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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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BOOK: Skeleton Women
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Monkey Face was waiting for me, surrounded by his usual entourage. As Gao brought me over to the gangster head, he gave me a licentious once-over, looking happy and proud. “Camilla, you sure are easy on the eyes. And your fragrance is intoxicating!”
The abbot and his entourage of Daoist monks hurried to greet us. Soon Lung and Zhu were the center of attention, not only for the monks but also for a circle of obsequious businessmen and politicians.
I got a drink and walked around. Recognizing me as the Heavenly Songbird, some guests nodded in my direction; others cupped their mouths and whispered to their partners. My attention was drawn to a tall woman dressed in a man’s white suit, a golden tie, and a white fedora. She easily could have been mistaken for a man were it not for her exaggerated makeup. Her stark white powder, bright red rouge, and scarlet lipstick formed the background for long, artificial lashes fluttering in front of golden eye shadow. A weird, even haunting combination. Flanking her was a small group of tall, strikingly beautiful girls in matching pink dresses.
Of course this time I recognized this cross-dressed woman as the famous, or notorious, gossip columnist Rainbow Chang, with her enigmatic clique of pink-clad followers. Were they her confidantes? Bodyguards? Lovers? Anybody could be anyone in Shanghai. Watching her poise and ease working her way through the crowd, I could only hope that she was not yet another obstacle on my path. Dealing with a Shadow, a gangster, and his son was already more than enough for a nineteen-year-old songstress-spy.
When she was in front of me, the columnist reached out her hand. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you here again, Miss Camilla. I am Rainbow Chang, remember? We met at Bright Moon.”
On the surface, I stayed calm. “Yes, of course. What a lucky encounter!” I said, feeling her fleshy palm tightly squeezing mine. “I’ve been a fan of your column.”
“Really? The most famous Heavenly Songbird, my fan? I’m flattered.”
Underneath our polite words, we were scrutinizing each other like two unneutered cats under the full moon.
She gave me a meaningful once-over. “Wah. Look at you, Camilla. May I call you Camilla?”
“Of course.”
“No other singer in Shanghai has your kind of presence.”
Of course she was referring to my expensive clothes and even more expensive jewelry, and on top of that, my much-envied position beside Shanghai’s number one gangster head.
I decided to play modest. “I owe it to the help of your column.”
“Hmm ... is that true? You’re not offended by my writing? You know, sometimes I can be pretty straightforward.”
Now I’d play the flatterer. “If you never mentioned me in your column, I would not be so famous today.”
Her expression turned mischievously delightful. “Then maybe we should be friends, or at least business partners?”
What did that mean?
“You know, Camilla, we could build a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.”
Oh, heavens. This was exactly what I didn’t need: one more complication! I knew I had better tread this path with utmost caution. While Lung could kill with a knife or gun, this Rainbow could do the same with her pen, without even having to waste a bullet!
I asked, feeling a little nervous, “But how?”
She looked at me deeply, as if I were her lover. “I’ll tell you if you let me take you to dinner. I’m sure we’ll enjoy each other’s company. What about next week?”
I sighed inside. I was sure many people wanted to meet this famous gossip columnist and her pink entourage, but I couldn’t wait to get rid of her.
“Thank you for the invitation. I would love to have dinner with you. But I hope you will be free some other time?” I gestured to Lung’s back in the distance. “Right now my schedule won’t even afford me the luxury to breathe—”
Before I finished my sentence, I felt a large hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw Gao’s concerned face. He leaned down to whisper into my ear. “Miss Camilla, the ceremony is to begin in fifteen minutes. Master Lung’s good friend the police chief has arrived, and Master Lung would like to introduce you.”
I turned to smile at Rainbow Chang. “Sorry, Miss Chang, but I have to excuse myself.”
“No problem.” She winked. “Go ahead.
Lairi fangchang
.” Time is aplenty in the future.
I stared at her retreating back and felt a chill. Would she prove yet another rival in my life?
With this new worry, I let Gao steer me back to Lung, who was now standing beside a stout, uniformed man. Gao stepped back to join another bodyguard, both men watching us closely.
Master Lung turned to grab my waist. “Please meet my beautiful Camilla.”
Although I’d never met the police chief in person, I’d seen pictures of him in the newspapers. I also heard rumors about his proclivities, most infamous being that once, when he and Lung were drunk, they threw their respective ex-mistresses to Lung’s pet tigers, whom they kept starving for just such occasions.
Chief Li cast me a licentious glance and shook my hand hard, as if he were tormenting a helpless kitten.
“Miss Camilla, I have heard your name for a long time, but you are much more beautiful in person than in your pictures.”
I returned him a demure smile. “Thank you for your praise, Chief Li. Likewise I’ve also heard your name like thunder in my ears.”
Together we walked into the newly built wing. A crimson signboard with four big gold characters,
huakai fugui,
“Flowers bloom and fortune looms,” hung above the portal.
Fortune
really meant
making money
. Many Chinese believe that donating to temples will bring them good fortune, so perhaps the temple wanted to be sure they would not forget that. Monks, of course, have no desire for riches, but donations to their temple in the form of checks, jewelry, gold bars, antiques, and land are always welcome.
Inside, the hall décor resembled a Western casino, with red and gold as the main colors, for double luck. Male staff in black tuxedos and female staff in pink and green
cheongsams
flanked the entrance, nodding and exclaiming, “Welcome, our honorable guests!”
We nodded and smiled back. Inside, scrolls of calligraphy adorned the walls, proclaiming auspicious sentiments: “Invite money; welcome treasures;” “Gold bars fill the house;” and “Money flows in like rushing water.”
As I was wondering what these phrases were doing in a temple, my eyes spotted men throwing dice and playing mahjong in the distance. In one corner, a uniformed man was shaking a cylindrical tube and exclaiming, “Big! Big! Big!” followed by another man’s louder, “Small! Small! Small!” After that, the first man threw the contents of the tube onto the table as the customer yelled, “Big!”
The uniformed man smiled cunningly at the anxious customer. “Sorry, sir, but it’s small.”
After that, the pile of money immediately shifted from in front of the client to that of the uniformed man.
I realized that this was none other than a casino! But inside a temple?
Then my eyes landed on red lanterns hanging low from the ceiling above the gaming tables. Could cameras be hidden inside to catch cheaters?
“Master Lung, so this is a ...”
“Yes, my new gambling den.”
“But in a temple?”
He laughed, his belly trembling. “Ha-ha-ha! For the gods’ protection and blessings, what else?”
Thinking about that, I realized that a temple was, in fact, a perfect place to operate a gambling den. If a gambler won, part of his winnings would be donated to the temple as a token of gratitude. If he lost, he’d also donate as a bribe to the money gods so that next time they would direct the propitious winds to blow in his direction.
What other kind of business could be win-win like this? I smiled, toying with this “win-win” idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could also put myself into a win-win situation—successfully completing my mission and escaping from both the Flying Dragons and Red Demons?
 
As soon as we finished touring this sacred casino, we were all ushered back outside to the courtyard, ready for the auspicious opening ceremony.
8
The Lion Dancers
I
t was three minutes to two o’clock. Our mandatory early arrival had been to make sure the ceremony would start exactly at the time calculated by the fortune-tellers, not a minute early nor a minute late. Otherwise the auspicious moment would be missed, possibly ruining Lung’s gambling business even before it started.
According to these fortune-telling savants, the first moment of an event determines everything. Unfortunately mothers couldn’t choose the time of their babies’ birth; otherwise they’d all grow up to be kings and queens, dragons and phoenixes. Perhaps my parents hadn’t believed in fate calculation, and that was why I’d ended up having this horrible life. But I hoped someday to undo my inauspicious beginning. After all, as the ancient
Yijing
tells us, “Everything changes.”
Lung, Zhu, Chief Li, me, and a few other honorable guests were led to stand at the front of the newly opened temple wing. Two girls placed red ribbons with a wreath at each end into our hands. Photographers and reporters streamed in, snapping pictures and taking notes. I spotted Rainbow Chang furiously scribbling in her notebook. Scattered around were Gao and his team of bodyguards, all dressed in black and eyes continuously scanning the crowd.
“Eyes never leave people, gun never leaves hand,” is the bodyguards’ motto. But it seemed that Gao was not paying close attention to this principle. For his eyes tended to come back to linger on me a tad longer than they should have. An opening for mishap. But that was his problem, not mine.
I continued to look at the crowd and realized that Lung’s son, Jinying, was not there for the occasion.
I turned to my patron. “Master Lung, how come your son’s not here? Didn’t you invite him?”
Lung made a face. “Of course I did. But he said he doesn’t believe in gambling. Must have learned that at HarFud.”
I knew I was not supposed to further inquire, so I changed the subject. “Hmm ... then what about Shadow? I don’t see her either.”
“Ha! What a thought, Camilla. I know you two are becoming like sisters. But you think any gambling house would invite a magician so she can trick all the money into her pockets and disappear?” He playfully patted my cheek. “Huh?”
“Of course you’re right, Master Lung.”
Just then the abbot, an emaciated, ancient figure, lifted a hand to signal the arrival of the auspicious moment—two o’clock sharp. We cut the ribbon as onlookers applauded, shutters snapped, and firecrackers popped, followed by the beating of drums, blasting of trumpets, and clanging of cymbals—all to scare away evil spirits and welcome the gods to protect the business.
When the noise subsided, we were all invited to sit on a row of chairs under the temple roof and offered fragrant tea. We started to sip as a red-maned yellow “lion” pushed aside the excited crowd and danced toward us, followed by renewed beating, banging, and clanging. Seemingly encouraged, the three-man team covered by the lion costume pranced around, leaping up, then kowtowing to all the guests, particularly Master Lung. We all laughed and applauded at their blinking, long-lashed eyes and trembling, flowing manes.
Next, each of the two men in front mounted the shoulders of the one behind him. Then the “lion” reared up to be ready to “grasp the green”—snatch the lettuce hanging from the roof for everyone’s good luck. I was excited to watch the “lion,” or the three men, perform all kinds of
kungfu
gymnastics—fists thrusting, legs kicking, making imaginary offerings to heaven and earth, kowtowing in the four auspicious directions. Finally, after all the contorting, the top man made a vigorous sweep of his
kungfu
hand and snatched the green vegetable hung high from the temple’s roof.
I peeked at Lung. He looked extremely happy, even relaxed, a rare moment for him. Of course with all these bodyguards around him and the audience having been meticulously screened, what could possibly go wrong?
But the dance wasn’t over. The two men on top jumped down, and the lion began to cavort again, playing with the vegetable, tearing it up, chewing it, and scattering its pieces all over the ground.
Lung, Mr. Zhu, the abbot, and Chief Li yelled, “Excellent! Money will flow in endlessly like the Huangpu River!”
As I watched, the lion approached Lung and opened its mouth. Lung’s hand plunged into his pocket. My heart skipped a beat. Was Lung pulling a gun? But then I realized that it was time for the lion to receive its fat red lucky-money envelope.
Just then a thunderous sound racked the air. All looked up and saw the smoke from huge strings of firecrackers exploding right above the gambling den. Red confetti showered down upon the crowd, another symbol of good luck.
But from the corner of my eye I spotted the opposite.
The man inside the lion’s-head mask, his face still hidden, took out a gun and fired at Master Lung. Because the firecrackers were still thundering out good luck, nobody noticed the assassination attempt except me.
A loud “Help! Master Lung is shot!” involuntarily shot out from my mouth as I saw Lung fall to the ground, followed by his even louder
“Aiya!”
Then I bit the inside of my lips until I tasted blood.
How stupid!
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut and let Lung bleed to death?! Had Lung died right here and now, I would be done with my near-impossible mission!
It took a few seconds for Lung’s gang to realize what had happened. Gao was the first to react, leaning over his boss to shield him against any more bullets. But all that was to be seen of the lion was the costume lying deflated on the grass. Gao tore off Lung’s bloodstained silk gown and, after a brief examination, declared that his boss was fine, since the bullet had missed his heart.
“Are you sure?” Zhu, the abbot, Chief Li, and a few other dignitaries barked simultaneously.
“Honorable guests”—Gao looked relieved and shaken up at the same time—“Master Lung is fine. The bullet hit his dragon amulet and bounced off. The bleeding was nothing serious, just from his skin being grazed.”
Right after Gao finished, Zhu pushed him aside, probably to resume his right-hand man status. As he put his handkerchief on his boss’s chest to soak up the blood, he screamed, “Call an ambulance!”
Lung suddenly sprang up, yelling, “Go chase the lion dancers!”
Immediately Chief Li and his team, together with Gao and his bodyguards, pushed aside the onlookers and dashed away.
Seeing that the gangster head was indeed very much alive, everybody clapped. The abbot leaned toward Lung, smiling. “Master Lung, anyone who impossibly survives such a calamity will be blessed by many generations of good luck and longevity!”
Danan Busi, biyou houfu
.
Then I noticed Rainbow Chang trying to approach us but being stopped by Zhu. It was obvious that the right-hand man didn’t like the columnist. Did he have reason to be suspicious of her?
A few moments later, the group that had set out to chase the lion dancers came back. But to Lung and Zhu’s bitter disappointment, they were empty-handed. Chief Li announced that they had found three dead bodies just behind the temple. To everyone’s disappointment, the bodies were not those of the would-be assassins but those of the real lion dancers.
This is what the Chinese call
fang bu sheng fang:
Being careful is no guarantee for success.
Lung struggled to stand up, then slapped Gao and the other bodyguards. Obscenities, including cutting off their father’s turtle head and fornicating their collective mothers’ vaginas, spewed from his mouth like lava from a volcano. I was taken aback to hear Lung speak with such vulgarity. But then I realized that this was the former shoe-shine boy revealing himself in public.
Then another surprise followed. He slapped the abbot.
“Damn you and your mother’s cunt! You told me you’d screened the lion dancers!”
The abbot lowered his head, looking humiliated and terrified. “I ... I ...” he stuttered. “I did, many ... times, very thoroughly. But ... how was I supposed to know that the assassins would murder them and take over the performance?”
Zhu shot the abbot his I-will-wipe-out-your-whole-family look. “Shut up! Don’t you know the rule that no one talks back to the master? !”
The abbot’s head dropped almost to his navel. “Yes, yes, of course. I’m ... sorry, so sorry.”
Besides Zhu, Police Chief Li was the only person who was spared by Lung, so he was happy to play the mediator. “Master Lung, everything is okay. Trust me, we will catch the assassins soon.”
“You’d better, Chief,” Lung said, then turned to me—to my surprise—with a big smile. “Camilla, your dragon amulet saved my life.” He touched my cheek affectionately. “You’re also the first one who screamed for help.” Then he made a sweeping gesture to include everyone. “From now on I declare Miss Camilla my lucky star!”
Everyone clapped.
“Master Lung, thank you.” I smiled demurely. “Of course I’ll do anything to protect you, always.”
I bit my inner lip. Lucky star or not, now I had to think of another way to have him killed. Damn my unintended benevolence!
Lung yelled to no one in particular, “Now take me back home!”
Zhu leaned toward him and said gently, “Master, the ambulance will be here any minute. It’s better to be checked by a doctor to make sure everything is all right.”
In no time an ambulance pulled to a stop in front of the temple. Two uniformed attendants jumped down and dashed over to lift Lung onto a stretcher. Zhu, Gao, and I hopped in to accompany our boss to the hospital.
With Lung safely under the care of doctors and nurses, I was finally able to return home at nine in the evening. I sprawled on the sofa and poured myself a whiskey. After a few sips alternated with sighs, I called Big Brother Wang to report today’s happenings—except, of course, my stupid screaming.
From miles away, his voice rushed to attack my eardrum. “Damn! I wonder who was behind this. You’re sure he’s okay?”
“Yes.”
His response surprised me. “Good.”
“Why’s that, Big Brother Wang?”
“Because once he’s dead, I’m afraid it’ll be much harder to get his secret bank account and other information. So be nice to him and nurture him back to health so he’ll trust and love you more.”
“I will certainly do that.”
“Report back to me any further news about his condition.”
“I will.”
“That’s a good girl.”
“Thank you, Big Brother Wang.”
I discovered that with my boss, I was beginning to sound more and more like a parrot.
Then he said, “One more thing.”
“Yes?”
“Next time, if you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to kill him, just do it. I will figure out how to get his list later. Understand?”
I felt a chill crawling up and down my spine. Today’s near-assassination made it all the more real to me. Did he really want me, a nineteen-year-old girl, to commit murder myself? I’d practiced singing, ballroom dancing, knife-throwing, contortionism, but kill a man? How was I supposed to practice that?
But I would never forget the rule of not talking back or saying no to my boss. I uttered a submissive, “Of course, Big Brother Wang.”
 
Though feeling extremely exhausted and anxious, that night I could hardly close my eyes as the assassination scene kept spinning in my mind, along with the question: Who had sent those lion dancers?
Of course, besides my boss, Big Brother Wang, there were many other warlords in Shanghai eager to get rid of Lung. The one who succeeded might then be able to take over all his lucrative businesses: prostitution, gambling, opium, smuggling ... even the newly opened gambling den in Eternal Luck Temple.
 
The next morning, the first thing I did was to pour myself a glass of milk and flip through the
Leisure News
to read Rainbow Chang’s column.
Attempted Assassination
Yesterday, during the Eternal Luck Temple’s opening ceremony for its good-luck den, three lion dancers attempted to gun down the Flying Dragons’ boss, Master Lung.
Fortunately, due to Lung’s frequent visits to consult a mysterious fortune-teller, he was wearing a highly efficacious amulet. It was this amulet, in the shape of a soaring dragon, that stopped the bullet and saved his life. It is rumored that Lung has now hired this fortune-teller to serve him exclusively, because there’s no way the Flying Dragons’ boss will let others share this kind of luck.
Anyway, who are these assassins? No, my question should be: who is behind these assassins?
On a lighter note, at the ceremony, I also had the pleasure to encounter two beautiful skeleton women, Camilla, the Heavenly Songbird, and Lung’s new flame, the magician Shadow. Both graced the ceremony with their stunning beauty and charm.
 
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