Article Index

     “That one survives by offering herself to any man who will give her enough change for her next bowl of opium,” O’Connor commented as they entered. 
     The air inside was oppressive from the stupefying smoke of opium pipes. Double-tiered wooden bunks covered with thin mats lined the walls. Each bed had an opium lamp and pipe by its side, and four were occupied by men in various stages of drug induced stupors. Two Chinese men lay on their sides in the full effects of an opium trance, their eyes half-closed and their bodies so still Marta wondered if they had died. The other two were Caucasian. One took a long puff, then let the pipe tumble from his limp hand. His head fell backward as he, too, entered the dreamland of the opium smoker. The fourth propped himself on his elbow while he cooked a lump of opium and packed it into the bowl of his pipe. 
     Smoke from the pipes curled around the lamps, reducing the already feeble light to a yellow glow that made the sultry atmosphere even more depressing. Despite the gloom, Marta could see the floor had not been swept and the ceiling and walls were blackened by soot. The men on the beds might be in their own paradise, but the room in which they dreamed was only one step removed from hell. 
     Byron walked over to the man cooking his opium and spoke to him in a low voice. Marta could see from his languid movements that he had already consumed at least one pipe, but he appeared alert enough to recognize his friend. Byron helped him to his feet and guided him back to the doorway where Marta and the captain waited.
     “This is Charles. He’s a bit fuzzy, I’m afraid, but luckily we found him before he went completely under. We will take him back to my place and let him sleep off the opium for a little while.” Despite his lethargic condition, Charles’ blond hair was neatly combed and his clothes crisply ironed. Unlike Byron’s narrow face and prominent nose, the man’s features were broad and ruggedly handsome. With his looks and money, Marta wondered why he needed such an insidious drug to cope with his world. She was particularly struck by his blue eyes which shone through his glazed expression with the radiance of a mid-day sky. 
     The captain and Byron propped Charles between them and set off for the carriage with Marta close behind. She was relieved when they emerged from the dire alleyways and rejoined the lively crowds on the main street, yet she also experienced a twinge of regret at departing. She hated to think she might be leaving Missy behind. Marta had only gotten a glimpse of Chinatown’s sinister underbelly, but it was enough to convince her Missy would not survive there for long, and as badly as she wanted to flee the place, she would have gladly turned around and plunged back into its murky depths if she thought she could locate her friend.