The Shanghai Songbird Part 1

in steempulp •  last month

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Thomas Lee had read too many Western pulps to know how this would end.

“Miss Ouyang,” he said, “I sympathise with your situation. I really do. But this looks like a job for the police.”

Ouyang Li Yan didn’t frown. She was too glamorous for that. Her face melted under her thin mask of mascara and rouge, her eyes widened, and her full, luscious lips opened just so. She bit her lower lip, and shook her head.

“I tried. They just laughed at me. You know what they said? ‘A pretty woman like you will always have dashing young men throwing themselves at you.’”

He snorted, tapping his burned-out cigarette into a cheap glass ashtray. “I heard you’re…close…to the Commissioner.”

She smiled at his almost-feigned delicateness. “We used to be.”

Amazing. The gossip rags were on the money this time. “That’s a shame. But you’re a well-known woman in this city, Miss Ouyang. Someone in the force would want to help—”

Another, firmer, shake of the head. A sad, bitter chuckle. “Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. There’s no police here. Just crooks or killers in khaki.”

“I know a few honest cops.”

She leaned forward. Lee studiously kept his eyes on hers and not the front of her low-cut Western dress.

“You’re…different, Mr. Lee. You have a reputation.”

“For what?”

“Fairness. When you were still a cop, you treated everybody fairly.”

He laughed. With a face like his, parents like his, being fair to everyone was the only choice he had. But he didn’t feel inclined to tell her that. “That’s it?”

“It’s more than enough for me.”

Lee spread his hands out, engulfing his sad little empire. A worn-down, eighth-hand desk bought cheap and held together by sheer stubbornness. A grimy telephone that worked if the Buddha willed it. A ratty couch older than Lee and Ouyang combined. A small bin overflowing with trash, and filing cabinets filled only with air.

“A reputation is fine, but see how well that worked out for me. I don’t need any trouble. For the kind of work you need, you should hire someone more well-established.”

“Someone more well-established?”

“Someone who can afford the necessary bribes.”

She folded her arms, pouting. “I don’t see a need for bribes. Just warn off the stalker and make sure he doesn’t do anything.”

“Assuming he’s a stalker,” Lee said.

“What else do you call a man who keeps following me around?”

“As you said, he hasn’t actually contacted you. No letters, no face-to-face conversation, all he’s done is show up at your gigs. Maybe he’s just a dedicated fan.”

“He’s not!” she protested hotly. “I saw him trying to follow me home after I left the club! Once I had to lead him all the way to the police station before he left me alone! You’re telling me he’s not a stalker?”

You should have told me that earlier, Lee thought. Out loud, he said, “Fine. But what if he won’t be warned off? Only other thing I can do is to inform the police, and if you know my rep, you know why I’m not a cop any more.”

Ouyang calmed in an instant. The fire died, replaced by an icy mien.

“You don’t have to get the police involved.”

“You want me to do something else.”

“Exactly.” She dropped her voice an octave. “You have a reputation for doing the right thing. The hard thing.”

“You want me to kill him?”

Her eyes were soft chocolate floating in milk. “I didn’t say that. I just want you to do what you have to do. I’ll be very grateful.”

Lee sighed. People like her, the Beautiful People, never needed to get their hands dirty. They could always hire someone like him to do it. Without hands-on experience, they’d never know the real cost of what they were really asking.

But if a man wants to climb out of the gutter, he has to work.

How grateful?”

She looked him up and down, leaned back a bit. “One month’s pay, for one night’s work. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

“Very fair.”

She flashed a mouthful of perfect white teeth. “Thank you. And when this is over…maybe we could have a drink someday.”

“Maybe,” he allowed.

**

“She’s dynamite,” the detective said.

“She’s a paycheck I can’t turn down,” the private detective said.

Sergeant Wong Jie sighed, mopping at his brow. The slow rotating fan overhead did nothing to dispel the wet heat of the summer day. “You’ve never met a damsel you could ignore.”

Lee shrugged broadly. “You draw a salary. I don’t.”

“You’re a mercenary now? Don’t make me look too deeply into your bank account. Your other one at the Bank of Yokohama.”

Lee reached into his breast pocket and tapped out a cigarette. From his pants pocket he drew a book of matches. Slowly, almost casually, he lit a match and touched it to the coffin nail. He inhaled deep, let the fire touch his lungs, and breathed out an ephemeral gray cloud.

“Good luck asking the Japanese to open up,” he said finally. “But we’re not here to talk about them.”

Three rapid bangs filtered in through the office window. Both men looked out. Only the tourists were running on the streets. The locals and long-time foreigners were walking nonchalantly. Wong sighed, returning to his chair.

“We are talking about the Japanese,” Wong said. “Miss Ouyang works at the Night Orchard nightclub. The Japanese run the joint.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. After the Chinese, the Japanese make up the largest percentage of the population.”

“Miss Ouyang is a high society girl. She’s been seen with businessmen, military officers, politicians, and lately the Commissioner. And a lot of Japanese.”

“Is she a spy?”

Wong sighed. “Won’t be the first time the Japanese used a pretty woman as a spy.”

Is she a spy?”

“I chase triads. Not spies.” He opened his desk drawer and brought a cigarette of his own to his lips. He lit it with a cheap metal lighter and took a couple of exploratory puffs. “Espionage is the business of Special Branch.”

“In other words, the British.”

“Yes.”

“What do they say about her?”

“They don’t talk to us. They are spycatchers. They see themselves a higher class of cop. Damn foreigners. Well. Not including you.”

Lee tapped out the cigarette butt into the mountain of ash that threatened to spill out of the detective’s ash tray. “Hey, I’m not my father, and he was all right.”

“But you took your mother’s name anyway.”

“Sergeant, this is Shanghai.”

“True enough.”

Both men smoked in companionable silence. Eventually, Lee said, “I’m going to go to her club tonight, see if her suitor will be there.”

“You’re playing with fire.” He chuckled. “But then, when has that ever stopped you?”

“Maybe it’s nothing. Just some crazy boy with half a brain. But if the Japanese are involved here…”

“It’s your problem. I’m just a humble policeman.”

Wong chuckled. So did Lee.

“I would be grateful if I had backup,” Lee said.

Wong chewed on the cigarette, scowling. He rolled the cigarette from the left side of his mouth to the right and back again. Lee just watched.

Finally, Wong sighed. “Aiyah. I don’t have anything better to do tonight anyway.”

“I need a gun, too.”

Now you’re pushing things.”

“Please? For old time’s sake?”

Wong guffawed, almost spitting out the cigarette.

“You’re a civilian. I can’t go handing out guns willy-nilly,” Wong said.

Lee revealed a smile of yellowed teeth. “Hey, I’m not a triad. You can trust me, right?”

Wong shook his head. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I have to account for all the weapons here, and you don’t have a lot of friends in the police.”

“The stalker might have friends.”

“You don’t know that.” Wong extinguished his cigarette. “Look, what you did to Inspector Han—”

Former Inspector.”

“Former Inspector Han. Fine. That Japanese lapdog got what was coming to him. But the Japanese still have friends inside the Shanghai Municipal Police, and you didn’t give them any face. Just getting you into my office is difficult enough. Giving you a gun, now that’s impossible.”

Lee sighed. “Well, looks like I have to make do.”

“Hey, you were one of Assistant Commissioner Fairbairn’s best students.”

“He also didn’t like fighting with his bare hands.”

“Improvise. You always do.”


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For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

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Oh yes, this is very nice. Love the dynamic flow of the dialog!

Excellent stuff! I've always loved the Shanghai Noir aesthetic, so I'm looking forward to seeing where this is going.

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Thanks! I can say that every major story element that will show up in future installments is signposted here.