ETWG First Chapter Book Award: Shanghai Express by S. Martin Shelton


Shanghai Express by S. Martin Shelton is a Finalist in the Historical Fiction category of Published Books for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

I’ve developed the narrative around the1923 bandit raid on the British train dubbed the Blue Express–enroute from Shanghai to Peiping.

The passengers in the first-class coaches present a facade of culture and riches. However, they are scurvy lot of thieves, blackmailers, murders, opium dealers,”fille de joies,” and intelligence agents.

 Award-Winning First Chapter

Near Lincheng village. Shantung Province. 0100 hours, 6 May 1923

Captain S. Martin Shelton
Captain S. Martin Shelton

Sun Mei-yao leans into the cool night wind, urging his stallion faster. Three hundred cavalry men ride with him through the low hills. Most are deserters from defeated warlords, and have joined Sun’s bandit army because he is a skilled and formidable commander, he pays well, and he’s generous when sharing the loot. In return, he demands unswerving loyalty, conformity to strict military discipline, fresh uniforms, and exemplary personal hygiene.

An hour’s ride away, just south of Lincheng, the rail line crosses the bridge over the Grand Canal entering Shantung Province. Sun knows that the elite Shanghai Express train must slow to a crawl so it can navigate the right-hand curve just before the canal bridge. Once clear, the train will accelerate for the gentle climb into Lincheng. It’s here that Sun will lay his ambush—scheduled for 0300 hours.

Earlier that day, Sun had received a coded telegram from his secret agent onboard the train. “ALERT. There are twenty-one, well-armed Nepalese Gurkhas guarding the train. Several of the Occidental passengers appear to be wealthy and display a treasure trove of resplendent jewelry. Be cautious. Dealing with the nabob passenger Mandarin Fu Kuang–hsű requires shrewd diplomacy.”

Sun and his bandits reach the railroad tracks at 0200 hours. He dismounts and signals to Captain Chao Tan-keng, who splits “B” company from the main column and rides toward Lincheng. Their assignment is to neutralize the police and the extant Nationalist soldiers.

Sun’s engineering officer, Lieutenant Yang Hasi-peng, moves his platoon to about one thousand meters north of the bridge. They begin to rip out the fishplates on one length of the right rail. When the train hits the sabotaged rail, it will splay to the right causing the train to derail.

“Sergeant Hsu, get those railroad torpedoes tied down on both sides of the tracks close to the bridge. I don’t want that train going too fast when it derails. Dead Occidentals have no value—ransom is the big money.”

Sun hears gunfire from Lincheng, and a few minutes later, a lamp flashes from the tower of the Methodist church. Chao has neutralized the threat from the town. Smiling inwardly, he makes a mental note to reward his best officer.

Sun scrambles up a short incline and snaps orders. “Sergeant Tang, take your men to the high ground along the left side of the tracks and dig in. Be ready when the coach doors open.” His infantrymen fan out and dig their emplacements. “Set up the machine-gun on that mound—the Gurkha guards will be in the first car.” Sun watches Corporal Ts’zo Banh load a belt of Mauser 8mm ammunition. While some engineers toss ripped out fishplates into the brush, others set torpedoes on the rails. Sun’s scheme is unfolding on schedule. His right flank is secure, and the Grand Canal and bridge protect his left. He surveys his ambush preparations and a feeling of great pride engulfs his soul. How stupid of Colonel Chiang Kai-shek to cashier me for excessive cruelty to those Communist guerillas. Crucifixion was just punishments for those Reds. First in my class at Wampoa Military Academy—the Nationalists will regret sorely expelling me.

The bandit commander mounts his horse to oversee the last preparations. Any moment now, he will hear the long whistle of the Shanghai Express approaching the bridge. He is ready.


Shanghai railroad station. Early morning, 5 May 1923 (the previous day)

The stationmaster focuses on his pocket watch. The minute hand ticks to 0855 hours—five minutes to departure. He puts the watch in his vest, blows his whistle five times, and waves his red flag back and forth over his head. The whistle’s shrill tone echoes throughout the Shanghai Railroad Station. The fireman shovels coal into the locomotive’s blazing furnace, and the engine bleeds steam that hisses loudly and engulfs the nearby area in a white cloud. Passengers scurry to locate their cars. Handlers pull large wagons full of suitcases, boxes, mail, and other paraphernalia to the baggage car. Porters cater obsequiously to the first-class passengers, and vendors on the platform hawk a mélange of wares. At 0900 hours, the British-owned Shanghai Express train will depart for its nonstop, overnight run to Peking.

Tall and ramrod-straight Sikhs in their dastars headdress guard all the station’s activities. They stand at order arms holding their British Enfield 303 rifles tight at their sides.

A squad of Gurkha soldiers stands at attention before the armored coach. Their Kashmir hats are cocked rakishly. Tucked in their belts are their traditional kukri, with eighteen-inch blades. On command from their British officer, the Nepalese guards snap their rifles to port-arms and climb aboard. Many of the British passengers pause and smile, knowing the Empire’s best will be protecting them.

Swinging aboard a first-class coach is Stephan Paskhim. He carries a leather valise engraved with the double-eagle emblem of Imperial Russia. His superior intelligence radiates from diamond-black eyes.

Mahima Rahman, the tall Madras porter, asks, “May I take your case and show you to your compartment, sir?”

“No,” Paskhim replies sharply and pushes past. He snaps the door shut and pulls the shade. When he opens the valise a deep frown crosses his brow.

In the passageway, Rahman brushes at the bright gold trim of his traditional shalwar kameez uniform before he raps a knuckle on the opposite door.

“Come in.” Margaret Jasperson is thirty-seven and slightly overweight. She smiles at Rahman. She wears no make-up, has no outstanding features, and yet she is comely. She has drawn her long brown hair into a tight bun. A wide-brimmed hat lies on the lamp table. A matronly purse rests on her lap.

“We will be departing soon, madam. How may I be of service?”

“I am fine, thanks.”

Rahman bows and backs out, sliding the door shut.

Jasperson returns to her trip report. The American Express logo features prominently on her stationery. As the senior travel agent in the Peking office, she makes arrangements for Occidental businessmen, clergy, diplomats, and their staffs. She assesses the political and economic environment and evaluates the safety conditions in the requisite provinces.

Her eyes wander to the door. Something about the porter’s unexpected check-in does not feel right.

Unknown to her cohorts, Jasperson is a senior operative in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the MI6. She reports on Japanese and Soviet political, military, and diplomatic activities in China’s Northern provinces, with emphasis on Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. She has a wide network of loyal Chinese and Occidental spies to collect and report information.

Just before boarding, an aged porter slipped her a note, sub rosa warning her that a dangerous foreign agent might be onboard.

She digs deep into her overlarge purse and retrieves her Webley .455. She rotates the cylinder to confirm it is loaded and slides the safety to “Fire.”

She closes her eyes, relaxes, and reviews mental images of the passengers she has seen. None stand out. Nonetheless she places the revolver within easy reach under her hat.

Rahman raps lightly on Doctor Todd Fleet’s door. Hearing “Enter,” he glides into the compartment of the young American missionary and his new wife, Laura.

Fleet wears a conservative gray suit with a powder-blue tie. He has bushy black hair, dark eyes, and a weak chin.

Rahman asks, “Will you be needing anything?”

Laura wears a pink flapper dress and matching cloche hat. Rahman admires the curves of her sensuous body and her exotic blond hair. Her startling hazel eyes watch him knowingly.

“How may I be of service, madam?”

“Bring me green tea, piping hot, and scones.”

“Yes, madam.” Rahman bows slightly. “I will begin serving in a few minutes. I have several more passengers to settle.”

Miffed, she snaps, “Hurry up. I need a refresher.”

Todd arches an eyebrow, amused by his new bride’s imperiousness, and considers tempering this minor contretemps, but decides against it.

Rahman smiles. “As you wish, madam.” He bows slightly and backs out of the compartment. He notes, Mao Tse-tung’s Eighth Route Army could use Doctor Fleet’s skills. That shrew —to the crocodiles for her.

The famed Mandarin Fu Kuang-hsű, with his two young and titillating concubines in tow, follow Rahman to their suite. The Mandarin wears a traditional long black gown with thin red stripes down each side and a black skullcap with a long red tassel. His first wife, the qizi, selected these two women as babies, raised the pair, and skilled them in the erotic arts. Inside, his eyes trace their classic figures, emphasized by their fetching cheongsams. His pulse skips a couple of beats as he anticipates tonight’s ménage à trois.

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