Authors: Matilde Asensi
Tags: #Mystery, #Oceans, #land of danger, #Shanghai, #Biao, #Green Gang, #China, #Adventure, #Kuomintang, #Shaolin
I had breakfast with Fernanda, from whom I had to pry a short summary of her very long conversation with Father Castrillo. It seems the two had become quite friendly, as strange as a friendship between an elderly expatriate priest and a seventeen-year-old orphan might seem. Father Castrillo had invited her to attend church on Sundays and to visit the institutions that the El Escorial Augustinians ran in Shanghai. At the orphanage there was a young boy who spoke perfect Spanish and could serve as Fernanda's servant and interpreter. The girl wanted to head over as soon as breakfast was finished, but I was obliged to ruin her plans, telling her she had to accompany me on the strange visit I was to pay Tichborne at the Shanghai Club. I preferred to take a chaperone just in case the risk to my reputation was more than he had so blithely said.
After breakfast I led Fernanda into the office and whispered the Irishman's bizarre story to her. She did not believe a word and remained completely impassive upon learning we were in the very room where Rémy had been tortured and killed. The only minor apprehension she expressed was when she found out we weren't going to a public place but to the journalist's rooms at the hotel. Deprived of her complicity, I was left no choice but to call Mrs. Zhong into the office. If she confirmed Tichborne's tale, the girl would have to believe me. But Mrs. Zhong turned out to be a hard nut to crack. She denied the accusations over and over again with increasingly exaggerated displays of emotion, culminating in a note of hysteria in defense of her honor and the honor of the other servants. Since I didn't plan on using the rod to get her to confess—I was horrified by the thought of actually hitting and causing another human being pain—I finally had to resort to other, slightly more civilized measures. I threatened to throw her out, send her packing, and fire the rest of the staff as well, condemning them to a life of hunger roaming the streets. Through Mrs. Zhong's pleas, I learned she had a daughter and three grandchildren in the squalid district of Pootung—the very same area Rémy's murderers were from—whom she supported with some of the leftovers from this house. That broke my heart, but I had to maintain my harsh, inflexible image no matter how callous I felt. The ruse worked, and the old servant finally spoke.
“Your husband stayed up very late that night,” she explained, kneeling reverently before us as if we were sacred Buddhas. “All of us servants had gone to bed except Wu, who opens the door and takes out the garbage. Master Rémy had run out of medicine and sent him for more.”
“Opium,” I murmured.
“Yes, opium,” Mrs. Zhong reluctantly admitted. “When he got back, a group of thugs were waiting to get inside. It's not his fault,
Wu just opened the door, and they attacked, leaving him hurt in the garden. The rest of us were awakened by the noise. Tse-hu, the cook, crept up to see what was happening in the office. When he came back, he told us they were beating your husband with sticks.”
My stomach churned and tears stung my eyes as I imagined how poor Rémy must have suffered.
“A little while later, when everything went quiet,” Mrs. Zhong continued, “I ran to help your husband,
but there was nothing I could do.”
Her eyes turned to the floor, between the window and the desk, as if she could see Rémy's body just as she had found it that night.
“Tell me about the murderers, Mrs. Zhong,” I said.
She shuddered and looked at me anxiously. “Please don't ask me that,
The less you know, the better.”
“Mrs. Zhong …” I admonished, reminding her of my threats.
The old servant shook her head sadly. “They were from the Green Gang,” she finally admitted. “Filthy murderers from the Green Gang.”
“How do you know?” Fernanda asked in disbelief.
“Everyone in Shanghai knows them,” she murmured. “They're very powerful. Besides, Master Rémy bore the mark of what's known as ‘hamstringing.’ The Green Gang severs the tendons in their victims’ legs before killing them.”
“Oh, God!” I exclaimed, bringing my hands to my face.
“And why did they want to kill M. De Poulain?” Fernanda inquired, less skeptical now.
“I don't know, mademoiselle,” Mrs. Zhong replied, wiping her cheeks with the tails of her blouse. “This office was destroyed. The table and chairs were overturned, books were on the floor, and the expensive artwork was strewn all around. It took me two days to clean this room and put it back in order. I didn't want any of the other servants to help me.”
“Did they take anything, Mrs. Zhong?”
I was familiar with everything your husband had in here. Some of the pieces were very valuable, so I was the only one allowed to do the cleaning.”
Rémy was not a brave man, I thought, letting my eyes wander over the beautiful furniture and bookcases. There was no way he could have withstood physical pain without giving in to their questioning. Since he was too old to be called to active duty during the war, he went to work for the French government's Welfare Service. They had to assign him an office job because he couldn't stand the sight of blood, not to mention how his hands would shake and his face would turn white every time the air-raid sirens sounded for a German zeppelin attack. I wasn't sure what it meant to be
but surely it would have given Rémy sufficient reason to talk, to tell those heartless swine whatever they wanted to know.
“Mrs. Zhong, my husband stayed up late that night because he was nervous, wasn't he? He needed opium.”
“Yes, but he wasn't in need when they attacked. He sent Wu to buy more because he'd smoked the last pipeful.”
Oh, so Rémy had been dazed, asleep!
“Had he smoked very much?”
Mrs. Zhong stood with surprising ease for someone her age and walked toward the shelves crammed with piles of Rémy's Chinese books. She pulled a couple of the stacks out, revealing bare wall behind. With a soft knock of her fist, a square piece swiveled on a central axis, revealing a sort of cupboard. She pulled out a painted wooden tray that held several antique objects: a long stick with a jade adornment on the end, something that looked like a little oil lamp, a small gold-colored box, a paper wrapper, and a saucer made of copper. It was all very beautiful at first glance. Mrs. Zhong brought the tray over and set it on my lap, then moved back and humbly knelt again. I stared perplexed at the objects and was overcome with repugnance and a desire to push them away as soon as I realized what they were. As if in a dream, I saw Fernanda's hand rise up and head resolutely toward the opium pipe I had initially thought was nothing more than a stick. I couldn't resist the instinct to grab her wrist.
“Don't touch a thing, Fernanda,” I said without averting my eyes.
“As you can see,
your husband had smoked several pipes that night. The box of opium balls is empty.”
“Yes, quite right,” I said, opening it and examining the inside. “But how many were there?”
“As many as are in the paper wrapper. Wu had gone to buy them that afternoon. Master only wanted the purest ‘foreign mud,’ the best quality, and only Wu knew where to get it.”
“And he went out again that night?” I asked, astonished. I carefully unfolded the wrapper and saw three strange black balls inside.
Mrs. Zhong seemed bothered by my question.
“Your husband liked to have a supply of opium in the
in case he felt like smoking several pipes.”
?” I repeated with difficulty. Everything in that strange language seemed to consist of sibilant
's and explosive
She pointed to the secret cupboard.
“That is a
” she explained. “It means ‘green silk cupboard,’ and it can be as small as this one or as big as a room. The name is very old. Master Rémy didn't like his opium pipe out in view. He said it was vulgar, and since these items called for discretion, he had the
“And that night he had smoked so much he couldn't say a word, isn't that right, Mrs. Zhong?”
She leaned forward until her forehead touched the floor and remained there in silence. A pair of narrow sticks crossed through her black ponytail.
“So he was completely drugged when the Green Gang thugs arrived,” I reflected out loud as I held the tray in both hands and stood up to set it on the table. “And so, even though they beat and tortured him, they didn't get the information they were looking for, because Rémy couldn't speak. He was in no shape to confess. Perhaps that's why they were so brutal….” I instinctively walked toward the
According to Tichborne, the murderers had come looking for something of great importance but didn't find it. Also according to Tichborne, Mr. Jiang, the antiquarian, was convinced that the Green Gang was looking for a piece of art. Furthermore, Mrs. Zhong had said that the assassins had torn through everything in the office on the night of the murder, making a terrible mess. Whatever they were after was valuable enough to kill for. Rémy may have been many things—including foolish—but he wouldn't have left something like that out in plain sight.
I leaned over the bookshelf to look inside the cupboard; the empty shelf that had held the tray was at eye level. When I tried to move it, I found that it was loose and lifted it very slowly. The light coming in from the room outlined a barely visible rectangular shape down below, in a deep, dark hollow. I reached in carefully until my fingertips brushed against it. It felt rough, and a soft aroma of sandalwood drifted up. I pulled my arm out and put the shelf back in its place. I turned toward my niece, who was watching me silently with a furrowed brow, and signaled that she was not to say a word.
“Thank you, Mrs. Zhong,” I said kindly to the old servant, who remained with her forehead on the floor. “I need time to think about everything you've told us. This is all very difficult for me. You can go; please leave me alone with my niece.”
“Do I still have work with you,
?” she asked fearfully.
I leaned over, smiling, and helped her up.
“Don't worry, Mrs. Zhong. No one will be fired.” No, I wouldn't throw anyone out. I'd just sell the house and leave them to the mercy of the new owner. “Don't forget that in about an hour Fernanda and I will be going to visit a friend who lives on the Bund.”
” she exclaimed, and crossed through the fullmoon door of Rémy's office, much calmer now, bowing with both hands together in front of her face.
“You were right, Auntie,” Fernanda reluctantly admitted as soon as Mrs. Zhong had stepped into the garden. “The story that Englishman—”
“—told you was true. They really are watching us. Do you think it's wise to go to this meeting?”
I didn't reply but walked back to the
and lifted the shelf again. I could now bring the object out and examine it carefully. It took a bit of work, because the cupboard had been designed for a longer arm than mine, but I was finally able to get a hold of the wooden object that felt like a small jewelry or sewing box. As soon as it was out in the light, I was surprised to discover a chest, a beautiful Chinese chest that was so old I thought the simple pressure of my fingers might destroy it.
Fernanda jumped up and rushed to my side, filled with curiosity. “What is it?” she asked.
“I haven't the faintest idea,” I replied, setting the chest on the desk next to a small stand that held Rémy's calligraphy brushes. There was an exquisite, gold-colored dragon contorted into spirals on the lid. I couldn't believe how beautiful the piece was, the myriad of details in the drawings, the strange strips of yellow paper with red ink characters that must have sealed it at one time and now hung softly off both ends, the smell of sandalwood it still exuded. It was absolutely perfect! I was astounded by the artisan's meticulousness, the patience he must have had to make such a thing. Just then, without the slightest consideration, Fernanda opened it with those chubby paws of hers. Good Lord, the girl was completely lacking in artistic sensibility!
“Look, Auntie, it's full of little boxes.”
When the chest was opened, it unfolded like a staircase into a series of steps that were divided into dozens of small pigeonholes, each of which contained a lovely tiny little object. My niece and I began to pick each one up and examine them carefully, unable to believe our eyes. There was a small porcelain vase that could only have been made under a powerful magnifying glass; a miniature edition of a Chinese book that unfolded just like the big ones and appeared to contain a complete work of literature; an exquisite ball of incredibly carved ivory; a black jade stamp; a small gold tiger cut lengthwise in half with a row of inscriptions on its back; a peach pit on which we saw nothing at first, but then, when we held it up against the light, discovered that it was completely covered in Chinese characters no bigger than half a grain of rice—characters that also appeared on a handful of pumpkin seeds in another of the pigeonholes; a round, bronze coin with a square hole in the middle; a little horse also made of bronze; a silk scarf that I didn't dare unfold in case it fell to pieces; a green jade ring; a gold ring; pearls of various sizes and colors; earrings; strips of paper rolled up on fine wooden spools that, when unrolled, contained ink drawings of incredible landscapes…. In short, it's impossible to describe everything we saw, much less our astonishment at seeing such treasures.
I may have already mentioned that I was never very fond of Chinese artifacts, despite the fervor they aroused all over Europe, but I had to admit I'd never seen anything like what lay before me, a thousand times more exquisite and beautiful than any of the expensive but crude trinkets sold in Paris, Madrid, or London. I'm a staunch believer in sensitive understanding: understanding through one's senses and feelings. How else can we enjoy a picture, a book, or a piece of music? Art that doesn't move you, that doesn't speak to you, isn't art, it's fashion. Each one of the tiny objects in the chest contained the magic of a thousand sensations that combined like the colored glass in a kaleidoscope to form a unique, breathtaking image.