The thick air mingled with the odors of plucked poultry, pickled herrings, fresh fish, tubs of snails, and roasted ducks packed in ice or glazed with a salty wax. Eels, sharks, octopi, lotus roots and melons poured from the shops onto the streets. Whole hogs could be seen roasting in steaming barbeque pits. Strings of pork and slender sausages dangled from doorways and windows. Eggs sat suspended in wire baskets affixed to the walls. Men passed her with baskets swinging from the ends of poles braced across their shoulders. The baskets were filled with vegetables and exotic foods with which she was unfamiliar.
They passed Chinese temples, called joss houses, decked with balconies, enormous lanterns, and brilliantly painted woodwork. The captain explained that the local people fulfilled their spiritual needs there. A pungent wisp of burning incense curled about Marta’s nose from each one they passed.
The captain walked ahead of her and Byron with the confidence of a wayfarer who had traveled these roads many times before. Soon, they abandoned the busy streets for a maze of narrow alleyways where the buildings were made of wood and brick walls. Second stories often hung out over their heads. The overhangs crowded the narrow space above them and blocked the light. Tiny windows looked out on filthy streets and standing water. At one point, they came upon a small group of hard-looking men heading their way, but the men turned down a side alley when they caught sight of Captain O’Connor.
“Hatchet men,” he said matter-of-factly. “As soon kill you as look at you, but they follow the orders of their tong bosses. The tongs don’t want trouble with the law, so they stay clear of white folks and me.”
Marta had gotten a good look at their grim expressions, and her heart beat faster at the thought of coming face-to-face with one of those murderous men.
The clustered streets twisted and turned until Marta became hopelessly lost, but it was clear the captain knew where he was going. She was thankful Byron had brought him along. They entered an alley full of cats and refuse that was so foul smelling, Marta had to press the handkerchief Byron had given her to her nose. They walked single file, now, with the captain in front and Byron at the rear. Chinese lettering on wooden signs announced numerous opium dens and brothels. Sparsely clad Chinese girls beckoned them from dimly lit doorways. It was a slimy world where people easily lost their way, both in a physical and a spiritual sense. Marta shuddered to think that Missy might have been brought here.
“Almost there,” the captain announced. He turned a corner and stopped in front of a door with a sign in both Chinese lettering and English, which read: Blind Annie’s Cellar. To Marta’s shock, the woman who stood in the doorway was white. She was an evil-looking woman with dull eyes, pallid skin, and a fleshy face that had lost its beauty long ago.
The Hypnotist - Excerpt
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