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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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BOOK: Skeleton Women
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Finally, when we had made enough dents on the dance floor, Lung and I returned to our seats. But Jinying’s friends kept calling him back to his own table, so he quickly apologized to us and left. Then Mr. Zhu, Lung’s right-hand man, picked up a newspaper and handed it to me, pointing to an article. It was the latest gossip column by Rainbow Chang.
A Naked Shadow
We can now reveal the identity of the girl who plunged to her disappearance three days ago. This stunning escapade was staged by a magician, Miss Shadow.
The incident was a prelude to promote her show opening on Thursday at the Ciro Nightclub, the upcoming rival of the older and more classy Bright Moon Nightclub. With this fanfare Miss Shadow has instantly become the talk of the town. So I believe that the Ciro Nightclub will steal many customers away from Bright Moon.
We were also told that the night she jumped, Miss Shadow was not really naked but wearing a flesh-toned tunic. The blood, of course, was fake, probably from a slaughtered chicken or pig or dog.
Like me, many of my readers must wonder what will happen now to Camilla, our beloved Heavenly Songbird. Will she still dominate the Shanghai nightclub scene, or will she soon be pushed into the turbulent sea? Who will be our supreme entertainment queen? Who will be Shanghai’s ultimate skeleton woman?
Well, we will soon find out.
One question to Miss Camilla: How will you feel when you finally meet your worthy rival?
More to follow... .
Rainbow Chang
I bit my lip, then quickly regained my focus and conjured up my most flirtatious smile. “Master Lung, have you read this?”
“Do you think I’d waste my time on gossip?”
“Will you be here Thursday night?”
He cast me an amused look. “Depends. Why?”
My heart suddenly turned cold, like the ice floating in my drink. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if he would go to Ciro to see the naked magician and her show.
Back in my apartment, I couldn’t shut my eyes. Sipping wine, I could only think of this new rival, her inconceivable trick and her genius in getting attention. Why did she call herself Shadow; did she not have a real existence? Was she a ghost? The name was fake, of course, just like mine. Not that this Shadow, having already bewitched Shanghai, would need a response from me. Did she want to replace me as the number one nightclub attraction? Or maybe Rainbow Chang had guessed wrong. Maybe Shadow’s target was not me but someone else. My heart rose in alarm. Could that someone else be ... Master Lung?
Of course I was smart enough to realize that this Shadow had not jumped to her death and was not a ghost but a human rival.
So of course I was smart enough to deal with her. I remembered the lines from Sunzi’s
Art of War
Know when to attack and when to wait.
The essence of warfare is not attack but strategy.
Know yourself, and know your enemy even better.
Yes! That’s it. Know yourself, but know your enemy even better.
Knowing her would be the next step toward clearing this weed on my path to completing my mission of eliminating Lung.
Thus resolved, I reached to turn on the radio. As if on cue, a recording of my singing “Nighttime Shanghai” began to flood the room.
They only see my smiling face
But never guess my heart’s pain... .
I sighed, then downed the whole glass of wine.
Madame Lewinsky
s a spy, I had to study strategies about scheming. My favorite was the
Art of War
by the most famous military strategist, Sunzi, who lived twenty-five hundred years ago.
Everything I learned from this book can be summarized in one sentence:
Build your presence, and use your cunning.
Sunzi says that on a battlefield, there are only two realities: win or lose. So there is no room for virtue, unless being virtuous or being a gentleman is your strategy. To win, every position has to be thoroughly known, every plan meticulously studied, and every act carefully worked out. As there is no room for virtue, there is no such thing as “a glorious failure.” On the battlefield, “honor” is just an empty comfort for losers.
Losers don’t get sympathy; they get killed.
History is written by the victors. So no matter how heartless and dishonest you are, after it is written, if you win, you’ll be remembered as a paragon of virtue and honor. The Chinese say, “Those who win become kings, those who fail, thieves.” Steal a nail, you’re a thief, steal a nation, a king.
You must show no weakness, no human feeling. Like King Liu Bang, who lived over two thousand years ago.
When they were battling for the kingdom, Xiang Yu kidnapped Liu’s father and threatened to cook him alive. Expecting his rival to surrender, Xiang Yu was shocked when Liu Bang exclaimed, “No problem. After you’ve cooked my father, don’t forget to save me a piece for dinner!”
In war, you have to be that ruthless.
Having studied the
Art of War,
Thirty-Six Stratagems,
and all other major works on strategy, I believed no one, trusted no one. So I’d already guessed that little naked Miss Shadow had not plunged to her death—and was probably not really naked, either. I didn’t trust my own shadow, so why would I trust anyone else’s?
To decide how to deal with Shadow, I needed to talk to my real boss, Big Brother Wang.
A bodyguard let me into Wang’s spacious study filled with antiques, polished redwood furniture, and string-bound books. My boss sat at a massive desk, where smoke curled up from a cone of incense nestled on a celadon disk. He was reading a book cradled in his jade-ringed, long-nailed fingers. Above him on the wall was a calligraphic scroll:
Befriend all scholars under heaven; study all books written by sages.
So I worked for a scholar-gangster. Maybe that was why he had never been able to beat the cunning, streetwise Master Lung.
The door closed as quietly as a drop of water in a bucket. Staring at the bald spot on Wang’s lowered head, I could see that he would not look up at me until he finished the page. I was curious to know what he was reading but kept my lips tight to prevent questions from popping out of my itchy mouth. Instead I glanced at his many books on the shelves.
Trained to be aware of everything in my surroundings, I wanted to know what these books were about and why, as a gangster, Wang liked to read. In addition to his more active pursuits of cheating, scheming, gambling, threatening, kidnapping, torturing, killing, and, of course, womanizing.
Despite this last proclivity, Big Brother Wang had never tried to seduce me or even force me to have sex with him. This was not because he respected me but because I was the queen on his chessboard. If the pieces on the chessboard of the gangster world shifted, I would have to shift in response, even at the risk of sacrificing my life. But not my happiness, because I’d never known that sort of emotion.
Wang put down his book. His eyes searched mine, gazing intensely above the gold-rimmed reading glasses perched on his square-jawed face.
I straightened myself, cleared my throat, and spoke in my most respectful tone. “Big Brother Wang ...”
“This is my study time. Do you have a good reason for interrupting me?”
As I told him about Shadow, he closed the book. I saw that it was the
Romance of the Three Kingdoms,
the story of endless battles among feudal lords during the most chaotic time in Chinese history.
“So, do you think this Shadow will be an obstacle?” he asked.
“She will be if Lung stops coming to my show and goes to hers instead.”
“You think that will happen?”
“It must not happen, Big Brother Wang.”
“You can prevent it?”
“Yes, but I need to get to know her first.”
“You think she’s working for someone else?” he asked.
“You mean as a spy for another warlord?”
“Yes. But I can’t see who at this point.” He knit his brows in thought. “I can make her disappear.”
Fearing he would give this order right away, I said urgently, “Big Brother Wang, if I may give my opinion ...”
“I’m listening.”
“She is a woman and hasn’t made any trouble for us, so if you—”
Wang cut me off. “All right, I understand. You’ve got a point there. I have to protect my gang’s reputation.”
Even a gangster had his reputation and honor to protect! But the real reason I didn’t want Shadow killed was not because I had any sympathy for her, but because of my own excruciating curiosity. I wanted to find out just how clever and scheming she was in comparison to me. Besides, I was dying to put more of my secret training and abilities to use.
So I said, “Big Brother Wang, I will handle her.”
“Good.” Wang spoke in his gravelly voice. “We spent a lot of time and money training you. So don’t disappoint. You understand? You must not let Lung fall for this girl. Report to me soon.”
Though my boss for the past four years, Wang remained an enigma to me. He talked only about what was necessary for business. I only knew what he did, not why he did it or how he felt when doing it—if he felt anything at all. If I tried to probe, my questions, like bullets hitting a metal wall, just bounced right back.
I thanked him, bowed, then started to walk to the door.
Wang spoke to my back, the temperature of his voice dropping. “Camilla, do not come here again. You may telephone me when absolutely necessary. You got it?”
I understood. Since Master Lung was getting serious about me, his men might be watching me closely. Though a little disappointed not to be able to visit this gangster with literary tastes, I was pretty sure he did not want to stop seeing me, either, for he often looked at me like a cat does a fish. However, I was just a woman, and what he wanted was something much bigger—to topple the invincible Lung and replace him as Shanghai’s number one boss. To achieve this, my boss was more than willing to send me into the tiger’s mouth.
Of course Big Brother Wang might have more personal plans for what to do with me after I’d eliminated Lung. But by then I’d be a different woman, not the innocent little girl he’d rescued from the orphanage. I would be the poisonous skeleton woman, the ultimate nemesis.
After I left Wang’s place, I decided to go to my singing teacher, Madame Lewinsky, whose apartment was situated in a quiet spot inside the French Concession. I needed to relax after my meeting with the gangster. Wang’s presence seemed to deplete the very air around him. Since I had no friends or relatives, Lewinsky was the only person I could go to. Moreover, she’d always pamper me with her delicious home-cooked soup and gooey, oven-baked cookies dipped in warm milk. Best, unlike my boss, she never scolded, only praised me.
When my teacher opened the door, a big smile bloomed on her heavily made-up face. Her distinctive perfume snaked its way into my nostrils, soothing my nerves.
“My darling Camilla, what a surprise! Come on in. I’ve been practicing on my own.” Her big-boned figure was encased in a flowered dress topped with a black-tasseled shawl.
The neat, cozy apartment smelled of delicious food. Of all the houses and apartments I’d visited, I liked Lewinsky’s the best. The sun filtering through the lace curtains boosted my energy and lifted my mood. I imagined that the velvety chocolate sofa was having a pleasant conversation with its matching floral pillows. Plants crawled leisurely down from the tall bookcases stuffed with books and music scores. Atop her grand piano were arrayed miniature busts of famous composers and knickknacks she’d collected over the years, all seeming to have interesting stories to tell. A vase was filled with fresh cut flowers. Were they from an admirer? I wondered.
Entering her apartment was like entering another world, softer and more human. Perhaps like being back in my mother’s womb—if I had known who my mother was.
I sat on the sofa, my teacher studying me closely.
Then she told me, “You look too thin, Camilla. Let me get you something to eat and drink.”
Madame Lewinsky then disappeared into the kitchen, only to reappear moments later with two steaming bowls atop a lacquered tray. Setting the tray down, she seated herself in a rocking chair across from me. “This is authentic Russian soup from my mother’s recipe. Very nutritious.”
After I commended the recipe with smacking lips and abandoned slurping, she asked, “Why this surprise visit? Are you okay, Camilla? You look worried.”
I was not supposed to let people see my emotions. “Everything’s fine, Madame Lewinsky. I’m just having some difficulty singing
right.” I hoped my lie sounded convincing.
Lewinsky took another big helping of her soup, then said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Just be patient, and you’ll get there, talented as you are.”
My main repertory was Chinese and Western pop songs, for these were what the nightclub-goers liked. However, once in a while I’d also sing an opera aria or art song in Italian or French to entertain the foreigners and impress the Chinese.
My teacher cast me an affectionate look. “Let’s finish our soup; then we’ll go through
’s “Habanera”—how’s that?”
So after I helped her put away the dishes, we walked to the piano. She sat down, her thick, round-tipped fingers immediately plunging into the keyboard. I closed my eyes to savor her powerful voice massaging my ears.
Love is a gypsy’s child,
It has never, ever, recognized the law.
If I love you, you’d best beware!
The bird you hope to catch
Will beat its wings and fly away... .
Love stays away, making you wait and wait.
Then, when least expected, there it is!
I might have burst out clapping and exclaiming how beautiful her singing was, but I never forgot my training to conceal any emotion.
Madame Lewinsky spoke. “Camilla, don’t you find this music wonderful?”
I nodded, feeling a little confused.
She smiled mischievously, her crimson-painted lips like two leaves curling in the spring breeze. “Perhaps I shouldn’t ask you, but I want to know: Are you in love?”
“No.” I always kept my answers short and simple. I feared if we engaged in a long conversation, I might tell this motherly woman more about myself than was safe.
She cast me a curious look. “Have you ever been?”
I shook my head.
“But that’s not possible, a beautiful, talented girl like you! So many men admire you. What about all the rich customers at the nightclub and their rich sons? Or those successful young businessmen? The erudite young professors? Don’t tell me none of them ever chases after you.”
“I want to concentrate on my singing.”
She took my hand and rubbed it lovingly. “Oh, my little Camilla, don’t work
hard. It’s time for you to fall in love. Trust me, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Wonderful or not, I was not going to fall in love and ruin my mission—and possibly my life. Look at how Carmen had ended up! I wanted this beautiful Gypsy’s freedom, her nonchalance, her power over men, but definitely not her pointless, tragic end. But as long as I was careful, I hoped I wouldn’t end up like her. If I failed in my mission, it would not be carelessness but fate, like my bad karma of being an orphan. But not the foolishness of love, not for a trained spy like me!
My teacher’s soothing voice awakened me from my pondering. “Maybe the next time I go to Bright Moon to hear you sing, I can pick out a suitable young man for you.”
I didn’t respond, silently discouraging her suggestion.
She was smart enough to stop insisting and change the conversation. “
since my Sergi’s death twenty years ago, I thought someday I might fall in love again, but the chances, as if they had wings, have flown away. And now I’m too old—”
“No, you’re not.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, Camilla, but I know the ways of the world.”
Then all of a sudden she began to sing the famous Xinjiang melody, “The Waltz of Youth.”
After the sun goes down, tomorrow it will climb back up in the sky.
Flowers wither, then bloom again next year.
But the beautiful bird of youth flies away and disappears,
The bird of my youth will never return... .
BOOK: Skeleton Women
11.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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