An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.
Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.
Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.
Vic turned around and for the second time that day made the “good bye” sign while walking to the door. John spent few more minutes watching the downtown crowds and inevitably the barges sailing on Great Huangpu. Eventually he pulled the chair and started testing the programs one by one. Whatever Li Jie did, it seemed like it worked out. The Program was running much faster now…still not at the same speed as back home, but quite satisfactory. “Just wondering what he did” said John to himself and a typical anxiety grabbed his mind. “What if this is the key to what I am after? What if this is the lead which I need to get to Tony? Is Li Jie working for Tony? Apparently he knows all the software in this office by heart. What if Tony got to him somehow and he is black mailing Li Jie? I need to find out everything about this guy”. John started browsing through the personnel lists he brought with him from America. First he pulled Tony’s information. Nothing different from what J.J. mentioned to him when they met. His background was impressive whatsoever. Shortly he got to Li Jie. He was one of the first people hired by Scott and J.J. in this office. He had a background in IT one hundred percent. Before being hired by Glenworth, he worked for a Singapore based company in Nanjing. John couldn’t help but remember the fact that Tony asked him to go to Nanjing and Beijing into a joint trip so he could get familiar with a fraction of rich Chinese history. “Nanjing is a big city…why would it be a connection between Tony and Li Jie based on a supposedly common ground in Nanjing?” John shook his head side-wise in a negative sign of rejecting this idea. However, in his subconscious, he didn’t want to give it up. So, he placed it into an invisible drawer, a place which he was opening sometimes just to make sure his old ideas are still in there and they are still usable. His curiosity did not stop here. He separated all the personnel by the hiring date. The more senior people were, the closer to the table they were placed. To his surprise, majority of the hiring happened after Gang joined the Company. Then he separated all the files of the people hired after Tony joined and started going through every single one in great detail. Nothing out of ordinary popped up. The skill sets were normal (required) to this type of business.
John turned his chair around, put his feet up, wrapped his hands around the back of his head and fell again into a sort of contemplation, lethargy and meditation. He felt like he wanted to fully absorb the image of the sun going down above the great Yangtze and setting into the far West lands of Xinjiang. The sunset was spectacular! The big, round, orange, incandescent solar disk was ready to join the earth for the nuptial ritual, but its last rays of the day were stubbornly refusing to go away, turning the delta waters of mighty Yangtze into thousands of living fires, into a myriad of dancing fire-flies guiding the fishermen boats towards their night fishing spots. Everything was surreal and in the same time it was so close to one’s touch, as if the magical powers of the sun transcended their deity and turned human, turned touchable and palpable. It seemed like the sun was tired and needed to cool down taking its daily ritual bath into the waters of the sacred River, only to raise again the next morning from the China Sea’s waves to give people another day of hope.
Soon the room turned darker and John realized that it was already six thirty in the evening. He turned around, gathered the pile of papers he had in front of him and placed it into the suitcase, logged out, placed the laptop into the case as well, grabbed his coat and headed for the door. When he lifted his head, his heart stopped. Tony was again standing in the door and to give the impression that he just arrived, knocked into the frame of the door.
-Knock, knock…anybody home? He was trying to put as much waggishness as possible into his voice to cover the fact that he managed to scare John yet again.
John’s heart was pounding from emotions. He didn’t exactly know how to feel…to feel angry because this was the second time when Tony was scaring him to death almost or to feel cautious knowing that the man in front of him was spying on him and was watching all his moves. His head prevailed over the impulse of his heart which was telling him to slam on Tony for his behavior. But he remembered what Vic’s said: “patience is a virtue the Chinese value the most”. He took a deep breath and with a balanced and controlled tonality which he managed to keep under control, answered:
-Hello, Tony. How are you doing this beautiful evening?
-It is beautiful? I wouldn’t know I guess, I just woke up. He started laughing and his massive body was shaking up and down. John couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing an all-black suit with a white shirt and also a black tie and black shoes. These little details jumped right away into his eyes and the dressing up similarities with his neighbors from this morning were striking. It looked like all three of them went to a funeral. From this moment, John was all eyes and ears and actually he thanked in his mind Tony for dropping by.
-You are a funny man, Tony. You just woke up…it is six thirty in the afternoon.
-Yes, I like working during the night. I am a night predator. His body went again into spasms like type of shaking and his laughter was even louder this time. John didn’t know how to take Tony’s last phrase…as a threat or simply as a statement meant to warn him, meant to give him a heads up? It was a dangerous game Gang was playing, a game which John started to understand. Tony was practically playing the Russian roulette: he was giving John hints strongly believing that he wouldn’t be able to touch him, to get him red handed. He was actually telling John: “here it is a bullet, place it into the cartridge, put the gun at my temple and pull the trigger.” It was the mistake John was waiting for: “Now I know how to play this game…you have way too much self-esteem, you are arrogant and you are full of haughtiness. I will get you, Mr. Gang. I will get you. I found the weak spot into your defense.” John put up on his face the largest smile he was capable of producing and with the voice of a novice who is ready to be lectured by his teacher asked Tony to explain himself.
-You are something different, Mr. Gang! You like to work during the night…Boy, I would be toast the whole next day. Actually I read somewhere that not too many people can do this and if they do it for an extended period of time, their brain gives up on them. They develop psychological diseases. Be careful. Tony burst again into a laughter of superiority, of pity and mercy. His face was now all in the dark, but the two perfectly white rows of teeth betrayed a man who was having lots of fun at his interlocutor’s expense. Eventually he stopped and with a totally changed voice asked John:
-And how do you know I am part of that category, John – “many people”?
-I didn’t say that, Tony…my apologies. But at the end of the day we are all humans and our DNAs are not much different from one to another. A long pause followed, with John waiting for Tony to step in and reply. It didn’t happen and John started getting irritated. Another long two minutes followed, during which the silence was so deep that the men could actually hear each other’s breath.
-And how do you know I am a human? John felt like a cold, icy torrent was running down his spine. His forehead was covered in sweat and because he didn’t want to show emotions, he let it drop on his cheeks, nose and eyes. He eventually had to close his eyes to prevent the salt from the sweat get into his eyes. With an effort worth of admiration, he managed to pull a laughter out of his chest, but anyone could’ve realized that it was an unconvincing, false, forced and feeble expression of good disposition.
-This was a good one, Tony! Please don’t tell me that you had been abducted by Martians and brought back to Earth to recruit as many followers as possible in order to conquer Planet Earth.
-Not quite, John. But you are not too far from the truth. Anyway, I saw that you were still in and I dropped by to say hi.
-Appreciate this, Tony. So, you are now going to do some work as you are well rested? This time John’s burst of laughter was genuine and waggish.
-Hahaha…funny guy. No, I will go home and work from there. The office closes at nine and the alarm is set. John startled and he thanked God that inside of the room was already dark. His bottom jaw dropped. “I hope Vic knows the pass code”.
-So, if you want to do some work tonight from your office, you will need the pass-code. John realized right away the trap: “if I tell him that I need it so I can work from here, the question would be: why can’t I remotely work from my hotel? If I tell him I don’t need it, if Vic has the pass-code, he can check tomorrow morning that we went in…” It was that type of situation when one has to think fast and react accordingly.
-Thanks Tony, but I will go to my hotel room, hit the gym and have an early go to bed. I am just a human, Tony. I sleep during the night. Both men laughed and Tony turned around making again the good bye sign while walking out. John locked his desk drawer and headed for the door. “It is clear: Li Jie briefed him up about the work he did for me. He knows. But why did he mention the pass-code and actually invited me to come to the office? This bastard knows everything and it looks to me that he is always one step ahead of me. I gotta’ talk to Vic right away”. He took the elevator down and once in the street, he hailed for a taxi. It took less than ten minutes to get to the hotel. Once in his room, he called Vic.
-What’s up, John? It is just seven o’clock.
-Vic, I think we need to change the plans.
-Why? I already asked Zihuan to come over. He is bringing his buddy as well.
-Great! Just come to my apartment with both of them. We need to change plans.
-I tell you then. I bumped into Tony again.
-Damn, what else happened?
-Just get here as soon as possible.
-Well…Zihuan is calling me as we speak. It will take him half an hour to get to my place and then will take us another half an hour to get to your hotel.
-Fantastic! I will hit the gym for forty minutes. I will order food for all four of us.
-Great! I will see in an hour.
-Vic, make sure you keep an eye on the neighbor’s door.
-Will do. I see ya’ later.
John took his clothes off, put his shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt on and headed for the gym. As expected, the exercise room was equipped with latest machines for cardio work out as well as with brand names bench presses and other equipment for weightlifting and muscle training. While jogging on the tread mill, his thoughts were gathering around his latest meeting with Tony. He realized that this man was a high caliber player, sneaky, very intelligent and ruthless. John couldn’t get out of his mind one of Tony’s questions: “how do you know I am a human?” He felt again how he was getting goose bumps, how the cold sweat was running down his spine. “What if this guy is just crazy? I can’t believe that he is willing to give me so much leverage. It is almost like he wants me to figure out what’s going on. I can’t believe he can be so foolish and arrogant to actually lead me into solving this thing and catch him”. In John’s mind, there was no doubt that Gang was the one who was siphoning Glenworth’s money. Also, the meeting he had with Scott and J.J. back home during which J.J. unconditionally accused Tony of the leakage, contributed decisively to his assumption.
-OK, time is up. Let’s head upstairs and wait for Vic. Once he reached his floor, he couldn’t help but getting close to the neighbor’s door. He felt that smoky type of smell, that unusual aroma of herbs he wouldn’t recognize. It was obvious that his neighbor was burning them again while meditating into that Yoga type of position. John headed for his apartment, opened up and sneaked in. He picked up the phone, called room service and ordered dinner. Then headed for the bathroom where a short half warm shower made him feel like new. Once in the bedroom, he pulled a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of nice comfortable sporty shoes from his luggage. In few minutes he got dressed; he was all pumped up and ready to jump right into the danger. The renewed and increased energy he was feeling, made him realize for the first time that he now owned the assignment, that he wanted (as much as J.J. and Scott wanted) to catch Tony red-handed. He stepped into the living room, opened up his laptop and logged into the data base. One by one, he tried again the few office software Glenworth had on board. There was no difference between the speeds they were running in the office versus his hotel room. “Well, let’s wait for the specialists”. That being said, he dropped into an armchair and turned the TV on.
Nothing interesting: business – John was up to date with everything that was going on in the world of finance and didn’t pay much attention to these channels so he flipped to sports: European Soccer highlights – not much of an interest to him – and the Olympics. He set for the swimming and closely followed the competition. He loved this Sport, as he was a very good swimmer himself. His childhood memories inevitably were bringing back the moment when he had to make a decision: Swimming or Football. His parents left it entirely up to him. He loved them both but could only focus on one, as he wanted to be a “somebody”. His love for the local NFL team pushed him towards this great Sport and the rest was history.
The phone rang and John knew that it could only be Vic. He was downstairs.
-Come on up, Vic.
-Sure, I will be there in a minute. I have both Zihuan and Yuhuan with me.
-Great. I’ll see you in a few. John cracked the door open and propped it with the little carpet found at the entrance. He moved towards kitchen, to grab some cold drinks for his guests. A double knock at the door, was the sign that Vic and his protégés arrived. John couldn’t help but notice that (as the name was stating), Yuhuan was indeed a handsome individual. He was at the same height as his friend while the body was thin but not skinny. One would say that his face was the work of a very talented artist: regular, beautiful lines were harmonizing the transition between the forehead and the cheek bones and then further down between cheeks and the chin. The chin was square and was baring a cleft in the middle, which was adding to the overall look a sense of strong personality. The hair was dark black and it was carefully maintained and cut. On top of all these great features, the warm, candid smile was completing the overall picture of an individual with great looks and supposedly a great personality.
John smiled and headed for the door to greet his guests. Shook hands and invited all three of them to take a seat into the living room area specifically designated for receiving guests. Zihuan and Yuhuan shared the large couch, while Vic took an armchair. The remaining armchair was John’s. Before seating, John asked each of his guests for a drink preference:
-Gentlemen, what can I get you? I have soft drinks and I have liquor. I also ordered dinner, I believe it should be here any minute now.
-John, you can hit me with a scotch on the rocks if you don’t mind.
-Not at all, my friend, not at all. How about you two gentlemen?
-I have orange juice, Mr. Parker said Zihuan.
-John is my name, please call me that. Do you want ice in it?
-OK, John. I call you John. Both of them laughed. No ice, please.
-How about you, Yuhuan?
-I have soft drink, please.
-Great. Any ice in your drink?
-No ice. Thank you.
-All right then: one scotch on the rocks for my dear friend Vic, an orange juice for Zihuan and a soft drink for Yuhuan. How about me? What do I want?
-This is a question you have to answer yourself, John. All four men in the room started laughing and a nice and warm atmosphere settled in the living room. While John was preparing the drinks, the bell rang and John knew right away that it was the room service.
-Vic, would you mind getting the door, please?
A military type of “Yes, Sir!” was the answer to John’s inquiry, an answer which made both Zihuan and Yuhuan burst in laughter.
It was the room service indeed. The cart was pushed to the table and shortly, the table was all full of dishes filled with great Chinese food: from Wonton soup and spring rolls to steamed dumplings filled with crab leg meat. The salmon sushi and tuna Sashimi was also part of the menu while traditional orange chicken with fried rice didn’t seem to miss the party. The great Sichuan Cuisine was present at the dinner table with the well-known mouth burning hot chilly beef stake as well as with its spicy hot chilly Kung Pao chicken. The multitude of the dishes, the fantastic green and red color of the vegetables well assorted with the meats and the sauces, made everyone salivate.
-Boy, I am as hungry as a…John stopped short of saying the magic word. Vic looked at him and both of them cracked a huge laughter.
-Told you…don’t use it anymore. It’s my line.
-Sir, yes Sir!
Another round of laughter followed but eventually stomach’s call for a good meal prevailed and all four men ended up focusing their whole attention on the food in front of them only. Nobody was saying a word anymore and just the noise of the chop sticks hitting the plates was heard in the living room. The gastronomic delight displayed on the table, made all their five senses stretch at the maximum of their supportability and everybody wanted to indulge from this feast of tasty mouth-watering food, colors and great smells
When most of the food was gone, a pleasant sense of sufficiency settled in and the smile on their faces was showing four men who enjoyed having a meal and being together.
-Ok guys, I am full! John’ exclamation was followed by approval across the board and immediately the cleanup activity started. In a heartbeat all the plates and other eating utensils were piled up on the cart left into the room by the room service personnel. John pushed the cart towards the door and took a seat. Then, started laying out his plan for tonight. He mentioned to interlocutors his encounter with Gang and his suspicion that Li Jie actually works for Tony.
-John, before we go further on, let’s hear from Zihuan and Yuhuan. They have things to tell us based on their today’s mission.
-Great, let’s hear the story. John took his glass (where he initially poured his favorite Kentucky Bourbon), relaxed, took a comfortable position into the armchair and prepared himself to hear the story. He was all eyes and ears. Vic did the same, while the two detectives came closer to the edge of the couch, in a sign that they are ready to reveal their findings.
-Ok…when I left morning hotel, I told you I will follow Yuhuan. Zihuan’s voice was timid at the beginning, but as he was revealing his story, the voice became firm and a great degree of self-esteem kicked in. John loved this, as he wanted in his team people who can make decisions by themselves, people who can master their emotions, people who can perform under stressful situations without losing the big picture from their eye sight.
-Yes you did, Zihuan. Yes you did. And you also said that Yuhuan will follow them up to a point and then you will switch cars.
-Yes, this is what I say and we followed. They went to funeral. It was the point when John stopped him.
-Well…let me tell you something: I believe Tony Gang was at the same funeral. Vic’s eyes almost popped out of their eye sockets. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan startled and looked at John with an astonishing wonder on their faces.
-How do you know, John? Actually I am not surprised anymore. Every time I leave you alone, you manage to do something, to find out something, you never stop to amaze and dazzle. An immense smile flooded his face while John chuckled and looked him straight into the eyes:
-When I had the discussion with Tony, I realized that he was wearing mourning cloths, same like the pair we saw this morning in the Hotel’s restaurant.
-Good observation, but it doesn’t mean that he went to the same funeral.
-Agree, but we need to remember that he is visiting my neighbor, right?
-OK, good point. Zihuan, do you guys know Tony Gang?
-No, Vic. We not know Tony Gang. A moment of silence settled in, a moment in which everyone was trying to come up with an answer, with a lead into the investigation.
-Wait a minute! Did you guys take some pictures? Actually let me ask you this: did you manage to get close to the funeral cortege?
-No Mr. Parker. Security very heavy. Private funeral.
-So you didn’t take any pictures of the people attending the procession? John’s voice was showing some disappointment. He really wanted to see who was there, who the personages are, as now he understood that he is dealing with higher up individuals who belonged to the privileged class of rich and powerful.
-I say we no get close, but I never say we not take pictures. The smile on both their faces was a huge relief for John and he understood that Zihuan managed somehow to take some pictures. He grabbed his backpack from which he pulled his laptop, turned it on, plugged a memory stick in and started showing the pictures they took. John and Vic moved to the sofa trying to have a glimpse of what he was showing. It was the moment when Yuhuan came with a solution which brought John to a high level of anxiety.
-Mr. Parker…this is smart TV?
-I think so…not sure
-Let me see please. He grabbed the remote and started playing with it. In few seconds, he confirmed that John had a smart TV in his living room. We need now to sync laptop to TV. We can all see pictures after.
-Fantastic, let’s do this! Vic was at least as excited as John was. It took Yuhuan little time to synchronize the laptop with the TV and soon, the pictures from the memory stick showed up one by one. Everybody in the room was now “glued” to the screen. There were lots of pictures to show and Zihuan started browsing through the folder slowly, so everyone could see.
The pictures were so clear that one would think they were taking from close range. John was amazed and astonished! He just couldn’t understand how these two guys took these detailed pictures (apparently from a large distance) so well-focused on people’s faces, attire and posture. He understood right away how important the two guys sitting on the couch were for him. They did an amazing job without getting themselves exposed.
It took some time before the pictures from the folder were all played and neither John nor Vic couldn’t figure out where the two personages they saw that morning into the restaurant were.
-I will have to go myself trough these pictures one by one, in a lot more detail. It’s impossible not to find them into that crowd! You guys followed them all the way, right?
-Yes Mr. Parker! They go to cemetery in Christian area.
-There is a Christian area in Shanghai? Actually…wait a minute: this was a Christian burial judging by the ritual! It makes sense.
-Yes, Mr. Parker, Christian ritual. We no familiar with Christian faith but look at pictures better and you see crosses at people neck. John followed Zihuan’s advice, grabbed the remote control and started browsing again through the files.
-So, it looks like my neighbors are either Christian or have friends into Christian community, here in Shanghai. Through a logical assumption, do I have to believe that Tony is Christian too or somehow related to them through my neighbors? I must find out what the relationship between Gang and my neighbors is! This is an absolute priority!
-Mr. Parker…good plan. I follow your neighbors and Yuhuan will follow Tony Gang. We must divide forces.
-I never liked to divide my resources, Zihuan…never liked it. But it seems that we have to do this. It is getting complicated. So, we have a plan: starting tomorrow, Tony and my neighbors will be under constant surveillance. But how will you guys be able to keep your eyes on them all the time? You will get tired and eventually will have to sleep.
-No worry Mr. Parker, said Zihuan with a large smile on his face. We professionals. We have good resources. John started to like that smile, as every time Zihuan was putting it on, good news was following it. He was just a little concerned about a certain portion of Zihuan’s statement: “We have good resources”. What exactly does this mean? Do they have reliable, quality resources? Do they have enough resources? John refrained from asking these questions as Vic nodded in an affirmative way, basically saying: “I trust them”
-Fantastic! Now let’s move on to our tonight’s assignment. Vic, did you brief them up? Vic shook his head side-wise in a sign that he never had the chance to do so.
-Ok, so I mentioned to you guys my encounter to Tony. All of them nodded: “yes”. Before he left, he almost like gave me a hint: the office door closes at 9 pm and the alarm is set. Vic, do you know the pass-code?
-I do, but then he would know that we went in.
-True. Can we do this from here, guys? His question was addressed to both detectives who instantly nodded like: “yes, we can”
-Mr. Parker, we can, but Li Jie would know that we hack system. At this point, Yuhuan stepped in again and came up with a compromising solution.
-Mr. Parker…we can get in and look at what he did. When we tell you, you have to come and see software. We no inquire job he did. Then we go out.
John was trying to understand what Yuhuan was saying or at least follow him as rationally as he could, but the gimmick on his face was showing that he was puzzled and he was not able to follow him. At this moment Vic stepped in and in a fluent Chinese carried a conversation with the two detectives.
-Alright, here it is the deal, John: they will break into Administrator’s rights, and follow Li Jie’s work. But at a certain point, they need your help to identify the software you are concerned about.
-They were saying that we couldn’t have gone in, as the video surveillance system is active 24/7.
-Right. However, we need to figure out how to temporary disable it – have we ever had the need to get in after hours.
-Good point. Let me talk to them. Vic started again a conversation with Zihuan and Yuhuan and explained John’s request.
-Mr. Parker. We can do it. But we need to know server location.
-Vic, I guess we have some work to do tomorrow…
-Yeap…let me think how I can get my hands on an office plan…
-Vic…you need talk to Maintenance…Building Maintenance. Yuhuan’s face was carrying a waggish smile and Vic understood that he just got a lead he had to follow.
-Great! Good one, Yuhuan! I have to figure out whom am I supposed to talk to…leave it with me. I’ll work on it.
-Mr. Parker, your laptop please. You log into Glenworth system.
-Right! Let’s go guys, I like the progress we are making! John logged in and in few minutes he handled his laptop to Zihuan, who passed it to Yuhuan. John understood that the latest one was the IT guru. However, after few minutes, Zihuan pulled his laptop from his backpack and shortly asked John to remotely log into Glenworth from his laptop too. For first few seconds John hesitated. Logging into company’s system from a different computer than company’s computer would leave traces which could be followed in order to hack into Glenworth network…but his assignment was way too important. He remotely logged again into the network and handled the laptop back to Zihuan. At this point, Yuhuan pulled a cord from his back pack and connected the two laptops from one USB to another. Now they were working as a team, in tandem, each one knowing in real time what the other one was doing.
Both John and Vic understood that it will take some time before the two detectives will manage to break into Administrator’s rights, so John poured another round of drinks for them. Without being asked, he placed another orange juice and soft drink on the table for the detectives and then moved with Vic to the window area. Quietly, both friends started admiring the great spectacle of the night life in Shanghai and the fluvial traffic on Huangpu. It was spectacular indeed!
Do you regret that you left? Do you miss America, Vic? John asked this question softly, with a low tonality in his voice. The need for silence and an environment in which one would need to focus his whole attention to performing a task, made Vic and John almost whisper at each other. The question took Vic by great surprise as he startled and looked his colleague straight into his eyes. Before Vic answered, John felt a short hesitation into his body language, into his willingness to provide an answer. It was something barely perceptible, but John’s keen eye and experience in reading people’s faces and non-verbal conscious or non-conscious movements, made him realize that he actually put Vic into an uncomfortable position.
-I am sorry I asked this question, Vic…really sorry. Please forgive me.
-That’s alright. No worries, man! And to answer your question…no, I do not regret that I left. Do I miss America? Maybe…a little. But here I found the inner peace I’ve been looking for my whole life. I do believe that here, I found the answer to the way I was living my life back home, I found the answer to all those questions I was asking myself: who am I? Why do I do what I do? Why do I feel the urge of living my life on the edge, at such high level pace? Why do I get the call to drink, gamble and party so often? Well…all of these questions were answered here: I was living my life in the wrong place. Two worlds were colliding with each other: I was the product of one of them, but I was living in a different place than the one where I should’ve lived. And why not mention that here, I found my better half. It was John’s turn to startle and look Vic straight into his eyes. Immediately he recalled a short phrase his friend said at the dinner table while Zhaohui was taking a breath of fresh air: “You were part of the curse from the beginning, you participated at the events and you cannot leave the fight until is over”. A cold sweat was covering his forehead and temples. He was in a state of shock. “Why me? What did I so specially do that I had to be part of the events? Who was I at the time that my presence was so important there? What events are we talking about? Who were the players of the event and how do I relate to them?” This myriad of questions was making his head spin and in the same time was putting his brain into a high alert mode. With a trembled voice, John asked:
-So, you do believe that you should’ve been born here rather than in America.
-John, do you have any idea how fast I picked up speaking, reading and writing in Chinese?
-No idea, man. You have been here for…what? Seven years or so?
-Exactly. In my first year, I was already fluent in speaking. In the second year, I was able to read and write.
-I am not expert, but it seems very fast to me. I can’t imagine myself learning this language so quickly.
-It is not very hard if you have a good teacher. You know what I mean? His voice became waggish and he winked at John. It wasn’t hard for John to decipher the meaning of that tonality and eye closure: Zhaohui.
-Yes, I figured that you had a great teacher. A muffled laughter came out of John’s chest and the tensioned atmosphere which settled between them for a little while, perished. However, John was still at unease and Vic picked it up right away.
-John, on Saturday Zhaohui will tell you the story. Don’t occupy your mind with these details. We have work to do and we need our minds clear so we can make the right decisions. Again, it is nothing you can do. This is your fate in this world, in this life I should say and you have to accept it the way it is.
John dropped his head as Vic’s last statement came as hard as the decision of a judge who is not willing to believe your story. He was part of this strange game, or curse, or fight, or whatever this was supposed to be. And it looked like there was no way out of it. He was bonded to some ancient ties, to some mystic believes, to some legends which apparently are bringing characters of the past into the present only to fulfill their cosmological path, their birth given meaning and their known end. He dropped his feet down from the comfortable position he took in the beginning and headed for the bar.
-Do you want another round?
-Sure, why not? Just dump a little more ice into the glass. John nodded in a sign that he understood the request. He poured himself another straight Bourbon and came back by the window.
-Here you go, my friend, my fellow prisoner of a world I do not know and never knew actually, of a world which is strange and mystic and full of drama.
-You summarized it perfectly, John! This time it was Vic’s turn to crack a muffled laughter while grabbing the glass of scotch from John’s hand. Cheers, my friend!
They made themselves comfortable again and for a long time, nobody said a word anymore. They were just silently watching the night lights of Downtown Shanghai and the barges sliding on Huangpu, like ghosts following a mortuary procession.
-Mr. Parker, we need help please.
Zihuan’s voice made both Vic and John jump off of their chairs and move to the middle of the living room where the two IT gurus were working.
-Yes, Zihuan! How can I help?
-We need you recognize software. We put on TV so it is clear. That’s being said, Zihuan’s computer was already displayed on the big screen TV in the living room.
-So, what do you want me to look at, Zihuan?
-Mr. Parker, we need you look and try recognize in the lines on screen, commands from software.
-Aha, I understand. Please go slower when you scroll down.
-I will give you control. Please use TV remote control.
-Got you! John picked up the remote and patiently started browsing through the numerous pages of programming lines which were displayed in front of him. This was a task that could take some time, so Yuhuan came up with another great idea: to bring the TV from the bedroom and hook up his laptop to it so Vic can do the same thing as John was doing. John pulled a giggle of happiness; Vic managed to hire two skillful and smart guys. Shortly, Vic started scrolling through the pages himself. Zihuan and Yuhuan moved to the window to admire the view.
-Do you know what to do?
-Of course I know what to do. Wanna’ bet on something?
-I thought that you quit betting, said John and a bid laughter came out of his chest.
-I did, but this would be fun and it wouldn’t ruin either of us.
-What do you have in mind?
-I bet you that I find the software before you do.
-Ooo…this challenge is something I simply cannot miss! I’m in. What are we waging on?
-A bottle of single malt of the best quality.
-Good luck, but you are dead meat anyways.
-Ooo…trash talk! We’ll see, Mister! We’ll see.
Both Vic and John pulled the arm chairs closer to the TV screens and patiently but rapidly pushed that down arrow on the remote in a hope that they will quickly identify the lines the two IT guys were looking for. The work was tedious and soon both John and Vic felt like their eyes were watering from looking at so many lines and characters. John felt like he had to rest his back and quietly dropped into the armchair. He grabbed his head with both his hands and rubbed his eyes in an effort to chase away the tiredness which was slowly embracing him. The events of these three days had overwhelmed him. He found himself as being part of a saga that took place probably few centuries ago, nobody knowing when this circle of cosmological trajectory would come to an end.
-Bingo, came from Vic’s direction. John realized that his short break was skillfully used by his colleague and he probably identified a line or a key word of the software in question. Vic also realized that John was not even competing anymore.
-You are tired, I can see.
-Yes, a little bit. But this doesn’t matter anymore. Good job! You identified the line that could take us inside Mr. Li Jie’s world. Not to mention that you won a bottle of single malt. Both John and Vic burst into laughter, while Zihuan and his friend took over yet again of the laptops and eagerly started the second phase of their search: isolating this particular software from all the other ones, so they could figure out what sort of filters or even small pieces of software Li Jie implemented to manipulate John’s access to information. Once again, the two friends moved to the window and quietly sipped their drinks without starting another conversation. John felt like he wanted to gather his thoughts. He found himself tangled into a story he did not understand and did not want to be part of. He just wanted to go back home to Linda, to his house, to his habits and hobbies and to his normal job. This was a challenge his competitive spirit accepted, but he didn’t expect to emotionally get connected to it, he didn’t expect to be part of it. He envisioned his role in this assignment as being more of a consultancy role, more of a supervisory type where his management skills would place the right people in place and he would just compile the results. He was wrong…he realized that he has to deep dive into the action and get his hands dirty. It was a “do or die” situation…the game was getting nasty, his opponent was using dirty tricks and ultimately his reputation was on the line. He looked at Vic…his sight was somewhere far away, beyond the great spectacle of the downtown lights or the lights of the barges slipping down on Huangpu towards the junction with the Great River. John couldn’t help but ask himself: “I wonder what his role is in this story? Why was he sent here? He said that in China he found peace and strength as this is the place he should’ve been from the beginning. He said that his struggle back home was due to the fact that he was living in the wrong place, incompatible with his celestial destiny. Is J.J. part of this fight too? How come he knew that he had to send Vic here to clean up, to become who he apparently was supposed to be? Who would J.J. be and what would his role be into this cruse, or story, or fight, or whatever else is? If I am part of this story, what is my destiny? How do I blend into this story which apparently has a divine fate?” He dropped his head in a sign that he was puzzled and didn’t really know which direction to proceed. It was a strange feeling, a feeling he never experienced. He always had a plan, he always knew exactly which steps he was going to take first and then the next ones and the next and so on. Scott’s suggestion came again into his mind: “you have to improvise…you have no pocket, you have to use your feet for the first down”. He lifted his head and looked at Vic. It seemed like he came back from the transcendental phase he was into. The two men looked at each other and without opening a discussion, they both understood each other’s fears and line of thoughts. At this point John realized that both of them are fully dependent on each other, that they are on the same part of the barricade, that they have a destiny to fulfill and they must work as a team or they will lose the fight. They were doomed to look out for each other, they were doomed to walk and fight side by side regardless of how strong the enemy or how adverse the situation was in the field.
-Yes! This is work Li Jie done! Both John and Vic jumped from their chairs and in a heartbeat were again in the middle of the living room by the couch were Zihuan was sitting.
-OK, please explain to us what’s happening here.
-Yuhuan better. He can explain.
-Fantastic, let’s hear from you, Yuhuan!
-Mr. Parker…please see TV. He transferred to the TV a set of lines which had no meaning whatsoever for John.
-I am sorry, Yuhuan, but you have to explain to me what am I looking at.
-Of course. Please understand: lines on TV are small software…tick software. John started scratching his head as he didn’t understand what his interlocutor wanted to say. Vic took over the conversation right away and started having a direct conversation with the two detectives he hired. At the end, he nodded in a sign that he understood and immediately turned to John:
-John, it looks like Li Jie installed a bug type of software meant to spy on your activity when you are using the outgoing transactions software.
-Bastard! How do we know that he installed it?
-Mr. Parker…he did work. Look at time and look at the user ID. Instantly both John and Vic checked their wrist watches, trying this way to remember the time Li Jie was in the office. It matched exactly the time they remembered having the conversation into John’s office, when they called him to trouble shoot. Vic recognized his ID on top of the screen.
-Unbelievable…this bastard is watching my moves.
-This is not too bad, John. We know that he is watching, we have to feed him information we want.
-Good plan. How do we do this? What other piece of software is he spying on? Actually let me rephrase: what other office activity of mine is he spying onto? John eye sight fell on the two IT gurus.
-Not sure, Mr. Parker. We need think. It is very complicated. We need more time. Li Jie use common spy software – we use this too. He modify it to add delay for you or other Americans when you come China, to slow down. You lose patience and system crash will soon crash. Is for you to give up and no follow. You think is Internet issue because of China. No, is spy strategy.
Both Vic and John were in a state of shock. Whatever they were hearing it was out of their comprehension. On the other hand, John couldn’t help but notice the ingenuity of the method: it was combining the technical skills of a professional with the mindset of a Psychologist who knows that human patience is limited.
-This is brilliant! John released this statement with all the admiration he could put into it, admiration and praise for a job very well done, for a job that was taken to the end using a stroke of geniality. Vic felt like he wanted to wage in as he was equally mesmerized by the method:
-Unbelievable! I would’ve never imagined that something like this was even possible.
-Vic, Mr. Parker…this no genius work. This common work. Li Jie just smart and know how to spy. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling as they were amazed themselves how come the two Americans didn’t know it. It was the time when John started to understand that his assignment will face bigger challenges than what he thought, that the tactics and the strategies he wanted to employ must be changed. He was facing an opponent who was playing dirty, an opponent who didn’t give a damn about fair play, an opponent who was playing all the cards possible (legal or illegal) to win the game. It was the time when he understood that he has to pull himself all the dirty tricks from his pocket, from his baggage of knowledge. A short pause followed and nobody was saying a word anymore. John and Vic were trying to assess the situation, while Zihuan and Yuhuan were waiting for John or Vic to say something.
-Ok, we made a huge progress today. Guys (John was now speaking to the IT gurus he had in front of him), you did an amazing job.
-Thank you Mr. Parker. We happy.
-You truly did an amazing job and I am extremely happy to have you in my team.
-No mention, Mr. Parker. We like you. You great Quarterback!
-Well, I thank you for this, Zihuan. I am not sure how great of a Quarterback I was. I didn’t play in NFL. John’ voice felt a little soft and Vic picked up the vibe right away. He understood that John’s biggest dream was to be a starter into a game on Monday night Football. He looked at him and the sorrow into his eyes, confirmed his assumption.
-Yes John, but you made that last seconds throw which won the Championship for your team. You are a great athlete.
-I was a good athlete, Vic and I thank you for your words. Few more seconds passed by. John shook his head in a sign that “whatever was in the past is in the past, now we need to focus on the present and look into the future”
-OK, guys…enough with the past. Let’s sketch up a plan on what our next moves will be. Li Jie is spying on me. Great! Let him think we don’t know this. Now, how do we outsmart him, how do we manage to be all the time one step ahead of him? He is indeed very smart and we need to be smarter. I understand that he is using this strategy to slow me down so I cannot watch the outgoing transactions. Why? Here is the key…These outgoing transactions are closely monitored from America by J.J. and Scott. They couldn’t find anything out of ordinary. It is the same system, the two offices are linked to each other, and they communicate to each other. How come nobody from overseas can pick up the funds drainage? It was the time when another pause took place and everybody in the room was trying to find the logic behind it. Yuhuan raised his hand, signaling that he needs to say something…all eyes in the room were now watching his face, his hands, his moves.
-Mr. Parker, it looks like here, in China, someone modify software. I not understand how. How can same software work here different than in America? We need to see. But we need access total. Now we just solve small piece. You are spied. We need access to server, here. We can copy software and look at home. We need many time to do this. Very complicated.
-Well, let’s do it then! Vic, do you think we can get into the server room somehow?
-Good question, John. I don’t know. We need to be absolutely sure that Li Jie is not all of a sudden coming to work to do some maintenance to the server or to any other office software.
-Can we do it tonight?
-It is eleven already. The alarm is set. I do have the pass-code, but don’t you think that Tony already instructed Li Jie to keep an eye on the security camera system as well? They would see that we popped in.
-Good point. What do you two guys think?
-Mr. Parker…we need plan this. Tonight it is danger.
-Alright, I can see your concerns. I agree, we need a little patience here. So let’s put together a plan: Vic, we need to figure out what Li Jie’s patterns are. Everyone has patterns, habits, own rules by which they are guiding their lives, their behavior. We need to know exactly when he will not be in the office for routine maintenance work. However, how do we bypass the video system without leaving a trace that we were in?
-This not complicated, Mr. Parker. We record video and write on top. No issue. We record time, day, year and write on camera software. Nobody come in. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling again which made John very happy. He knew right away that the two Chinese experts were already familiar with a solution for breaking into the server room without leaving a video trace.
-Great! How about breaking into the system? How do you break Li Jie’s pass-code to get in? Is this going to leave a trace which he could follow?
-Mr. Parker, we already break his pass-code when we look for small tick software, one it is spy on you. For third time that night, both of them crack a laughter which made John and Vic burst into an unstoppable, laud and healthy laughter too.
-Right, you already did. I forgot all about this! Now here it is another question: what if he changes the pass-code before we get in? What if he set up his pass-code to be automatically changed?
-No worries Mr. Parker. We come in second time. And maybe three times. We can see pattern. We see at that time. We keep video record on the door and just change time and day.
-Ok, guys. I think we have a plan: Vic, you will have to figure out Li Jie’s patterns somehow – I will help if I can; Zihuan, for now, you will continue to keep an eye on my neighbors, while you – Yuhuan – will have to start monitoring Tony Gang.
-Good plan, Mr. Parker. Remember…we need more and more information on: video system, Li Jie and server room.
-This is on me. John, you are watched; you need to stay put. You have to talk to Tony on regular basis so you make him understand that you have no idea what’s going on around this office.
-Understood. I have to look pretty and smart and do nothing…I love it!
A huge laughter erupted into the room and a great, friendly atmosphere set in. It was the beginning of a great friendship between the two detectives and John.
-Mr. Parker, we need to go. We have work.
-It is eleven o’clock into the night! Don’t you go to sleep? Both detectives laughed and Zihuan’s answer confirmed what Vic told him earlier: they have other assignments on the roll.
-Mr. Parker, in our job no time to sleep.
-Ok, I am not arguing with this. You two gentlemen have a good night and we will touch base soon, for sure.
John walked them to the door while making a sign to Vic to stay a little longer.
-I am not walking you downstairs, as I don’t want you two to be seen with me. You take the elevator and leave by yourselves.
-Understood, Mr. Parker. Make sense. Good night!
-You two guys have a good night too and try to catch some sleep, for Goodness sake!
-Hahaha! We try, we try.
John opened the door and the two detectives quietly and discreetly slipped out of his apartment. He kept the door cracked watching them taking the elevator down. He just wanted to make sure his neighbors didn’t see them coming out of his room. After he closed the door, he walked again to the window where Vic was waiting for him. Two minutes of silence followed up. Both of them were trying to sum up the events and process the amount of information they had on hand.
-It’s been just three days since you came to China, John and I have to admit that you are indeed the right person for the job.
-Now you are trying to be nice and flatter me. You know that I hate these things.
-Not at all, man. Not at all. Since you made it here, we made huge progress. We have four leads now which we need to follow and this is solely due to your eye for details, due to your feel for people, due to your keen sense of identifying where the danger is coming from. I never thought of Mr. Wang as being part of this fight. Now I truly believe he has an important role into it.
-Are you thinking at what happened in his restaurant?
-Of course. That strange individual who sat all the time into the darkness, that woman upstairs who was watching us when on the hallway and that strange atlas and book he showed us.
-The way I understood this, was that he was trying to tell us he was the descendant of some great warrior close to Emperor Chongzhen.
-He said that the warrior was the head of the Emperor’s personal guard.
-And when I asked him where Yonggan Zhongcheng was, he invited us to leave.
-Right! We need to read more about this Dynasty…but the way I know it, in those times, if you could not protect your Master, it was your honorary duty to commit suicide.
-I read something about the Samurai code of honor. It is similar to what you are telling me. The question is: how is Wang stepping in to be part of this story? Why do we need him?
-We will find out…on Saturday, Zaohui will tell us more.
-I better bring plenty of booze with me. For sure it will be very enticing. John wanted to ask the question: “But who is Zhaohui? What is her role into this saga? Why did she suggest we go have lunch at Wang’s?” He realized that he had to keep these questions for himself, as they could’ve put Vic in a delicate situation, in a position he was not comfortable with.
-Well, my friend…it is late and I have to hit the road. Tomorrow it will be another day in the office. Try to keep Tony on his toes and get as much information as possible. It looks to me that he has no problem giving you details and leads. I just hope that he is doing this out of arrogance and vanity. Otherwise, I think the knot is tightening up and we are getting close to the conclusion. I am only afraid that we are not ready yet. John wanted to ask: “what conclusion?” but refrained from saying it. There were too many unknowns in his mind and too many obscure and mystic meanings to the questions he’s been asking since he set foot in China.
-Alright my friend, I hope you have a good night and I guess I will see you tomorrow. John once again opened up the door and watched Vic take the elevator down. Before closing the door, he took a last look at his neighbor’s door. Nothing out of ordinary, nothing that could tickle his curiosity, no apparent activity from that side. He closed the door and made himself comfortable into one of the armchairs while opening up the file with the multitude of pictures he got from Zihuan. One by one, he looked at them again. He couldn’t see either Tony or his neighbors at that funeral. His eyes were watering again and John decided to call it a day. Waked to the bedroom, put his pajamas on and slipped under the warm blankets. The multitude of the happenings from the busy day that was slowly coming to a closure made him fall asleep immediately.