Oh, buying and selling . . . you know . . . life.
One day in 1941, not long after the fall of Shanghai, my amah (our live-in Chinese maid of all work, who often doubled as my nurse) left me sleeping alone in the abandoned hulk of what had once been my family’s home, went out, and never came back . . . a turn of events which didn’t actually surprise me all that much, since my parents had done something rather similar only a few brief weeks before. I woke up without light or food, surrounded by useless luxury—the discarded detritus of Empire and family alike. And fifteen more days of boredom and starvation were to pass before I saw another living soul.
I was ten years old.
After the war was over, I learned that my parents had managed to bribe their way as far as the harbor, where they became separated in the crush while trying to board a ship back “Home”. My mother died of dysentery in a camp outside of Hangkow; the ship went down halfway to Hong Kong, taking my father with it. What happened to my amah, I honestly don’t know—though I do feel it only fair to mention that I never really tried to find out, either.
The house and I, meanwhile, stayed right where we were—uncared for, unclaimed—until Ellis Iseland broke in, and took everything she could carry.
“So what’s your handle, tai pan?” she asked, back at the dockside garage she’d been squatting in, as she went through the pockets of my school uniform.
(It would be twenty more years before I realized that her own endlessly evocative name was just another bad joke—one some immigration official had played on her family, perhaps.)
“Timothy Darbersmere,” I replied, weakly. Over her shoulder, I could see the frying pan still sitting on the table, steaming slightly, clogged with burnt rice. At that moment in time, I would have gladly drunk my own urine in order to be allowed to lick it out, no matter how badly I might hurt my tongue and fingers in doing so.
Her eyes followed mine—a calm flick of a glance, contemptuously knowing, arched eyebrows barely sketched in cinnamon.
“Not yet, kid,” she said.
“I’m really very hungry, Ellis.”
“I really believe you, Tim. But not yet.”
She took a pack of cigarettes from her sleeve, tapped one out, lit it. Sat back. Looked at me again, eyes narrowing contemplatively. The plume of smoke she blew was exactly the same non-color as her slant, level, heavy-lidded gaze.
“Just to save time, by the way, here’re the house rules,” she said. “Long as you’re with me, I eat first. Always.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Probably not. But that’s the way it’s gonna be, ’cause I’m thinking for two, and I can’t afford to be listening to my stomach instead of my gut.” She took another drag. “Besides which, I’m bigger than you.”
“My father says adults who threaten children are bullies.”
“Yeah, well, that’s some pretty impressive moralizing, coming from a mook who dumped his own kid to get out of Shanghai alive.”
I couldn’t say she wasn’t right, and she knew it, so I just stared at her. She was exoticism personified—the first full-blown Yank I’d ever met, the first adult (Caucasian) woman I’d ever seen wearing trousers. Her flat, Midwestern accent lent a certain fascination to everything she said, however repulsive.
“People will do exactly whatever they think they can get away with, Tim,” she told me, “for as long as they think they can get away with it. That’s human nature. So don’t get all high-hat about it; use it. Everything’s got its uses—everything, and everybody.”
“Even you, Ellis?”
“Especially me, Tim. As you will see.”
• • • •
It was Ellis, my diffident ally—the only person I have ever met who seemed capable of flourishing in any given situation—who taught me the basic rules of commerce: To always first assess things at their true value, then gauge exactly how much extra a person in desperate circumstances would be willing to pay for them.
And her lessons have stood me in good stead, during all these intervening years. At the age of sixty-six, I remain not only still alive, but a rather rich man, to boot—import/export, antiques, some minor drug-smuggling intermittently punctuated (on the more creative side) by the publication of a string of slim, speculative novels. These last items have apparently garnered me some kind of cult following amongst fans of such fiction, most specifically—ironically enough—in the United States of America.
But time is an onion, as my third wife used to say: The more of it you peel away, searching for the hidden connections between action and reaction, the more it gives you something to cry over.
So now, thanks to the established temporal conventions of literature, we will slip fluidly from 1941 to 1999—to St. Louis, Missouri, and the middle leg of my first-ever Stateside visit, as part of a tour in support of my recently-published childhood memoirs.
The last book signing was at four. Three hours later, I was already firmly ensconced in my comfortable suite at the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. Huang came by around eight, along with my room service trolley. He had a briefcase full of files and a sly, shy grin, which lit up his usually impassive face from somewhere deep inside.
“Racked up a lotta time on this one, Mr. Darbersmere,” he said, in his second-generation Cockney growl. “Spent a lotta your money, too.”
“Mmm.” I uncapped the tray. “Good thing my publisher gave me that advance, then, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, good fing. But it don’t matter much now.”
He threw the files down on the table between us. I opened the top one and leafed delicately through, between mouthfuls. There were schedules, marriage and citizenship certificates, medical records. Police records, going back to 1953, with charges ranging from fraud to trafficking in stolen goods, and listed under several different aliases. Plus a sheaf of photos, all taken from a safe distance.
I tapped one. “Is this her?”
Huang shrugged. “You tell me—you’re the one ’oo knew ’er.”
I took another bite, nodding absently. Thinking: Did I? Really?
As much as anyone, I suppose.
• • • •
To get us out of Shanghai, Ellis traded a can of petrol for a spot on a farmer’s truck coming back from the market—then cut our unlucky savior’s throat with her straight razor outside the city limits, and sold his truck for a load of cigarettes, lipstick and nylons. This got us shelter on a floating whorehouse off the banks of the Yangtze, where she eventually hooked us up with a pirate trawler full of U.S. deserters and other assorted scum, whose captain proved to be some slippery variety of old friend.
The trawler took us up- and down-river, dodging the Japanese and preying on the weak, then trading the resultant loot to anyone else we came in contact with. We sold opium and penicillin to the warlords, maps and passports to the D.P.s, motor oil and dynamite to the Kuomintang, Allied and Japanese spies to each other. But our most profitable commodity, as ever, remained people—mainly because those we dealt with were always so endlessly eager to help set their own price.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror now, tall and silver-haired—features still cleanly cut, yet somehow fragile, like Sir Laurence Olivier after the medical bills set in. At this morning’s signing, a pale young woman with a bolt through her septum told me: “No offense, Mr. Darbersmere, but you’re—like—a real babe. For an old guy.”
I smiled, gently. And told her: “You should have seen me when I was twelve, my dear.”
That was back in 1943, the year that Ellis sold me for the first time—or rented me out, rather, to the mayor of some tiny port village, who threatened to keep us docked until the next Japanese inspection. Ellis had done her best to convince him that we were just another boatload of Brits fleeing internment, even shucking her habitual male drag to reveal a surprisingly lush female figure and donning one of my mother’s old dresses instead, much as it obviously disgusted her to do so. But all to no avail.
“You know I’d do it, Tim,” she told me, impatiently pacing the trawler’s deck, as a passing group of her crewmates whistled appreciatively from shore. “Christ knows I’ve tried. But the fact is, he doesn’t want me. He wants you.”
I frowned. “Wants me?”
“To go with him, Tim. You know—grown-up stuff.”
“Like you and Ho Tseng, last week, after the dance at Sister Chin’s?”
“Yeah, sorta like that.”
She plumped herself down on a tarpaulined crate full of dynamite—clearly labeled, in Cantonese, as “dried fruit”—and kicked off one of her borrowed high-heeled shoes, rubbing her foot morosely. Her cinnamon hair hung loose in the stinking wind, back-lit to a fine fever.
I felt her appraising stare play up and down me like a fine grey mist, and shivered.
“If I do this, will you owe me, Ellis?”
“You bet I will, kid.”
“Always take me with you?”
There had been some brief talk of replacing me with Brian Thompson-Greenaway, another refugee, after I had mishandled a particularly choice assignment—protecting Ellis’s private stash of American currency from fellow scavengers while she recuperated from a beating inflicted by an irate Japanese officer, into whom she’d accidentally bumped while ashore. Though she wisely put up no resistance—one of Ellis’s more admirable skills involved her always knowing when it was in her best interest not to defend herself—the damage left her pissing blood for a week, and she had not been happy to discover her money gone once she was recovered enough to look for it.
She lit a new cigarette, shading her eyes against the flame of her Ronson. “‘Course,” she said, sucking in smoke.
“Never leave me?”
“Sure, kid. Why not?”
From Ellis, I learned to love duplicity, to distrust everyone except those who have no loyalty and play no favorites. Lie to me, however badly, and you are virtually guaranteed my fullest attention.
I don’t remember if I really believed her promises, even then. But I did what she asked anyway, without qualm or regret. She must have understood that I would do anything for her, no matter how morally suspect, if she only asked me politely enough.
In this one way, at least, I was still definitively British.
• • • •
Afterward, I was ill for a long time—some sort of psychosomatic reaction to the visceral shock of my deflowering, I suppose. I lay in a bath of sweat on Ellis’s hammock, under the trawler’s one intact mosquito net. Sometimes I felt her sponge me with a rag dipped in rice wine, while singing to me—softly, along with the radio:
A faded postcard from exotic places . . . a cigarette that’s marked with lipstick traces . . . oh, how the ghost of you clings . . .
And did I merely dream that once, at the very height of my sickness, she held me on her hip and hugged me close? That she actually slipped her jacket open and offered me her breast, so paradoxically soft and firm, its nipple almost as pale as the rest of her night-dweller’s flesh?
That sweet swoon of ecstasy. That first hot stab of infantile desire. That unwitting link between recent childish violation and a desperate longing for adult consummation. I was far too young to know what I was doing, but she did. She had to. And since it served her purposes, she simply chose not to care.
Such complete amorality: It fascinates me. Looking back, I see it always has—like everything else about her, fetishized over the years into an inescapable pattern of hopeless attraction and inevitable abandonment.
My first wife’s family fled the former Yugoslavia shortly before the end of the war; she had high cheekbones and pale eyes, set at a Baltic slant. My second wife had a wealth of long, slightly coarse hair, the color of unground cloves. My third wife told stories—ineptly, compulsively. All of them were, on average, at least five years my elder.
And sooner or later, all of them left me.
Oh, Ellis, I sometimes wonder whether anyone else alive remembers you as I do—or remembers you at all, given your well-cultivated talent for blending in, for getting by, for rendering yourself unremarkable. And I really don’t know what I’ll do if this woman Huang has found for me turns out not to be you. There’s not much time left in which to start over, after all.
For either of us.
• • • •
Last night, I called the number Huang’s father gave me before I left London. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as the master chef of the Precious Dragon Shrine restaurant.
“Oh yes, tai pan Darbersmere,” he said, when I mentioned my name. “I was indeed informed, by that respected personage who we both know, that you might honor my unworthiest of businesses with the request for some small service.”
“One such as only your estimable self could provide.”
“The tai pan flatters, as is his right. Which is the dish he wishes to order?”
“The Emperor’s Old Bones.”
A pause ensued—fairly long, as such things go. I could hear a Cantopop ballad filtering in, perhaps from somewhere in the kitchen, duelling for precedence with the more classical strains of a wailing erhu. The Precious Dragon Shrine’s master chef drew a single long, low breath.
“Tai pan,” he said, finally, “for such a meal . . . one must provide the meat oneself.”
“Believe me, Grandfather; I am well aware of such considerations. You may be assured that the meat will be available, whenever you are ready to begin its cooking.”
Another breath—shorter, this time. Calmer.
“Realizing that it has probably been a long time since anyone had requested this dish,” I continued, “I am, of course, more than willing to raise the price our mutual friend has already set.”
“Oh, no, tai pan.”
“For your trouble.”
“Tai pan, please. It is not necessary to insult me.”
“I must assure you, Grandfather, that no such insult was intended.”
A burst of scolding rose from the kitchen, silencing the ballad in mid-ecstatic lament. The master chef paused again. Then said: “I will need at least three days’ notice to prepare my staff.”
I smiled. Replying, with a confidence which—I hoped—at least sounded genuine:
“Three days should be more than sufficient.”
• • • •
The very old woman (eighty-nine, at least) who may or may not have once called herself Ellis Iseland now lives quietly in a genteelly shabby area of St. Louis, officially registered under the far less interesting name of Mrs. Munro. Huang’s pictures show a figure held carefully erect, yet helplessly shrunken in on itself—its once-straight spine softened by the onslaught of osteoporosis. Her face has gone loose around the jawline, skin powdery, hair a short, stiff grey crown of marcelled waves.
She dresses drably. Shapeless feminine weeds, widow-black. Her arthritic feet are wedged into Chinese slippers—a small touch of nostalgic irony? Both her snubbed cat’s nose and the half-sneering set of her wrinkled mouth seem familiar, but her slanted eyes—the most important giveaway, their original non-color perhaps dimmed even further with age, from light smoke-grey to bone, ecru, white—are kept hidden beneath a thick-lensed pair of bifocal sunglasses, essential protection for someone whose sight may not last the rest of the year.
And though her medical files indicate that she is in the preliminary stages of lung and throat cancer, her trip a day to the local corner store always includes the purchase of at least one pack of cigarettes, the brand apparently unimportant, as long as it contains a sufficient portion of nicotine. She lights one right outside the front door, and has almost finished it by the time she rounds the corner of her block.
Her neighbors seem to think well of her. Their children wave as she goes by, cane in one hand, cigarette in the other. She nods acknowledgement, but does not wave back.
This familiar arrogance, seeping up unchecked through her last, most perfect disguise: the mask of age, which bestows a kind of retroactive innocence on even its most experienced victims. I have recently begun to take advantage of its charms myself, whenever it suits my fancy to do so.
I look at these pictures, again and again. I study her face, searching in vain for even the ruin of that cool, smooth, inventively untrustworthy operator who once held both my fortune and my heart in the palm of her mannishly large hand.
It was Ellis who first told me about The Emperor’s Old Bones—and she is still the only person in the world with whom I would ever care to share that terrible meal, no matter what doing so might cost me.
If, indeed, I ever end up eating it at all.
• • • •
“Yeah, I saw it done down in Hong Kong,” Ellis told us, gesturing with her chopsticks. We sat behind a lacquered screen at the back of Sister Chin’s, two nights before our scheduled rendezvous with the warlord Wao Ruyen, from whom Ellis had already accepted some mysteriously unspecified commission. I watched her eat—waiting my turn, as ever—while Brian Thompson-Greenaway (also present, much to my annoyance) sat in the corner and watched us both, openly ravenous.
“They take a carp, right—you know, those big fish some rich Chinks keep in fancy pools, out in the garden? Supposed to live hundreds of years, you believe all that ‘Confucius says’ hooey. So they take this carp and they fillet it, all over, so the flesh is hanging off it in strips. But they do it so well, so carefully, they keep the carp alive through the whole thing. It’s sittin’ there on a plate, twitching, eyes rollin’ around. Get close enough, you can look right in through the ribcage and see the heart still beating.”
She popped another piece of Mu Shu pork in her mouth, and smiled down at Brian, who gulped—apparently suddenly too queasy to either resent or envy her proximity to the food.
“Then they bring out this big pot full of boiling oil,” she continued, “and they run hooks through the fish’s gills and tail, so they can pick it up at both ends. And while it’s floppin’ around, tryin’ to get free, they dip all those hangin’ pieces of flesh in the oil—one side first, then the other, all nice and neat. Fish is probably in so much pain already it doesn’t even notice. So it’s still alive when they put it back down . . . alive, and cooked, and ready to eat.”
“And then—they eat it.”
“Sure do, Tim.”
“Alive, I mean.”
Brian now looked distinctly green. Ellis shot him another glance, openly amused by his lack of stamina, then turned back to me.
“Well yeah, that’s kinda the whole point of the exercise. You keep the carp alive until you’ve eaten it, and all that long life just sorta transfers over to you.”
“Like magic,” I said. She nodded.
“Exactly. ’Cause that’s exactly what it is.”
I considered her statement for a moment.
“My father,” I commented, at last, “always told us that magic was a load of bunk.”
Ellis snorted. “And why does this not surprise me?” She asked, of nobody in particular. Then: “Fine, I’ll bite. What do you think?”
“I think . . .” I said, slowly, “. . . that if it works . . . then who cares?”
She looked at me. Snorted again. And then—she actually laughed, an infectious, unmalicious laugh that seemed to belong to someone far younger, far less complicated. It made me gape to hear it. Using her chopsticks, she plucked the last piece of pork deftly from her plate, and popped it into my open mouth.
“Tim,” she said, “for a spoiled Limey brat, sometimes you’re okay.”
I swallowed the pork, without really tasting it. Before I could stop myself, I had already blurted out: “I wish we were the same age, Ellis.”
This time she stared. I felt a sudden blush turn my whole face crimson. Now it was Brian’s turn to gape, amazed by my idiotic effrontery.
“Yeah, well, not me,” she said. “I like it just fine with you bein’ the kid, and me not.”
She looked at me again. I blushed even more deeply, heat prickling at my hairline. Amazingly, however, no explosion followed. Ellis simply took another sip of her tea, and replied—
“‘Cause the fact is, Tim, if you were my age—good-lookin’ like you are, smart like you’re gonna be—I could probably do some pretty stupid things over you.”
• • • •
Magic. Some might say it’s become my stock in trade—as a writer, at least. Though the humble craft of buying and selling also involves a kind of legerdemain, as Ellis knew so well; sleight of hand, or price, depending on your product . . . and your clientele.
But true magic? Here, now, at the end of the twentieth century, in this brave new world of 100-slot CD players and incessant afternoon talk shows?
I have seen so many things in my long life, most of which I would have thought impossible, had they not taken place right in front of me. From the bank of the Yangtze River, I saw the bright white smoke of an atomic bomb go up over Nagasaki, like a tear in the fabric of the horizon. In Chungking harbor, I saw two grown men stab each other to death over the corpse of a dog because one wanted to bury it, while the other wanted to eat it. And just beyond the Shanghai city limits, I saw Ellis cut that farmer’s throat with one quick twist of her wrist, so close to me that the spurt of his severed jugular misted my cheek with red.
But as I grow ever closer to my own personal twilight, the thing I remember most vividly is watching—through the window of a Franco-Vietnamese arms-dealer’s car, on my way to a cool white house in Saigon, where I would wait out the final days of the war in relative comfort and safety—as a pair of barefoot coolies pulled the denuded skeleton of Brian Thompson-Greenaway from a culvert full of malaria-laden water. I knew it was him, because even after Wao Ruyen’s court had consumed the rest of his pathetic little body, they had left his face nearly untouched—there not being quite enough flesh on a child’s skull, apparently, to be worth the extra effort of filleting . . . let alone of cooking.
And I remember, with almost comparable vividness, when—just a year ago—I saw the former warlord Wao, Huang’s most respected father, sitting in a Limehouse nightclub with his Number One and Number Two wife at either elbow. Looking half the age he did when I first met him, in that endless last July of 1945, before black science altered our world forever. Before Ellis sold him Brian instead of me, and then fled for the Manchurian border, leaving me to fend for myself in the wake of her departure.
After all this, should the idea of true magic seem so very difficult to swallow? I think not.
No stranger than the empty shell of Hiroshima, cupped around Ground Zero, its citizenry reduced to shadows in the wake of the blast’s last terrible glare. And certainly no stranger than the fact that I should think a woman so palpably incapable of loving anyone might nevertheless be capable of loving me, simply because—at the last moment—she suddenly decided not to let a rich criminal regain his youth and prolong his days by eating me alive, in accordance with the ancient and terrible ritual of The Emperor’s Old Bones.
• • • •
This morning, I told my publicist that I was far too ill to sign any books today—a particularly swift and virulent touch of the twenty-four-hour flu, no doubt. She said she understood completely. An hour later, I sat in Huang’s car across the street from the corner store, watching “Mrs. Munro” make her slow way down the street to pick up her daily dose of slow, coughing death.
On her way back, I rolled down the car window and yelled: “Lai gen wo ma, wai guai!”
(Come with me, white ghost! An insulting little Mandarin phrase, occasionally used by passing Kuomintang jeep drivers to alert certain long-nosed Barbarian smugglers to the possibility that their dealings might soon be interrupted by an approaching group of Japanese soldiers.)
Huang glanced up from his copy of Rolling Stone’s Hot List, impressed. “Pretty good accent,” he commented.
But my eyes were on “Mrs. Munro”, who had also heard—and stopped in mid-step, swinging her half-blind grey head toward the sound, more as though scenting than scanning. I saw my own face leering back at me in miniature from the lenses of her prescription sunglasses, doubled and distorted by the distance between us. I saw her raise one palm to shade her eyes even further against the sun, the wrinkles across her nose contracting as she squinted her hidden eyes.
And then I saw her slip her glasses off to reveal those eyes: Still slant, still grey. Still empty.
“It’s her,” I told him.
Huang nodded. “Fought so. When you want me to do it?”
“Whatever y’say, Mr. D.”
• • • •
Very early on the morning before Ellis left me behind, I woke to find her sitting next to me in the red half-darkness of the ship’s hold.
“Kid,” she said, “I got a little job lined up for you today.”
I felt myself go cold. “What kind of job, Ellis?” I asked, faintly—though I already had a fairly good idea. Quietly, she replied: “The grown-up kind.”
“French guy, up from Saigon, with enough jade and rifles to buy us over the border. He’s rich, educated; not bad company, either. For a fruit.”
“That’s reassuring,” I muttered, and turned on my side, studying the wall. Behind me, I heard her lighter click open, then catch and spark—felt the faint lick of her breath as she exhaled, transmuting nicotine into smoke and ash. The steady pressure of her attention itched like an insect crawling on my skin: Fiercely concentrated, alien almost to the point of vague disgust, infinitely patient.
“War’s on its last legs,” she told me. “That’s what I keep hearing. You got the Communists comin’ up on one side, with maybe the Russians slipping in behind ’em, and the good old U.S. of A. everywhere else. Philippines are already down for the count, now Tokyo’s in bombing range. Pretty soon, our little oufit is gonna be so long gone, we won’t even remember what it looked like. My educated opinion? It’s sink or swim, and we need all the life-jackets that money can buy.” She paused. “You listening to me? Kid?”
I shut my eyes again, marshalling my heart-rate.
“Kid?” Ellis repeated.
Still without answering—or opening my eyes—I pulled the mosquito net aside, and let gravity roll me free of the hammock’s sweaty clasp. I was fourteen years old now, white-blonde and deeply tanned from the river-reflected sun; almost her height, even in my permanently bare feet. Looking up, I found I could finally meet her grey gaze head-on.
“‘Us’,” I said. “‘We’. As in you and I?”
“Yeah, sure. You and me.”
I nodded at Brian, why lay nearby, deep asleep and snoring. “And what about him?”
“I don’t know, Tim,” she said. “What about him?”
I looked back down at Brian, who hadn’t shifted position, not even when my shadow fell over his face. Idly, I inquired—
“You’ll still be there when I get back, won’t you, Ellis?”
Outside, through the porthole, I could see that the rising sun had just cracked the horizon; she turned, haloed against it. Blew some more smoke. Asking:
“Why the hell wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. But you wouldn’t use my being away on this job as a good excuse to leave me behind, though—would you?”
She looked at me. Exhaled again. And said, evenly: “You know, Tim, I’m gettin’ pretty goddamn sick of you asking me that question. So gimme one good reason not to, or let it lie.”
Lightly, quickly—too quickly even for my own well-honed sense of self-preservation to prevent me—I laid my hands on either side of her face and pulled her to me, hard. Our breath met, mingled, in sudden intimacy; hers tasted of equal parts tobacco and surprise. My daring had brought me just close enough to smell her own personal scent, under the shell of everyday decay we all stank of: A cool, intoxicating rush of non-fragrance, firm and acrid as an unearthed tuber. It burned my nose.
“We should always stay together,” I said, “because I love you, Ellis.”
I crushed my mouth down on hers, forcing it open. I stuck my tongue inside her mouth as far as it would go and ran it around, just like the mayor of that first tiny port village had once done with me. I fastened my teeth deep into the inner flesh of her lower lip, and bit down until I felt her knees give way with the shock of it. Felt myself rear up, hard and jerking, against her soft underbelly. Felt her feel it.
It was the first and only time I ever saw her eyes widen in anything but anger.
With barely a moment’s pause, she punched me right in the face, so hard I felt jaw crack. I fell at her feet, coughing blood.
“Eh—!” I began, amazed. But her eyes froze me in mid-syllable—so grey, so cold.
“Get it straight, tai pan,” she said, “‘cause I’m only gonna say it once. I don’t buy. I sell.”
Then she kicked me in the stomach with one steel-toed army boot, and leant over me as I lay there, gasping and hugging myself tight—my chest contracting, eyes dimming. Her eyes pouring over me like liquid ice. Like sleet. Swelling her voice like some great Arctic river, as she spoke the last words I ever heard her say—
“So don’t you even try to play me like a trick, and think I’ll let you get away with it.”
• • • •
Was Ellis evil? Am I? I’ve never thought so, though earlier this week I did give one of those legendary American Welfare mothers $25,000 in cash to sell me her least-loved child. He’s in the next room right now, playing Nintendo. Huang is watching him. I think he likes Huang. He probably likes me, for that matter. We are the first English people he has ever met, and our accents fascinate him. Last night, we ordered in pizza; he ate until he was sick, then ate more, and fell asleep in front of an HBO basketball game. If I let him stay with me another week, he might become sated enough to convince himself he loves me.
The master chef at the Precious Dragon Shrine tells me that The Emperor’s Old Bones bestows upon its consumer as much life-force as the consumed would have eventually gone through, had he or she been permitted to live out the rest of their days unchecked—and since the child I bought claims to be roughly ten years old (a highly significant age, in retrospect), this translates to perhaps an additional sixty years of life for every person who participates, whether the dish is eaten alone or shared. Which only makes sense, really: It’s magic, after all.
And this is good news for me, since the relative experiential gap between a man in his upper twenties and a woman in her upper thirties—especially compared to that between a boy of fourteen and a woman of twenty-eight—is almost insignificant.
Looking back, I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone but Ellis—if I’m even capable of loving anyone else. But finally, after all these wasted years, I do know what I want. And who.
And how to get them both.
It’s a terrible thing I’m doing, and an even worse thing I’m going to do. But when it’s done, I’ll have what I want, and everything else—all doubts, all fears, all piddling, queasy little notions of goodness, and decency, and basic human kinship—all that useless lot can just go hang, and twist and rot in the wind while they’re at it. I’ve lived much too long with my own unsatisfied desire to simply hold my aching parts—whatever best applies, be it stomach or otherwise—and congratulate myself on my forbearance anymore. I’m not mad, or sick, or even yearning after a long-lost love that I can never regain, and never really had in the first place. I’m just hungry, and I want to eat.
And morality . . . has nothing to do with it.
Because if there’s one single thing you taught me, Ellis—one lesson I’ve retained throughout every twist and turn of this snaky thing I call my life—it’s that hunger has no moral structure.
• • • •
Huang came back late this morning, limping and cursing, after a brief detour to the office of an understanding doctor who his father keeps on international retainer. I am obscurely pleased to discover that Ellis can still defend herself; even after Huang’s first roundhouse put her on the pavement, she still somehow managed to slip her razor open without him noticing, then slide it shallowly across the back of his Achilles tendon. More painful than debilitating, but rather well done nevertheless, for a woman who can no longer wear shoes which require her to tie her own laces.
I am almost as pleased, however, to hear that nothing Ellis may have done actually succeeded in preventing Huang from completing his mission—and beating her, with methodical skill, to within an inch of her corrupt and dreadful old life.
I have already told my publicist that I witnessed the whole awful scene, and asked her to find out which hospital poor Mrs. Munro has been taken to. I myself, meanwhile, will drive the boy to the kitchen of the Precious Dragon Shrine restaurant, where I am sure the master chef and his staff will do their best to keep him entertained until later tonight. Huang has lent him his pocket Gameboy, which should help.
Ah. That must be the phone now, ringing.
• • • •
The woman in bed 37 of the Morleigh Memorial Hospital’s charity wing, one of the few left operating in St. Louis—in America, possibly—opens her swollen left eye a crack, just far enough to reveal a slit of red-tinged white and a wandering, dilated pupil, barely rimmed in grey.
“Hello, Ellis,” I say.
I sit by her bedside, as I have done for the last six hours. The screens enshrouding us from the rest of the ward, with its rustlings and moans, reduce all movement outside this tiny area to a play of flickering shadows—much like the visions one might glimpse in passing through a double haze of fever and mosquito net, after suffering a violent shock to one’s fragile sense of physical and moral integrity.
. . . and oh, how the ghost of you clings . . .
She clears her throat, wetly. Tells me, without even a flicker of hesitation:
“Nuh . . . Ellis. Muh num iss . . . Munro.”
But: She peers up at me, straining to lift her bruise-stung lids. I wait, patiently.
“That’s a good start.”
I see her bare broken teeth at my patronizing tone, perhaps reflexively. Pause. And then, after a long moment: “Tim.”
“Good show, Ellis. Got it in one.”
Movement at the bottom of the bed: Huang, stepping through the gap between the screens. Ellis sees him, and stiffens. I nod in his direction, without turning.
“I believe you and Huang have already met,” I say. “Mr. Wao Huang, that is; you’ll remember his father, the former warlord Wao Ruyen. He certainly remembers you—and with some gratitude, or so he told me.”
Huang takes his customary place at my elbow. Ellis’ eyes move with him, helplessly—and I recall how my own eyes used to follow her about in a similarly fascinated manner, breathless and attentive on her briefest word, her smallest motion.
“I see you can still take quite a beating, Ellis,” I observe, lightly. “Unfortunately for you, however, it’s not going to be quite so easy to recover from this particular melee as it once was, is it? Old age, and all that.” To Hunag: “Have the doctors reached any conclusion yet? Regarding Mrs. Munro’s long-term prognosis?”
“Wouldn’t say as ’ow there was one, tai pan.”
“Well, yes. Quite.”
I glance back, only to find that Ellis’ eyes have turned to me at last. And I can read them so clearly, now—like clean, black text through grey rice-paper, lit from behind by a cold and colorless flame. No distance. No mystery at all.
When her mouth opens again, I know exactly what word she’s struggling to shape.
“Duh . . . deal?”
I rise, slowly, as Huang pulls the chair back for me. Some statements, I find, need room in which to be delivered properly—or perhaps I’m simply being facetious. My writer’s over-developed sense of the dramatic, working double-time.
I wrote this speech out last night, and rehearsed it several times in front of the bathroom mirror. I wonder if it sounds rehearsed. Does calculated artifice fall into the same general category as outright deception? If so, Ellis ought to be able to hear it in my voice. But I don’t suppose she’s really apt to be listening for such fine distinctions, given the stress of this mutually culminative moment.
“I won’t say you’ve nothing I want, Ellis, even now. But what I really want—what I’ve always wanted—is to be the seller, for once, and not the sold. To be the only one who has what you want desperately, and to set my price wherever I think it fair.”
Adding, with the arch of a significant brow: “—or know it to be unfair.”
I study her battered face. The bruises form a new mask, impenetrable as any of the others she’s worn. The irony is palpable: Just as Ellis’ nature abhors emotional accessibility, so nature—seemingly—reshapes itself at will to keep her motivations securely hidden.
“I’ve arranged for a meal,” I tell her. “The menu consists of a single dish, one with which I believe we’re both equally familiar. The name of that dish is The Emperor’s Old Bones, and my staff will begin to cook it whenever I give the word. Now, you and I may share this meal, or we may not. We may regain our youth, and double our lives, and be together for at least as long as we’ve been apart—or we may not. But I promise you this, Ellis: No matter what I eventually end up doing, the extent of your participation in the matter will be exactly defined by how much you are willing to pay me for the privilege.”
I gesture to Huang, who slips a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. I tap one out. I light it, take a drag. Savor the sensation.
Ellis just watches.
“So here’s the deal, then: If you promise to be very, very nice to me—and never, ever leave me again—for the rest of our extremely long partnership—”
I pause. Blow out the smoke. Wait. And conclude, finally:
“—then you can eat first.”
I offer Ellis the cigarette, slowly. Slowly, she takes it from me, holding it delicately between two splinted fingers. She raises it to her torn and grimacing mouth. Inhales. Exhales those familiar twin plumes of smoke, expertly, through her crushed and broken nose. Is that a tear at the corner of her eye, or just an upwelling of rheum? Or neither?
“Juss like . . . ahways,” she says.
And gives me an awful parody of my own smile. Which I—return.
• • • •
Later, as Huang helps Ellis out of bed and into the hospital’s service elevator, I sit in the car, waiting. I take out my cellular phone. The master chef of the Precious Dragon Shrine restaurant answers on the first ring.
“How is . . . the boy?” I ask him.
“Fine, tai pan.”
There is a pause, during which I once more hear music filtering in from the other end of the line—the tinny little song of a video game in progress, intermittently punctuated by the clatter of kitchen implements. Laughter, both adult and child.
“Do you wish to cancel your order, tai pan Darbersmere?” the master chef asks me, delicately.
Through the hospital’s back doors, I can see the service elevator’s lights crawling steadily downward—the floors reeling themselves off, numeral by numeral. Fifth. Fourth. Third.
“No. I do not.”
The elevator doors are opening. I can see Huang guiding Ellis out, puppeting her deftly along with her own crutches. Those miraculously-trained hands of his, able to open or salve wounds with equal expertise.
“Then I may begin cooking,” the master chef says. Not really meaning it as a question.
Huang holds the door open. Ellis steps through. I listen to the Gameboy’s idiot song, and know that I have spent every minute of every day of my life preparing to make this decision, ever since that last morning on the Yangtze. That I have made it so many times already, in fact, that nothing I do or say now can ever stop it from being made. Any more than I can bring back the child Brian Thompson-Greenaway was, before he went up the hill to Wao Ruyen’s fortress, hand in stupidly trusting hand with Ellis—or the child I was, before Ellis broke into my parents’ house and saved me from one particular fate worse than death, only to show me how many, many others there were to choose from.
Or the child that Ellis must have been, once upon a very distant time, before whatever happened to make her as she now is—then set her loose to move at will through an unsuspecting world, preying on other lost children.
. . . these foolish things . . . remind me of you.
“Yes,” I say. “You may.”