The rain fell in sheets from the gaps in the gutter overhead, fizzing and popping as it touched something biological in the street below. In some faraway village, I knew, simple people with simple lives would be turning on their lights to keep the night at bay. But not here. In New Shenzhen, the floodlights above us blazed down without mercy, and those with thick shutters across their windows relished their little pockets of darkness.

Taxis rushed by, each one with paintwork shotgun-blasted by the rain, and a few by actual shotguns too. Twelve-gauge mostly, the occasional ten, some sawn off, each pattern as distinct and obvious to a woman of my talents as the pattern on orchid petals to a gardener. One of them swerved out of the stream of traffic towards me, the taxi behind it voicing its impotent digital rage as a modulated screech over its horn’s base frequency. Even in that wail of angry bytes, I heard patterns, layer upon layer of them. Once, long ago, I had thought that a blessing.

The taxi snapped to a halt a few metres from me, avoiding the tangle of scaffolding poles that stood between us. It lowered itself gently to the ground as its solitary door slid open. “Zhao Ming,” a speaker spluttered in a voice that still fell just short of sounding human. “Please enter. Qǐng shūrù. Nyūryokushite kudasai. Por favor ingrese.” I dashed from my shelter to the taxi door, clinging to some misguided idea that I might make it before the rain could leave bleached splatters across my clothes and hat.

I regarded that hat with a sigh, in the back of the cab. It had been elegant, a few hours ago. Now it lay blotched and sagging across my knees, victim of the rain and the humidity and the glaring lights of New Shenzhen.

No matter. There will be time and money enough for new hats when I am done.

When I am free.