Storytime – The Chinaman

A writing exercise:


So, this dame shows up in my office, says she’s got a problem. She’s real classy,
platinum blonde hair, bright red lipstick, legs that won’t quit. She pulls a cigarette outta her purse, asks for a light. She says her boyfriend was supposed to come in last night on the “Queen of Shanghai”, but so far, no show. I hold up the match, she leans forward for the light, holds onto my hand maybe a little too long, slowly blows smoke in my face. Distractedly, I put out the match.
“So, what’s the real problem, then? ls it love, or does he owe you money, or what?”
She looks out from under those long lashes, says, “I’m afraid he might be a little bit dead. The Chinaman was on his tail, ya know? Can you get the straight dope for me?
ls he after me, too?”
OK, writer. Fill in the details. What’s the answer? Does she really have a boyfriend? ls there another angle? Who’s the Chinaman? What’s the story?


Well, this is a fine kettle of eels.  Here I am, stuck on deck watch while this monster storm blows in.  I’ll be lucky to stay upright in this gale, and if I have to go very far along the deck I could get washed overboard.  Everybody else is below decks, warm and dry.  Damn!
I have to get to San Francisco, but I’m starting to think maybe this wasn’t the way to do it.  This old tub, the Queen of Shanghai, indeed!  More like the Old Cow of Shanghai; tired and all used up.  I can hear the howling and groaning of the plates as she fights her way up each of the towering waves.  That big old drive shaft is still knocking something terrible under the strain.  Why couldn’t they put a few dollars into maintenance?  Now they’d likely founder in the middle of this storm if that bearing seizes up.
All this started because of a woman.  Alice McVey, my angel and my curse!  Her big ideas had gotten me into trouble many times before, but I just couldn’t learn my lesson.  Now I’ve got Cheng Huan after me, all because of a little mix up about a shipment of jade.  After all, I didn’t really steal it, you know – I just arranged for it to go astray, and just happened to realize a fat profit from the deal.  Now I’m beginning to wonder if maybe he’s aboard this ship, under cover as one of the black gang in the engine room or maybe one of the deck hands – many of them are orientals.
If the ship holds together, maybe we can plan on docking in a few days.  But, in addition to the drive shaft problem, the navigation gear has broken down, so we’re not quite sure about our location.  The wind could have blown us way south, and we’ll have to make up all that distance.  Makes it hard to do much planning, and Alice will be all bent out of shape if the ship is much delayed.
I’m trying to see through the storm, scanning nervously for rocks.  There is a lookout at the masthead, but he’s likely just hunkered down against the banshee wind, so I have to do his job in addition to mine.  The wind is moaning through the wheelhouse, and the whole ship shudders as a rogue wave crashes into us broadside.  I hear the starboard door open, and the wind noises go even higher.  Whoever it is manages to get it shut, slamming it without breaking the glass, miraculously.
“Jake,” he says, “another fine day on the briny!”
“Murphy, “ says I, “are ye drunk? Have ye come up here in this weather just to make feeble jokes?”
“Not my doing, laddie,” he groans.  “Cap’n says to tell you that we need to let her run with the wind.  That bearing won’t last, so we’ve got to take off the strain, so’s to get a few more hours out of it.”
“The devil, you say. It’s going to be tremendous difficult to get her turned without taking on hundreds of tons of seawater.  We may not survive the attempt.”
“Well, damned if we do, etc.,” he says.  “I’ll bear a hand, since I’m here.  We’ll try to keep from driving her right to the bottom.  Say when.”
Murphy and I grab onto the wheel and start making the turn.  As I predicted, and he knew, also, we started taking on massive amounts of water partway through the turn.  We kept at it, hoping the hatch covers would hold, and eventually brought her around.  She heeled drunkenly as the wind slammed into the stern of the vessel.  Most of the seawater had returned to the sea by now, so we were starting to get some control.
Murphy yelled to make himself heard once again, “Go below, get some dry clothes, catch some sleep.  Be back in three hours, you hear me?”
“As you wish, my friend.  It’ll be welcome.  Be sure to check on the lookout from time to time, make sure he hasn’t gone over the side.”
I fight my way out of the wheelhouse, then down to the hatch that leads to the main companionway.  I nearly don’t get that hatch open, struggling against the howling, whistling wind.
I’m going down the companionway toward my berth when somebody jumps me from behind.  I get knocked to the deck with the force of the collision, but manage to roll over and get loose for a moment.  My attacker was on me again, but this time I had a little warning, and was able to get in a good punch, driving him back.  As he falls, I get a glimpse of his face.
“Cheng Huan,” I shout, “how did you find me?  And, what do you want?”
He warily gets to his feet, assuming some kind of a martial arts defensive position.  Since I have not been trained in that type of combat, I draw my pistol and aim it at his face.  As you might suppose, this brings him up short.
“Where is Alice McVey?” he growled, “I will have my revenge!”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, in my best pleading voice, “why her?  Just how involved is she?”
Cheng Huan bared his teeth, jaws tight, as he said, “She is the one who persuaded me to use that particular shipping service.  She assured me that my jade would be safe.  I don’t know exactly how it was taken, but she is to blame!”
“Come with me, and don’t try anything cute.  I know how to use this thing.”
I take him up on deck, and we are huddled up against the bulkhead, near the port side railing.  I hand him a life jacket and a flask of water.
“Sorry, old chum, but you’re going over the side.  With some luck, you’ll make it safely ashore, or be picked up by a fishing boat.  I won’t wish you luck, because you’ve done me no favors in the past.  Go!”  I pointed the gun menacingly, and he leapt over the railing, disappearing into the darkness.
I was looking forward to reuniting with Alice.  By now she probably had some new scheme in mind.

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