Robert went ashore before dawn and made his way through the dark streets back to the commission. He hated leaving the junk. Ayaou's scent clung to his clothes. As much as he wanted to keep her smell as a reminder of their night together, he didn’t want anyone else to discover it and guess where he’d been.
Once he reached his room, he washed his upper torso, arms and face. He changed clothing. The cramped space seemed smaller than before—colder and lonelier.
It was hard for him to focus on his work that day. His concentration dissolved every time he heard someone enter the room. He glanced toward the door and when that boy, the desired messenger, wasn’t there, his heart sank. The hour dragged. He usually dedicated himself to his job however tedious it was. Now, he could barely contain himself.
* * *
Guan-jiah’s note arrived late in the afternoon. Only one solider escorted the same boy to Robert this time. The note said that Guan-jiah had found a small house hidden within a spider-web maze of streets. When darkness fell, Robert had the boy guide him to the house. Before he knocked, he gave the boy another yuan. The boy smiled; popped it in his mouth as he had before and ran off.
The house was nothing like the one in Ningpo. It was old and smelled of oil, garlic and hot peppercorns. Over the years, the odor of cooking had soaked into every board. The place crawled with cockroaches and other vermin. There were rat and mice droppings everywhere. During the night, he heard them inside the walls.
“Make sure this place gets a thorough scrubbing.” He told Guan-jiah the next morning before he returned to the barracks. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place he wanted to spend with the woman he loved.
However, he had no choice. It would have to do. Anything more luxurious might gain the attention of the wrong people. Even a place like this was preferable to death or being discovered by Parkes.
* * *
Dressed in a Chinese disguise, Robert hid his face under a cone shaped, woven bamboo hat with a large brim and made his way to the house each night. It was the same type of disguise he’d used to avoid capture from the Taipings after that horrible battle where he had almost died.
Under the robe, his sweaty hands held a revolver while his eyes searched the shadows. Every suspicious sound he heard caused him to leap around inside his skin. Each morning when the roosters crowed, he made his way back to the commission before the sun was up.
Many Cantonese hated him because he was not Chinese. If he were discovered, they would take their time tearing his arms and legs out of their sockets. He would suffer a long and horrible death before they cut his head off and threw it in the river. The Chinese believed if you were not buried whole, your soul would be lost forever.
As much as he disliked sleeping alone at the commission, it was more comfortable than the bedroom he shared with Ayaou in that house. Guan-jiah could not find a suitable bed, so Ayaou and Robert slept and made love on old rice mats rolled out flat on the creaking, hardwood floor.
It didn’t take long to discover that the mats were infested with lice. Robert took daily baths and thought he was going to scrub his skin off to get rid of them. Guan-jiah and Ayaou worked hard to clean the place, but it seemed a losing battle. Every time they cleaned the floor of droppings, the creatures returned when the rooms were empty.
One night, a rat woke him. It was sitting on his chest licking the salt from his skin. He screamed. The rat leaped off. Robert grabbed his pistol and almost fired a round to blow it up before it escaped into a hole in the wall he hadn’t noticed.
“Master, what is it?” Guan-jiah said, as he rushed into the room half-naked. He held his Colt revolver in one hand and a machete in the other. His eyes had a wild, dangerous look to them. The eunuch kept his head shaved except for his queue.
Robert was sure if his servant had hair, it would have been sticking in all directions. “Rats!” he said. “You have to rid this house of them, Guan-jiah.”
“Master, since so many people have left the city, the rats have no one to hunt them down and keep their population in control.”
“Find a way.”
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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction