischievously. “I told you there won’t be anyone here, not even a ghost. We’ll have this place all to ourselves.”
“Good. Then I’ll make you the world’s happiest man tonight.”
“Why not every night?” He winked as he lifted me up and gave me a twirl.
“Every morning, too, if that’s what you wish. Young Master, I’m at your service.” I giggled nervously, feeling dizzy from being swung—and from the possibility of finding secret lists and bank accounts.
He put me down, his brow slightly knotted. I immediately realized that, for this lawyer who had graduated from a prestigious university in America, it was the confident and independent Camilla he loved, not the submissive and obsequious one who was his father’s mistress.
“Camilla, you already make me the happiest man just by being who you are.”
“Sorry, Jinying.”
“No need to apologize. Just be yourself.”
Not so easy, since I’d been pretending to be someone else all my life. There was an awkward silence, so I took the chance to look around. By the main entrance, huge urns stood guard. I wondered if they had been used, at least on occasion, to store dead bodies. The foyer alone was bigger than the entire apartment of a poor Shanghai family. A family probably made poor because the father had lost his life’s savings at Lung’s gambling house, where he also smoked the opium that Lung had bought and resold for fifty times what he paid. Lung profited still more when the bankrupted father sold his daughter to Lung’s prostitution house to pay off his ever-increasing gambling debts. So, if Wang succeeded, even without my help, in getting rid of Lung, it would be Lung’s own bad karma, not mine. Or so I hoped.
“Let’s move,” Jinying said, interrupting my thoughts.
He took my hand and led me inside the living room. Here, gold and yellow were the dominant colors, accented by Chinese red. Everything was as lavish and expensive as possible: a yellow silk sofa with a gilded frame, Chinese landscape paintings mounted on gold-speckled scrolls, a red cabinet filled with celadon plates and white jade carvings ... everywhere there were expensive curios.
In a corner behind the sofa stood a white grand piano. Of course this had been purchased for the young master. Even though Lung disapproved of his son’s love for music, he still wanted to show his love by buying him this expensive, ostentatious object. Seeing this, I felt a wave of unutterable sadness. I had grown up without parents to love me and had lost my baby before having a chance to hold him in my arms or even see him.
The young master cast me a concerned glance. “Camilla, are you all right?”
“Yes ... I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“Because you look distracted and ... sad.” Jinying kissed my forehead. “Camilla, you can sit on the sofa and rest while I take the luggage to the bedroom upstairs.”
“I can come and help.”
“I don’t need help. Just relax here, and I’ll be right back.”
I happily agreed, because now I could snoop around.
Then he said, “If you’re hungry, we can eat soon.”
“So are we driving back to the city?” In case Wang’s men really had lost us on the way, I did not want to give them another chance to find us.
Oblivious of my thoughts, Jinying looked completely happy. “No, we’ll eat here. I’m the cook tonight.”
BOOK: Skeleton Women
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