These Violent Delights – Chloe Gong

In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens. Its eyes snap open in the belly of the Huangpu River, jaws unhinging at once to taste the foul blood seeping into the waters. Lines of red slither through this ancient city’s modern streets: lines that draw webs in the cobblestones like a network of veins, and drip by drip these veins surge into the waters, pouring the city’s life essence into the mouth ofanother. As the night grows dark, the monster pushes itself up, eventually emerging from the waves with the leisure of a forgotten god. When it turns its head up, all that can be seen is the low-hanging, plump moon. It breathes in. It slinks closer. Its Йrst breath transforms into a cold breeze, hurtling into the streets and brushing the ankles of those unfortunate enough to be stumbling home during the devil’s hour. This place hums to the tune of debauchery. This city is Йlthy and deep in the thrall of unending sin, so saturated with the kiss of decadence that the sky threatens to buckle and crush all those living vivaciously beneath it in punishment. But no punishment comes—not yet. The decade is loose and the morals are looser. As the West throws itsarms up in unending party, as the rest of the Middle Kingdom remains splintered among aging warlords and the remnants of imperial rule, Shanghai sits in its own little bubble of power: the Paris of the East, the New York of the West. Despite the toxin trickling from every dead-ended alleyway, this place is so, so very alive. And the monster, too, is birthed anew.

Unknowingly, the people of this divided city carry on. Two men stumble out from their favorite brothel’s open doors, their laughter piercing and loud. The silence of the late hour stands in sudden contrast to the roaring activity they have emerged from, and their ears struggle to adjust, ringing loudly with the transition. One is short and stout, as if he could lie on the ground and begin rolling down the sidewalk in the manner of a marble; the other is tall and gawky, his limbs drawn in right angles. With their arms swung around each other’s shoulders, they stumble toward the waterfront, toward the river that runs in from the sea where merchantsarrive with commodities—day in, day out. The two men are familiar with these ports; after all, when they’re not frequenting jazz clubs or downing the newest shipments of wine from some foreign country, they run messages here, guard merchants here, haul stock back and forth here—all for the Scarlet Gang. They know this boardwalk like the back of their hands, even when it is presently quiet of the usual thousand diАerent languages hollered under a thousand different flags. At this hour, there is only the muЖed music from nearby bars and the large shop banners overhead ruffling with every gust of wind. And the five White Flowers talking animatedly in Russian. It is the fault of the two Scarlet men for not hearing the racket sooner, but their brains are clogged with alcohol and their senses are buzzing pleasantly.

By the time the White Flowers are in sight, by the time the men see their rivals standing around one of the ports, passing a bottle, shoving shoulders with uproarious laughter, neither party can back away without losing face. The White Flowers straighten up, heads tilting into the wind. “We should continue walking,” the short Scarlet man whispers to his companion. “You know what Lord Cai said about getting into another fight with the White Flowers.” The gawkier one only bites down on the inside of his cheeks, sucking his face in until he looks like a smug, drunk ghoul. “He said we shouldn’t initiate anything. He never said we couldn’t get into a fight.” The Scarlet men speak in the dialect of their city, their tongues laid Мat and their sounds pressed tight. Even as they raise their voices with the conЙdence of being on home turf, they are uneasy, because it is rare now for a White Flower to not know the language—sometimes their accents are indistinguishable from a Shanghai native. A fact that proves correct when one of the White Flowers, grinning, bellows, “Well, are you trying to pick a fight?” The taller Scarlet man makes a low sound at the base of his throat and aims a wad of spit at the White Flowers.

It lands by the shoe of the nearest. In a blink: guns upon guns, each arm raised and steady and trigger-happy, ready to pull. This isa scene that no soul bats an eye toward any longer; this is a scene that is more commonplace in heady Shanghai than the smoke of opium wafting from a thick pipe. “Hey! Hey!” A whistle blows into the terse silence. The policeman who runs on site only expresses annoyance at the standstill before him. He has seen this exact scene three times already within the week. He has forced rivals into jail cells and called for cleanup when the members left one another dead and pierced with bullets instead. Weary with the day, all he wants to do is go home, soak his feet in hot water, and eat the meal his wife would have left cold on the table. His hand is already itching for his baton, itching to beat some sense into these men, itching to remind these people that they have no personal grudge against the other. All that fuels them is reckless, baseless loyalty to the Caisand the Montagovs, and it would be their ruin.

“Do we want to break this up and go home?” the policeman asks. “Or do we want to come with me and—” He stopsabruptly. A growl isechoing from the waters. The warning that radiates from such a sound is not a deniable sensation. It is not the sort of paranoia one feels when they think they are being followed down an abandoned junction; nor is it the sort of panic that ensues when a Мoorboard creaks in a house thought empty. It is solid, tangible—it almost exudes a moisture into the air, a weight pressing down on bare skin. It is a threat as obvious as a gun to the face, and yet there is a moment of inaction, a moment of hesitation. The short and stout Scarlet man wavers Йrst, his eyes darting to the edge of the boardwalk. He ducks his head, peering into the murky depths, squinting to follow the choppy, rolling motions of the water’s small ripples. He is just at the right height for his companion to scream and knock him down with a brutal elbow to the temple when something bursts from the river.

Little black specks. As the short man falls to the ground and slams down hard, the world is raining down on him in dots —strange things he cannot quite see as his vision spins and his throat gags in nausea. He can only feel pinpricks landing on him, itching his arms, his legs, his neck; he hears his companion screaming, the White Flowers roaring at one another in indecipherable Russian, then Йnally, the policeman shrieking in English, “Get it off! Get them off!” The man on the ground has a thudding, thunderous heartbeat. With his forehead pressed to the boardwalk, unwilling to behold whatever is causing these terrible howls, his own pulse consumes him. It overtakes every one of his senses, and only when something thick and wet splashes against his leg does he scramble upright in horror, flailing so extremely that he kicks free a shoe and doesn’t bother to fetch it. He doesn’t look back as he runs. He scrubs himself free of the debris that had rained down on him, hiccuping in his desperation to breathe in, breathe in, breathe in. He doesn’t look back to check what had been lurking in the waters. He doesn’t look back to see if his companion needs help, and he certainly doesn’t look back to determine what had landed on his leg with a viscous, sticky sensation. The man only runs and runs, past the neon delight of the theaters as the last of their lights wink oА, past the whispers crawling under the front doors of brothels, past the sweet dreams of merchants who sleep with piles of money underneath their mattresses.

And he is long gone by the time there are only dead men lying along the ports of Shanghai, their throats torn outand their eyes staring up at the night sky, glassy with the reflection of the moon. One SEPTEMBER 1926 In the heart of Scarlet Gang territory, a burlesque club was the place to be. The calendar was rolling closer and closer to the end of the season, the pages of each date ripping free and blowing away quicker than the browning tree leaves. Time was both hurried and unhurried at once, the days becoming scarce yet dragging on for far too long. Workers were always hurrying somewhere, never mind whether they truly had a destination to pursue. There was always a whistle blowing in the background; there was always the constant chugging noise of trams dragging themselves along the worn tracks grooved into the streets; there was always the stench of resentment stinking up the neighborhoods and burrowing deep into the laundry that waved with the wind, like shop banners outside cramped apartment windows. Today wasan exception. The clock had paused on the Mid-Autumn Festival—the twenty-second of the month, according to Western methods of day-keeping this year. Once, it was customary to light lanterns and whisper tales of tragedy, to worship what the ancestors revered with moonlight cupped in their palms. Now it was a new age—one that thought itself above its ancestors.

Regardless of which territory they stood upon, the people of Shanghai had been bustling about with the spirit of modern celebration since sunrise, and at present, with the bells ringing nine times for the hour, the festivities were only getting started. Juliette Cai was surveying the club, her eyes searching for the Йrst signs of trouble. It was dimly lit despite the abundance of twinkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the atmosphere dark and murky and wet. There was also a strange, sodden smell wafting under Juliette’s nose in waves, but the poor renovations seemed not to bother the mood of those seated at various round tables scattered throughout the club. The people here would hardly take notice of a small leak in the corner when constant activity consumed their attention instead. Couples were whispering over decks of tarot cards, men were shaking one another with vigor, women were inclining their heads to gasp and shriek in recollection of whatever story was being told over the flickering gaslight. “You look rather woeful.” Juliette didn’t immediately turn in haste to identify the voice. She didn’t have to. There were very few people who would approach her speaking English to begin with, never mind English with the Мat tones ofa Chinese mother tongue and the accent ofa French upbringing.

“I am. I am perpetually Йlled with woe.” Only then did she crane her head, her lips curling up and her eyes narrowing at her cousin. “Aren’t you supposed to be onstage next?” Rosalind Lang shrugged and crossed her arms, the jade bangles on her slender brown wrists clinking together. “They cannot begin the show without me,” Rosalind scoffed, “so I am not worried.” Juliette scanned the crowd again, this time with a target in mind. She found Kathleen, Rosalind’s fraternal twin, near a table at the back of the club. Her other cousin was patiently balancing a tray full of plates, staring at a British merchant while he tried to order a drink with exaggerated gesticulations. Rosalind was under contract here to dance; Kathleen showed up to wait tables when she got bored, and took a measly wage for the fun of it. Sighing, Juliette dug out a lighter to keep her hands occupied, releasing the Мame, then quenching it to the rhythm of the music gliding around the room.

She waved the small silver rectangle under her cousin’s nose. “Want?” Rosalind responded by pulling outa cigarette tucked within the folds of her clothing. “You don’t even smoke,” she said as Juliette angled the lighter down. “Why do you carry that thing around?”

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