There it was. He instantly recognized the smell. He hadn’t been in Shanghai for years, but this was a malodor so redolent of the city that it couldn’t be mistaken for any other place. Long ago he had surmised that the foulness started with the river and eventually pervaded everything it came in contact with—the people, their clothes, the streets, the food. This peculiar odor transported him back to the first moment he had come to the city six long years ago. It may just as well have been sixty. Years filled with war, friendships, wrenching losses, the struggle to get back to Viktoria.
Harry’s return was somewhat unexpected, and although he had prepared himself mentally as best as he could, it had not really hit him until today that he would again be in Shanghai. Now, as he sat in the passenger seat of an old Citroën, gazing out the window at the crowded streets of a liberated but desperate city, the realization of his return washed over him along with the cloying stench of the Whangpoo River.
The convoy of vehicles slowly made its way west on Nanking Road. This main commercial street of Shanghai’s prewar International Settlement was still lined with shops and department stores. For a short while, a group of revelers blocked the road. Once the crowd had dispersed, the convoy continued on until forced to halt at an intersection packed with pedestrians and rickshaws.
Harry asked his driver, Alston, to stop and he got out to see what the holdup was. Standing on the sidewalk Harry spotted what he thought was a European face in the crowd. It was a woman. Perhaps she was Eurasian. He quickly lost sight of her. Looking further west he could make out the building where the Savin teashop was located. It was directly across from the Sincere Department Store, a notable landmark on Nanking Road. Harry reflexively ducked his head when a small explosion of fireworks erupted nearby. He cursed under his breath as he climbed back into the Citroën. Once more the convoy advanced, moving slowly to avoid crushing anyone.
Soon afterward Harry again asked Alston to stop the car.
“Let the trucks go ahead. They know where they’re going. I want to see something for a moment.”
Harry got out. The Cyrillic lettering over the entrance was still visible. The door to the teashop had been boarded shut, but somebody had pried it open again. Harry went inside; Alston followed behind him. The stately tearoom had been ransacked, the furniture and most of the fixtures were gone. Harry’s mind filled with memories of this place where he had first gotten to know Viktoria—drinking tea together, eating piroshky—stuffed pastries. He remembered the blue dress she’d worn and the scent of her perfume the first time they met there. He could even have identified the booth where they had sat, had it still been there.
Alston conspicuously displayed a Thompson, slung over his right shoulder. He remained near the door to keep an eye on the car. Harry’s .45 was in its holster, but he was conscious of it at all times. Three different Chinese merchants were now selling various wares inside the shop. They stood and mutely watched the two Americans with suspicion. Harry went toward the back to investigate, hoping to gain some clue as to the tea merchant’s whereabouts. In the old kitchen the aroma of cakes and tea had been replaced by the pungency of garlic and fish. Harry turned and walked back into the main room. He looked at one of the merchants and tried out his Pidgin English, which he hadn’t used in a long time.
“My wanchee savvy, s’pose Russia man have got, no got?”
The man shook his head and said something, but Harry couldn’t understand.
Harry answered in Pidgin. “Me no savvy.”
A burly, middle-aged woman walked over to Harry, took his left arm, and pointed toward the door, saying something loudly in Chinese. Harry gently took hold of her arm and removed it from his. She said something again, shouting now and angrily gesturing again toward the exit. Alston took the Thompson from his shoulder and held it ready. Harry motioned to him that it was okay. “They’ve gotten to where they all have an innate distrust of anyone in uniform. Can’t blame them.”
He then turned back to the woman and said in English, “I’m looking for the people that used to be here. The Russians? Savvy?”
She shook her head and gave Harry a hostile look.
Harry used the only Chinese he could remember. “Mei-yu fa-tze.” He looked at Alston and repeated himself in English. “I guess it can’t be helped.”
They walked back outside where a crowd had gathered beside the car. Two young boys were crouched in front of the car. When they saw Harry and Alston, they jumped up and offered to shine their boots, speaking in rudimentary English.
Alston shooed them away, and he and Harry climbed back into the coupe. Alston started the engine and it backfired. The onlookers scattered rapidly.
Harry smiled and looked over at Alston. “Did you do that on purpose, Corporal?”
“No, sir. Just lucky.” He put the car in gear, and they drove farther west on Nanking Road to where it merged with Bubbling Well Road.
After several minutes, Alston’s curiosity got the better of him. “None of my business, Major Dietrichson, but what was all that about at the shop back there? The Russians, I mean?”
“The owners were a family I knew when I lived here before the war. They were good to me. I just wanted to find out what happened to them.” Harry said nothing more about it. But his mind raced with an array of feelings. The Whangpoo’s foul-smelling waters spurred many untold—yet not forgotten—memories in Harry’s mind of his days in what some had once called the “Paris of the East.” He had to find Viktoria.