China Bones Book 1 – Chapter 1

44People send in requests for sample chapters all the time. Here is Chapter 1, Book one of China Bones, you can get the complete series on Amazon.

Chapter 1

Shanghai, China, March 1937


“There’s nothing like duty, China-side, kid,” Harry Olds said for what seemed like the hundredth time.  He and Zack were leaning on the rail watching Shanghai approach.  “Its great duty and you can get anything you want here, dirt cheap, and I mean anything.”

The Marines had been shipped out on the S.S. Monroe, a civilian ocean liner in the prestigious ‘Presidential’ line.  Despite the fact that he had the lowest class of room, Zack had never been so close to living in luxury.  Even traveling in these cramped quarters was better than the life he had left behind in Chicago.

Whenever he had thought of the Orient, which had not been often, Zack always thought of tropical temperatures.  Now, all he wanted to know was when it would be warm.  It was a clear, sunny day, but the temperature was at best, brisk.  The cold was damp and penetrating.  Despite this Harry was happy to be back here and Zack was so curious about this place that the cold temperature bothered neither of them.

Below them the Wangpoo River rushed by in silence as the ship made its way upstream.  In the three hours since they had come close to the Chinese coast, the smell of dung had permeated Zack’s nostrils.  Now a new odor was in the air.

“What smells like rosewood?” he asked Harry.

Old laughed, “I’ve never heard that one before.  Everyone describes it differently.  That’s Shanghai.  It’ll get stronger as we get closer.”

“Well, at least it covers up the smell of the rest of the country.”

“Don’t worry, city boy.  You get used to it.  We’ll make a China lover out of you in no time.”  Olds was coming in for his second tour in China in the 4th Marines, and was glad to be here.  The closer they got to China, the better his mood had become.  He had repeatedly claimed that he had to “bust ass” to be able to come back here.  Finally, as he said, his goal was in sight.  Olds was only thirty years old, but the lanky, muscular man had been a Marine for twelve years.  He was a self-proclaimed “lifer” and would be happy if he could serve in Shanghai the rest of his career.  “Here,” he explained to Zack, “enlisted men live better than officers at some other posts.”

The façade of the tall buildings along the harbor front were now clearly visible.  They were still not close enough for Zack to see if the streets were really paved with gold as Olds claimed; but there was an extraordinary level of activity on the waterfront.  That much he could clearly see.  Zack was not a stranger to a commercial harbor, but the traffic he saw here was dizzying.

Sampans were moving everywhere amidst the commercial and military shipping.  As Zack watched, an American destroyer turned its fire hose on a group of small boats that happened to be in the way.  “What’s the deal?” he asked shocked at this.

“The big ships can’t change their course while they’re trying to tie up because of the river current.  It’s either hose them or run them down,” Olds explained.

“Why do they crowd around like that, anyway?” he asked.

“That’s where the money is, American dollars, they even use our garbage to make money,” Olds said.


“What we throw away after a meal is as well as many of them ever eat.  So, the Navy gets free garbage pickup by feeding the locals.  Of course, they could always just dump it in the river.  A million people shit in that river every day, so even the Navy couldn’t hurt that water.  Wait until you see Soochow Creek along the north border of the American compound.  It makes this sewer look like a pure mountain stream,” Harry expounded.

As they spoke, a large sampan cut in front of the Monroe, and Zack sucked in his breath.  It seemed they were sure to collide, but the light boat just skipped across their bow, and went happily on its way.

“That sort of thing used to cause a lot of people trouble until our ships learned to not try to dodge.  I suppose there must be accidents, but I’ve never seen one.  The slopes are pretty good pilots.  Some of them never leave the sampan.  They can spend their entire life without touching dry land.  They are born on the boat, the live on it, they can do their business on it, and often, they die on it,” Olds explained, perhaps embellishing a little…perhaps not.

“Why take the risk?”

“They will do anything to gain any small advantage in life.  You should remember that,” Olds warned.




A small, wooden, motorized whaling boat caught Zack’s attention.  Navy personnel manned it, and it was the first duty he had seen performed by the American military in China.  He leaned forward to get a better look.  The men were hooked up to one of the mooring buoys that ships would use to tie up on the outskirts of the harbor.  They were poking at something to dislodge it from the broken wires hanging from the buoy.  As Zack passed by the object drifted free, and he caught a glimpse.

“What the hell?” he choked.

He grabbed Harry’s arm and pointed at the sailors.  “What in God’s name is going on?”

Harry sighed, “Welcome to China, kid.  I told you everything was cheap here.  Well, life is no exception.  I guess what you have a lot of, you don’t place a lot of value on, and in China they have a shitload of people…lots of them.  So many that sometimes they will just throw a newborn in the river, especially if it is a girl.  There’s so many of them, the Navy has to assign patrols to clear them out.  It would be a real shock to a civilian passenger ship to tie up to a buoy if it were tangled with a group of tiny skeletons.”

For the first time since he had gained his sea legs a few days out of San Diego, Zack thought he was going to completely empty his stomach.  He quickly estimated the number of babies that would have to be thrown into the river to make such a patrol a topic of discussion much less a reality.  The thought made him want to vomit.  He imagined the U.S.S. Monroe was bumping over hundreds of little bodies on its way up the river.  He shook his head and regained control.  He had known poverty.  He was not willing to accept that as an excuse for such behavior.

“Oh, man…” were the only words he could bring himself to say.

“Listen, Zack.  China is a great place for people who can handle it.  The secret is that you have to stay detached.  It’s a harsh country, but there is great opportunity, especially for Westerners.  In Chinese ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ are the same word, and there’s more than enough of each to go around.”

Their ship was finally docking.  There was suddenly a flurry of activity at the end of the pier.  The authorities did keep the dock clear, but once the passengers hit the main street that ran along the waterfront, known as the Bund, they were fair game for the rickshaw drivers as well as any number of merchants ready to push the sale of their wares or services.

Olds seemed to drink it all in.  His mood was lightening considerably.  The sober speech from Olds was over, and it was time for him to show his new friend around they city.  “Come on, kid, you’re gonna love it.”

They waited for the first class passengers and most of the other civilians to disembark, and Olds pointed out to Zack all the landmarks on the Bund, the hotels like the famous Cathay, the big banks of the Far East, and the North China Daily News.

“The Tai-Pans, we would call them robber barons, they treat them like gods.  They built these tall buildings along the harbor to hide the poverty and squalor that’s behind them.  Shanghai was, and still is, the hub of commerce for the entire Far East.  The business community did not want visitors’ first impression of the city to be negative,” Olds explained.  “With the big hotels and major places of business on the Bund, many big wigs would never leave the Bund anyway to see what was beyond it.  The only thing they care about, besides business, is the nightlife on the Nanking Road,” Olds grinned.  “The highlight of that is a visit to the Shanghai Club, which behind its spectacular entrance is the world’s longest bar.  It is over a hundred feet long.  Even if it’s not your kind of place, you have to see it, at least once.”

Finally, Zack and Harry hoisted their sea bags onto their shoulders, and headed for the gangplank with the other new Marines.  It took Zack, who had taken a few days to get used to being on a ship, a few minutes to adjust back to walking on solid ground.  Olds, who was an old hand at the transition, just stood back for a second and grinned.

“You don’t have to enjoy it so much,” Zack grumbled.  He knew that the last time Olds had been here he was the rookie, now he seemed to be determined to enjoy someone else going through the initial shocks involved in the experience.

The second they reached the street, the men were mobbed by vendors selling everything from food, to silk shirts, to their “virgin” sisters.  Harry walked right through them, Zack was close behind.

There was an old, battered olive drab military truck with a torn canvas cover parked at the end of the pier.  There was a corporal behind the wheel.  Everyone threw their sea bags in the back, and climbed in.  Zack and Harry got in last, and managed to get a seat near the back end where they could see.

The truck lurched into gear, and took off down the Bund.  The street was crowded with traffic.  There saw a few huge luxury cars, rickshaws were darting everywhere, people bent over from carrying heavy loads on their back, merchants in temporary stands selling everything from trinkets to food, and there were even a few pedestrians milling around in the middle of it all.

The truck turned down a side street, and was finally able to pick up some speed.  Zack could now see what Harry had meant when he talked about the slums behind the Bund.

This place made his last neighborhood in Chicago look like a cheerful Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.  There were beggars all over the street.  Some of them were obviously diseased.  All of them sat on filthy blankets.  Chinese kids ran alongside the truck yelling, “Hi, Marines!” and smiling up.  Several times Zack caught his breath, as it seemed certain one of them would fall under the wheels of the truck.  The kid skipped away every time.

Harry chuckled, “Don’t worry about the kids.  In all my time here I’ve never seen one of ‘em get hurt.  They’re survivors, just like the pilots of those sampans.”

An old man lay in the street, and Zack wondered why he did not move.  Then he saw the cloud of flies swarming over the man’s face, and onto his sightless eyes as they stared blankly into space.  “They have patrols that rove around the city to pick them up,” Harry explained.

The truck stopped, and when it did not move for a minute, Harry muttered, “What the hell’s goin’ on?”  Holding onto the pole supporting the canvas top with his hand, he swung out where he could see.  Then he jumped quickly back into the truck, his face darkened in a scowl.

“What is it?” everyone wanted to see.

“You’ll see soon enough.”

The sound of marching was soon heard over the din of the city, and then drowned out all but the loudest of noises.  The men all started looking out of the holes in the battered canvas, “It’s a shit load of marching Chinese,” one of them said.

“Wrong,” Harry said flatly.  “The Chinese are about the only ones who don’t have a military presence in the city.  It’s the Nips.”

The Japanese troops marched past the transport, casting dark, arrogant looks in the direction of the Marines.  Finally, Olds had had enough.  “Ten hut!” he barked.  The men in the truck snapped to attention.

“Present arms!” Harry barked as he extended the one-fingered salute in the direction of the marching Japanese.  The other men followed suit.  A couple of the men who were on the right side of the transport, stuck their arms through a hole in the side, finger extended.

The marching soldiers noticed, and cast angry looks, but they were too disciplined to break ranks or react in any other way.

“Hey,” the corporal driving protested.  “Regs state not to provoke the Japs in any way.”

“Yeah,” Harry replied, without changing position, or salute, “and international law says they are only supposed to drill in their own sector.”

“True, carry on,” the corporal replied, and did nothing else to try to stop them.

“They sure are shorter than us,” one of the men said with contempt in a Texas drawl.  “Most of ‘em wouldn’t meet the Corp’s minimum height requirement.”

The rest of the men laughed.  “Don’t take em lightly,” Harry warned.  “They are tough little bastards, and most of them have seen combat, unlike you virgins.”

Most of the men dismissed the comment, but Zack studied the marching men.  They looked confident and self-assured.  There was a tempered hardness about them.  He decided he would never take them lightly.

When the rest of the column finally passed, the men sat back down, and the truck lurched back into gear, but slower than it had been moving.  Traffic, which had been light before the Japanese march interrupted it, was now backed up and heavy.

At the next corner, a giant uniformed man who sported a full beard and a turban was directing traffic.  His skin was very dark, and he was obviously not Chinese.  “Aren’t there any Chinese in charge of this city?” Zack asked Harry.

“That’s a Sikh.  They are refugees from India, where they were persecuted.  There are a lot of people like that here.  They are all looking for a place to hide.  You got White Russians fleeing the Reds, Sikhs, and Jews.  The White Russian women are really something, by the way.  But anyway, the Chinese don’t exercise a lot of control in the city.  They don’t have to.  Just about anyone who’s anyone has a troop presence here.  They do run the Shanghai police, though, which is probably the roughest bunch in the city.  There’s a lot of Sikhs in the police, and even some retired U.S. Marines.  You don’t want to have a run in with the cops here.  They will usually give the American military the benefit of the doubt, especially the Sikhs.  When they first came here, Marines helped them out.  They remember.  We helped them get into the police force, and even took food from the galley for them.”

The farther they traveled from the Bund, the cleaner the streets got, and the nicer the buildings looked.  Gradually, the slums gave way to shops, nice houses, hotels, and even parks.  Instead of beggars in the streets, there were well-dressed people going about their business, and even children playing.

At last, the truck lurched to the right and through a gate into a walled compound.

“Here we are, home sweet home,” the driver called out.

The garrison was unlike any military compound Zack had ever seen or imagined.  It was just a group of one-story houses surrounding an immaculate grass paradeground.  The headquarters building was a two-story brick affair from which the 4th Marines flag flew.  There were a few Marine uniformed men going about their business.

The truck came to a stop, and the corporal led them into the nearest building.  It was the headquarters for the American military presence.  The officer of the day logged them in, and assigned them billets.  Harry and Zack were billeted together, and Harry knew the way, so Zack followed him into a building that was two down form the central office.

Zack noted that security was light.  In San Diego, no one entered or left the base without going past a sentry and notifying him of their business.  Here, there were even Chinese civilians who seemed to come and go as they pleased.  Zack commented on this to Olds.

“They do odd jobs around here,” Harry explained.  “You want your laundry done, or errands run, they do it.  That’s their rice bowl.”

“Their what?”

“Their job, their security.  Everyone does his own job.  They never encroach on someone else’s rice bowl.  I guess it means they know where their next meal is coming from, their next bowl of rice in other words.”

“How come they have such complete run of the place?” Zack still could not understand how foreigners could have such freedom on an American military base.

“I guess because there has never been any problem.  They desperately need the work, so they will do nothing to risk losing their rice bowl.  They will quickly get after one of their own who they think might rock the boat.  It’s a great setup for everyone.  You can have servants at your beck and call, even on military pay.  It’s like I told you.  Here, we live as well as high ranking officers in other parts of the world,” Harry said, obviously excited about being back.

The barracks were one-story houses that had been gutted of all but the necessary walls.  The large room that was created was divided only by partitions.  The result was small cubicles most of which contained two double bunks.  Harry found their billet quickly.  There were only three bunks in their space, one single, which someone obviously was already using, and one double.  “You get the upper, Private,” Corporal Harry Olds pulled rank.

Zack didn’t care.  His life was already so improved over what he had in Chicago, a little thing like a top bunk was not going to bother him.  He reflected that in the depression of Chicago he could be a dynamite recruiter, that was, if, he could get anyone to believe him about the life they could have.  If he could just work a deal to be paid per recruit, he might even be tempted to give up this terrific China duty he had heard so much about during the trip.

A short, burly man of about forty walked in.  He had a dark crew cut, and thick dark hair covering his arms and neck.  The only place he did not seem to be growing hair was on his head.  There, his hairline was receding dramatically, emphasizing the roundness of his face.

“You the new replacement?” he asked, looking at Zack.

“That’s me,” Zack said.

“Saki!” Olds said happily.  The two men shook hands warmly.  “You old son of a bitch.  I see you’ve been busted down again.  When I left here, you had your stripes.”  Harry turned to Zack, “Meet Vernon Fletcher, known by his favorite beverage, Japanese rice wine.  He is also our resident cake and wine specialist.”

“Cake and wine?” Zack asked as he shook Saki’s powerful hand.

“Bread and water, big time, kid,” Sake explained regretfully.  Then his face lit up, “Usually, whatever I did was worth the punishment.  Who cares about rank, anyhow?  I’m a born PFC.”

Zack immediately liked the carefree old guy.  Before he could reply, however, another man entered the room.  He was tall and good-looking with sandy hair.  He carried his trim body with an air of assurance.  Zack recognized him as a non-com even before he saw the stripes on his sleeve.  The men snapped to attention.

“At ease,” the man said immediately. “Good to see you Harry.”

“Jack,” Harry nodded.

“You must be Private Cameron.  I’m Sergeant Jack Emery, your squad leader.  You’re assigned to my machine gun squad.  Glad to have you aboard.  I think you’ll find I’m a fair man to work for, but don’t fuck up.  If you soldier more like Harry than Vernon, we’ll get along fine.”

“Aw, Sarge,” Saki grinned.  “Don’t give the kid the wrong idea about me.”

“The fact that you are bunking with a fresh recruit, where your bad influence could cause irreparable damage, is proof that the Corps is not infallible,” Emery said with a smile that took most of the sting out of his words.

He continued, “Chow is at oh-six-thirty, muster is at oh-eight-hundred.  You will be given daily duty assignments then.  You are confined to quarters for tonight, though except for duty days, you’ll have liberty every night.  Any questions?”

“Plenty,” Zack said.

“Well, keep your eyes and ears open, Cameron.  Listen to the older China hands, with the exception of Saki, and you’ll be fine.  Remember my door is always open, don’t be afraid to use it, and you’ll do fine,” Emery said with confidence.  He turned to go, and then stopped, “I mean it, if you need anything, or have questions, I’m here to help.”  Then he left.

“All ashore that’s goin’ ashore,” a voice rang down the hall.

“Time to hit the beach,” Saki grinned.  “Your turn tomorrow, Zack, we’ll show ya’ topside,” then he was gone.

Harry wandered off to see if anyone he knew was around.  To Zack the place seemed deserted.  Everyone was out on the town.

Zack jumped up to the top bunk, and stretched out.  His mind was reeling at all the new sights and situations.  Even the smells were new to him.  He wondered how he would spend his first night in China.  He was far too excited to sleep.

When Harry came back ten minutes later, Zack was snoring loudly.


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