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Read an extract from Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin

Read an extract from Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin

1932, Shanghai. By day, Jingwen delivers bones for her grandmother, the exclusive surgeon to the most formidable gang in the city. By night, she dances at the Paramount, a lavish cabaret club, competing ruthlessly to charm the wealthy patrons.

Then mysterious attackers start to target the club, stealing the faces of their victims – and selling them onto the powerful elite. Jingwen fears she could be next. To protect herself and her fellow performers, she has no choice but to delve deeper into the city’s glittering underworld.

In this treacherous realm of cut-throat businessmen, silver-limbed gangsters and vengeful gods, Jingwen soon learns that she must become something far stranger and more dangerous than she ever imagined, if she hopes to survive…


Every Friday, I deliver the bones the way my grandmother taught me, with my shoulders down and my chin held high.

“Be proud of my art,” she said, so I strut down the alleys of the Old Chinese City with her package wrapped in brown paper, wearing my pride like an ostrich feather fan behind my head.

The way night unfolds in Shanghai, like a sigh against a mirror, makes the city harder and harder to read as the hours crawl by— the bluish gas lamps above the fortune tellers’ stalls, the hooves of a slaughtered cow swinging gently over the pebbled sidewalk, the large wooden mallet falling with quiet thuds onto a sheet of peanut brittle. Everything is muted, like the beginning of a dream. As I catch the bloodshot eyes of the pork butcher eating noodles behind his stall, I begin to think the streets are inhabited not by warm bodies, but by ghosts.

Past the blinking neon sign for a Turkish bath, the man I’m looking for is sitting on a crate beside a fruit stand in the crumbling wall, smoking a cigarette. As he draws his hand away from his mouth, his fingers glint silver in the washed-out moonlight.

The first time I made this delivery, I was twelve years old, and the fruit seller was just a teenager. “You see his hands?” my grand- mother whispered in my ear, as I hid behind her with wide eyes that did not know what to make of the flashing neon and blue smoke. “Those are not the hands of a boy who chops pineapples all day.”

I held out my trembling hands made of flesh, and he used his silver one to place a yellow rind in my palm, the sticky juice running between my fingers. There was no other word to describe the honey in her voice except pride, but it wasn’t until many years later, when I watched him slip a dagger between the ribs of another man, that I understood what those hands were for.

The man drops the cigarette from between his silver fingers and crushes it with the heel of his leather shoe. After so many years, he can read my relationship with my grandmother from the brooding slant of my eyebrows.“You’ve been fighting with her again, haven’t you, Jingwen?”

The thin fragrance of dragon fruit swirls in the cold December air.

I shrug my shoulders, which are bare below the short cap sleeves of my qipao, and hand over the package. “I’m going dancing later. Let’s get this over with.”

The fruit seller peeks inside the package, marveling at the assortment of bones, and pours its contents into the large brass scale meant to weigh fruit. When he stands, the hilt of a sabre peeks over his shoulder, wrapped in gray-blue leather. “Lots of arms,” he observes. “Not that many legs.”

“Legs aren’t in fashion right now.”

Xiao Lei is a gangster in the Society of the Blue Dawn. Not too many years ago, he gave up his own right arm—flesh, bone, and sinew—and lay on a table screaming as my grandma cast a mold of his flesh in steel, and sewed his nerves together, the old and the new. “You know what they miss the most?” my grandma told me, the corner of her mouth lifting like we were sharing an inside joke. “The lines on their palm.”

The scale wobbles back and forth a few times and steadies. “Twelve kilos,” Xiao Lei says. “You sure you want to be paid in yuan today? The Mexican silver dollar is the highest-valued currency on the market.”

I roll my eyes and thrust my hand out, palm up.

Xiao Lei pulls a wad of paper bills out of his pocket, licks his thumb, and begins to count.

“Nine hundred. You know, I see the way you look at me. Just because I’m a gangster doesn’t mean I’m trying to cheat you.”

His silver finger brushes against my palm, and I expect the cold kiss of steel. But Xiao Lei’s hand is warm. Despite his plea, I count the money anyway while he watches me. “Still, if you were an ordinary boy, you’d be taking girls out dancing on Friday night. Not pretending to sell fruit while doing whatever it is you’re doing.”

A gentle fog begins to engulf the alley, like a watercolor brush being dragged across parchment, warning of dawn rain.

Xiao Lei leans his elbow against the crumbling wall, smirking a bit. “Liqing tells the gang you would make an excellent physician if you chose to become her apprentice. You certainly have the flair for it.”

“She told you to say that.” I tuck the bills safely into a pocket I’ve sewn into the waistline of my qipao, so I don’t lose them later at the cabaret. “I’ll pass the money along to her. Good night, Xiao Lei.”

He grins, leaning his shoulder against the alley wall. “You don’t realize how good you have it, dancing the night away without second thoughts about your grandmother’s world. Don’t you ever get curious how the cabarets can still shine when this city is up to its neck in darkness?”

The mist refuses to clear, hanging in the alley like hot breath on glass. I suddenly wish I’d worn a wool coat.

“It sounds like you’re talking about some fairy-tale myth. Not Shanghai.” There’s a British banker I danced with last week, who likes to pay girls with literal gold ingots to sit beside him and sip champagne. If I hang around here any longer, he might choose a different partner tonight. “I need to go.”

“Can I at least tempt you with a dragon fruit for the road?” Xiao Lei cradles one of the spiny fruit in his silver hand with a smirk. “Look, a rare species cultivated in Annam. They must serve this in your ballrooms, but do they tell you about the traders who scalp the price until a cactus-bloomed fruit costs more than a ruby? It’s thanks to the Blue Dawn that you dancer girls get to nibble dragon fruit off crystal toothpicks.”

Behind him, the bathhouse sighs, warm steam pulsating out of the giant steel vents.

Standing against the brick wall, tendrils of mist and shadows dancing about him, Xiao Lei makes an imposing figure. In that moment, he’s right. I do want to know more—where he takes the bones after I leave, the way he might smile when he draws his sabre with his silver hand. I allow myself to briefly entertain a dream of myself as a gangster’s companion, sweeping through cabaret halls side by side with Xiao Lei, while the curious showgirls whisper about us behind their hands.

Quickly I remind myself that these evenings it’s much more fashionable to sip champagne with one’s pockets bulging with gold ingots.

“It’s just a fruit, Xiao Lei.”

He sighs, gazing down at the fruit in defeat.

“Alright, let me prepare this for you at least. Your grandmother insists the gang look after you. She has a disdain for the American diets that are popular in the tabloids.” Xiao Lei slices the dragon fruit’s white flesh open with an ordinary kitchen knife, the red skin curling back like a flame.


I perch on the edge of a wooden crate, taking care to smooth my qipao over my knees so the silk stays unwrinkled. Unfortunately, the chilly night air has already raised gooseflesh along my thighs.

As I watch Xiao Lei’s silver hand glide through the night air, like a koi drifting along a riverbed, my mind wanders to my grandmother, depositing her delivery in my arms. She got her hair permed recently, white curls like the crests of ocean waves, which accentuate the sharp corners of her eyes. My grandmother likes to say that if I really loved her, I would show more interest in her work—more than begrudgingly ferrying a package of human bones across the city every Friday. But in the black markets of Shanghai, all goods change hands, flesh to silver to flesh, until you forget where they came from originally. And I’ve never found the thrill in flirting with danger when there are easier ways to enjoy life.

On Friday nights, I dance at the Paramount.

The entire ballroom shimmers like a mirage—white woodwork and crystal panels that echo the light like waterfalls. The orchestra is from Havana, but they play the latest American jazz, chandelier light swimming in the shells of French horns and sousaphones.

Before the long row of mirrors in the performer’s room, I smooth the wrinkles out of my qipao, which is the color of sea foam, with a high slit that runs up my thigh. Of the three clubs I dance at, the Paramount has the richest foreign guests and the gaudiest drama. When the manager hired me, he stressed that he wanted us to be “Chinese flappers,” whatever that meant, so I don a headdress woven from gold beads, with a fringe that swings over my eyes when I turn my head.

I am dabbing red color onto my lips with my middle finger, when the chair beside me is yanked back by a dancer wearing a velvet circlet adorned with a peacock feather.

Zenaida Minsky, who is renowned in the cabaret scene for her violet eyes and red-brown curls, brushes aside the ripped stockings and stray pearl earrings on the makeup table to rest her elbows on the surface. She blinks dreamily at her reflection. “Jingwen, can you believe this? Nastasya joined a circus in India, with elephants and fire breathers. Now she dances on top of an elephant! Oh, I’m so mad at her. She should have taken me with her!”

Her gently accented English is sharp to my ears. I remind myself that within the cabaret’s gilded walls, there is a different game we play. We duel not with silver hands or leather-wrapped sabres, but lips that shine with rouge like blood.

“Zina, you wouldn’t like India,” I assure her in English.

Zina sighs, her long lashes fluttering like the wings of a moth in firelight. “I want to go somewhere tropical, where the dancers balance fruit baskets on their heads and the cocktails are adorned with pineapples and bananas. I’m sick of the oily air in Shanghai.”

I move on to applying blush, leaning back to avoid smattering the mirror with powder. “You can barely stand the heat of a Shanghai summer. Don’t even think about somewhere tropical.”

“Oh, but the waves and the ocean—oww!” Zina yelps and cowers suddenly.

Arina Lashkova, the oldest dancer among us, has just twisted her left ear. “Oh please, Zina, wipe that frown off your face. Your head is so empty, you couldn’t balance a pineapple on it if you tried. You only dream of it because you’re from the snowy wasteland of Harbin.”

Both Zina and Arisha claim to be exiled princesses, their families driven out of Russia by the Bolsheviks a few decades earlier, and Arisha—with her pale blue eyes and silvery hair that glows white before the incandescent bulbs—I could almost believe.

“I’m from Moscow,” Zina retorts.

“No, I’m from Moscow. You were born in a poor Siberian railroad town.”

We are interrupted by the creak of the dressing room door, and Li Beibei sashays in wearing a gold qipao embroidered with orange chrysanthemums. Beibei has the largest breasts of any girl in Shanghai. Her specialty is a belly dance with a snake, wearing nothing more than a beaded brassiere and a loincloth. She is only twenty, but she has already landed two men in prison and one dead in a gun duel over her affections. There is a rumor that she can cure men’s cancers with just the undulations of her hips and the smirk on her face.

Beibei elbows her way between me and Zenaida, where she beams, her lips ready to spill perfect English. Although Beibei is a country girl who moved to the city to be a nanny for two British children, she quickly found her fortune in the dance halls like a fish discovering water. “Didn’t you all hear? The son of Claud Harrington will be at the cabaret tonight.”

Zina and I exchange an annoyed glance in the mirror.

“You mean Claud Harrington the lumber magnate?” Arisha never passes up a chance to show off her knowledge of Shanghai gossip, which she cultivates through the meticulous reading of every tabloid in town.

Beibei plants her hands on the makeup table between Zina and me, showing off a large Padparadscha sapphire on her right hand, gifted by an Indian patron. “Yes. His only son and heir, Neville, will be here tonight with his cousin Daniel, who is visiting from France. I came to let you all know that he’s going to be dancing with me, so you all be sure to stay away.”

“Go to hell, Beibei,” Zina retorts, glowering through her thick eyelashes and wide eyes.

Beibei leans her hip into the makeup table, uncomfortably close to Zina and me. I can smell the gardenia perfume she wears, her painted eyebrows shining like fresh ink on a calligraphy scroll. “Do you want to challenge me?”

Zina folds her arms across her chest, the movement causing her chiffon dress to slip from her shoulder. “You know, I’m done taking your shit. You think you’re better than everyone just because you have to wear imported bras.”

“Stop it,” Arisha insists, smacking her in the ear again. “It’s not civil to fight like this on the dance floor. We’ll scare the guests.”

“Exactly,” I pipe up. “That’s why we do it in the dressing room. There are no guests here. I’m not afraid of you, Beibei. What are you going to do?”

Beibei flicks open a silver lighter adorned with trumpeting vines, the flame glowing with a menace between her fingers. She smirks in a way that reveals none of her teeth, yet I can’t determine if the gesture is sweet or menacing.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

But just in case, I grab a hairpin adorned with golden leaves to arm myself in response.

The door creaks open again, and a man’s blond head appears in the crack.

It’s the ballroom’s manager, a former flautist who was fired from the Paris ballet when he eloped with the prima ballerina. The girls whisper that his nose is crooked because the prima ballerina’s husband broke his flute over it, but if you visit the Turkish bath on the Rue de Consulat on Sunday evenings, you’ll see he enjoys having his shoulders scrubbed by a particular Russian bath girl who has the same delicate chin as his lost paramour. “What do you airheads fight about all evening?” he demands. “I can’t hear the cook explaining his idea for a wine-basted lamb shank dish. Please—keep it down.”

His head withdraws once more, and the door slams shut.

“He’s right, what are you four fussing about?” asks Huahua, a younger dancer recently poached from the smaller Majestic Club, who had been powdering her cheeks in a corner and pretending she’s too good for us. She’s new, but she too thinks she should be the queen.

Beibei tosses the lighter back on the makeup table with a deep, husky laugh. “Fine then,” she says, and without even raising her voice, she has garnered command over the entire room. “I propose a contest. Let’s settle this once and for all. Whoever can bring the richest date to the annual Firefighters’ Yuletide Ball at Christmas will get first choice of any dance partner for the next year. And all the rest will have to cater to the winner’s wishes—bring her champagne, massage her shoulders, even paint her toenails if she asks.”

The entire room hushes, as we picture ourselves in that position. “Don’t you think you’re taking things a little far, Li Beibei?” Huahua asks, her hands covering her mouth.

Beibei narrows her eyes, the chrysanthemums sewn into her dress glowing like suns. “We waste so much energy fighting, don’t you think it would be simpler to objectively acknowledge that one of us is better than the rest?”

I cut in. “Deal. But if you lose, you have to leave the Paramount.” I’m talking to Beibei, who attempted to mix poison oak into my rouge the first night I was hired and whom I have considered rival number one ever since.

She studies me like one of those decorative plants with monstrous, jagged leaves, which she is trying to decide if it is genuinely alive or woven from plastic.

“I won’t lose.” She spins on her heel with a dramatic flourish, her crystal earrings trembling in her wake.

“Jingwen!” Zina hisses, elbowing me sharply in the ribs. “She’s going to win!”

“No, she’s not,” I say, without taking my eyes off Beibei’s back. “I’ve studied her for years. I know what makes her tick, and I know how to break it.” I lean in closer so that I might whisper my wisdom in Zina’s ear, but she flinches and holds a hand up to push me away. “Don’t whisper to me like that, Jingwen. We’re enemies now. For all I know, you might be lying to manipulate me.”

Arisha, busy fastening lavender pearls at her earlobes, laughs ironically. “If you want to win, Zina, then you better hire a literatus to rewrite your Moscow story. At this point, you couldn’t even convince a five-year-old child to believe it.”

And so, the prize is set the way decisions are made in the Sin City of the East—on a whim.

I size up the other dancers in the room. Seducing the right boy from the foreign concessions meant several weeks of steak dinners, maybe an ermine trim coat. But now, the deal has sweetened and grown more poisonous. I don’t care so much about having the other girls paint my nails and fetch me champagne. I just want to bathe in Beibei’s wide-eyed jealousy when she sees I’ve beaten her. It should scare me more than it does. Because winning is a sport that has long amused my grandmother.

The door flies open and the Paramount’s manager leans his head in again. We all cover our ears as he whistles with two fingers. “Alright, girls, doors open in three! Jingwen, why does your hair look like you’ve been running in a horse race?”

“It does not!” I scrunch my short, curled hair in my fingers to make the waves bouncier, before hurrying onto the dance floor after the other girls, just as the orchestra has started to play.

Immediately, Zina is swept away by a German stranger with a red beard. I hear her spinning her usual yarn, about her childhood in a palace in Moscow. Arisha is chosen by a Chinese banker, a friend of the Paramount’s investor, who has a thing for tall, willowy blondes. I dance with a law student from Fudan University, who has come to see me twice in the past fortnight.

“Vilma,” he says, using my stage name. “You don’t mind that I am not rich like the other men here?”

Although we are both Chinese, he chooses to converse with me in English, the fashionable language of the times, and so I respond in kind.

“No, after all you’ll be a lawyer someday.” I lean into his embrace, so that I can search the ballroom over his shoulder for Neville Harrington, the lumber magnate’s son.

Wheels of colored light soar across the maple floor like heavenly chariots, the sprung floor giving way underfoot like we are walking on clouds. My fellow dancers drift by in the arms of rich men, their necks arched like swans.

“Do you think I’ll be a good lawyer?” my partner asks.

“You are an expert at questioning me.” I giggle, and he laughs along.

“The university girls are all so sullen,” he sighs. “And they don’t know how to dress. I can’t imagine marrying one of them. How old are you, Vilma?”

A few feet away, Arisha’s partner twirls her under his arm, and she sneaks a glance across the dance floor. Two young men have just arrived in fur-trimmed coats, and the manager shows them to a reserved table with the best view of the orchestra and dance floor. Arisha may have spent countless hours studying every rich heir in Shanghai, but all I had to do was study her.

“Seventeen,” I respond, although I am actually twenty.

My law student partner perks up. “You’re my sister’s age. My mother thinks she should get married soon. Think about it, if we were married, you and I could spend every night dancing in each other’s arms.”

“That would be lovely.” I affirm his fantasy as I watch Neville and cousin toast with aged Merlot.

The soft croon of the trombones fades, and the first dance of the night ends.

I draw away, but the law student does not let my hand go. “I could only afford one dance ticket tonight, but I don’t want to let you go.”

I kiss him on the cheek and gently untangle my fingers, before he can ask for a free dance. “I’ll wait for you next week.”

The key to stealing patrons from Beibei is to act fast. Charm them into buying so many dances up front they never get the chance to notice her full lips and large breasts.

“Don’t forget me, Vilma!” my lawyer-in-training calls after me. I saunter across the dance floor, my bare arms brushed with cool light that turns them to the likeness of blue jade. Arisha’s partner refuses to relinquish her after just one dance, and as her shoulders drop in disappointment, I run the last five steps to where Asia’s wealthiest lumber heir is recounting last Sunday’s Canidrome race to his cousin.

The beads on my headdress catch the light from the gilded lamps on the tea table, creating a dazzling storm of gold rain on the white wood floors.

The young men break from their conversation, hypnotized.

“Good evening,” I say, brushing one leg behind the other in a small curtsy. I’ll have to hazard a wild guess which one is the millionaire’s son. Like the Sunday dog races, it takes a dash of luck to make a fortune. I pick the one with the dark, curled hair and pointed chin, who is wearing a tan vest and a gray bow tie. There are less lines on his forehead, so perhaps he’s had less to worry about in his life. “You must be Neville Harrington.”

He leans back in the couch. “How did you know?”

I smile and tilt my head to the side, setting the beads in my headdress aquiver like aspen leaves. “All the dancers know you are coming today. They say you’re so handsome, the tabloids are raving about it.”

The lumber heir laughs, a curl of dark hair bouncing above his eyes. “Really! I guess I should start reading the tabloids. Which one?”

I blink. “Oh, I meant it as a compliment—”

“Daniel,” Neville says, turning to his companion. “Do you read the tabloids? Have you ever seen me in one? I feel as if that’s the sort of thing my mother should have told me about.”

“I think she was speaking figuratively,” Daniel agrees, setting down his glass of wine.

A spray of cold wetness dashes over my chest, and I barely have time to gasp before the breath is crushed from my ribs. I inhale the overwhelming aroma of gardenia perfume, as I am knocked to the floor. I reach for the edge of the table in vain and succeed only in knocking my head against it, the black trellis rug scraping my knees raw. Beibei lands on top of me, a cocktail glass still clutched in her hand.

I want to wring her neck, but Neville extends his hand down with a gentle frown.

“Are you alright, miss?” he asks, helping Beibei to her feet.

Beibei gasps and covers her small cherry mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” She gathers a napkin to dab at the wine spatters on his sleeve, tears shining in her eyes. “I’m so clumsy. How can I ever make it up to you? The only payment I have to offer is a free dance.”

The lumber heir, his eyes glued to the curve of her breasts, grasps her agitated fingers to still them. “No need to fret. My father will buy me a new shirt. What is your name?”

She tucks her chin meekly and blushes. “Beibei.”

He hands her a handkerchief from his pocket, and she sniffles as she dabs at the corners of her eyes.

“Beibei, please don’t cry. I’ll gladly dance with you.”

As he leads her away to the dance floor, she turns over her shoulder and twists her face into a sneer.

I catch Daniel Harrington staring at me over the edge of his wineglass. As I watch, he sets the wine down and clears his throat. Maybe he has some money, but dancing with him at this point would just affirm that I’m second best to Beibei. After all, I didn’t come to dance with the cousins of millionaires. I came to dance with the millionaires.

Slowly, I watch his eyes rove to the wine stain on my hip, and he looks away.

Defeated, wearing a stained dress that won’t be easy to clean, I kick off my high heels and sink into the nearest couch. There is an unattended drink resting on the tea table—an amaretto bourbon garnished with lemon peel. I have just about downed the whole thing when a man dressed in a slender evening suit stops in front of me. The shadow of his homburg hat falls over the couch like a palm frond over a pond at midnight.

“The night is still young,” he says, removing the hat and taking the seat opposite me. “Why are you sitting this dance out?” Presently, he removes the glasses from his face, folds them, and puts them in a pocket.

The man’s accent is American, his face boyish but lined with crow’s-feet.

I make a show of sipping from my near-empty glass, torturously slowly. “My company costs six dance tickets,” I tell him, when I finally set the glass down.

He draws all the tickets out of his breast pocket and lays them out on the table. “They’re yours.”

I sweep up the dance tickets, slightly suspicious of how easy it’s going.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Vilma,” I say. “You?”

“Dr. Bailey Thompson,” he responds. “From New York. I’m new to Shanghai. Shall we dance?”

He offers me a hand to lead me onto the pale, wheaten dance floor. Doctors aren’t lumber heirs, but I’m intrigued by his aloof confidence. So, I place my fingers in his.

The orchestra plays a forlorn violin melody that blossoms into a mischievous piano rhythm. Our first dance is a tango. I rest my fingertips gently on Dr. Bailey Thompson’s left shoulder. He smells of musk and sandalwood, earthen aromas that feel at odds with the metropolis of Shanghai. We sashay through the crowd, a languid, playful rhythm like a hunting cat.

“What kind of doctor are you in New York?” I ask.

He smiles down at me, crow’s-feet crinkling around his eyes. “I’m an obstetrician.”

“Do you make a lot of money?”

He dips me back suddenly, toward the floor. The blood rushes to my head, and I bite back the urge to gasp. By instinct, I’ve arched over his arm like a swathe of silk. From the top of the Greek pillars around the dance floor, colored lights brush over my skin like warm, roving moons. Layers of white and black fly across the gilded walls like swan wings. The doctor pauses as if he is holding my head under water, smiling faintly. I can feel the ends of my hair brushing the hardwood, his warm breath on my forehead.

When he brings me back, I twirl away from him to hide that I’ve lost control of my breath.

“I deliver babies,” the doctor answers finally, gathering my waist in his arm. He is a good dancer. I guess he must’ve spent a lot of his nights dancing in New York City.

“And Shanghai? What brought you here?”

The doctor grins coyly. “I decided to try my hand at business.”

The violins suddenly race to a climax. The song is coming to an end. In a daring move, I wrap my leg backward around his waist in an arabesque, and he leans to the side, carrying me with him. I trust him to support my weight, as I bring my gaze to meet his over my shoulder. Around us, the few sitting guests gasp and applaud. I see Zina covering her mouth in shock.

The doctor tips me back onto my feet and bows with a cool incline of his head.

I am panting like I’ve nearly drowned in the depths of the Huangpu, but my cheeks are flushed with a thrill I’ve never felt before. My glee deepens when I catch sight of Beibei grasping Neville’s arm, her spotlight stolen.

The next dance is a jive. I can tell the doctor is competitive. He wants to tire me out. I return the favor, galloping around him and showing off my flexibility. The gold beads of my headdress fly around my face, like a swarm of gold scarabs on a white sand dune. On the crowded dance floor, the faces of the other taxi dancers are contoured by shadows. Usually, I can out-dance my lawyer admirer easily, and that makes it boring. Dancing with the doctor is thrilling because he knows all the latest dances like the samba and the Lindy Hop, and he’s quite experienced. I forget for a moment that this is all an illusion I’ve created, and he’s believed.

When the six dances are over, the doctor buys me a green, iridescent cocktail and leads me over to a couch. There is a gleam of sweat in his black hair.

“You’re more of a flapper than any of the girls I’ve danced with in New York City, Vilma,” he tells me. “It’s because you’ve got the touch of Shanghai in you. Kissed by the devil.”

I sip the cocktail he bought me, as the throaty growl of the trumpets rumbles in my breastbone. I’ve never had this drink before. The taste is faintly floral, making me think of white jasmine flowers, dusted across the window seat of a French Concession mansion. Although I’m flattered, I’m not stupid enough to believe an angel has fallen into my lap tonight, without requiring a fight.

I cross one leg over the other, leaning back into the cushions. “Let me guess what kind of life you led in New York City.”

The doctor laughs deep in his throat. “I like this game already.”

He lights a cigarette and offers me one. I eye the label etched on the worn paper pack. Chesterfield, it says, just as pure as a glass of water . . .

I draw a cigarette out between my index and middle finger, showing off my fresh-painted red nails as he lights it. I hate the way the smoke stings my throat like fire, but I am a cabaret girl after all, and part of our trade is to smoke and drink with the guests.

“You cheated a lot in medical school,” I guess.

Bailey arches his eyebrows in response. “Oh?”

I relax into the cool, gray smoke. “Instead of studying your books and your cadavers, you were out dancing. Doctor, I don’t think you have any reverence for formulas and diagrams. You strike me as the type to make your own rules.”

He angles his chin toward the shadows and exhales, blowing smoke up to the ivory fleurs-de-lis etched into the ceiling. “What makes you think that?”

“Your arrogance.” I grin a little. “That and the way you dance. You strike every move at the edge of a beat so that each step is almost late. It means you like to push boundaries.”

“You’re not wrong.”

On the dance floor, a Lindy Hop ends with a triumphant crescendo, and I bring my hands together to clap with the other seated guests. I notice the crimson polish I’ve used to paint my nails has a sheen of glitter to it, only visible when I hold my fingers at a particular angle.

“My turn.” Bailey smirks. “Let me guess about you. You’re a liberated creature of the night—sleep in the day, dance to your heart’s content when the moon is out.”

I sip the light green drink. “Wrong.”

He frowns, drawing a thumb across his chin. “How could I be wrong?” he asks gently.

I smile and straighten my back a little more. “You don’t understand Shanghai yet. But once you understand Shanghai, you understand the rest of the world.”

“Those are grand words to proclaim,” the doctor exclaims, as if I’ve told him the sky is actually red. “Nonetheless, I concede your victory. You’ve piqued my curiosity. What do you do during the day then?”

“I train as a chorus girl for the East Sea Follies, the Paramount’s in-house revue company.” I tap the ashes from my cigarette into a porcelain tray adorned with naked women and seashells. “It’s a different sort of dancing—not the kind where I spend the night with handsome, foreign doctors, sipping pretty drinks.”

Bailey chuckles. “Ah, a cabaret star. I should’ve guessed. The dance halls aren’t sophisticated enough for you. You want to be an actual artist.”

I feel my cheeks warming as I take another drag on the cigarette. “It’s not so simple. Shanghai is a monstress, and she feeds on money. Those of us who have lived here our entire lives are practiced in the art of bottle-feeding this city.”

“Surely though, performing in the Paramount’s in-house revue would rake in a lot of riches, no?” He leans down, running his fingers over his five-o’-clock shadow in contemplation.

I regret bringing up the revue now. That’s the last way to seduce a client—by bringing up how you are a member of an actually-failing dance troupe.

“We don’t have as much draw as the Russian and American troupes with professionally trained ballet dancers,”I admit. “When we perform Swan Lake, we can only draw an audience of sixty, but when the Kukolka Dance Ensemble performed Swan Lake last winter, they filled an entire theater.” I kick my shoes off and draw my legs up under me. “Enough about me now. What kind of business do you do?”

The doctor smiles as his eyes rove over my calf, under the sheer layer of my tights, like he is admiring a rare, silver pheasant behind a wall of ivy. He must feel like he’s won, having prodded too deeply into my personal affairs. “That’s a secret,” he says.

I collapse back into the cushions, my cheeks swollen with embarrassment. “With so many secrets, you fit right into Shanghai.”

He is staring right at a table of gangsters through a forest of twirling white legs and flying silk. Their bodies glisten with silver modifications like aspen boughs in the moonlight, as they pour maotai into glass liquor cups. Bailey raises his glass of whiskey to his lips and misses. “Well then, it seems I made the right decision to come to Shanghai,” he muses. “New York was getting quite boring.”

Across the dance floor, a girl screams.

At first, nobody hears her over the orchestra except me and Arisha, whose ice-blue eyes I catch above the feathers and curled tresses twirling on the dance floor.

“Stop!” Arisha shrieks.

The white legs and flowing silk of the dance floor scatter like dead leaves swept in a dust storm. In the eye of the storm, a young girl crouches in the middle of the dance floor with her knees splayed, covering her face with her white hands. It’s Huahua, the flirtatious sixteen-year-old dancer who has only been with the cabaret for four months. As she sobs, the pearl strands in her ears and the gold bracelets on her wrists vibrate with the same frequency.

Arisha gets to her first, elbowing aside the nosy onlookers, who are clutching each other in fear and confusion. I leap over the tea table and rush to Huahua’s side.

“What is it?” Arisha demands.

Although a few nights ago Huahua stole a Japanese accountant I was wooing, and just a few months ago Arisha tried to sabotage her hiring audition by smearing butter on the dance floor, in that moment I fear for her. I see Huahua the way patrons must see us— interchangeable, and I can’t shake the feeling that whatever happened to her could’ve easily happened to me.

Huahua shakes her head and sobs louder, tears dripping into the collar of her qipao. The other taxi dancers have gathered around us now.

Arisha wrenches Huahua’s hands away from her face. The entire ballroom gasps at what they see.

Where Huahua’s mouth used to be gapes a hole, deep as an abandoned well buried in the springtime field of her face. Fresh, bright blood flowers against her skin like poppies blossoming in winter snow.

Someone has cut her lips away.

My heart begins to thud very loudly somewhere high in my skull, each beat sending the world asway. It must be a prank, and Huahua will emerge any second now from behind a mask, giggling at how she’s fooled us all. Such an act of mutilation doesn’t fit with the gilded, ivory-paneled walls—such an act of mutilation isn’t even possible.

The manager emerges from the crowd and swears loudly in French. “Get her out of here!” he yells at us dancers.“Don’t leave her where the guests can see!”

As several other dancers rush to Huahua’s side, I look into her eyes, searching for the girl who had so confidently bested me just a few nights ago, but they are glassy with shock. Her face swirls with shadows that aren’t made by the ballroom’s chandeliers. Then, buried under the hands of the other dancers trying to drag her to her feet, she tilts her chin suddenly and meets my gaze. A cold shiver claws down my spine. Her brown eyes are desperate— trembling with a hollowness that feels like an accusation—that I have chosen to stand aside and watch.

“Hurry!” the manager shouts. “I said get her out of here!”

And then the other dancers lead her away.

I feel a warm touch on my back. I have forgotten all about Bailey Thompson, who appears at my side, expressionless. “Well, it appears we must cut this night short.” He takes my hand and bows. “I look forward to dancing with you again, Vilma.”

And he presses his lips gently to the back of my hand.

As he vanishes into the crowd, I run my hand through my hair, untangling the wild knots that have settled from all our dancing. Too much has happened too quickly.

A frenzied, hot pounding begins in my chest, like my heart is a butterfly trapped within the prison of my ribs.

I run outside the ballroom to gulp the night air, which pierces my lungs like ice. My fingers leave white indents where I’ve gripped my thighs. I’m not sure I believe it—that I just saw a dancer with her lips cut away—seamless where the privacy of her mouth bled into the shadows across her face, almost artistic in the execution.

Slowly, I raise my head as if I expect to find the world changed.

A convertible drives by with its top down, and Zina Minsky stands in the backseat, giggling maniacally while clutching the hand of a man in a dark suit, her hair streaming behind her head.

“Jingwen!” she calls to me, waving her arms overhead. “Jingwen, look I’m flying!”

Across the street from the Paramount, a single plume of smoke rises from the courtyard of the Jing’an Temple, its darkened red and gold pagodas sleeping in the shadows. Although it’s past midnight, the temple’s front gate remains swung open in a foreboding invitation. But no one is going in. Instead, a mix of tired, drunk club-goers revel under a string of cheap lanterns flickering under the temple’s vermilion walls, pawing through cheap trinkets and perfume sachets heaped on rickshaw carts. Softshell blue crabs sizzle on rusted stoves, dusted with sliced chilis and spring onions, before they pass into velvet gloves and into dainty red mouths. What they don’t know is that the crabs are fried so hard to conceal how the flesh has gone black inside.

The city laughs on.

With each pulse of neon on the Paramount’s blinking face, my heartbeat dulls in my chest.

A girl may have lost her lips tonight behind the Paramount’s ivory doors, but the streets remain merciless with their dazzling lights and drunken splendor.

The weight of the hundred-yuan bills in my pocket grows heavy. Before I can go to bed tonight, I’m supposed to turn the money in to my grandmother before she locks her clinic doors. I imagine Beibei tossing her head with her signature scoff, pearl-studded pins glistening in her hair. There’s no point ruminating on the meaning of things, she often chides us. After all, we get to go home early tonight without being fired.

Everything I saw tonight is just a glitch, I explain to myself. And what was one glitch in the rhythm of our connected, beating city, which stops for no one?

Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin is published by Tor on 18 June 2024

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