Parkes’ eyebrows bounced and a look of consternation flooded the commissioner’s face. Robert was glad that Parkes kept his mouth shut. Otherwise, his scheme might have fallen apart.
“I’m a slave to crabs,” the viceroy said.
“Why?” Robert knew there was a shortage of crabs in Canton. He also knew they could be found in Hong Kong or Macao and shipped overnight on a British gunboat.
“I’m addicted to the fragrance, the flavor and the color.”
“What about bamboo shoots?” he asked. “I understand the rebels have made it difficult to get fresh bamboo-shoots into the city and local supplies are running low.”
The viceroy slumped. His face saddened in a dramatic fashion. Robert knew the man was guessing what was going on and hoped the viceroy would play his part. “I haven’t had young bamboo shoots for weeks.”
Robert was elated. He was sure that the Viceroy was going to cooperate. He was also sure the Viceroy was probably getting the food he wanted anyway and was paying a premium for it. Food on the black market was expensive.
“I have a solution. I’m sure that you can eat as well as the emperor in Peking and probably better.” The French were in the city, and he’d heard an officer in the British barracks talking about one of the French colonels who was a fantastic cook.
The viceroy looked curious. Robert had caught his interest and free food was going to be the bribe.
“Commissioner Parkes wants you to stay in Canton until your replacement arrives. He is willing to provide the freshest crabs, the tenderest bamboo shoots and any other foods that are available you have missed because of the rebels and the difficulties with trade.”
Parkes’ eyebrows lifted in surprise and stayed that way. Robert guessed he was struggling to control himself from speaking or possibly burst out laughing. Either action would kill the negotiation and embarrass the viceroy. He was nervous that Parkes was going to mess everything up. Parkes started to open his mouth.
Robert switched to English. “I don’t wish to sound rude but drastic circumstances call for drastic words. Keep it shut, commissioner, or this mess you wanted to avoid will materialize.” Parkes' face turned scarlet and his cheeks puffed up.
Robert turned to the Viceroy. “Commissioner Parkes says he has a famous French cook who can create miracles and cause you to groan in pleasure after every meal. He wants to do this because if you leave, trade will become disrupted. The rebels will also take advantage of your absence and cause trouble.
“Many fathers in Canton will go without food. Their sons will die of starvation. Grandfathers will die of thirst. Many may lose their heads and never enjoy the taste of crabs or the sensation that young bamboo shoots give to your teeth while you are chewing them.” He paused to let the words sink in hoping the viceroy would recognize the hidden meanings.
“Of course,” Robert said after a moment, “it is your decision. If you have to leave because the emperor has ordered it, we understand.” This time Robert did not glance to see how Parkes was reacting. He could imagine the man swelling up like a pidgin in distress.
Deciding to add icing to the cake, he said, “I know this Frenchman has stood beside the greatest Chinese cook in Hong Kong and taken lessons from him.” It was a lie. “He knows the secrets from the Emperor’s kitchen in the Forbidden City. In other words, if you leave before your replacement arrives, you will eat poorly all the way to Peking. There will be no food to be had on the journey. You will have to eat rice and grass the entire trip.” Robert paused to create some drama and lifted his eyebrows as if he were asking an unspoken question.
“Oh the other hand,” he said, “if you stay, we would make sure you have a supply of your favorite foods to go with you when you leave on your safe journey north.”
A distressed look came into the viceroy’s face. Robert knew he was struggling. He held his breath waiting for the reply he hoped to hear. The silence lasted too long.
“You are worried the emperor may be angry when you do not arrive on time,” Robert said, afraid he was going to fail. If he didn’t succeed, he could find himself out of a job or demoted.
“You may even be worried that the rebels may strike and harm you or your family. But there is no reason to worry. Commissioner Parkes has agreed to take full responsibility for your tardiness. I will draft a letter the commissioner will sign that absolves you of all blame. It will be written in Mandarin so there will be no problems interpreting it. If you stay, you will eat better than an emperor.
“It would help convince the emperor, if you made a formal request that Commissioner Parkes leave his military police here to watch over your house. That way, if the emperor asks, you could say you had no choice because you weren’t allowed to leave. We can help stage the entire affair so no one will know you are eating your way to heaven.”
* * *
They returned to the headquarters. Robert was invited to dinner along with two assistants, both taller than he was. During dinner, Parkes talked the most.
“I liked what you did at the viceroy’s, Hart,” Parkes said. “You accomplished a near miracle. If anyone else had been with me, it would have probably instigated another crisis. You’re as good as they say, a real mind reader.” He stopped and a stern look came into his face. He sat straight and cleared his throat as if ready to pass sentence on a criminal.
“I apologize for my rudeness, commissioner,” Robert said, anticipating what might be coming.
Parkes shook his head. He smiled. “You are a mind reader, young man. From now on, I expect you to be ready at a moment’s notice to accompany me anytime I need another miracle. By the way, who is this French cook you were talking about?”
“I have no idea.”
One of the other men at the table choked on his food. His face flushed a dark red. He took a glass of wine and quickly drank half.
“Be careful, Lockwood,” Parkes said. “I don’t want you to die on me.”
Lockwood waved a hand and managed to clear his throat and breathe. He drank more wine and turned his head aside to cough.
“I heard that one of the French colonels loved to cook,” he said. “I took a chance. I’m sure you can discover who the man is and arrange for him to show off his skills. It will be easy to have crabs and the best-quality bamboo shoots shipped from Hong Kong or Macao and anything else the Frenchman requests. Besides, since the viceroy agreed, he will not want to lose face. Even if the food doesn’t measure up, he will act as if it does. He will say anything to save face. No one on his staff will disagree because of piety and the Five Great Relationships.”
“You are amazing, Hart. Won’t it ruin your reputation among the Chinese if the food is bad?”
“Not really. The viceroy will keep his mouth shut. He won’t want anyone to discover that I fooled him. If I helped him save face, he will never forget. He will even owe me a debt.”
“Explain these confusing Confucian relationships to me.”
“The Chinese have lived with them for twenty-five-hundred years, sir. That’s when Confucius spent his life preaching the moral code that is China’s bedrock.” Robert spent a few minutes going into detail.
When he finished, Parkes looked around the table at the others. “I’ve never heard anything like it. Hart, you are amazing.”
Robert stared at his food. He sipped wine and avoided the eyes studying him. He remembered the times Ayaou or Shao-mei or Guan-jiah had lectured him on why he had to behave in certain ways toward the Chinese. He felt a twisting pain in his gut. He missed Ayaou. He missed his servant, and he still felt grief at Shao-mei’s loss.
He managed to keep his expression neutral. No one was going to discover what he was thinking. He also hated it when others felt sorry for him. Besides, he didn’t want anyone to know about his life with Ayaou. They would not understand.
Parkes complements were appreciated, but Robert didn’t let the praise go to his head. “This Frenchman might be a horrible cook,” he said. “That doesn’t matter. My goal was to allow the viceroy to say yes instead of being forced into doing what you wanted. He knew what would happen if he didn’t agree. He saved face by accepting the offer. To his staff, it will look like he accepted a culinary bribe. Even if the food is bad, he will tell everyone he went to heaven eating this Frenchman’s cooking. Of course, it would help if this French colonel is a good cook.”
* * *
After the meal, Parkes offered everyone a cigar. Robert did not feel like smoking. The other two men at the table also declined.
Parkes, on the other hand, lighted the cigar and started to fill the room with thick smoke. He puffed with the same energy he seemed to apply to every task. Parkes might not be an easy man to work for. He appeared to have enough energy for several, and up until meeting Parkes, Robert considered himself a hard worker. Now, he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept since leaving Hong Kong the previous morning. He’d gone without for more than twenty-four hours.
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction