The Watch Thief Chapter 34

Yang-Sen’s Home, Chongqing.
Thursday 19 April, 1923.

From the mouth of Trebitsch’s New York brogues a cockroach raised its bulbous head. It climbed out, onto the concrete floor, and made for the desk as monastery bells rang. It trekked to the bed where Trebitsch slept and remembered Chi’s message: Wu Peifu had given them tens of thousands of men to call upon. Still, Yang-Sen wanted another recruitment drive. The bell’s chimes continued and he dreamt of looking down to a serene and leafy enclosure in the Wu Mountains. It was a temple, and Seebohm Rowntree was there in monk’s tunic. He spoke Italian, and quietly assured Trebitsch that the new army were his army, loyal men all. Then he heard Yang-Sen’s soldiers drilling outside and awoke. It would happen today.

Each of the five sampans carried seven men including two specialist rowers. They twisted in the tantrums of the Yangtze River. Trebitsch watched his crew wrestle the currents. One sailor held on so fiercely the rapids turned his oar against him and bash it back against his skull: he fell to the deck, still clutching it. Blood trickled from his temple to cheek. Trebitsch met his gaze, and then, got it into his head to help him. He rose, just as the next wave forced itself over the bow and his shin crashed into the bench. Roaring waves muted any snap or scream, and nobody else noticed.

Forty men ran across a mud shore. He limped behind on lost ground. They climbed the craggy incline. Trebitsch looked back at four battered sampans.

It was a small settlement. They were burning bamboo roofs and kicking in doors when he got there. The women were beaten with clubs, the men more-so. One of the villagers pulled a gun. They were quick to carve his throat. He flapped in the death rattle and blood swamped the soil. The girls and women had their arms strapped; soldier’s hands at their backs. The sharp-toothed lieutenant targeted one, taller and more defiant than the rest, and the men laughed as he violated her.

Four days later, they were in the workshop. Over eight long tables slaves filed and sanded wood blocks held in steel vices. They were those taken from the village earlier that week. The dummy rifles were Trebitsch’s idea. The one called Wei looked up instinctively as he approached. The look was fleeting. Trebitsch remembered he could have him killed just for doing that. The knife-toothed lieutenant glanced at the advisor, thinking the same. A minute later heavy boot-steps sounded in the hall and the lieutenant punched Wei to the ground. As he was dragged upright he saw the General had arrived.

Mr. Keelan, I though I might find you here,” said Yang-Sen.

It is very inspiring to see them work,” said Trebitsch.

Wu Peifu has invited us to Loyang this weekend. Come,” he said.

Two hours later Trebitsch walked speedily across the garden. He passed the spot where the lieutenant put a bullet into Huang Shenrong’s head. The last ray of sunlight died as he reached his suite. It was a one room building and he flung his door open and launched himself into the desk chair, the quill and the paper. He wrote quickly.

Taxation must be legislative: no longer the arbitrary will of local generals.’

Outside, he heard the laughter of Yang-Sen’s lieutenants. He remembered the villager who dared stand up to the invaders. What did he look like before they cut him? He remembered the bandits hiding there. There were two of them. One was kept as a slave. The other, who had lost the coin toss, was dead before he fell. It didn’t matter. He must keep writing. Wu Peifu was to get everything he had. Trebitsch scored out half sentences going nowhere, wrote on until he came to his second point.

Official corruption: to be discouraged and rooted out. People needed to have confidence in the administration’s honesty…’

Again the quill froze. Some block; as if his mind just stopped. The lieutenant ripping her clothes off. A dozen men laughing, like it was horseplay, him trying to think the same way. He was looking away when he saw the boy hid down in the rushes. He couldn’t have been older than five. Trebitsch crossed out the word honesty’. He re-wrote it, and then crossed it out again as the image stuck with him. Who was the child? Had they killed his father, or was he the son of the woman crying as the lieutenant grabbed her hair?

Honesty… and enactment of justice.’

Stop! Let her go!” yelled Trebitsch.

The soldiers did not speak English. The villager, Wei, had shouted Trebitsch’s command in Chinese and pointed to him. Wei was punched, hard, and his arm twisted underneath him as he hit stony soil.

Three: good roads and railways must be built.’

He could feel the same rain on his clammy skin, the boy watching him as the lieutenant raped her. He’d followed two soldiers into a hut. An elderly woman was sat still in bamboo chair as they grabbed clothes from her shelves and jammed jewellery into their pouches. Trebitsch stood in the corner, watching. He didn’t know if she knew he was there.

He jotted the words down faster and faster.

Army re-organisation and discipline, provision for agricultural instruction…’

With the prisoners rounded up, the lieutenant was told there was not enough room to take the woman. He shoved her behind him, left her. They left, and Trebitsch breathed a sigh of relief.

Public health services must be developed.’

The cockroach scurried over one paper to another. He worked at the dossier through the night and next day through that night. He held nothing back. When he was done he took the papers past the factory and into the administrative office where he asked for a translator. Trebitsch retired early and left instructions he was not to be disturbed. He got into bed and the cockroach returned to his shoe.

Loyang was three days trek through the hills of Ankang were bandits shot and killed one of their men. Upon the frosty peak at Xianyang they were safe. A day east they met with a unit of guards from the Zhili faction. Wu’s men were led by Wang Suez, young, friendly, with extra food and healthy donkeys. His English was good and they talked European politics on the final day’s journey.

Soldiers milled around the dining suite, talking and waiting. Their uniforms were perfectly buttoned and strapped with bayonets and grenades. Only Marshal Wu Peifu dressed casually: in grey shirt, trousers. He was stocky, mid fifties, orange closely cropped hair and a red moustache. Forty men stopped speaking when he spoon-tapped twice on the crystal glass. He held the glass to the waiter in both hands. Rice wine was poured. Wu raised it and spoke Yang-Sen’s name. The glass was passed to another waiter who placed it at a set point on the table. Yang-Sen went and stood there.

Patrick Keelan,” Wu announced, holding glass under bottle.

During the night Trebitsch awoke several times. He’d tried to match Wu’s propensity for heavy imbibing and his bladder had fallen victim. He barely saw his palatial quarter. That morning, six armed soldiers arrived at his door. He dressed quickly.

They led him across the leafy compound, past six guards at the main house, two guarding every door off the winding corridor, four outside Wu Peifu’s office and four inside. Yang-Sen was there too.

Keelan, I have asked the General if you would stay another night. The dossier you presented me with at dinner: I think your proposals merit further consideration,” he said.

The headquarters had trees everywhere and Trebitsch strolled past barracks after barracks, gun sheds and shooting ranges. It was like a military town. He took lessons in the riding school where he was reunited with General Chi Hsien-Yuan. He attended most of the 6am inspections, the only times Wu dressed in full uniform. The Marshal was a deeply thoughtful man. ‘The Philosopher General’ they called him. They disagreed on some political matters but it was all done professionally. Wang Suez often attended their afternoon chats, along with General Hsien-Yuan, and his associate, General Wu-hung Chiang.

Marshal, we have talked about Russia’s pretended loyalty and the expanding Japanese population. Not to mention England, which listens to the whole world’s business with its Secret Service.”

There Mr. Keelan goes again,” said Suez, and the other men laughed.

Did you not say they will lose their empire to Bolshevism?” asked Wu playfully.

Something like that. Marshal Wu, I would like for you to commission an expedition. A trip to Europe to secure funding, and to establish military allies there. Overseas investment for China’s railways and roads. Just think! You could put ten soldiers at points where other Generals can only move one.”

Yang-Sen returned to Loyang for the banquet in honour of Wu Peifu’s mandarin, Patrick Keelan. A military band played the off-key opening to ‘Song to the Auspicious Cloud’, which expanded loudly into painful wails backed by eight trombones. They played ‘China Heroically Stands in the Universe’, its notes arranged in a jaunty melody layered by voice choir. They played the tunes again in the morning as Chiang, Suez and ‘’Keelan’ left by military coach.

In Genoa they ate pizza by the fast Saltarello dancers. In Venice, a naval band played Wagner as they sailed in gondolas. General Chiang was overjoyed and Mr. Suez announced, “this is an amazing journey, Patrick!”

Their boat glided gently to the dock, to where a large man stopped it with his foot and looked down on them.

Hello, Trebitsch,” said Bauer.

#

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