Varinka Savischna took Kurt Reid through the back streets of Shanghai's native city to another garden. They entered through a small door and walked across meandering paths, past pools where stone storks stood in one-legged sorrow. Paper lanterns cast their gay reflection in the water and lit up well-tended beds of flowers. This was a spot of beauty in a squalid settlement, as unexpected as a warm house in the Arctic circle.
Man, foreign cities are just wasted on the natives. Good thing white people are available to go out and show the rest of the world how to properly clean and decorate a home, eh?
These two white people step into a well-furnished room, and Savsichna has Reid sit down until a mysterious "she" returns. When Reid repeats the pronoun as a question, Savischna doesn't answer, but blabbers on about the American's hotheaded reputation, how he needs to stay hidden until he's needed or else "whack - off goes your head." Reid doesn't like this evasive treatment and points out that he put his trust in her (well, blind obedience but same thing) so the least she can do is reciprocate. Savischna replies that "my secrets are not my own," hinting that larger forces are at work and that she belongs to some sort of group. She does try to reassure Reid that this isn't some Commie plot, and that she's a White Russian, but she still ends up leaving quite abruptly. Savischna tells Reid to wait until "she" comes for him, gives him a sudden smooch on the mouth, and disappears.
That is to say, Savsichna goes out through a door. But dramatically. And mysteriously. Reid, despite being told to wait, immediately tries to follow her, only to find the door locked, along with every other possible exit from the room - even the windows are barred. And then Reid realizes a slight downside to following a complete stranger into an unknown situation after promising to do her dirty work.
Something like panic came over him.
So that'd be what, alarm? Unease? Dissatisfaction? Indigestion?
He was a prisoner again, and although his captor was fair, and although he had no definite reasons for alarm, the late brig sentence had given him a taste for freedom he never again would forget.
Oh yeah, it's belatedly revealed that Reid spent some time in the Rangoon's brig before escaping into the river. This is worth noting because, well, just wait a moment.
Reid berates himself for being taken in by some "Russki spy" so she can call the Chinese police down on him, pours himself a drink to steady his nerves, but decides he doesn't trust the decanter left in the room for him. He concludes that Savischna's charisma was able to overwhelm his good sense, and after being used as this woman's toy, well, "He felt angry at that. It didn't make him feel strong or masculine." No fun being weak and feminine, huh? Makes you wonder how women put up with it.
But then Reid reconsiders. Maybe it isn't a trap, maybe this unexpected bit of espionage work is legit. Because see, Reid wasn't just put in the brig, he was put there but was able to escape but his cell door just happened to open for him. Something so extraordinary that you'd think it'd be worth mentioning earlier. Also, it had been convenient for Reid to bump into that sampan last chapter, right? So maybe someone's looking out for him after all.
He sat down in the chair again. Grinned, recovering his sense of humor. Here he was, and he didn't exactly mind after all. Hadn't the girl kissed him? Women didn't kiss you and then go find a guy who would cut off your head.
Or did they?
So what's the more likely scenario? That Savischna and her nebulous organization pulled a lot of strings and arranged events so some impulsive beefcake would end up bumping into her at a teahouse and whimsically decide to become her troubleshooter? Or that Savischna and her nebulous organization pulled a lot of strings and arranged events so some impulsive beefcake would end up bumping into her at a teahouse and whimsically decide to become her troubleshooter, allowing her to lead him to a somewhere to chop off his head?
You know what, let's put this riddle aside, a new character chooses this moment to enter the room, an aristocratic-looking woman with kind eyes and a satin gown. It's Anne Carsten, the daughter of a powerful merchant, and she and Reid have history - they last met two years ago during some social event in Shanghai and ended up hitting it off so well that their romantic encounter trailed off into ellipses. But they ultimately parted on bad terms, since Reid "didn't want to be known as Anne Carsten's husband. I wanted to be Mr. Reid, not Mr. Carsten." So he threw away a future as a "king of captains" to preserve his masculinity.
Is... is this whole "spy drama" story going to be Reid working out his issues with women and finding a healthy way to preserve his identity?
There's still a romantic spark between the two - Reid likes Carsten's eyes, Carsten thinks Reid's handsome and rugged - but Carsten is able to figure out he's already met Savischna since he unknowingly still has her lipstick smeared on his face. And that really sets the tone for the next two pages, as Carsten drops some exposition while accusing Reid of having a thing for the Russian girl, and Reid tries to insist that she "doesn't mean anything to me." I mean yes, he did jump headfirst into a world of subterfuge and secrecy after meeting her in a teahouse, and he did try to sign himself on as her lackey, but other than that there's nothing between them.
We learn a very little bit, that Carsten considers Savischna her friend even though the Russian is mysterious and likes to come and go at odd hours, and that her family's fortunes have taken a turn. This last fact prompts the two to embrace for what I guess is a romantic moment that's enough to give Reid a "troubled stirring within him." But before it goes anywhere somewhere tries to kick in the door and demands that they hand over the Russian woman.
It's our good friends the Death Squad, and even though Carsten protests that Savischna isn't here, a half-dozen towering Northern Chinese soon break into the room and find Reid even though he tries to hide in a... "clothes press?" I'll go with "closet." He tries to fight back-
Kurt, knowing that fighting was useless, nevertheless threw himself at them before they could set themselves. He rolled one back and sent the other reeling. He plunged out through the door and tried to get across the larger room.
-but it's not a real Hubbard Action Sequence, especially since the protagonist gets mobbed and taken down. Carsten's only contribution is to scream just before someone clubs Reid's face in with an automatic, so they tie him up instead. Their leader, a 350-pound mountain of muscle named Yang, already knows who Reid is, what he's accused of, and vows to take him to the Death Squad's leader, Lin Wang, who "sees over all and allows no evil to escape." He's polite enough to apologize for disturbing Ms. Carsten, at least, before hauling our hero away.
Anne Carsten looked beseechingly at Yang, and finding no hope there, stared down at Kurt. She touched his face lightly with her fingers.
"I... I hoped..." she whispered, "to see you... again." She was crying now. Kurt turned his face away.
The Death Squad carried their burden through the garden and through the wall, toward the headquarters of Lin Wang...
And that's chapter two. There's only six more chapters in the story, so hopefully at some point we'll know more about what's going on beyond "Reid is wanted for a crime he didn't commit and may or may not be a pawn in some international spy game." And maybe Reid will show more agency than being led or dragged from location to location.
On the other hand, the only times he's done stuff of his own volition it's gotten him in trouble, so maybe he'd work better on a leash.
Back to Chapter 1