It is 1913, and those who follow the news closely can see the world is teetering on the brink of war. Jack McColl, a Scottish car salesman with an uncanny ear for languages, has always hoped to make a job for himself as a spy. As his sales calls take him from city to great city—Hong Kong to Shanghai to San Francisco to New York—he moonlights collecting intelligence for His Majesty’s Navy, but British espionage is in its infancy and Jack has nothing but a shoestring budget and the very tenuous protection of a boss in far-away London. He knows, though, that a geopolitical catastrophe is brewing, and now is both the moment to prove himself and the moment his country needs him most.
Unfortunately, this is also the moment he begins to realize what his aspiration might cost him. He understands his life is at stake when activities in China suddenly escalate from innocent data-gathering and casual strolls along German military concessions to arrest warrants and knife attacks. Meanwhile, a sharp, vivacious American suffragette journalist has wiled her way deep into his affections, and it is not long before he realizes that her Irish-American family might be embroiled in the Irish Republican movement Jack’s bosses are fighting against. How can he choose between his country and the woman he loves? And would he even be able to make such a choice without losing both?
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THE BLUE DRAGON
At the foot of the hill, Tsingtau’s Government House stood alone on a slight mound, its gabled upper-floor windows and elegant corner tower looking out across the rest of the town. Substantial German houses with red-tiled roofs peppered the slope leading down to the Pacific beach and pier; beyond them the even grander buildings of the commercial district fronted the bay and its harbors. Away to the right, the native township of Taipautau offered little in the way of variety—the houses were smaller,
perhaps a bit closer together, but more European than classically Chinese. In less than two decades, the Germans had come, organized, and recast this tiny piece of Asia in their own image. Give them half a chance, Jack McColl mused, and they would do the same for the rest of the world.
He remembered the Welsh mining engineer leaning over the Moldavia’s rail in mid–Indian Ocean and spoiling a beautiful day with tales of the atrocities the Germans had committed in South-West Africa over the last few years. At least a hundred thousand Africans had perished. Many of the native men had died in battle; most of the remainder, along with the women and children, had been driven into the desert, where some thoughtful German had already poisoned the water holes. A few lucky ones had ended up in concentration camps, where a doctor named Fischer had used them for a series of involuntary medical experiments. Children had been injected with small-pox, typhus, tuberculosis.
The white man’s burden, as conceived in Berlin.
McColl had passed two descending Germans on his way up the hill, but the well-kept viewing area had been empty, and there was no sign of other sightseers below. To the east the hills rose into a jagged horizon, and the earthworks surrounding the 28-centimeter guns on Bismarck Hill were barely visible against the mountains beyond. Some magnification would have helped, but an Englishman training binoculars on foreign defenses was likely to arouse suspicion, and from what he’d seen so far, the guns were where the Admiralty had thought they would be. There was some building work going on near the battery that covered Auguste-Victoria Bay, but not on a scale that seemed significant. He might risk a closer look early one morning, when the army was still drilling.
The East Asia Squadron was where it had been the day before—Scharnhorst and Emden sharing the long jetty, Gneisenau and Nürnberg anchored in the bay beyond. Leipzig had been gone a week now—to the Marianas, if his Chinese informer was correct. Several coalers were lined up farther out, and one was unloading by the onshore wharves, sending occasional clouds of black dust up into the clear, cold air.
These ships were the reason for his brief visit, these ships and what they might do if war broke out. Their presence was no secret, of course—the local British consul probably played golf with the admiral in command. The same consul could have kept the Admiralty informed about Tsingtau’s defenses and done his best to pump his German counterpart for military secrets, but of course he hadn’t. Such work was considered ungentlemanly by the fools who ran the Foreign Office and staffed its embassies—not that long ago a British military attaché had refused to tell his employers in London what he’d witnessed at his host country’s military maneuvers, on the grounds that he’d be breaking a confidence.
It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl—and, he presumed, other British businessmen who traveled the world—had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who worked from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.
When it came to Tsingtau, the secret that mattered most was what orders the East Asia Squadron had for the day that a European war broke out. Any hard evidence as to their intentions, as Cumming had told McColl on their farewell stroll down the Embankment, would be “really appreciated.”
His insistence on how vital all this was to the empire’s continued well-being had been somewhat undermined by his allocation of a paltry three hundred pounds for global expenses, but the trip as a whole had been slightly more lucrative than McColl had expected. The luxury Maia automobile that he was hawking around the world—the one now back in Shanghai, he hoped, with his brother Jed and colleague Mac—had caught the fancy of several rulers hungry for initiation into the seductive world of motorized speed, and the resultant orders had at least paid the trio’s traveling bills.
This was gratifying, but probably more of a swan song than a sign of things to come. The automobile business was not what it had been even two years before, not for the small independents—nowadays you needed capital, and lots of it. Spying, on the other hand, seemed an occupation with a promising future. Over the last few years, even the British had realized the need for an espionage service, and once the men holding the purse strings finally got past the shame of it all, they would realize that only a truly professional body would do. One that paid a commensurate salary.
A war would probably help, but until Europe’s governments were stupid enough to start one, McColl would have to make do with piecework. Before McColl’s departure from England the previous autumn, Cumming had taken note of his planned itinerary and returned with a list of “little jobs” that McColl could do in the various ports of call—a wealthy renegade to assess in Cairo, a fellow Brit to investigate in Bombay, the Germans here in Tsingtau. Their next stop with the Maia was San Francisco, where a ragtag bunch of Indian exiles were apparently planning the empire’s demise.
A lot of it seemed pretty inconsequential to McColl. There were no doubt plenty of would-be picadors intent on goading the imperial bull, but it didn’t seem noticeably weaker. And where was the matador to finish it off? The Kaiser probably practiced sword strokes in his bedroom mirror, but it would be a long time before Germany acquired the necessary global reach.
He lit a German cigarette and stared out across the town. The sun was dropping toward the distant horizon, the harbor light-house glowing brighter by the minute. The lines of lamps in the warship rigging reminded him of Christmas trees.
He would be back in Shanghai for the Chinese New Year, he realized.
Caitlin Hanley, the young American woman he’d met in Peking, was probably there already.
The sun was an orange orb, almost touching the distant hills. He ground out the cigarette and started back down the uneven path while he could still see his way. Two hopeful coolies were waiting with their rickshaws at the bottom, but he waved them both away and walked briskly down Bismarckstrasse toward the beach. There were lights burning in the British consulate, but no other sign of life within.
His hotel was at the western end of the waterfront, beyond the deserted pleasure pier. The desk clerk still had his hair in a pigtail—an increasingly rare sight in Shanghai but common enough in Tsingtau, where German rule offered little encouragement to China’s zealous modernizers. The room key changed hands with the usual bow and blank expression, and McColl climbed the stairs to his second-floor room overlooking the ocean.
A quick check revealed that someone had been though his possessions, which was only to be expected—Tsingtau might be a popular summer destination with all sorts of foreigners, but an Englishman turning up in January was bound to provoke some suspicion. Whoever it was had found nothing to undermine his oft-repeated story, that he was here in China on business and seeing as much of the country as money and time would allow.
He went back downstairs to the restaurant. Most of the clientele were German businessmen in stiff collars and spats, either eager to grab their slice of China or boasting of claims already staked. There were also a handful of officers, including one in a uniform McColl didn’t recognize. He was enthusiastically outlining plans for establishing an aviation unit in Tsingtau when he noticed McColl’s arrival and abruptly stopped to ask the man beside him something.
“Don’t worry, Pluschow, he doesn’t speak German,” was the audible answer, which allowed the exposition to continue.
Since his arrival in Tsingtau, McColl had taken pains to stress his sad lack of linguistic skills, and this was not the first time the lie had worked to his advantage. Apparently absorbed in his month-old Times, he listened with interest to the aviation enthusiast. He couldn’t see much strategic relevance in the news—what could a few German planes hope to achieve so far from home?—but the Japanese might well be interested. And any little nugget of intelligence should be worth a few of Cumming’s precious pounds.
The conversation took a less interesting tack, and eventually the party broke up. McColl sipped his Russian tea and idly wondered where he would dine later that evening. He glanced through the paper for the umpteenth time and reminded himself that he needed fresh reading for the Pacific crossing. There was a small shop he knew on Shanghai’s Nanking Road where novels jettisoned by foreigners mysteriously ended up.
More people came in—two older Germans in naval uniform, who ignored him, and a stout married couple, who returned his smile of acknowledgment with almost risible Prussian hauteur.
He was getting up to leave when Rainer von Schön appeared. McColl had met the young German soon after arriving in Tsing-tau—they were both staying at this hotel—and taken an instant liking to him. The fact that von Schön spoke near-perfect English made conversation easy, and the man himself was likable and intelligent. A water engineer by trade, he had admitted to a bout of homesickness and delved into his wallet for an explanatory photo of his pretty wife and daughter.
That evening he had an English edition of William Le Queux’s Invasion of 1910 under his arm.
“What do you think of it?” McColl asked him once the waiter had taken the German’s order.
“Well, several things. It’s so badly written, for one. The plot’s ridiculous, and the tone is hysterical.”
“But otherwise you like it?”
Von Schön smiled. “It is strangely entertaining. And the fact that so many English people bought it makes it fascinating to a German. And a little scary, I have to say.”
“Don’t you have any ranters in Germany?”
Von Schön leaned slightly forward, a mischievous expression on his face. “With the Kaiser at the helm, we don’t need them.”
McColl laughed. “So what have you been doing today?”
“Finishing up, actually. I’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”
“Eventually. I have work in Tokyo first. But after that . . .”
“Well, if I don’t see you before you go, have a safe journey.”
“You, too.” Von Schön drained the last of his schnapps and got to his feet. “And now I have someone I need to see.”
Once the German was gone, McColl consulted his watch. It was time he visited the Blue Dragon, before the evening rush began. He left a generous tip, recovered his winter coat from the downstairs cloakroom, and walked out to the waiting line of rick-shaws. The temperature had already dropped appreciably, and he was hugging himself as the coolie turned left onto the well-lit Friedrichstrasse and started up the hill. The shops were closed by this time, the restaurants readying themselves for their evening trade. The architecture, the faces, the cooking smells, all were European—apart from his coolie, the only Chinese person in sight was a man collecting horse dung.
It was quiet, too—so quiet that the sudden blast of a locomotive whistle from the nearby railway station made him jump.
The coolie reached the brow of the low hill and started down the opposite slope into Taipautau. The township was almost as neat and widely spaced as the German districts, and in the cold air even the smells seemed more muted than they had in Shanghai. They were halfway down Shantung Strasse before McColl could hear the beginnings of evening revelry in the sailors’ bars at the bottom.
The Blue Dragon was open for business but not yet really awake. The usual old man sat beneath the candlelit lanterns on the rickety veranda, beside the screened-off entrance. He grinned when he recognized McColl and cheerfully spat on the floor to his right, adding one more glistening glob to an impressive mosaic.
McColl was barely through the doorway when an old woman hurried down the hall toward him. “This way, please!” she insisted in pidgin German. “All type girls!”
“I’m here to see Hsu Ch’ing-lan,” he told her in Mandarin, but she just looked blank. “Hsu Ch’ing-lan,” he repeated.
The name seemed to percolate. She gestured for him to follow and led him through to the reception area, where “all type girls” were waiting in an assortment of tawdry traditional costumes on long red-velvet sofas. Some were barely out of puberty, others close to menopause. One seemed amazingly large for a Chinese woman, causing McColl to wonder whether she’d been fattened up to satisfy some particular Prussian yearning.
The old woman led him down the corridor beyond, put her head around the final door, and told Madame that a laowai wanted to see her. Assent forthcoming, she ushered McColl inside.
Hsu Ch’ing-lan was sitting at her desk, apparently doing her accounts. Some kind of incense was burning in a large dragon holder beyond, sending up coils of smoke.
“Herr McColl,” she said with an ironic smile. “Please. Take a seat.”
She was wearing the usual dress, blue silk embroidered in silver and gold, ankle-length but slit to the hip. Her hair was piled up in curls, secured by what looked like an ornamental chopstick. She was in her thirties, he guessed, and much more desirable than any of the girls in reception. When they’d first met, she’d told him that she was a retired prostitute, as if that were a major achievement. It probably was.
He had chosen this brothel for two reasons. It offered a two-tier service—those girls in reception who catered to ordinary sailors and the occasional NCO, and another, more exclusive, group who did house calls at officers’ clubs and businessmen’s hotels. The latter were no younger, no more beautiful, and no more sexually inventive than the former, but as Jane Austen might have put it, they offered more in the way of accomplishments. They sang, they danced, they made a ritual out of making tea. They provided, in Ch’ing-lan’s vivid phrase, “local-color fuck.”
She was his second reason for choosing the place. She came from Shanghai and, unlike any other madam in Tsingtau, spoke the Chinese dialect that McColl knew best.
She pulled a bell cord, ordered tea from the small girl who came running, and asked him, rather surprisingly, what he knew of the latest political developments.
“In China?” he asked.
She looked at him as if he were mad. “What could matter here?” she asked.
“Sun Yat-sen could win and start modernizing the country,” he suggested. “Or Yuan Shih-kai could become the new emperor and keep the country locked in the past.”
“Pah. You foreign devils have decided we must modernize, so Yuan cannot win. And you control our trade, so Sun could win only as your puppet.”
“Yuan bought one of my cars.”
“He thinks it will make him look modern, but it won’t. It doesn’t matter what he or Sun does. In today’s China everything depends on what the foreign devils do. Is there going to be a war between you? And if there is, what will happen here in Tsingtau?”
“If there’s a war, the Japanese will take over. The Germans might dig themselves in—who knows? If they do, the town will be shelled. If I were you, I’d take the boat back home to Shanghai before the fighting starts.”
“Mmm.” Her eyes wandered around the room, as if she were deciding what to take with her.
The tea arrived and was poured.
“So what do you have for me?” McColl asked.
“Not very much, I’m afraid.” The East Asia Squadron was going to sea at the end of February, for a six-week cruise. The Scharnhorst had a new vice captain, and there’d been a serious accident on the Emden—several sailors had been killed in an explosion. The recent gunnery trials had been won by the Gneisenau, but all five ships had shown a marked improvement, and the Kaiser had sent a congratulatory telegram to Vice Admiral von Spee. And a new officer had arrived from Germany to set up a unit of flying machines.
“I know about him,” McColl said.
“He likes to be spanked,” Ch’ing-lan revealed.
McColl wondered out loud whether verbal abuse might sting the Germans into indiscretions. Maybe the girls could deride their German clients, make fun of their puny fleet. What hope did they have against the mighty Royal Navy?
As she noted this down, a swelling sequence of ecstatic moans resounded through the building. Ch’ing-lan shook her head. “I’ll have to talk to her,” she said. “The others do the same because they think their tips will be smaller if they don’t, and after a while none of us can hear ourselves think. It’s ridiculous.”
“But I do have some good news for you. I have a new girl, a cousin from Shanghai. She speaks a little English, and now she’s learning a little German—she knows that a lot of the men like someone they can talk to.”
“That sounds promising.” “And more expensive.”
“Of course—I have no problem paying good money for good information.” He thought for a moment. “She could be worried that her officer might be killed in a war. The British are so much more powerful, yes? She could ask for reassurance, ask him how he thinks his fleet can win.”
“And the flying-machine man. I’d like to know how many machines, what type, and how he intends to use them. Between spanks, of course.”
She nodded again. “Is that all?”
“I think so. I’ll come back on Friday, yes?”
“Okay. You want girl tonight? Half price?”
He hesitated and saw Caitlin Hanley’s face in his mind’s eye. “No, not tonight.” He smiled at her. “You’re still retired, right?”
“You couldn’t afford me.”
“Probably not.” He gave her a bow, shut the door after him, and walked back down the corridor. Bedsprings were squeaking behind several curtained doorways, and several girls seemed intent on winning the prize for most voluble pleasure. Out on the veranda, the old man gave him a leer and added another splash of phlegm to his iridescent patchwork.
It was enough to put a man off his dinner.
The following day was as clear and cold as its predecessor. McColl rose early and took breakfast in the almost empty hotel restaurant, conscious that half a dozen Chinese waiters were hovering at his beck and call. Once outside, he made straight for the beach. A westerly wind was picking up, and he could smell the brewery the Germans had built beyond the town. The ocean was studded with whitecaps.
As he’d calculated, the tide was out, and he walked briskly along the hard sand toward the promontory guarding the entrance to the bay. The field-artillery barracks he’d noticed on the map were set quite a distance back from the shore and, as he had hoped, only the roofs and tower were visible from the beach. He was soon beyond them, threading his way down a narrowing beach between headland and ocean.
Another half a mile and he found his path barred by a barbed-wire fence. It ran down slope and beach and some twenty yards out into the water, to what was probably the low-tide mark. He had first seen barbed wire corralling Boer women and children in South Africa, and finding it stretched across a Chinese beach was somewhat depressing, if rather predictable. There was no EINTRITT VERBOTEN sign, but there didn’t really need to be. Only an idiot would think the fence was there to pen sheep.
McColl decided to be one. A quick look about him failed to detect any possible witnesses, so he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers, and waded out and around the end of the fence. The water was deeper and colder than he had expected. After drying his feet as best he could with a handkerchief, he wrung out his trouser bottoms, inserted his sand-encrusted feet into the dry footwear, and ventured on down the forbidden beach. I went paddling in the Yellow Sea, he thought. Something to tell his grandchildren, should he ever have any.
As he approached the end of the headland, the stern of a passenger ship loomed into view. It had obviously just left the harbor and was already turning southward, probably bound for Shanghai. McColl found himself wishing he were on it, rather than seeking out German guns with a pair of cold, wet trousers clinging to his thighs. He’d already earned the pittance that Cumming was paying him. What did the man expect from a brief visit like this one? A serious spying mission to Tsingtau would need a lot more time—and a lot better cover—than McColl had at his disposal. Cumming’s favorite agent, Sidney Reilly, had lived in Port Arthur for several months before he succeeded in stealing the Russian harbor-defense plans.
McColl stopped and scrutinized the view to his right. The guns were up there somewhere, and this looked as good a spot as any to clamber up the slope. If he ran into officialdom, he would play the lost tourist, afraid of being cut off by the incoming tide.
Five minutes later he reached the crest and got a shock. The gun emplacements were up there all right, just as the Admiralty had thought they would be, but so were watching eyes. McColl was still scrambling up onto the plateau when the first shout sounded, and it didn’t take him long to work out that dropping back out of sight was unlikely to win him anything more than a bullet in the spine. They’d seen him, and that was that.
Two soldiers in pickelhaube helmets were running across the grass. He walked toward them, mind working furiously. The lost-tourist act already seemed redundant—an Englishman this close to German guns was surely too much of a coincidence. But what was the alternative?
One of their guns went off, and for a single dreadful moment he thought they were shooting at him. But it quickly became obvious that one of them had pulled his trigger by accident. Seizing what seemed like an opportunity, McColl lengthened his stride, shook his fist, and angrily asked in German what the hell they thought they were doing.
“No civilians are allowed up here,” the older of the soldiers insisted. He looked a little shamefaced but had not lowered his rifle. “Who are you? Where have you come from?”
“My name is Pluschow,” McColl told him impulsively. There were two thousand soldiers in the garrison, and it seemed unlikely that these two would have run into the aviation enthusiast. “Lieutenant Pluschow,” he added, taking a guess at the man’s rank. “I am sorry—I did not realize I had strayed onto army territory. But I can’t believe your orders are to shoot first and ask questions later.”
“That was an accident,” the younger man blurted out. He couldn’t have been much more than eighteen.
“And no harm done,” his partner insisted. “But you still haven’t explained what you’re doing here.”
“I’m surveying the area. Tsingtau needs an aerodrome, and I’m getting a feeling for the local air currents.” He reached for his packet of cigarettes and held it out to the soldiers.
There was a moment of hesitation before the older one extended a hand and took one. His partner happily followed his lead.
“If I need to come up here again, I will get permission from army command,” McColl promised. “Now, is there a supply road back to town?”
There was, and they were happy to show him where it started, on the other side of the emplacements. Walking past the latter, he took in the ferroconcrete installations, heavy steel cupolas, and lift-mounted searchlights. And the guns were new-looking 28-centimeter pieces, not the old 15-centimeter cannons on the Admiralty list. “Our base seems well protected,” he said appreciatively.
He thanked the soldiers, promised he wouldn’t mention the accidental discharge, and left them happily puffing on his cigarettes. He managed to cover a hundred yards or so before the urge to burst out laughing overcame him. Moments like that made life worth living.
Fifteen minutes later he was skirting the wall of the barracks and entering the town. In the square in front of the station, a bunch of coolies were huddled over some sort of game, their rickshaws lined up in waiting for the next train. McColl walked the few blocks to Friedrichstrasse and wondered what to do with the rest of the day. Tsingtau in winter was worth a couple of days, and he’d been there for more than a week. Like an idiot he’d forgotten to bring any reading, and the two book-shops on Friedrichstrasse had nothing in English. A German book on his bedside table would rather give the game away.
It occurred to him that the British consulate might have books to lend, and indeed they did. Just the one—a copy of Great Expectations some careless English tourist had left on the beach the previous summer. But the consul was out playing golf, and the English-speaking Chinese girl left in charge of His Majesty’s business was unwilling to let the salt-stained volume out of the building without his say-so. It took McColl fifteen minutes and no small measure of charm to change her mind. And all this, he thought bitterly, for a book he already knew the ending to.
Still, Pip’s early travails kept him entertained for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon. He then ambled around the German and Chinese towns before dropping anchor in the bar of the Sailors’ Home down by the harbor. Through the window he could see the huge gray ships straining at their chains in the restless water.
What would this fleet do if war were declared? It could hardly stay put, not with England’s ally Japan so close at hand, with ships that outmatched and outnumbered the Germans’. No, if the East Asia Squadron weren’t already at sea when war broke out, then it soon would be. But sailing in which direction? For its home half the world away? If this was the intention, then whichever direction it took—west via the Cape of Good Hope or east around Cape Horn—there would be ten thousand miles and more to sail, with uncertain coal supplies and the knowledge that the whole British fleet would be waiting at the end of its journey, barring its passage across the North Sea. And what would be the point? More than five cruisers would be needed to tip the balance in home waters.
If McColl were in charge, he knew what he’d do. He’d send the five ships off in five directions, set them loose on the seven oceans to mess with British trade. That, he knew, was the Admiralty’s nightmare. Each German ship could keep a British squadron busy for months, maybe even years, and that might tip the balance closer to home.
Whether or not the Imperial Navy had such suicide missions in mind, neither he nor the Admiralty knew, and he doubted whether any of his current drinking companions did either. He bought beers for a couple of new arrivals, traded toasts in pidgin English to Kaiser and King, and eavesdropped on the conversations swirling around him. But no secrets were divulged, unless Franz’s fear that he had the French disease counted as such. Most of the seamen had their minds on home, on babies yet unseen, on wives and lovers sorely missed. No one mentioned the dread possibility that none of them would ever see Germany again.
McColl stayed until the sun was almost down, then walked back through the town as the lamplighters went about their business. Guessing that von Schön had not yet departed, he looked in on the hotel bar and found the young German sharing a circle of armchairs with several fellow-countrymen. Seeing McColl, von Schön smiled and gestured him over. “Please, join us,” he said in English, “we need your point of view.”
He introduced McColl to the others, explaining in German that the Englishman was also a businessman. They raised their hands in greeting.
“What are you all talking about?” McColl asked von Schön.
“Whether a war will benefit Germany,” the other replied.
“And what’s the general opinion?”
“I don’t think there is one. I’ll try to translate for you.”
McColl sat back, careful to keep a look of noncomprehension on his face. One middle-aged man with a bristling mustache was making the argument that only a war could open the world to German business.
“If we win,” another man added dryly.
“Of course, but we haven’t lost one yet, and our chances must be good, even against England.”
Several heads were nodding as von Schön translated this with an apologetic smile, but one of the younger Germans was shaking his head. “Why take the risk,” he asked, “when we only have to wait a few years? The biggest and fastest-growing economies are ours and America’s, and the rules of trade will change to reflect that fact. It’s inevitable. The barriers will come down, including those around the British Empire, and their businesses will struggle to survive. In fact, if anyone needs a war, it’s the British. It’s the only way they could halt their decline.” He turned to von Schön. “Ask your English friend what he thinks. Would British businessmen favor a war with Germany?”
Von Schön explained what the man had said and repeated his question.
McColl smiled at them all. “I don’t think so. For one thing, most businessmen have sons, and they don’t want to lose them. For another, it’s only the biggest companies that make most of their profits abroad and that benefit most from the empire. If the rules change, they’ll find some way to survive—big companies always do.” He paused. “But let me ask you something. After all, it’s governments that declare war, not businessmen. How much notice do the Kaiser and his ministers take of what German businessmen think?”
It seemed like a good question, if the wry response to von Schön’s translation was anything to go by. “This is the problem,” one youngish German responded. “The old Kaiser understood how to rule. Like your Queen Victoria,” he added, looking at McColl. “A symbol, yes? And an important one, but above politics. It didn’t matter what his opinions were. But this Kaiser . . . We Germans have the best welfare system, the best schools. We have given the world Beethoven and Bach and Goethe and so much else. Our businesses are successful all over the world. We have much to be proud of, much to look forward to, but none of that interests this Kaiser. He grew up playing soldiers, and he can’t seem to stop. In any other country, this would not matter a great deal, but because of our history and our place at the heart of Europe the army has always occupied a powerful position. I agree with Hans that we can get what we want without war, but when the crucial moment comes—as we all know it will—I think the Kaiser and his government will follow the army’s lead, not listen to people like us.”
It was a sadly convincing analysis, McColl thought, and as von Schön translated the gist of it, he listened to the others muttering their broad agreement. These German businessmen had no desire for war, but they realized that their opinions counted for little with their rulers. The one named Hans might be right in thinking that Britain was in decline, but only in an abstract, relative sense. And while it might be in a few traders’ interests to fight a war of imperial preservation, it wasn’t in anyone else’s. As far as most British businessmen were concerned, peace was delivering the goods. McColl himself was thirty-two years old, and he’d been born into a world without automobiles or flying machines, phonographs or telephones, the wireless or moving pictures. Everything was changing so fast, and mostly for the better. Who in his right mind would exchange this thrilling new world for battlefields soaked in blood? It felt so medieval.
War would be a catastrophe, for business, for everyone. Particularly those who had to fight it. He was probably too old to be called up, but you never knew—with the weapons they had now, the ranks of the young might be decimated in a matter of months. Whatever happened, he had no intention of renewing his acquaintance with Britain’s military machine and finding himself once more at the mercy of some idiot general.
It rained that evening and for most of the next two days, a freezing rain that rendered the pavements and quaysides treacherous and obstinately refused to turn to snow. McColl divided his time among cafés, the hotel lounge, and his room, following Pip on his voyage of discovery and engaging all those he could in conversation.
On two occasions he slipped and slithered his way to the edge of the new harbor, drawn by some pointless urge to confirm that the fleet was still there. It was. The occasional sailor hurried along the rain-swept decks, but no tenders were moving, and the bars on the quayside were shuttered and closed.
On Friday morning a note arrived from the consulate reminding him to return the book, which seemed somewhat gratuitous. The beautiful mission-taught writing was clearly the work of the Chinese girl, the overwrought concern for property more likely the golf-playing consul’s. He decided to have the note framed when he got home.
The weather changed that afternoon, the clouds moving out across the ocean like a sliding roof. He went for a long walk down the Pacific shoreline, ate dinner alone, and, once darkness had taken its grip, rode a rickshaw across town to the Blue Dragon. The old man was still hawking up phlegm, but the girl who’d rushed to greet him in the lobby was busy in the reception area, hovering over a young and nervous Kriegsmarine lieutenant. He was having trouble choosing and, seeing McColl, politely suggested he jump the line. “If you know which girl you want.”
“English,” McColl explained, shaking his head and gesturing that the other should proceed. The German threw up his hands, sighed, and turned back to the line of waiting females. “This one,” he said eventually, pointing at a child of around fifteen. McColl could almost hear the eeny, meeny, miney, mo.
The child took the German’s much larger hand in hers and led him away like a horse.
The other females all sat back down in unison, reminding McColl of church. “You want see Hsu Ch’ing-lan?” the girl asked McColl.
“Yes.” After making sure that the German was behind a curtain, he walked down to the madam’s room.
Hsu Ch’ing-lan was just the way he’d left her, sitting at her desk, holding a cigarette between two raised fingers, wearing the same blue silk. But this time she was reading an ancient copy of Life magazine—he recognized the cartoon of Woodrow Wilson.
She smiled when she saw him, which seemed promising.
They went through the usual ritual, exchanging small talk until the tea arrived, before getting down to business. “The girl I told you about,” she began, “my cousin from Shanghai. She is very intelligent. She has been with an officer on the flagship and persuaded him to talk about their plans.”
“How?” was McColl’s immediate reaction.
“How do you think? There are many men—most of them, I think—who like to talk about themselves after sex. They feel good, and they want the woman to know how important they are.”
“But . . .”
“Let her tell you herself.” Ch’ing-lan rang her bell and told the answering girl to bring Hsu Mei-lien. “You will see how intelligent she is,” she told McColl while they waited.
The girl who arrived was still a child, but every bit as bright as her cousin had said she was. She began in halting English, then switched to rapid-fire Shanghainese when Ch’ing-lan told her that McColl spoke that language. Her officer’s name was Burchert, and they’d been together the last three nights. If she had understood him correctly, he was an Oberleutnant on the Gneisenau. Once he was in the mood, she had started by saying how she’d seen the big English battleships in Shanghai and how brave she thought the Germans in Tsingtau were, to think of fighting them. But surely just sailing out to meet them would be foolhardy. They must have a better plan than that.
And that was all she’d had to say—after that, nothing could stop him talking. As far as he was concerned, it was entirely about coal. They could keep their ships together if there was enough coal, while the English who were hunting them would have to split their fleet to search an ocean as wide as the Pacific. And that would give the Germans their chance, to destroy them a piece at a time. But only if they had the coal.
“And where will they find it?” McColl wondered. “Did you ask him?”
She gave him a derisive look. “I don’t ask questions,” she said. “I just let him talk. If I ask a question like that, he will suspect something.”
“Yes. He probably would.” McColl smiled at her—she really was quite remarkable. But had she told him anything new and useful? The East Asia Squadron’s dependence on limited coal supplies seemed obvious enough, even for the British Admiralty. Where could the Germans find coal in the Pacific? If Japan entered a war against them, then not from the home islands or Formosa. Supplies from Australia and New Zealand would be cut off once war was declared. And the Germans would know that any colliers loading up in a time of deepening crisis would be followed. So they would have to build up stocks on various islands while peace continued—stocks that the Royal Navy would have to seek out and burn if and when a war broke out. “Anything else?” he asked her.
“He says their gunners are better than the English.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” He smiled at the young girl. “Thank you.”
Hsu Ch’ing-lan dismissed her. “Clever, yes?”
“Very,” McColl agreed. Too clever to be working in a Tsingtau brothel. But then millions of Chinese people seemed to be short-changing themselves, biding their time. “How about the man with the flying machines? Has he booked another spanking?”
“Pao-yu is seeing him tonight,” Hsu Ch’ing-lan told him. “Then I’ll be back tomorrow.”
As it happened, he saw her sooner than that. It was still dark on the following morning when a hand shook his shoulder and he woke to the smell of her perfume.
She said something in a dialect he didn’t understand, and the gaslight flared to life. More words, and a familiar-looking member of the Chinese hotel staff slipped out the door and closed it behind him.
“This is a nice surprise,” McColl said, hauling himself up onto his elbows. She was wearing a long black coat over the usual dress.
“I don’t think so,” she said, coldly. “Pao-yu—the girl who spanks the flying-machine man—has been arrested.”
“When? Who by?” He swung himself out of bed and reached for his trousers.
“The Germans, of course. Her questions must have made the man suspicious, and they took her to their police building. Last night.”
“But they haven’t come to the Blue Dragon? I wonder why.” “Because the girl hasn’t told them anything. Not yet. A friend came to let me know they have her. She knows not to say anything, but she’s not as clever as my cousin—they’ll trick it out of her. So you must leave. There’s a train in an hour.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose I should.” He found himself wondering why she had come to warn him. “What about you?” he asked. “Will they arrest you?”
She shrugged. “I shall say I know nothing. If you are gone, then all they have is guesses.”
“I see.” And he did. She was afraid he would be caught, would implicate her, and that once the white folks had patched things up between them, she would be left as the scapegoat. Given the history of the last century, it was a reasonable enough assumption for a Chinese person to make. “Well, thank you. But what about the girl?”
“I can probably buy her back, but I will need money.”
“Ah.” He reached for his wallet on the bedside table, checked the contents, and handed her a wad of notes, thinking that he had now given her more than Cumming had given him. Some businessman.
“This won’t be enough,” she said.
“I’ll need the rest to pay my bill and reach Shanghai.”
“All right,” she agreed reluctantly, stuffing the notes into a coat pocket and walking toward the door. When she turned with her hand on the knob, he half expected her to wish him luck, but all she said was, “Don’t miss the train.”
He hurriedly crammed his few belongings into the battered suitcase, happily realized that there wasn’t time to return Great Expectations, and went to the door. It was only when he opened it that he heard the commotion downstairs. One voice—male, German, and coldly insistent—was demanding a room number; the other—Hsu Ch’ing-lan’s—was angrily protesting a client’s right to discretion. She was almost shouting, presumably for McColl’s benefit.
He hesitated for a second, wondering whether he should just walk down and bluff it out. He decided against it. If he were arrested, the Germans could probably make a case against him, and some sort of punishment would doubtless follow. Best not to give them the chance.
When he’d checked in a fortnight earlier, he had taken the precaution of exploring the hotel for possible exit routes. This had felt a touch histrionic at the time but now seemed pleasingly professional. Walking as quietly as he could, he headed down the long corridor toward the back staircase.
He met no one in the corridor or on the stairs, but one of the Chinese staff was lounging in the kitchen doorway, a hint of a smile in his eyes. McColl fished some coins from his tip pocket, raised a finger to his lips for silence, and opened the door leading out into the backyard. He didn’t expect to find anyone stationed outside and wasn’t disappointed—the German authorities had obviously assumed that they would find him asleep in his bed.
Hurrying across the yard and down the alley, he emerged onto Prinz Heinrich Strasse and into a bitter wind. The sky was lightening, and a Chinese man was working his way down the street, dousing the ornate gas lamps. The side of the station building was visible up ahead, but no smoke was rising above it—if Hsu Ch’ing-lan was right about the time of departure, he’d have at least forty-five minutes to wait.
Which was obviously out of the question. He might as well give himself up as sit in the station for that long.
Perhaps he could hide somewhere close by and then surreptitiously board the train at the moment of departure.
This possibility sustained him until he reached the corner across from the station and leaned his head around for a view of the fore-court. There were several uniformed Germans in evidence, and one was looking straight at him. “Halt!” the man shouted.
McColl’s first instinct, which he regretted a moment later, was to turn and run. Better a few months in jail than a bullet in the back, he thought as Prinz Heinrich Strasse stretched out before him, looking too much like a shooting range for comfort. But it was a bit late now to take a chance on his pursuers’ levelheadedness. He swerved off between two buildings and down the dark alley that divided them. He reckoned he had a fifty-meter start and must have run almost that far when a crossroads presented itself. Sparing a second to look back, he found the alley behind him still empty. But as he swung right, he heard shouts in the distance, which seemed to come from up ahead.
Staying put seemed the better of two poor options. A doorway offered a few inches of shelter, enough to conceal his body if not his valise. Hearing German voices nearby rendered this problem more acute, and the notion of perching the suitcase on his head occurred to him just in time. As the Germans drew nearer, he stood there holding his breath, feeling more than a little ridiculous.
He heard the feet stop some ten yards off, imagined the eyes looking this way and that.
“Hanke probably imagined it,” one man said.
“He is getting fond of the pipe,” a second man suggested. The first man laughed.
“But we might as well go down to the end,” his companion decided. “Then work our way back around the block.”
“Beats just standing here,” the first voice agreed. “Christ, it’s cold this morning. And no fucking breakfast.”
His voice was fading, and McColl gingerly lowered his suitcase to the ground. He decided he would give them ten minutes to abandon this particular search and then make a run for it before the wider search got under way. But how? The train was out of the question, and God only knew how he’d get on a ship.
He felt real anxiety for the first time. But it was not the prospect of captivity and consequent physical hardship that worried him so much as the personal failure it would represent. Getting caught now would likely destroy any future he might have had in Cumming’s organization.
Was there any way he could go to ground in Tsingtau? Could he persuade Hsu Ch’ing-lan that finding him a bolt-hole was in her own best interests?
Considering her circumstances, she was more likely to give him up.
Still, the Chinese town seemed a better bet than the German, and once his ten minutes were up, he cautiously worked his way northward through the slowly waking streets. There were more people about now, but all of them were Chinese—the German police had vanished, their civilian counterparts still in bed.
Once in the Chinese town, he bent his knees to disguise his height and let habit draw him toward the Blue Dragon. There was no sign of the usual doorkeeper, but there was a coal cart standing outside, its horse pawing absentmindedly at the cobbles with a front hoof.
On its way into Tsingtau, McColl remembered, the train had stopped at a small station in the outskirts. Which couldn’t be more than three miles from here. Or four at the most.
He was still weighing the pros and cons of theft and hire when the coal coolie emerged, a bowlegged Chinese man with a queue that reached down to his buttocks. McColl managed, with some difficulty, to explain what he wanted and then showed his incredulous audience the wad of German notes that should have paid his hotel bill. All doubts vanished from the coal-encrusted visage. Offered more money than he’d make in five years, the man bared his teeth in a grin of compliance and hustled McColl up onto the cart. After clambering up himself, he jerked the horse into motion with a tug of the woven-string reins.
A real stroke of luck, McColl thought as they clattered down the slope toward the railway line and harbor. Directly ahead, the four funnels of either Scharnhorst or Gneisenau loomed above the long line of storehouses; away to the right, a few desultory puffs of smoke were rising from the vicinity of the rail station. Just a shunter, he hoped—surely his train couldn’t be leaving.
As they approached the railway tracks, the coal coolie turned onto the parallel maintenance road the Germans had laid on the landward side and cajoled the horse to increase its pace. Soon they were almost flying along. Looking back, McColl could see no tell-tale smoke behind them. Perhaps he really would escape.
One step at a time, he told himself—sooner or later the Germans were bound to pick up his trail. And if he were caught . . . well, truth be told, it probably wouldn’t be all that bad. He would be questioned at length and most likely put on trial. And then they would likely deport him, with as much publicity as they could manage. He might even serve a few months in prison. Which would be unpleasant, but he’d survive it. Jed and Mac would have to get the Maia back to London. And he would miss the chance to renew his acquaintance with Caitlin Hanley.
Which was something he really wanted to do.
She was still uppermost in his thoughts when the road abruptly degenerated, smooth asphalt giving way to ridged and rutted frozen mud. McColl clung to his seat, only too aware of the creaking axles, and prayed that neither would snap. His driver showed no inclination to slacken their pace—either the promise of riches had rendered him oblivious to everything else or the cart was a good deal stronger than it sounded. As the minutes went by and nothing more serious occurred than the loss of several coal sacks, McColl allowed himself to hope it was the latter.
It felt as if they’d been traveling for hours, but his watch told him twenty-five minutes. If he hadn’t underestimated the distance to the next station, they should reach it in time—the prospect of the train steaming past them didn’t bear thinking about. What in heaven’s name would he do then? Start walking toward Shanghai?
About ten minutes later, their track veered inland, away from the rails, but his chauffeur shrugged off his anxious questions. And sure enough, a few minutes more and they were back by the rails. By this time most of Tsingtau seemed behind them—they had to be nearly there.
They were. The stop he remembered came into view as they rounded a bend, its single platform facing out across the bay. The station building wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Black Forest and had no need of the imperial flag that fluttered from its roof. European-style houses were clustered behind it, and beyond them was the famous brewery.
The station was still two hundred yards ahead, but McColl ordered a halt—he had no desire to show up on a coal cart. The driver pulled on the reins, brought them to a stop, and anxiously held out a hand for payment. He seemed almost surprised to receive it, but McColl could hardly blame him—with his face still wreathed in coal dust, he didn’t seem a man accustomed to good fortune.
McColl wished him good-bye and started walking. The station ahead, he now realized, looked worryingly deserted. He hoped to God that the morning train was scheduled to stop there, because he didn’t much fancy trying to flag the thing down.
But he needn’t have worried. Several Chinese would-be travelers were sheltering from the wind on the far side of the building, and the German stationmaster was in his office, warming himself in front of a blazing coal fire. The man was consulting his pocket-watch when McColl appeared in his doorway, and as he snapped it shut, a whistle blew in the distance—the train was approaching.
His face flushed with alarm when he saw McColl, who thought for a moment that the game was up. But it was only the usual German annoyance at lateness and the wrecking of schedules that might ensue. Concealing his relief, McColl asked if the train’s imminent arrival meant he should pay the guard, but that of course was against regulations, and the locomotive was hissing to a halt by the time the flustered official had written his ticket. “You’ll reach Tsinan at five,” the stationmaster told him. “And the connection to Pukow is at six.”
Steeling himself, McColl walked out onto the platform, half expecting a posse of policemen to erupt from the two carriages. But there were none, only fifty or more Chinese men staring out of the open wagons hitched to the back of the coaches.
He entered an almost empty saloon. There were no other foreigners and only two Chinese men, both in Western suits. They stood up to bow and smile but offered no conversation, and McColl was happy to follow their lead. He took a window seat at the other end of the car and barely had time to place his luggage on the rack before the train slipped into motion.
If his memory of the local geography was accurate, they would be outside the Tsingtau concession in ten minutes or so and, theoretically at least, beyond German jurisdiction. Of course they owned and ran the railway and probably considered it part of their writ. The local Chinese population might argue the point, but he wouldn’t like to bet on it. There was a British consulate in Tsinan, but also another German concession. This was much smaller than the one around Tsingtau but would still have some soldiers on hand.
He wouldn’t feel safe until he was on the train to Pukow and Nanking, which was eleven long hours away.
The line was still following the shore of the bay, the train advancing at a satisfying pace. It occurred to him that cutting the telegraph wires that ran alongside the tracks would increase his chances by leaps and bounds, but even if granted an opportunity, he lacked the requisite tools.
And maybe there was no need. The train rattled past the concession’s border post without even stopping, and there were no police or army officers waiting on the platform at Kiautschou, the first town in Chinese territory. It looked like he could relax until they reached Tsinan.
He got off for a stroll at Kiautschou and took a small clay pot of tea back to his seat. As the train got under way, the conductor sat down beside him with a pot of his own, clearly intent on conversation.
Over the next twenty minutes, McColl learned a lot about the man and his family. The wife who loved living in Tsingtau, who taught in the school there—the best school in China, according to some. The children liked it, too, though he sometimes thought they were missing much of their German heritage. But they could never have afforded servants in Germany.
It was clear that he loved his train and the pretty German stations, so out of place against the Chinese backdrop. He told McColl about the line’s short history and how flat it was, with several hundred bridges and not a single tunnel. He pointed out kilns by the side of the line, where bricks had been baked and then broken for ballast, because Shantung province was devoid of suitable stones.
McColl responded with a wholly fictional life, which he located in Alsace to mask any linguistic mistakes. It was a relief to be speaking openly again, after a fortnight of pretending not to speak German, and he found himself liking the conductor. It was a strange place for a German to end up, but this one seemed at peace with himself and the world.
The man left after an hour or so, and McColl sat there watching the barely changing scene through his window—a wide valley dotted by small villages, an occasional row of planters in the winter fields, the distant line of brown mountains under a gray sky. He eventually woke with a jolt of alarm, but it was only a coal train rumbling past in the opposite direction, bound for Tsingtau and von Spee’s ships. He imagined the colliers steaming out into the wide Pacific, dropping their loads on a hundred scattered islands for the future use of a fugitive fleet.
He thought about the girl the Germans had arrested. What would they do to her? If it had been Hsu Ch’ing-lan’s cousin, then Ch’ing-lan would have moved heaven and earth to save her—that was the Chinese way. But Pao-yu wasn’t family—at least not as far as McColl knew—and if not she’d probably just be abandoned. Which was also the Chinese way.
There was nothing he could do for her now.
After Wei, the mountains grew higher and the valley seemed less populated. It was almost a shock when a mining complex suddenly appeared in the window, complete with winding gear and mountains of glistening coal. Black-faced Chinese coolies were doing all the work, dragging carts of coal up ramps and tipping them into the railway wagons. Three German overseers were standing to one side, comparing notes about something or other.
The train soon stopped at a station, and two more Germans got on. They ignored the Chinese people who had bowed to McColl and then ignored him, too, as if intent on proving that race had no part in their arrogance. Which suited him well enough—if word of his escape were clicking along the telegraph wires, it clearly hadn’t reached them.
But it had been clicking—he was almost certain of that. Failing to find him in Tsingtau, the Germans were bound to spread the net wider. They might not know he was headed their way, but the German authorities in Tsinan would certainly be on the lookout.
The last major stop was Tschou-tsun. After the train pulled out, the conductor stopped for another chat, and there was no change in his manner to suggest fresh intelligence, causing McColl to wonder whether he himself was in flight from a phantom. Maybe the girl was still refusing to speak or didn’t know his name—that was something he should have asked Hsu Ch’ing-lan about. This wasn’t his finest hour, he realized. His report to Cumming would need some glossing.
And he still had Tsinan to cope with. His best bet, he decided, was a variation on his departure from Tsingtau. On the journey down from Peking ten days earlier, he had noticed that Tsinan had two stations, one where travelers on the Peking–Pukow line changed for the Shantung Railway and another, closer to the town, that was served only by the latter. Any pursuers would assume he had a through ticket and would be waiting at the junction. If he got off at the town station and took a rickshaw across town, there was a reasonable chance he could sneak aboard the Pukow train without being seen.
The last stage of the journey seemed eternal, but the straggling outskirts of Tsinan finally appeared in his window, and almost immediately the train began to slow. He grabbed his suitcase and made for the vestibule farthest from the luggage car and the conductor.
The line was running along a slight embankment between a series of small lakes, the town visible beyond those to the south. The moment the train stopped, the Chinese passengers in the open wagons were dropping the sides, leaping down to the ground, and hurrying away. Cautiously inching an eye around the corner of his carriage, McColl saw the conductor sharing a convivial word with another German stationmaster. There were no other uniforms on display.
On the other side of the train, a team of coolies was transferring sacks of rice from a boxcar to a line of waiting carts. When the whistle blew and the train began to move, McColl stepped nimbly down and watched it steam away. It couldn’t be much more than a mile to the other station, and for a moment he considered simply walking down the track. But the land on both sides was open, and there was still too much light in the sky—he would stick to his plan.
Which proved harder than expected. The rickshaw coolie he tried to engage spoke no dialect that McColl could understand and needed more than a little convincing from a better-traveled colleague that this foreigner wanted transport to the town’s other station—a station he could have reached much more simply and cheaply by staying on his train. Once persuaded that his prospective passenger wasn’t simply deranged—or at least not dangerously so—he allowed McColl into the seat, picked up the bamboo shafts, and set off at a steady jog for the city gate some two hundred yards distant.
Passing through this, the rickshaw swayed along a narrow street that ran parallel to the town’s crumbling wall. This was the old China, seemingly untouched by progress, its buildings dirty and decaying, its children half naked and clearly malnourished. Stares followed McColl, and one beggar ran after the rickshaw, stretching out a hand until he tripped on the uneven road.
The coolie crossed a stinking canal, turned through another gate behind a scurrying rat, and emerged onto a slightly more prosperous street. Several artisans were working outside their shops, making the most of the remaining light, and a brazier was burning in front of a small hardware emporium, the hanging copper pots reflecting the fire. The smell of food from a couple of cafés reminded McColl that he’d hardly eaten that day and started his stomach rumbling. Two more coolies ran by with a sedan chair, and he caught a glimpse of an old woman’s face within.
They skirted a small lake and headed up a long, straight street toward what looked like a railway station. A column of smoke, dyed red by the sinking sun, rose up behind the German roof, confirming the fact. McColl waited until they were a short walk away, then shouted to the coolie to stop. The man did so with obvious reluctance but conjured up a toothless smile when the foreign devil overpaid him.
McColl walked toward the station, keeping to the rapidly deepening shadows on one side of the street. There was an automobile and at least a dozen rickshaws in the forecourt, all waiting, no doubt, for the train from the north. He ignored the gaslit booking hall, cautiously worked his way around the building, and found an area of shadow from which he could safely scan the platform. The first thing he noticed was a group of uniformed Germans, who seemed to be interrogating his friend the conductor. The train that had brought him from Tsingtau was sitting in the bay platform, lazily oozing steam.
So he hadn’t been overreacting—they really were after him.
He took in the rest of the tableau. The platform lamps were glowing in the gloom, and there were several dozen Chinese people waiting for his train, many with several items of luggage. At the other end of the platform, four coolies were waiting with shovels beside a coal wagon, ready to refuel the incoming engine. One of the uniformed officers seemed to be staring straight at McColl, which gave him a moment of acute anxiety. But he soon looked away. The darkness was apparently enough of a cloak.
There was nothing to do but wait and take whatever chance was offered to get aboard the train. The minutes turned into an hour, and the temperature steadily dropped, but at least the darkness deepened.
There were several blows on the whistle before the headlight swam into view and the train steamed in alongside the low continental platform. It was more prepossessing than the one from Tsingtau, with five European-built carriages and no open wagons. The moment it clanked to a halt, scrimmages developed at all the vestibule doors as Chinese passengers trying to alight collided with those seeking entry. Above their heads the peaked caps of the German police were turning this way and that, look- ing for a British spy.
Up ahead the pipe from the water tank was being slewed across the tender, and beyond it the coolies were presumably shoveling coal. He had at least ten minutes, but there was no way he could cross the wide platform without being seen.
Two of the policemen were boarding the train, but the others were still keeping watch outside. He should have crossed the tracks out of sight of the platform and waited on the other side, but it was too late for that now.
He suddenly had an idea. He walked quickly back to the forecourt and up to the last rickshaw in line. “Hat,” he said in Shanghainese, pointing it out for greater clarity and waving a note worth twenty times as much under the man’s eyes. The coolie gave him an Is this really Christmas? look and slowly removed his conical headgear. McColl handed him the note, grabbed the hat, and walked back toward the platform. The police were still there, and the train seemed almost set to leave—there was nothing else for it. He put on the hat, arranged his suitcase so that it would be shielded by his body, and started the long, semicircular walk that would take him around the back of the train. He was too tall and the suitcase too big, but out where the light barely reached, he was hoping they’d see only the hat.
And it worked. Thirty nerve-racking seconds and he was behind the train, looking up at the dimly lit carriages. As he reached the inner end of the last carriage, the whistle sounded, and almost instantly the wheels began to turn. He stepped aboard and climbed up onto the vestibule platform. The temptation to stand and wave his coolie hat at the Germans was enormous, but discretion triumphed. He ducked inside what was clearly a third-class carriage and strode up the aisle in search of less crowded accommodation.
The Chinese passengers, noticing his bizarre souvenir, seemed relieved to see him pass. They were doubtless thinking that he would be more at home in first, with all the other inscrutable foreign devils.
David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII Berlin: Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, Lehrter Station, and Masaryk Station and the nonfiction work, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II. He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.