Saturday, July 24, 2010

In Shamian Alley

As the sun started to set in Steelhead Shanghai, I made my way carefully from the comparative safety of the Bazaar toward the corner of Shanghai known as Shamian Alley.

This was where the poorest of the working class operated, in tiny shops pressed close against one another, with living quarters above. It was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in broad daylight; after dark, it was no place to be, especially for a woman.

I had come to seek the advice of one Dr. Rhynold Beck, a medical man who chose to live and do business in Shanghai. Whether this was altruism on his part, a desire to serve the destitute Chinese who would otherwise lack modern medical treatment, or a need to hide in an area of Steelhead where not many Westerners would choose to go and where outsiders could be quickly seen and identified, I could not say. I had heard Dr. Beck was involved with the Chinese gangs (called "tongs" in their tongue, or so I am told), and it takes a brave man indeed to challenge their orders.

I had met Beck once before, in my quest to find The Scientist. This time I was again seeking information from the doctor on a matter I am not yet at liberty to divulge. [That's the kind of cheap literary trick Conan Doyle played all the freaking time. Watson would mention the "case of the giant Sumatran rat" as an off-the-cuff remark, while adding that he couldn't talk about it, it was too terrible for his readers to hear, it would cause a Royal scandal, etc. Methinks it just authorial laziness, although it's possible I'm just projecting. - RJ]

I sidled past the blacksmith's shop, the shop selling Chinese herbs and spices, and the butcher shop (the latter smelling strongly of meat and offal that had been in the hot sun far too long). All around me I heard sounds of people moving in the shadows though I saw not a soul. I kept a firm grip on Dame Ordinal's Clock-winding Pistol, hoping that its sheer size and deadly appearance would deter any would-be thieves; if the occasion arose to fire the gun, I had no illusions that I could escape before I ran out of ammunition.

At last, I found the shingle advertising Dr. Beck's practice. I knocked on the door, but received no answer. Gingerly, I pushed on the door, which was partially off its hinges, as though it had been the recent recipient of several heavy blows. The door opened into a single room, obviously empty.

There stood a crude operating table, medical supplies, some records in file drawers, and a desk. I shuddered at the thought of having to lie on that table and be operated on under these conditions, but I supposed it was better than no medical care at all. Once again I wondered about Dr. Beck's motives.

The doctor's desk had on it a note in large, bold handwriting: "Gone to Babbage - Beck." My mission was in vain, it seemed. Sighing heavily, I picked up paper and pen. I dipped the pen in the inkwell and scrawled a brief note to the doctor.

I crept out of the surgery and, still brandishing the gun as a talisman, slowly made my way toward the lights of Steelhead's capital.


Ryne Beck said...

Alas & alack madam, I was called away on urgent business in Babbage that is now thankfully concluded. I'm heading back via the steamer Clockhaven Queen and expect to make land shortly. Please be careful when abroad in the slums for they are a dangerous and unfriendly place to both westeners and outsiders in general. I do hope you will call in again if you are still in need of my assistance.

Ryne Beck (Dr.)

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you, Dr. Beck, you are most kind. I was foolish and more than a bit impolite to drop in uninvited, but I was in the neighborhood.