The Driven Dame
Summary: Philip Clark is a private investigator in 1946 San Francisco. When he is hired by a strange woman to investigate a foreign fugitive, he uncovers a far larger conspiracy.
The woman that entered Philip Clark's office in early January in 1946 had a body like a stiletto blade, and looks like a smoking gun. After a shoulder injury during training, he spent the remainder of the Second World War behind a desk as a naval intelligence analyst. Since his discharge, the life of a private investigator in San Francisco proved more than sufficient for his livelihood. With a jaded cynicism honed across cases of cheated spouses and murderous passions, he knew she was trouble when she walked in.
Clark saw she moved with the voluptuousness of a lissome dancer, but advanced like a hungry cougar. A black hat covered her face and hair, and her coat and dress revealed the lithe frame underneath. She carried a purse that was too heavy to be containing only cosmetics. Her narrow proportions reminded him of an assassin's stiletto, a lethal weapon ready for a terminal blow. What surprised him for a woman of such style was that her face was Asian.
"Mister Clark," she said in flawless English. "My name is Janet Chan, and I would like to hire you for an urgent assignment."
"Otherwise, you wouldn't be here," he said, leaning back in the chair. "How can I help a dame like you?"
Janet lit a cigarette at the end of a slender holder, a narrow tube that nevertheless reminded him of a archaic misericord. She stepped closer to his death, as if to challenge him in his own domain. "A simple matter."
Clark saw her body language and knew it would be otherwise.
"I was raised by American missionaries that left China before the war. I believe the man who murdered them, a former bandit known as Iron Zhang, is in this city."
Clark nodded his head. He'd heard of refugees fleeing the chaos of the Chinese Civil War by means legal and illegal, and at least three cases immediately came to mind that dealt with the local tongs. He could vaguely recall warlords, petty tyrants, and Imperial Japanese collaborators with similar eccentric nicknames. Janet leaned against his desk, turning her body to expose her ample profile from the side. He'd that sort of thing before, but her mind was clearly directed elsewhere.
"And isn't that a job for the police?" he asked.
"I've heard he's been running guns, smuggling people, and murdering innocents," she said. "But the police don't care. We're all just chinks to them."
Clark nodded, having seen the police bribery and apathy before. "And you want me to find some evidence they can't ignore? Something to put him behind bars?"
"Yes," Janet said, her voice simmering with hatred. "Or in the ground."
"I ain't a hired gun," Clark said. "But I'll take the case."
"Glad to hear," Janet said, her mood immediately becoming less morose. She handed him a folded piece of notebook paper. "Let me know the moment you find anything."
Clark looked at the note, seeing a phone number and address. With an alacrity that nearly dumbfounded him, he heard the door slam in Janet's wake as she left behind him. As the holiday season was typically a lean spell, he nevertheless welcomed the chance to break the monotony of sitting in his office. Having familiarized himself with Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese during his intelligence analyst days, he nevertheless relished a chance to use such exotic tongues, lest his own knowledge of them atrophy.
Before leaving his office, Clark slipped into a trench-coat and fedora as gray as the overcast sky outside. He loaded six bullets into his snub-nose Colt Detective revolver, before slipping it into his pants pocket. In his line of work, he preferred not having to draw it in the first place. While he'd handled automatics before, a stove-piped round nearly cost him his life. Thus, he stuck with the revolvers for the robust, guileless simplicity of their firing mechanisms. He was an avid believer that if he needed to discharge more than six rounds, he'd be better served by an expeditious retreat.
Clark knew his first stop would be in the Fillmore district, a few blocks north from his office. While the distance was less than a mile, the change in scenery was distinctive enough. The quality of the streets dropped dramatically, as though the cracked asphalt was broken slag from an infernal furnace. The buildings became progressively more dilapidated and ill-maintained, like some urban graveyard of obsolete architecture. Even the lampposts and signs seemed to list and lean like drunken sailors in the street.
Clark entered a familiar pawn shop, narrowly hitting a tall Negro with the door. Despite it being the investigator's own fault, the man nevertheless apologized. He downcast his eyes, as if seeking to avoid trouble, and left the store behind him. Outside, Clark thought he saw a red sedan that seemed too luxurious to belong in a neighborhood like Fillmore. It took a right at a street before him, vanishing from his view around the corner. Due to the black glass, he could not see who was within.
"Hey, Phil," said the burly proprietor of Sam's Pawn Shop. "What brings you here?"
"Business, Sam," he replied. "Need to ask about heaters."
"It's always taking about pieces with you," Sam said. "You're becoming a regular gunsel."
"Business, Sam," Clark said. "Can I see your selection?"
Sam gestured Clark over towards a locked cabinet opposite the front desk. A cage-like lattice separated the two, for protecting Sam and the guns, jewelry, and money behind the counter. Sam moved passed a bejeweled Indian scimitar, half freed from its scabbard, and unlocked the cabinet. Within, the investigator behind a lethal atlas of arms from around the world.
Clark familiarized himself with such implements during his time as an analyst, learning which nations and combatants to attribute each to. Such armaments were antiques as well. He saw a short sword with a blade that shifted like a snake, a Malay dagger called a kris. He saw a Japanese dagger, a traditional tanto, unwillingly parted from its original owner. He saw a long, thin steel Chinese jian, the longsword favored by the mandarins and scholars of antiquity. He saw a Royal Navy cutlass, itself cut down and crudely shortened into a machete. He saw a rusted trench knife, a blade which undoubtedly terminated more than a few lives. He saw a dented KABAR, which caught a projectile and saved its owner.
Clark saw the firearms were similarly eclectic. He saw a Hanyang Model 88, the Nationalist Chinese version of the infamous German Mauser rifle. He saw a Short Medium Lee-Enfield Mark III, a superb British bolt-action rifle dating from the Boer Wars. He saw a Springfield M-1903 with a scope hand-fitted to it, a marksman's weapon. He saw a Browning Auto-5 cut down into a trench-gun. He recalled he saw the customized Winchester 1887 from his prior visit, a lever-action shotgun with an elongated loop. An M-1 Garand rounded out the recent arsenal, and it stood upright like a soldier at attention.
Beneath the long-arms were an equally strange array of pistols. He saw a Japanese Type 26 revolver, a six-gun sent home as a war trophy. He saw a caplock Remington 1858 revolver, an oddly well-preserved weapon of Civil War and Wild West vintage. A brace of flintlock dueling pistols hung from holsters at the top of the case, ornate weapons that spilled blue blood. He saw a Nambu pistol, the low-quality pistol that discharged with less than a funny look. He noted a Luger with some curiosity, as though it should have been on the other side of the continent. The ones that stuck out the most to him were a pair of Shanxi Type 17 pistols, a Chinese warlord's copy of the distinctive German Mauser C-96 "Broomhandle."
"So, looking for something special?" Sam asked, running his hand over his stumble-covered chin. "Or want to ask about something?"
"Wanted to ask if you know about any big sales," Clark said, sliding a folded bill to Sam. "Unofficial ones."
"To?" Sam snatched up the bill like a fly before a frog's tongue.
"Tongs and slants."
"Maybe," Sam said.
Clark slipped over another bill. Sam leaned forwards, whispering. "Lee's Fish Market by the docks. My boys saw stuff moving through there to a ship called the Shanghai Pearl. Real heavy stuff, too."
"One of the tongs preparing for a gang war, maybe?"
"That kind of hardware would be enough for taking Normandy."
"Right," Clark said, rapidly jotting the name down in his notepad. "Got any names?"
"Nah. None of the normal players," he said. "But look, you didn't hear it from me, alright?"
"Why so nervous, Sam?" Clark asked, leaning against the counter. "The cops turning up the heat?"
"No, Phil, the cops aren't paying any attention," he said. "Whatever this is, this way outta my league."
Clark nodded, and Sam shut the weapons cases. He slipped double the usual payment to Sam, and he walked towards the exit.
"Phil, you sure you want to follow this?" Sam asked. "There's something rotten about this."
"Boy, that's sure something, especially coming from you," Clark said as he left the pawnshop behind him. The door closed, and he looked around on the street. He contemplated walking the same route back to his office, but decided against it. For something to have spooked Sam, he decided against being careless. As much as he distrusted and detested the scumbag, he was a reliable, and necessary, part of his job. If he wanted to work with more pretentious scum, he'd be an attorney.
Clark moved down the street with a brisk cadence suggestive of an urgent appointment elsewhere. The relative desertion of the streets around him caused him to move with the celerity due one expecting an onset of unpleasantries. His brisk pace quickened, and his instincts told him something was amiss. Even with the reassuring weight of his sidearm in his pocket, he knew he'd be outnumbered and outgunned by any true opposition. As with other Skid Rows, the locals knew things he did not.
Clark rounded a corner, only to find a familiar red car opposite him. The vehicle circled the block, like the orbit of a satellite around a celestial body. Against his sense of self-preservation, he crossed the street in front of it. It slowed down to avoid him, and he tried to look inside the car. Instead, the unseen driver sped away and vanished around a distant side-street, taking flight like a spooked goose. He briefly considered following before utterly rejecting the idea.
Before directly investigating Lee's Fish Market and the Shanghai Pearl, Clark followed another avenue of investigation. By means of a circuitous route and constantly doubling back, he ensured the red car was not following him. He bore no illusions that its bullet-shaped body was smooth and lethal as the lead projectiles from a gun, but the driver did not care to take the chance to run him down. He wondered if someone might've followed the recent client, or if he'd drawn unwanted attention from one of Sam's other clients. With no signs of the automotive stalker, he entered a familiar establishment.
Clark entered a silver, sleek building that bore the distinctive veneer of a diner, despite having a different manner of clientele within. Norton's Fountain was a soda fountain favored by high school students and other youth near the edge of downtown. Named for the eccentric, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of the prior century, it possessed a far more relaxed atmosphere than the businesses that sprouted around it.
Clark saw a familiar man sitting in the corner, pretending to read the newspaper as he soaked up the atmosphere around him. Like a sunning lizard on a rocky crest, he stood out of the corner he set himself up in, while drinking in the detail around him. Teenagers and young adults talked and giggled, but while he was not much older chronologically, his eyes hinted at the burdensome maturity of an older man.
"Hi, Phil," said Officer Edward O'Malley of the San Francisco Police Department. "What brings you here today?'
"Always business with you, Phil," the plainclothes policeman said, easing back into the seats. "Why not take some time and enjoy life?"
"Because not everyone's lucky enough to get your post, Ed. I've got some questions for you."
"And I might have some answers."
"You know anything about a spat with the tongs?"
"Plenty, but it's all under investigation. Who cares if a few chinks kill each other off?"
"How about anything at the docks?"
"Just a whole lot of Orientals trying to escape the Commies," O'Malley said. "But hey, just slants killing each other. Why worry about it?"
"My client is."
Ed shrugged. "Eh, not my department anyhow."
"Thanks for nothing, Ed."
Ed shrugged once more and crossed his legs on the table. Clark stood up to leave, but Ed said something he had half a mind to ignore. "Just don't get stuck between 'em."
Clark said nothing and left the fountain behind him. He climbed back into his car, and he thought he saw a familiar red car in the downtown traffic. When he looked again, it was gone, so he assumed it was just similar one. The first time was chance, the second time was coincidence, and the third time was conspiracy. This time, he circled back several times, and took nonsensical detours, but each time he thought the car was gone, it reappeared somewhere behind him. The last time, he saw it interposed itself behind a delivery truck to obscure his view.
Sickening of such antics, Clark resolved to take a frontal approach. He checked his revolver was loaded, before embarking on a course of action knew was foolhardy. He parked at a stop sign, and he stepped out of his car. Forcing the invective of irate motorists out of his head, he loomed like an ashen statue in the afternoon sun. He once more saw the red car approaching him, but it instead veered right down a side-street, vanishing from his view. Hearing the honking horns around him, he climbed back into his own beaten vehicle and continued to his final destination for the day.
The remainder of Clark's drive to Hunters Point was far less eventful than he hoped. Lee's Fish Market was a structure before a private dock, a building that repelled the scant pedestrians around it as though it was a portent of ill omen. The building itself was a narrow, two-story structure with windows concealed by curtains. It bore the pungent smell of perspiration and rotting fish, and the texture of its walls was that of splintered wood and faded brick. The door was secured on by a rusted lock, half hanging from the wall. Beyond it was a slip containing an equally dilapidated vessel.
Clark saw many ships in his time, and the ship he beheld was a tramp steamer past its prime. Its iron smokestack was rusted by countless years at sea without maintenance. The hull sagged in the waterline, like the skin of an aging prostitute. The timbers on deck were splintered and pressed upon by the treading of uncounted sailors. The vessel listed slightly on the port side, as if bearing the weight of a terrible, secret burden. He could barely see the name Shanghai Pearl in faded letters on the side.
With foolhardy bravery, Clark pulled opened the door and went inside. He kept his hand close to his revolver, as though an army of ruffians would beset him when he went inside. What he beheld was not the angry mob he feared, but instead the putrid stench of a thousand seaborn carcasses. He was reminded of his walks along the beach, when he smelt various seagull-eaten carrion. Within concentrated the shop, the scent was magnified a thousand-fold. He ducked outside for fresh air before continuing past the front door.
Clark saw the origin of the miasmic stink was the unrefrigerated baskets of fish piled in a nonsensical pattern past the front door. Beyond them was a barred window like that in Sam's pawnshop, with an unmanned cash register beyond it. Noting the dead fish were placed to obscure access to the window, he immediately sensed many, many things that jumped out at him. As his eyes surveyed the shop, he noted a set of wet footprints that seemingly terminated at the wall.
Clark saw a slight recess set into the wall, and he acted on his gut. He pressed against the wall, and he felt it slide as the wall moved on unseen rollers. A section of wall of slighter proportions to the door slid out of the way, a narrow stairwell opened before him. The basement yawned in darkness beneath him, like the gullet of a great, slumbering beast. Allowing his eyes to adapt to the dimness, he descended.
Clark felt the rotting stairs groaned precariously under every step. Even without beholding the slapdash construction, he assessed the quality of construction from the uneven, steep gradient of the stairs. He descended into the Stygian depths with his revolver in hand, brandishing it as though against subterranean hordes. Each step into the chthonic murk, he reasoned, was a step closer to an unmarked grave and ignoble end. For reasons he preferred not to ruminate upon, such a macabre musings did not trouble him.
When his feet touched solid ground at the bottom, Clark exhaled in simultaneous relief and partial disbelief. He saw a lantern suspended on a peg above him, which he lit with his cigarette lighter. Believing himself alone in that basement, he suspended it before him to survey the subterrene chamber around him. The flame danced frantically behind glass, casting eerie shadows throughout the room.
Due to the deliberation necessary to safely descending the stars, Clark originally thought the chamber would possess far larger proportions than what he saw. Behind him was a tunnel that gradually sloped deeper into the ground, an uncouth passage with locked doors on either side. Opposite it was a corner filled entirely with large wooden crates. Beyond it was another locked door, beyond which he could see a portion of the pier beyond it. Based on the marks he saw on the floor, the crates had been moved recently.
Clark set his lantern down and examined the nearest of the crates. It was labeled as car parts, but he learned better than to trust the superficial declarations in his profession. Using a nearby crowbar, he opened the top of the crate. He wrestled with it for a second, before the tightly-nailed top began to yield before him. Within, he barely suppressed a gasp at what he beheld.
Clark was no neophyte to weapons, having served in the Navy until the previous year. With the crate were artillery shells, closely packed in casings like those he'd seen shipped out to the front. The date in the shipping manifest indicated they were of recent manufacture, but provided little other data as to their source. He hurriedly sealed the crate up, pressing it back against the wall as though it were a leper's garment. Daring himself, he peeked inside another.
Working up the nerve to look into the crack he opened, Clark saw the dull black metal of newly-manufactured rifles. He could not see ammunition for them in the crate, but he had no doubt it was present in another. He pressed the lid shut, and he pushed it up against the wall. Seeing more than he wanted to, he walked towards the other side of the basement. He thought he heard hushed voices as he approached each of the doors, each growing more frantic with each footfall.
Revolver drawn, Clark threw opened the nearest door, and he saw a ragged Asian man muttering in Mandarin. He threw open the other doors, revealing a pair of young women, a cowering family, and three children. Having little illusions of what would happen to them if they were caught, he pointed up the stairs to them, ordering them to leave. As the last of them departed, he almost did not hear the concealed door to the docks open behind him.
Clark turned to see a mountain of a man completely darkening the doorway behind him. The look on the Asian man's scarred face was one of boiling rage. He brought his revolver up, only to have the gun wrested from his hand by the man's sudden charge. The bull of a man pressed him against the wall, tore the weapon away, and began to rain down punches on his exposed face, blows falling like a torrent of rain.
Clark's vision blurred as his headed was buffeted by his assailant's meaty fists. He ripped up both his arms around the hand that pinned him, and twisted it to the side as painfully as he could. He turned the titan's body to the side for an invaluable split second, and he darted out like a fox evading a hunter's trap. He thought he saw the pistol on the ground, but his moment of distraction cost him. His foe's hook nailed him in the temple, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Clark was unsure how much time elapsed, as he faded in and out of awareness. He remembered his time pouring over intercepted enemy messages in the Navy. He remembered meeting Janet in the office. He remembered entering Sam's pawnshop, and the strange car outside. He remembered Ed's dismissal of his questions. He remembered the crates of weapons and bedraggled prisoners in the basement. He remembered the tempest of blows he fell to, and of crashing to the ground like the mast of a sinking galleon.
Clark saw images he was barely cognizant enough to recognize as the present. He saw the sun sinking lower in the sky like an overripe fruit suspended over an abyss. He saw more downtrodden souls leaving the Shanghai Pearl, escorted by grim-faced men. He saw the same men loading the crates onto the ship like underworld stevedores. Their predatory swagger left little room for imagination as to their natures, as the shamus found out directly.
Clark thought he'd never awake, but found himself tied to a chair in a claustrophobic, windowless room. The gentle rocking of the floor beneath him drove him to think he was deep in the hull of the Shanghai Pearl. The bucket of cold water was enough to stir him from the Lethean tranquility he endured in irregular intervals over the previous hours. A single lightbulb dangled above them, providing illumination.
Clark saw three men around him. One was the mountain of muscle from before, he stood by the door with the stance of a dutiful soldier. Another was a shorter man that stood opposite the giant, a spindly man with the countenance of a spider. Between them both was a lean Asian man with graying hair and a scar-covered face, a clad in a black trench-coat that nevertheless contrasted the faded clothes of the other two. He twirled a Sykes dagger, flipping between the handle and blade without fear of laceration. The aura of authority rested upon his shoulders like his dark coat, a terrible and dreadful thing.
"Ah, you're up," he said in accented English. "Tell me, what were you doing here?"
"What's it matter?" Clark asked. "You're not letting me leave here alive."
"That remains to be seen," the man said, jamming the dagger into the wall. "In the meantime, there are plenty of ways we can make this less pleasant."
"Oh, I'm aware of that," Clark said. "Iron Zhang, I presume?"
"The very same, Mr. Clark," Zhang said, producing Clark's wallet from his pocket. "I presume you are independent?"
"Of course," Clark said. "Quite an operation you're running."
"Enough. Who sent you?"
Clark laughed nervously. "You know, it's a good deal. You're moving people in, and guns out."
"What else do you know about my operation? Who sent you?"
Clark began to consider what he'd seen and heard, and took a gambit.
"The war ain't going so well for the Nationalists, so you're smuggling them out," Clark said in Mandarin, as puzzle pieces fell into place. "But the weapons are military-grade. You're trying to help supply them."
Upon hearing his own tongue, Zhang sighed. The expression on his face collapsed from one in livid rage to one of fatalistic resignation. "So many fear being massacred by the Communists, so I do my part to help them. The weapons will delay the Communists' advance, buying valuable time for me to save more."
"Now you're getting all self-righteous. Dangerous path to start treading."
"I've done too many things to atone for in my younger years, and that was before I collaborated with the Japanese," he said, crestfallen and melancholic. "At the time, I told myself it was necessary for my survival, but I came to fear a traitor's end and legacy."
"And you've probably lost a lot since the war ended, being reduced to a garage scow like this."
"I had wealth and power, but at a heavy cost to myself and my country."
"Zhang, I know what you're trying to do," Clark said. "But you're still working for someone else. Those weapons weren't stolen, are they?"
"No, but I presume you know their origin."
"Of course," Clark said, recalling what he saw. "American weapons bound for China, courtesy of the OSS and other spooks. They have the pull to order the cops to look away."
"It was a mutually advantageous agreement, but I fear there again will be a cost," Zhang said, his face hardening once more. "So, Mr. Clark, who sent you?"
A burst of gunfire from outside interrupted Clark's thought process. Screaming echoed outside, followed by intermitted gunshots. The staccato of weapons fire was heard outside, before a pall of silence settled over the deck above. The answer to the question itself drew closer as footfalls reverberated down the outside hallway like the unstoppable march of an automaton. His bodyguards pleaded with him to leave, but he told them to depart and save themselves. Following their adamant refusal to obey his orders, they instead drew weapons and waited by his side. "I suppose this will be my last voyage," Zhang said to them. "May the heavens take pity upon those I have wronged, and those I failed to save."
Clark heard Zhang ordered his bodyguards to unlock the door. A stern look appeared on his face, an iron countenance worth of his nickname. With the stoicism of a man willfully accepting imminent death, he drew a pistol and stepped outside, closing the door behind them. A trio of gunshots terminated the loudened footfalls.
A moment later, Janet walked into the room, smoking Type 17 in hand. She took Zhang's dagger in her other hand, freshly reddened with blood other than hers. She approached Clark with a manic grin on her face. Seeing him tied to the chair, she placed the knife on his lap.
"Good work, shamus," she said in an exuberant voice. "You worked quicker than I'd thought you would."
"That was you in the car, wasn't it?" Clark said, cutting through the ropes that bound his hands. "You urgently wanted to see Zhang six-feet under."
"Don't tell me his lies convinced you," Janet said. "But I was worried I'd lost you after the diner. Then I saw those people you freed coming out of the market."
"I imagine your adoptive parents must've been rich and bought you everything you wanted," Clark said, standing up. "If you'd have given me a bit more time, I might have-"
"You might be lying at the bottom of the bay," Janet interrupted. "Now, I've found a stash of dough. I'll give you double your original fee if you shut up about this."
"What about the police?"
"They don't care," Janet replied, taking a drag from her cigarette. "We're all just chinks to them."
Philip Clark said no more as he retrieved his items from the fallen gangsters. He was not one to deny the whims of such a driven dame. He left the corpse-strewn, bloodied pier behind, with the sun to his back, cigarette in his mouth, and his mind full of doubts.