Upper Yangtze, Chongqing.
Saturday 13 January, 1923.
Geoffrey Corlett had used his charm , status and cash to borrow the sampan for bridge night. It gave cover from the pelting winds. There was a lavatory, stove, and benches built-in tight against the card table. Mark Davidson, an English banker, with tidy black fringe and a trimmed moustache looked at his cards for some combination to move the game along. Suddenly a fit of vile coughing erupted from Corlett. This set off young Steptoe, who spluttered like the sound of kicked gravel.
“Maybe you both should try dragon bones. They find them in the mountains, Keelan, and grind them into powder,” said Davidson.
“Dragons? I have been here a week and all I’ve seen is fog!” he quipped.
Davidson looked down, stroking the tip of a card. His dark irises were inscrutable.“They say a Szechuan dog barks at the sun…” said Davidson.
“Because the sun rarely appears,” said Corlett. Corlett was ready to fold when the small boat shook violently and the choice was taken away. His cards crashed across the table. A bottle of rice wine rolled for the floor but Steptoe put his palm around it.
“Dear God!” he yelled.
“Goodness. It is as if we were near rapids,” said Keelan.
Davidson put the ashtray back into position. “They can be fearsome,” he said.
“Yes,” replied Keelan. “Anything that is not bolted down will fly across the deck. The day I first sailed the Yangtze the hail came so hard that I thought we were being shot at. Then we were being shot at!”
Six months later, a steamer zig-zagged the Yangtze River for a week. It sailed past the junks under the Wuling Mountain range and the Three Gorges, through Wuhan, Nanjing, and finally Shanghai where it spilled into the China Sea. From there Davidson boarded the liner across the North Pacific. At San Francisco, the rakish trader crossed the yard at the docks and took the west-bound train.
The January rain was like a round of pellets pummelling the bamboo curtain and the restless Yangtze swayed the sampan and her passengers.
“Night rain in the Ba Mountains,” said Davidson.
“Over twenty years naval service. Nearly a year in the ‘City on Rivers’. You think I’d get used to it,” said Corlett.
“Give Steptoe and Keelan a tour of the Widgeon,” said Davidson.
“You’re in Chongqing on business, Patrick?” asked Steptoe.
“That is correct. I am chasing a vacancy as an economic advisor. One of Mr. Davidson’s colleagues at the bank, my landlord, means to introduce me to the brother-in-law of Yang-Sen.”
“General Yang-Sen has many wives,” said Corlett.
“I hear his star is on the wane,” said Davidson.
“I was asked by a travelling companion. ‘Do you not want to see Wu Peifu?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said. Wu Peifu has won his battles. Yang-Sen has lost his, so it is he who needs my help.”
“Those warlords only seem to fight one another for the sake of fighting,” said Steptoe. “Men pressed into military slavery, institutionalised rape and looting, then a one week alliance before one warlord betrays the other. We all need to be careful.”
On Park Avenue, midday rain on Park Avenue lashed against Albert Otto’s third floor office. He needled a pen tip into his desk. One eye clasped a monocle tight to breaking as he stared over the desk at Davidson.
“Patrick Keelan? Yes, I know him What is he to you?” he asks.
“Sir, I represent Young Brothers Banking and Trading Corporation. Recently Mr. Keelan made in-roads with Chongqing’s ruler, Yang-Sen. You were listed as a backer in redevelopment plans financed by this ‘Keelan’ character.”
General Yang-Sen’s banqueting room was light colours: peach curtains and clean beige carpets. Wind chimes hung silver petals. Orange flames transformed lemon candles. The focus on natural harmony transported the inhabitants far from the harsh winter outside. Guards stood in each corner, strapped with multiple guns and knives. They made Davidson nervous. Keelan didn’t seem bothered. The table was laden with delicacies: pork leg and dumplings, hot pot and Jiangtuan fish. Knowing the General was a vegetarian, Davidson sought to honour him by eating from a bowl of Chongqing noodles. The Szechuan peppers were numbing and spicy.
“The aim is to build up, not destroy. I know you are a thinking man. You should be thinking of the long term,” Keelan told him.
Yang-Sen’s eyebrows were like trains on curling tracks. He was used to his looking inward but now cheeks and lips followed Keelan’s spoken-aloud thoughts.
“You intrigue me, Mr. Keelan. What you would do if you were in my shoes?” he asked.
“Begin with the people. Give them good roads and railways. This will win them over, and give you a workforce willing to make use of Szechuan’s coal and gas reserves.”
“How do you propose I do that? I have far too few men,” said Yang-Sen.
“Presently you have no army but you can get one,” Keelan said. “Ally yourself with Wu Peifu. He controls half the provinces. He may loan you with an army with which you can conquer Szechuan.”
Yang-Sen exhaled heavily. His teeth protruded. “Wu Peifu waged war on me last year. No alliance is likely,” he said.
“If you care, General, I will devote a week preparing a plan for you to bring to Wu. He will see you are all for bridge building and redevelopment. This province has some of the greatest resources in China. Your path to the top is assured!”
At London’s Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, Duncan Robbins wiped away the summer sweat and returned back to the mailbag before him. He skimmed an envelope addressed to Scotland Yard and threw it in the box. Inside that letter was an introduction from Blyths’ Solicitors. It came on behalf of Mark Davidson, who was at that moment crossing the Atlantic for Plymouth. Davidson journeyed by rail to London, and was welcomed by the head of Special Branch. Basil Thomson was well known to Davidson, or anyone who read the papers. His recent book, ‘Queer People’, fetched headlines when he told of bringing down Roger Casement, Mata Hari and the German Kuperferle. Beneath his flat white hair-line the spy-catcher looked tired. Thomson quick-thumbed a dossier, then set it down on the desk and snorted out over soot moustache. He leaned forward, calloused fingers spread over a knuckle.
“British business interests in China are threatened by this man,” said Davidson. “My meeting with Otto only confirmed it.”
Davidson had recognised the concern in Otto’s eyes, the sincerity to his story.
“I was initially attracted to him and yes, I loaned him £15,000,” Otto confessed. “The more I learned of him the lesser my opinion. Soon the demands began. He wanted another £2,000, and implied that if I didn’t furnish the amount, the original loan would not be repaid.”
Thomson paused with the transcription. “He was sure ‘Keelan’ was Lincoln?”
“Yes, yes. He admitted it to him. I met him as lodger of an American banker friend. Later, he took up residence in one of Yang-Sen’s homes. Young Brothers rely on the military authorities contributions to operate. Public works, road contracts, large scale developments all go through these warlords. We had good relations with Yang-Sen prior. Yet since Lincoln got in with him all existing British contracts have been cancelled.”
A rap on the door, and an officer entered to leave an album of photographs. Davidson thumbed through the pictures: Edmund Backhouse; Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen; Bertrand Russell and, “there,” said Davidson, settling on Trebitsch. “Keelan.”
Though mid-Spring, the mountain city’s moist air immersed the heads, with subtlety. In the Yuhzong district were the Yangtze and Jialing met, soldiers drilled in this sneaky rain. Fifteen of the sixty men dressed in uniforms of dish-cloth greys with feet in rice-straw sandals. Most dressed in whatever they had when the invaders pressed them into Yang-Sen’s army. It was a choice between that and being killed outright. Across the street Davidson watched them. They were lined up in five rows. Yang-Sen and his advisor, Keelan, moved between them.
“Why are your shoes not clean?” Keelan demanded.
“Do you want your opponents tracking you? You, hold your head up!” Yang-Sen ordered.
Several of the coolies were staring at Davidson. He decided he’d seen enough and carried on down the road.
“You need to understand discipline if you are to serve your General. This is how it is done by the Germans,” said Keelan.
“You heard Mr. Keelan. I demand an improvement. Fall out!” Yang-Sen shouted.
Suddenly there was a snap of bark, heavy steps, and the men turned as one. Two officers were approaching from the South. One had his arms outstretched and wore a wide smile. The other looked nervous. Several of his soldiers had raised their guns and Yang-Sen ordered them off. Then he walked forward to greet the newcomers with a few armed lieutenants following.
“Chongqing is geographically remote and getting close to Yang-Sen or Lincoln is impossible,” said Davidson. “This alliance with General Wu put fifty thousand men at his disposal, and machine guns, and armoured cars.”
Thomson drew his hand from his head, looked away from the notes. “Worrying,” he said.
“Perhaps you heard of the February 7th executions along the Beijing–Hankou rail-line. That was General Wu. and the Zhili clique. Yang-Sen’s master. Presumably Lincoln has opened up channels there as well,” said Davidson.
“I’ll have the department put together a comprehensive update on his file,” said Thomson.
“The senior British naval officer there, Captain Corlett, became suspicious of him early on. And Consul-General Steptoe, he had a bad feeling too. The man is a waiyi!”
“Pardon me?” asked William Tyrrell, whose suite Davidson was now in.
“What the Chinese call an outer barbarian. A waiyi. He came in from outside to poison Yang-Sen against British firms. Mr. Tyrrell, Young Brothers are already inching toward collapse because of this…waiyi!”
“The Foreign Office agrees with Special Branch,” said Tyrrell. Each word was spoken Trebitsch-weary. “We will help any way we can. Have you spoken with Yang-Sen?”
“He will not see me. According to Otto, Lincoln is trying to float a company of his own, presumably to fill the trading vacuum he created!”
Tyrrell said, “I will write to our consulate in Peking. Mr. Steptoe has moved on but I will ask his replacement to enquire. Maybe we can put pressure on to have Lincoln removed from his position.”
Yang-Sen and Huang Shenrong, a visitor from the easterly Hunan province, walked the hall, laughing and joking. They were followed at distance by Patrick Keelan and Chi Hsieh Yuan, a short, dour looking officer.
“Congratulations, General Chi. I understand you are now director of the Pukow Port project. I hope we’ll work together. Tell me this, though. That man. He dined with Yang-Sen yesterday. However I heard after that he betrayed the General?”
“Huang? That is correct. However, he was here with a mutual friend. He enjoyed Yang-Sen’s hospitality, and protection,” said Chi.
The party arrived in the dining room where moments later waiters served rice, noodles, vegetables and Yunnan cheeses. There was beef and pork, pig kidney and brain, duck bowel and cow stomach. There was ice cream and tea, and a bowl of perfect oranges grown in the region. Yang-Sen toasted to his new alliance with Wu Peifu, and opened a bottle of brandy that he had sent over. Yang-Sen toasted Keelan for bringing them together. He would have a monument erected to the expert! Huang Shenrong toasted Yang-Sen for his generosity, and wished him a long life. General Chi spoke of his experiences governing Kiangsu and Anhwei. The conversation was fruitful. An hour later, Yang-Sen set down his glass and got to his feet.
“Now Huang,” he said, “you can go into the garden. You will be shot there.”
The Orient Express railed from Paris. Davidson slept in Venice, and dined before Belgrade. He bussed to and from Tehran, under hundreds of tunnels. He crossed the tracks of the British Raj in Pakistan and through China where the lines were built by men from every country. He crossed Szechuan and arrived home in Chongqing. He slept very well that night. The next morning he met Corlett on the way to the bank. Keelan, Corlett said, appeared to have left town, perhaps even shortly before Davidson himself had departed. The banker settled for being happy with this, until he reached work and found the staff clearing out their desks.
To read The Watch Thief advance chapters, PDFs, and access a big bundle of awesome extras come spend a few bob on Patreon.