261. Dusk In Shanghai

This is bullshit.

I came here for coffee, but I’m not sitting with a pot of tea in front of me. They put the teabag outside the pot. It’s a considerate gesture, I supposed. But really, what kind of barbaric race adds their teabag to hot water instead of the other way around? Do you want boiled leaf juice? Because that’s how you get boiled leaf juice. Not tea.

A track plays over the sound system. New Orleans jazz from the 60s, by the sounds of it.

“Baby, baby, I love you,” the man sings over the rhythmic thump of the double-bass and the steady chirp of the hi-hat. A trumpet does a little solo interlude when the chorus is finished.

The air smells of old wood and tobacco smoke. In the corner, two men sit at a table walking while the third, a lady in a pink dress, feigns interest with a smile two inches too wide and a laugh that is rough around the edges.

(“Baby, baby, I love you,” the singer in the track comes back for a triumphant reprise after the trumpet solo is done)

The earl grey tea tastes too strongly of citrus. The intensity is almost chemical. One of the men goes to the next table to answer a phone call. He takes the opportunity to light a cigarette.

“If I know you, you’re something like a killer,” the girl in front of me says. She’s a sweet young thing in what I learned was called a cheongsam. Her raven-black hair is done up in a bun at the back of her head, with what looks like long chopsticks, or thick incense rods, stuck through it. Her lipstick is red – not like blood, more like neon lights – against her pale skin, and mascara outlines her slanted eyes. She had went ahead and sat herself down in front of me, even after I said she can’t.

“Wrong person,” I say. I take another sip of the earl grey. The man returns after his call-slash-cigarette break, and he calls for the bill. A petite waitress in a silk buttoned-up blouse struts over with the bill on a small wooden tray.

The song changes to a burlesque number. The girl in front of me notices the change, and she smiles. It’s not a good kind of smile.

“All I Do Is Dream Of You,” she says. “You’ve heard of that one?”

“Ma’am,” I say, “What do you want with me.”

She laughs. It’s a good-natured, hearty one. “I try to talk business, you blow me off. I try to make conversation, you tell me to get to the point. What would you like me to do?”

“Leave me alone.”

Even that was bullshit. Because an hour and two drinks later, I’m screwing her in a dingy old motel room with sheets that feel and smell like they need to be sterilized, not washed. Her mouth tastes like cherries, and her skin is sticky all over with sweat.

I must have fallen asleep after that. When I wake up, she is gone, leaving my mouth tasting like the bottom of a birdcage. There is aching in my groin that I try to ignore.

The bathroom light is a pale yellow. I’ve seen that color before on the face of a dead man. I turn on the tap and douse my face with cold water. When I look up into the mirror, instead of my reflection, I saw words written on it. There were three Chinese characters written vertically, and beside it, horizontally, the Chinese characters were helpfully anglicized for me:

Zong Li Xi.

And beside the sink, a little red silk pouch. I pull the thing open and find two slabs of jade, both the color of milky, cloudy emerald. They were perfectly circular with a square hole in the middle, and flanking each side of the square hole were more Chinese characters.

I clean the lipstick mark off the mirror with a towel. Not the most elegant way of leaving a message, but it did the job. I bring the towel with me when I go out and drop it into the laundry chute. Behind me, there’s a giggling couple who go into the room I was just in. Management will receive a complaint about the messy sheets real soon. Or maybe they won’t.

Either way, I had a job to do.


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