A woman’s voice—an old woman, if I had to guess—cried in broken English, “No. Must come now. Now. Girl die.” Then, slipping into Chinese, she added, “She will die anyway, but I won’t have her spirit haunting me.”
I glanced quickly at Miss Cameron and saw her lips thin and the smile leave her eyes as she whirled away from me and stepped quickly into the hallway. I followed her.
Standing just inside the front door was an old, bent Chinese woman. She tried to straighten as Miss Cameron approached but her back’s deformity would allow her to do so only in a limited capacity. She was able to raise her head, however, and did so with a regal gesture that compensated for her lack of stature. The old woman spoke in a rapid, sing-song voice as she thrust a small white cloth toward Miss Cameron.
Miss Cameron turned toward me to ask, “I think I understood what she said but can you—?”
“Of course. She said the cloth is from a girl held in a gambling house on the corner of Tuck Wo Gai and Wa Sheng Dun Gaiby and that the girl needs help. The girl is ill. She sickens for home but they will not release her. They beat her instead. This woman says she has heard that the people in this house will help poor girls. She says we are to show the girl the cloth so she will know we have come to help.”
Miss Cameron took the cloth. “Tell her thank you. Tell her we will do all we can. And ask her, Miss Hudson, if there is anything we can do for her since she is here.”
The woman shook her head proudly in answer to the last question before saying, “I must go. If I am gone too long, they will suspect something.”
I caught the fear in her tone and nodded. “Then, go. But first tell us this girl’s name.” The old woman shrugged off my request.
“I don’t know her name. When the girls come into the house, they lose everything.” Then she slipped out the front door with an awkward, unsteady step that I recognized as a sign of the ancient, vile practice of foot binding. The woman’s matter-of-fact response chilled me. If even her name was taken from her, what was left for this poor, homesick, captive girl?
Miss Cameron dispatched a message to the police and asked me if I was able to stay into the early afternoon. “You will get a personal taste of our work at 920 if you can stay, Miss Hudson. You might as well see if it suits you.”
“I’d love to stay,” I replied, “and please call me Dinah.”
“I’d return the offer, but Donaldina is a mouthful,” Miss Cameron responded with a smile. “My friends call me Dolly.”
I felt honored at the invitation but thought I could never call her by that casual nickname. Our ages were not that many years apart but something inherently grand about the woman made me believe she would always be Miss Cameron to me.
The message the police quickly sent by return hand assured us that two officers would be waiting for us at the corner the old woman had designated. Once she read the note, Miss Cameron calmly pinned on her hat, threw a lightweight cloak over her shoulders, and after asking Lu Chu to have a room and bed ready for a new guest, held open the door. I felt the adventure of the moment blended with a twinge of apprehension, but Miss Cameron looked neither excited nor afraid, only resolute and sad, determined to make this journey a thousand times if she must but still wishing with all her heart it wasn’t necessary to do so.
Two men, both in plain clothes, waited for us at the rendezvous corner. The older of the two motioned us into the alley behind the buildings before asking in a low voice, “What have you got, Dolly?”
“A girl purported to be in old Wing’s establishment. We’ve never been successful there before, Jesse, but maybe today’s the day. This is Dinah Hudson, by the way, who speaks the language about as perfectly as a fahn quai can.”
“Where’s Yuen Qui?”
“Ill. I thought it was plague at first, but the doctor says not. He’s ordered her off her feet for at least six weeks, and Miss Hudson has volunteered to fill in until Yuen’s back to health.” Miss Cameron introduced me properly to Sergeant Jesse Cook and after looking over his shoulder added, “Your companion is new, too.”
“Dan’s been pulled off the Chinatown Squad for a while and assigned to a problem on the wharf, so I’ve brought along young Colin O’Connor.”
“Italian, then,” Donaldina commented with a straight face, and we all smiled. Despite his name, I looked more Irish than Colin O’Connor, whose fair hair belied his green eyes and gave him a Teutonic look.
O’Connor caught my look and interpreted it correctly. Grinning, he explained, “My mother was from Berlin. Poor da never forgave her for bequeathing me this hair.” Colin O’Connor looked to be around my age, a tall, well-built man whose suit coat seemed a little small, pulling as it did across his broad shoulders. A boxer, I guessed from his big hands, or a wrestler. A good man to have beside you in a fight and even more comforting because of the small ax he carried in one hand.
“I see you have a search warrant, Jesse, and we’re already more conspicuous than we should be. Any longer and we might as well go home without even trying.” Donaldina moved past the older policeman farther into the alley. “Show Mr. O’Connor the door that needs his attention.”
After that, there was no more time for conversational speech for quite a while. Following a few powerful blows from O’Connor’s ax, Donaldina was able to push through into a dark hallway with me on her heels.
“We are looking for a girl,” I called in Chinese. “A young girl who may be ill. Here is your flag, child. Come out. Come out.”
Many doors on each side of the hallway stood partially ajar, and O’Connor shoved them fully open with such force that some of the men that had been peering through the cracks at us jumped backwards with loud cries. One or two of the occupants ran shouting into the hall ahead of us and disappeared through other doors. The confusion, the hurrying shadowy bodies, and the racket of raised voices and crashing doors made the scene chaotic.
Donaldina held the white kerchief in front of her as she hurried into each room to examine its interior and contents.
“Nothing!” she cried with keen disappointment, “but I know she’s here. I can see it on the men’s faces. Where is that rascal Wing?”
I stood looking around the dim interior of a room crammed with crates and boxes as Miss Cameron conversed with Sergeant Cook in the hallway. I felt the same sharp disappointment I heard in her voice and was just about to join her in the hallway when a wrinkled mat caught my eye. To this day I don’t know why I looked twice at a simple woven mat, dirtied with age and use. Somehow it seemed out of place, was all. Why would anyone place a mat in the middle of the rough, wooden floor of a room used to store old crates and barrels? The mat struck enough of a discordant note that I took my booted foot and pushed it to the side, exposing a trapdoor in the floor. I understood exactly what the discovery might mean and hurriedly crouched down to grab hold of the small rawhide pull attached to one of the boards. I could raise the floor board part of the way but hadn’t the muscle to flip it completely open.
“In here,” I cried, rising to go to the doorway to the hall where my three companions now stood. “I think I’ve found something.”
It took Colin O’Connor only one strong jerk to open the trapdoor, and when he would have stepped down onto the ladder that was propped against the wall just inside the opening, I grabbed hold of his arm.
“No, you can’t go!”
He looked at me in astonishment. “I’m safe enough. You needn’t worry about me.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,”—I didn’t bother to hide my impatience—“why would I worry about a big, strong man like you? It’s the child. If she’s down there, what will she think when she sees you coming toward her? She’ll be scared out of her wits. The rescue will be more frightening than the captivity. I’ll go.” Without waiting for response or permission, I tucked the white cloth we were to use for identification into my sleeve and sat at the edge of the opening, carefully placing one foot and then the other onto a rung of the ladder. Then I stood upright, stepped down two more rungs, slowly turned around and began to descend the ladder, grasping the wooden edge of floor for balance until I had descended too far into the darkness to use the floor as anchor any longer.
“I may not have a lot of sense, but I’m guessing you’ll need this.” At the last minute, O’Connor handed me a lantern, making the descent more of a challenge because I had to clasp it while also clinging to the ladder with both hands. The place was black as pitch and cramped, the ceiling so low I could not stand upright. At first, I felt a desolate disappointment because the room—if it could be called that—appeared to be empty, but then in the far corner I detected some kind of movement that drew me closer. What at first seemed nothing more substantial than a pile of old rags turned out to be a child, an emaciated, unconscious child whose only signs of life were fluttering eyelids and the shallow rise and fall of her bony chest.
“Dear little bird,” I said softly, tenderly in Chinese, in case despite her apparent insensibility the child could hear me, “I am Qing and I have come to help you. All will be well now. Qing is here.”
With the lantern swinging from my forearm, I picked up the girl’s slight, featherweight form and slowly, awkwardly climbed the ladder until I was high enough to hand her body into Jesse Cook’s waiting arms. When Cook stepped back, I heard him say something to Donaldina before Colin O’Connor reached down one large hand to me.
“Here. Let me help you.” I didn’t hesitate but reached up a welcome hand in return, allowing him to steady me until I once more stood above ground.
“Thank you,” I told him as I reached down to brush the dirt and cobwebs from my skirt.
“My pleasure.” Something unexpectedly warm in his response made me look over at him quickly. I couldn’t read the emotion in his eyes and thought he might still be smarting from my earlier dismissive words.
“Mr. O’Connor, the tone I used with you earlier may have seemed a little abrupt—” I began, but he interrupted with a grin that suddenly made him look as Irish as a leprechaun.
“Miss Hudson, if your tone was abrupt—and, mind you, I’m not saying it was—I have no doubt I deserved the rebuke. Deserved it wholeheartedly and was honored to receive it from so estimable a young woman as yourself.” For just a moment I found the man—his smooth baritone voice tinged with a rolling brogue, his handsome face, the admiration in his eyes—completely charming and stood there speechless until Donaldina, holding the Chinese girl, spoke from the doorway.
“Let’s go, Dinah. Jesse will deal with Wing Chee, though no doubt the man will plead complete ignorance of how this child came to be lying under the floorboards of his warehouse. He’s a slippery devil with a tong in each pocket.” At her words, I forgot about the attractive young policeman next to me and went forward to take the unconscious child from Miss Cameron’s arms.
“Let me carry her while you lead the way home.”
Looking at the girl’s colorless face, I admitted to myself that in a small part of my mind I had hoped this rescued child would—in an extraordinary, miraculous way—be the child I had abandoned and now sought, my poor little Mae Tao. But, of course, she was not. In real life, conscience is never mollified so neatly. Still, this was one less abused and frightened child, I thought, so I must be one child closer to finding Mae Tao. For once, I was happy that I did not have enough imagination to feel either discouraged or hopeless about the task I had set for myself.
Copyright © 2012 Karen J. Hasley.
All rights reserved.