Robert Hart did not blame God for Shao-mei’s rape and murder. He blamed himself. Sometimes the guilt felt like he was eating ground glass. He should have been there to protect her.
It was 1857. He worked at the British consulate in Ningpo, China. He was heedless of the events happening around him. The only thing he knew was the danger.
The city had changed since he arrived in 1854. Crime and corruption had collapsed Chinese Maritime Customs, a service established in 1685. Mobs had looted its treasury in Shanghai. Wu Chien-chang, the Chinese official in charge, had gone into hiding.
Without the money Customs collected from foreign imports, the Imperial government was in danger of collapsing. Meanwhile, the Taiping Rebellion, already in its twelfth year, was threatening to sweep away the Ch’ing Empire. Millions had already died and been displaced.
Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British consul in Shanghai had stepped in and was struggling to create a temporary inspectorate of customs in order to fulfill Britain’s obligations under the treaty system, a product of the Opium Wars, and help the Ch’ing Dynasty survive.
Western merchants wanted China with its vast population to stay an open market where they could sell opium without restrictions. On the other hand, the Taipings led by Hong Xiuquan, a man claiming to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother, wanted to bring down the Dynasty and force all foreigners to leave.
Robert didn’t know that these horrible events were going to change his life and place him on the world’s stage where he was going to make a difference.
* * * *
It was dark when Robert reached home. He turned and placed his back to the door and studied the street. The house was located off a narrow, crooked alley that seldom had foot traffic. Two people were in sight. One was an old bent woman hobbling along in obvious pain; the other a middle-aged man with dark bags under his eyes.
He watched the man until he was out of sight. Once the street was empty, he knocked. A moment dragged by before he heard the scratching sound he was waiting for. He knew the spot Ayaou would be scratching. In reply, he scratched back. He heard the locking bar being lifted from its brackets. The door swung open.
Robert stepped into gloom. He closed the door and locked it by dropping the bar into its four brackets. Ayaou stood in the shadows beside an inked wall hanging that was two feet wide and five feet long.
There was the same dreadful look in her eyes he had seen daily since Shao-mei’s death. He could see that the woman he loved was close to death too. He didn’t know how to save her.
There were Chinese symbols on the watercolor behind Ayaou that said he sheng and ning jin, harmony and tranquility. The words were printed on colorless rice paper. The calligraphy was in black ink with a thin red border like blood running around the perimeter three inches from the edge. There were several red ink stamps in the lower right-hand corner showing the name of the artist but they looked more like blots of crimson tree sap.
Shao-mei and Ayaou bought that wall hanging. The sisters had bought all the art in the house. It hurt to look at any of it. The words on that wall hanging were lies. He frowned.
For an instant, he was tempted to tear the calligraphy from the wall and shred it. On the other hand, he knew if he destroyed that wall hanging, Ayaou would feel as if he were attacking her. Ayaou believed that Shao-mei’s ghost lived inside that paper and every other object the girls had bought and carried into this rented house.
On Ayaou’s left, the steep, worn stairs with the narrow steps were swallowed by darkness at the top. Shao-mei’s empty, closet sized bedroom was up there across the hall from where he slept with Ayaou. Every time he looked at that door, he wanted to nail it shut so her ghost could not escape.
He stood an arm’s length from Ayaou. There were no words of greeting. He reached inside a coat pocket and took out a new Colt revolver. Her eyes shifted to the weapon. He held it in both hands and offered it to her like it was a dozen roses.
“Ayaou,” Robert said in fluent Mandarin. “I bought this weapon to replace the one destroyed in the fire. You must promise you will never leave the house without it.” She reached for the pistol. The four and a half-pound weight pulled her hand down to her side until the nine-inch barrel pointed at the floor. “Do you remember how many times you can shoot before you have to reload?”
“Five,” she said in a dull voice.
“Keep the pistol close. Hide it in your clothes. If you have to, get a basket and cover it with a rag. In fact, you cannot go out unless my servant, Guan-jiah, or I are with you. Do you understand?”
She nodded. She was still wearing white, the Chinese color worn to mourn the death of a family member or close friend. Her dark hair was pulled back and tied into a tight knot on top of her head. She had a slender neck, small ears and high cheekbones.
Compared to her, he seemed tall. He was five foot eight to her five foot two. “You know why we must do this?” he said.
“If Ward discovers he killed the wrong sister, he’ll return to finish the job.”
He took her in his arms and held her. She pressed her ear against his chest where his heart was beating. “At least I can tell you are still alive,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t hear my heart.”
He felt her pain. A knot gathered in his throat. His eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away. He didn’t want her to see the fear and worry that had built a nest inside his head.
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Honorable Mention in General Fiction
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