When Hagen emerged from the gambling casino at the back of Charlie Beale’s café he was drunk. He heard the door click into place behind him and for a moment he stood swaying as the cold night air cut into his lungs.
For several minutes he leaned against the wall, his forehead on the cool brickwork. After a while he pushed himself away and stood squarely, his feet braced firmly apart. He moved along the alley, taking slow, careful steps, and stood at the front of the café breathing deeply to clear his head. He fumbled in his pocket and found a crumpled packet of cigarettes. He lit one slowly and carefully and drew the smoke down into his lungs.
A thin sea-fog rolled in from the harbour, pushed by a cold finger of wind, and he coughed as it caught at the back of his throat. Except for the lapping of the water against the wharf pilings silence reigned. He wondered what time it was and instinctively lifted his right wrist and then remembered that his watch had followed the last of his money across the green baize top of one of Charlie Beale’s tables. He decided it must be about three o’clock because he had that sort of feeling, or perhaps it was just that he was getting old. Too old for the kind of life he’d been living for the past four years. Too old to be making fortune depend on the turn of a card or the throw of the dice. He laughed suddenly as he considered his present position. His boat impounded by the Customs, his only means of livelihood cut off, and now the last of his money gone. You’ve really done it this time, he told himself. You’ve really excelled yourself. Somewhere a woman screamed.
He pushed himself from the wall and stood listening, head slightly forward. Again a scream sounded, curiously flat, and muffled by the fog. Even as he told himself to mind his own business he was running. The liquor rolled heavily in his stomach and he cursed the poverty that forced him to drink cheap beer. He turned a corner, running silently on rope-soled feet, and took them by surprise. Two men were holding a struggling woman on the ground in the sickly yellow light of a street lamp.
As the nearest man turned in alarm, Hagen lifted a foot into his face and sent him spinning backwards over the edge of the wharf. The other leapt towards him, steel flickering in his right hand. In the brief moment of quiet as they circled each other Hagen saw that the man was Chinese and that murder shone from his eyes. He backed away as if frightened and the man grinned and rushed him. Hagen lifted an arm to ward off the knife-thrust and felt the sudden sharpness of pain even as he lifted his knee into his opponent’s groin. The man writhed on the ground, an agony of twisting limbs, and Hagen coolly measured the distance and kicked him in the head.
There was quiet. He stood breathing deeply and looking down at the still form, wondering if he had killed him and not caring, and then he turned and searched for the woman. She was standing in the shadow of a warehouse door. He moved towards her and said, ‘Are you all right?’
There was a faint movement of the white-clad figure and a soft voice said, ‘Please stay where you are for a moment!’ The voice surprised him and he wondered what an Englishwoman was doing on the waterfront of Macao at that time in the morning. There was more movement and then she stepped out of the shadows and came towards him. ‘My dress was torn and I had to fix it,’ she said.
He hardly heard what she was saying. She was only a girl, not more than seventeen or eighteen, and she was not English, although from the purity of her speech one of her parents must have been. Her skin had that creamy look peculiar to Eurasian women, and her lips an extra fullness that gave her a faintly sensual air. She had a breath-taking beauty of the kind that is always associated with simplicity. She stood before him looking gravely and steadily into his face and Hagen suddenly shivered for no accountable reason, as if somewhere someone had walked over his grave. He moistened dry lips and managed to speak. ‘Where do you live?’
She mentioned the best hotel in Macao and he cursed silently, thinking of the walk that lay ahead of him. ‘Can I get a taxi?’ she asked in her clear, bell-like voice.
He laughed shortly. ‘In this part of Macao, at this hour? You don’t know this town, angel.’
She frowned and then her eyes widened and she reached forward and grabbed his arm. ‘But you’re hurt. There’s blood on your sleeve!’
He smothered an oath as the sudden wrench caused a stab of pain to run through him. ‘Take it easy,’ he said and moved away to examine the wound under the light of the street lamp. His jacket had an ugly, bloodstained slit in it and when he wiped away the blood with a handkerchief he saw that he had sustained a superficial slash, more painful than anything else.
‘How bad is it?’ she asked him anxiously.
He shrugged. ‘Not too bad. Hurts like hell, though.’
She took the handkerchief from his hand and twisted it neatly around his arm. ‘Is that any better?’ she said.
As he nodded he saw that her dress was badly torn. She’d made a pathetic attempt to pin it together, but it hardly measured up to the usual standards of decency. He made a sudden decision. ‘There’s only one way to get you back to your hotel,’ he told her. ‘We’ll have to walk.’ She nodded gravely and he added: ‘We’d better call in at my hotel. You can fix this arm properly for me and I can get you a coat or something to cover yourself with.’
He nodded towards the bodice of her dress and she seemed to blush and instinctively put a hand there. ‘That seems the best thing to do,’ she said calmly. ‘I think we’d better hurry, though. That handkerchief is proving an inadequate bandage.’
He was surprised at her calm acceptance of his suggestion. Surprised and also intrigued, because for a young girl who had just been through a pretty bad experience she seemed remarkably unaffected. His hotel was only a quarter of a mile away and as they approached it he suddenly felt uncomfortable. As he held the door open for her he reflected bitterly that the place looked what it was—a flea-bag. A blast of hot, stale air met them from the small hall and an ancient fan creaked, slowly and uselessly, above their heads, hardly causing a movement in the air.
The Chinese night-clerk was asleep at his desk, his head between his hands, and Hagen motioned the girl to silence. It didn’t work. Half-way across the hall a polite cough sounded behind them and Hagen turned wearily. The night-clerk, now fully awake, smiled in an apologetic manner. Hagen felt in his pocket and then remembered that he was broke. ‘Have you got a petaka?’ he asked the girl. She frowned and looked puzzled. ‘I’m broke, flat, and I need a petaka.’ He gestured helpfully at the fly-blown sign on the wall: NO FEMALES ALLOWED UPSTAIRS. He grinned tiredly as she turned from reading the notice. ‘They much prefer to supply their own, you see!’ This time he had her in a better light and she did blush. She fumbled in her handbag and gave him a Straits dollar. He flipped it to the clerk and they mounted the rickety stairs.
He felt even more ashamed of his room than he had done about the hotel. It looked like a pigsty and smelled like one. Empty gin bottles in one corner and soiled clothing in another, combined with an unmade bed, did not make a very savoury picture. The girl didn’t seem to notice. ‘Have you got any bandages?’ she demanded.
He rummaged about under the bed and finally produced the first-aid kit he had salvaged from the boat, and she led the way into the bathroom and told him to strip to the waist.
She carefully washed the congealed blood away and frowned. ‘This should be stitched.’
He shook his head. ‘I heal quickly.’
She smiled and pointed to the numerous scars on his chest and stomach. ‘You must do.’
He grinned. ‘Souvenir of the war. Shrapnel. Looks worse than it was.’
She carefully bandaged his arm and said, ‘Which war—Korea?’
He shook his head. ‘No, my war was a long time ago, angel. A thousand years ago.’ She pressed surgical tape across the loose ends of the bandage and looked quickly up into his face. The sharp triangle that formed his chin was covered with a dark stubble that accentuated the hollowness of his cheeks and the dark sombreness of the eyes. For a brief moment he looked down at her and then he said, ‘You’ve done this sort of thing before,’ and gestured to his bandaged arm.
She nodded. ‘A little—but even that was too much.’
Suddenly she began to shiver uncontrollably and Hagen slipped his arm about her shoulders and squeezed. ‘You’re all right,’ he told her. ‘It’s all over.’ She nodded several times and broke away from him, and stood over by the window, her back towards him. He opened a drawer and by a miracle discovered a clean shirt. By the time he was properly dressed again she had recovered.
‘That was rather silly of me,’ she said. ‘The essential feminine weakness coming out, I suppose.’
Hagen laughed. ‘What you need is a drink.’ He poured gin into two moderately clean glasses and, crossing the room, kicked open the window and led the way out on to the balcony. The girl sat in the only chair and Hagen leaned on the balcony rail and for a short time there was silence.
‘Do you think I might have a cigarette?’ Her voice spoke gently from the darkness. He fumbled in his pocket and finally discovered the battered packet. As the match flared in his cupped hands, and she leaned forward, the delicate beauty of her face was thrown into relief. He held the match for a moment longer than was necessary, and they looked briefly into each other’s eyes, and then he flicked the match out into the darkness in a long, curving arc. ‘I’d like to thank you for what you did back there.’ She spoke slowly and carefully as though searching for words.
‘Girls like you shouldn’t be on the waterfront in the early hours,’ he told her.
As if she had suddenly arrived at a decision her voice sounded again from the darkness, this time more assured and confident. ‘My name is Rose Graham.’
So he had been right about one of her parents, at least. He half-turned towards her. ‘Mark Hagen. Captain Hagen I’m known as in these parts.’
‘Oh, you are a sea captain?’
‘I have a small boat,’ he told her. It came to him that he was wrong. The operative word was ‘had’. I had a small boat, he thought. What have I got now? Another thought struck him, more immediate, more urgent. ‘Was I in time back there?’ he said. ‘I mean, did those mugs really harm you or anything?’ He felt suddenly awkward.
The chair creaked as she stood up. ‘They didn’t harm me, Captain Hagen. It wasn’t that kind of an assault.’
She moved to the rail and stood beside him so that his shoulder touched hers lightly each time he stirred. The wind blew in from the sea and the mist rolled across the harbour, and the riding lights of the ships glowed faintly through the gaps that appeared every so often when the wind tore a hole in the grey curtain. From the balcony the view was magnificent and suddenly Hagen felt at peace and restless, happy and discontented, all at the same time. It had been a bad day and the past came too easily to mind. He decided that it was all the girl’s fault. It had been a long time since he had been so close to someone like her. He sighed and straightened up.
She laughed lightly. ‘What are you thinking about? It must be something pretty sad to make you sigh so heavily.’
He grinned and took out another cigarette. ‘I was contemplating a misspent life, angel,’ he told her. ‘I seem to be making a habit of it lately. I must be getting old.’
She laughed again. ‘How ridiculous. You aren’t old. You’re still a young man.’
‘I’m thirty-five,’ he said. ‘When you’ve lived the life I have, then believe me—it’s old.’ A thought came to him and he smiled to himself and added, ‘How old are you, anyway?’
She said eighteen, in a small voice. Hagen laughed. ‘There you are. I’m twice your age. I’m old enough to be your father. In fact I’d say it’s about time you were safely tucked up in bed.’
He walked back into the bedroom and started to put on his jacket. She followed at his heels and stood watching him, playing nervously with the silk scarf that was twisted round her throat. She spoke in a high-pitched voice. ‘I don’t think it would be very wise for you to see me back to my hotel.’
He straightened up slowly and looked at her without speaking. She flushed and dropped her eyes and he said, ‘If you think I’m going to let you walk two miles through the worst part of Macao on your own, you’re crazy.’
She darted past him and had the door half open before his hand gripped her arm and pulled her back. She struggled for a moment and then relaxed suddenly and completely and said despairingly, ‘Captain Hagen, I’m trying to tell you that if you take me back to my hotel you may be involving yourself in more ways than you think.’
Hagen took a crumpled linen jacket from behind the door and handed it to her. ‘Here, woman! Cover thy nakedness!’ He intoned the words with deliberate pomposity.
She dissolved into laughter and for a moment or two they laughed together. When she spoke again the edge of nervousness had gone, but she was still desperately serious when she said: ‘You’ve been very kind to me. It’s just that I don’t want to see you get mixed up in something that isn’t your concern.’
‘I suppose this all ties in with your being on the waterfront at such a peculiar hour?’
She nodded. ‘I had to see a friend. He telephoned and asked me to meet him at a certain warehouse. The taxi-driver wouldn’t wait and then those men…’
‘I still think it was a funny hour to see a friend and if he knows this town he shouldn’t have asked you to come to a quarter like this at such a time.’ Hagen was surprised to discover that he really felt angry about the whole thing. ‘If I hadn’t arrived you’d probably have ended up in the harbour.’
She turned away, desperation on her face again. ‘But don’t you see,’ she said, ‘it wasn’t that kind of an assault. Those men wanted some information and they’ll try again. If you are seen with me…’
She left the sentence unfinished and shrugged her shoulders. Hagen considered the point for a moment and then he went over to his bed and felt under the pillow. When he straightened up he was holding an American service issue Colt automatic. He checked the action of the weapon and slipped it into his pocket. He grinned and, opening the door, motioned her out. ‘I love trouble, angel,’ he said. ‘It makes life so much more exciting.’ For a brief moment she stared at him and then her face relaxed into a smile and she went through the door without a word.
It took about forty minutes to reach her hotel. The girl hardly spoke a word on the way. Hagen guessed that she was almost on the point of collapse and finally slipped a hand under her arm. She leaned heavily on him and a faint, delicate perfume tingled in his nostrils. For a moment he savoured its sweetness pleasantly and then impatiently shrugged it aside and concentrated on keeping alert in case of trouble.
At the foot of the steps leading up to her hotel they halted. Hagen said, ‘Well, this is it.’
She nodded sleepily. ‘Will I see you again?’
For a moment he considered the question and doubts raced through his mind. The girl meant trouble—big trouble. He was sure of that and he had enough troubles of his own at the moment. He made his decision suddenly as she swayed forward tiredly and bumped against him. ‘Yes, you’ll see me again, angel,’ he said. ‘I’ll drop in around noon.’
He smiled reassuringly and patted her on the shoulder. ‘Noon,’ she said and suddenly warmed into life. A deep smile bloomed on her face. She reached up and pulling down his head, kissed him lightly on the mo