Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 18-19-20 (Pudong/Vic/Zhaohui)

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.

 

Chapter 18

Pudong

The airport was strangely empty at this time of the night. Only few international flights were still in the cue. The fact that was October and the winter travelling had not yet started, also played a role in a low travel rate.

The flight for Shanghai was accepting passengers for checking in. During the one hour trip from home to the airport, the conversation between the two spouses was strictly casual, not related to the trip: it mostly covered the kids and the school, the house and the winter that was already knocking at the door. One would say that they knew it is a short term separation and kept the discussion out of job related things. But a finer observer would’ve sensed a relative uncomfortable tension in the air. John was thinking at his assignment and the hurdles in front of him while Linda realized that in all these years since they’ve been together, they were not separated more than a couple of weeks. Nervousness and dark thoughts encircled her brain and for a moment felt like she need a fresh breath of air. It was the moment when she opened up the window to get some oxygen. At John’s:

-What’s the matter? Are you sick? Linda nodded few times in a sign that everything is OK and he shouldn’t worry.

-It’s time for you to check in.

-Yeah, I think it is. A long goodbye kiss followed and a tear came out of one of Linda’s eyes.

-Oh, common! I am not leaving anymore…

-Are you nuts? Just go and check in.

-I can see that you are not alright, hon!

-Don’t be silly. I always get emotional when you leave. Right? Every time I say good bye to you, I get that tear in my left eye.

– I hope it’s just this and you are not hiding anything from me.

-No, I am not hiding anything. Just go and check in.

They both stepped into the Business Class check in line. There was nobody ahead of them.

-May I see your Passport, Sir?

-It was supposed to be fast couriered to the Airline. It was a sudden change of plans and we only had 12 hours to get the Visa.

-I see. Let me check. Name, please?

-Parker. John Parker.

-Thank you Mr. Parker. Just a moment.

-Sure, no problem.

-I hope that they didn’t mess up and you don’t have to cancel your flight.

-I hope so too…even, it wouldn’t hurt for me to hang around one more day and get into that Jacuzzi tub with you again.

-Stop it! Linda slapped John over the arm in a sign which almost admitted that she wouldn’t mind either if her husband would spend another 24 hours at home.

-Yes, I found it Mr. Parker. How many pieces of luggage you are checking in?

-One, this big guy right here.

Checking in procedures went smoothly and after receiving the Boarding Pass, they both headed for the Gate. Same short line for Business Class. Before entering the checking point, John kissed his wife again and headed straight for the Security check. It went alright again and through the opened doors he was able to still see his wife. Waived at her and then headed for the Gate.

Business Class with this Airline was absolutely fabulous. Every traveler had his own cubicle like space which was keeping the individual separated from other passengers. The seats were turning into beds as well, giving one the chance to sleep and get well rested at the destination. Nice features, exclaimed John while checking the functionality of his seat, of his TV and all other little things associated with travelling Business. He pulled a stack of papers he printed out, planning to read during such a long flight.

When everybody was set, the flight attendant showed up and handed over nice comfortable slippers. John put them on, took his seat and started reading a particular package he was interested in; a package which contained information on major partners Glenworth had in Asia. He had a selection done by country, so he started obviously with China. It took some time before John realized that he was airborne and this was due to the fact that the attendant asked him if he wanted a drink.

He startled, and realized that he completely missed the takeoff procedures and the takeoff itself.

-Yes. May I have an orange juice please?

-Certainly. Do you want ice or just like that, straight up?

-No ice please.

-Sure Mr. Parker; in about thirty minutes we will be serving dinner. What would you like for the main course? We have chicken Florentine, we have beef Tortellini, or we can give you a sushi plate.

-Sushi plate would be perfect. Thank you.

-Great! Please let me know if you need anything else.

-For sure. Thanks again.

John started digging again through the stack of papers in front of him and carefully made notes on the page. He tried to learn their names by heart, so it would be easier to dig into details. He particularly looked at the numbers of employees these companies had, the amount of time they were in business, how often they were doing business with Glenworth and what were the transaction amounts. He was just hoping for the moment that something out of ordinary popped up. Nothing special, nothing that would make him pin point a lead towards a certain direction. Disappointed and a bit frustrated, John put the pile of paper aside, reclined his seat and started looking for a sports or a news channel. The movie selection was quite large and diverse. Well, maybe I will watch a movie, some sports and then go to sleep.

The dinner was about to be served, so he brought the seat back up into the upright position.

-Here you go, Mr. Parker: your sushi plate.

-Thank you very much, it looks great.

-Thank you, Sir! Would like a drink before your dinner? We have a large variety of spirits on board.

-Sure, I will have a Cognac; one cube of ice, please.

-Certainly; anything else you would like?

-Not for now. Thank you very much.

-I will be circling around again…in case you need a wine or a beer.

-I will have a glass of wine later on.

-Bon appétit, Sir!

-Thank you.

John looked at the plate in front of him and couldn’t believe the refinement in presentation and variety. Where do they make these? It’s unbelievable…you feel like you are dining out in a restaurant! He deliberately skipped the bread and butter so he could get the real taste of the wonderfully presented sea food in front of him. The spring rolls and the salmon sushi looked phenomenal! When coming down to sea food, the spring rolls were John’s favorite and from Western Cuisine, the B.C. rolls (sake salmon sushi). To his surprise, the Carrier had it on board. “This flight won’t feel so long as it initially I thought!” John cracked a smile and immediately started working on his sea food plate. “Maybe I need to order a wine to go with this awesome stuff!”

-Excuse me, mam’…is there any way I can have a glass of wine, please?

-Certainly, Sir. Would you like a red or a white?

-White of course.

-We have several options; I will bring the list to you.

-Fantastic! Wow…they have several options! This is amazing.

-Here you go, Sir!

John opened up the wine menu. He quickly counted ten different types from few countries. Shockingly, he couldn’t decide right away but at the end he went for a dry white, just good to go with his sushi.

-Very well, Sir! It will be a minute. The wine was well chilled and the aroma released while poured into the glass, made John understand that he made a good choice. Enjoy, Sir!

-Thanks very much! The wine was as good quality wise as the food was. His taste buds were excited at the maximum as John tried to enjoy every single ounce of food and wine.

At the end, a barely audible sigh of relief and satisfaction came out of John’s chest. It was the deep pleasure of enjoying the aftermath of a good meal at the tandem with a good wine while watching an easy and relaxing movie.

-How was the meal, Sir?

-Fantastic! Compliments to the Chef!

-Thank you. We actually hired a well-known Chef to craft our menus; it looks like he did a pretty good job. Would like something for the sweet tooth?

-Sure, why not? Don’t tell me that you will bring a menu again…both John and stewardess burst into a laughter which raised few heads around. People were probably asking themselves why John and the beautiful attendant were having so much fun.

The stewardess put her right index finger on her lips (the universal sign of: “quiet”), dropped her head and when close enough to John’s head, she whispered: it looks like some people don’t like the fact that we are just trying to make this flight seem as short as possible). John affirmatively nodded and replied: I don’t want to get you in trouble.

-No, you are not getting me in trouble, but we need to keep this low…sorry”

-I fully understand. My apologies.

-You don’t have to apologize. Sir, can I entertain you with some sweets? We have Crème brûlée, we have Profiteroles with dark or white chocolate, we have Tiramisu, we have Gelato de la Romagna and de la Umbria and we have Siena Zuccotto.

-Wow! Sounds impressive! I am not that familiar with the last one and I really do not feel like having ice crème. Profiteroles are always exciting and crème brûlée is something I have had many times before. So…let’s have a Tuscan delight!

-Well done, Sir! I will be right back with your Zuccotto di Siena. Would you like a white sweet wine to go with your dessert?

-Absolutely. I leave the wine choice at your discretion. I fully trust your taste.

-Thank you Mr. Parker! I will be right back with your wine and dessert.

John started flipping through the Sports channels. The Olympic Games (even if they were recorded) captured his attention as the fast track was played. The explosiveness of the athletes when leaving the blocks, the “all in” commitment during the short 100 meters of run, the maximum concentration needed at the start, the possible turn of events, was making this event something John was not going to miss for the world.

-Your dessert, Sir! And your wine, as you ordered: a sweet white to go with the sweetie in front of you.

-The dessert looks fabulous! Thank you! I am sure that the wine is perfect too.

-For anything else you may need, just call me. There is an attendant button right here. She pointed out a little button on one of the arms the chair had.

-Very well. For now, I am just going to enjoy these track and field show and my dessert. Obviously I will finish up with this intriguing white you recommended.

-I hope I didn’t disappoint you, Mr. Parker. Please let me know how you like it.

-I will for sure. John scooped a bite from the famous Zuccotto; after swallowing, he smacked his tongue against his roof of the mouth in a sign that the first impression was positive. Once the sweetie taste of the dessert hit his soft palate, a whole world of fantastic flavors stimulated his taste buds. John closed his eyes and slowly and methodically took another taste of the Tuscan wonder. It was like all the smells of a late spring poured through the roof of his mouth into his nostrils. The vanilla and the raspberry smell, the sweet-bitter chocolaty taste and the smell of the Marsala wine flooded his senses. John opened up his eyes only to bring the piece of dessert closer to his nose. He inhaled deeply and closed the eyes again. I have to learn how to make this! Slowly, he finished whatever was left off of the Zuccotto. All this time he placed the TV on pause, as he really wanted to fully enjoy the Tuscan Cuisine wonder. When the last bit of this great dish was done, he laid back into the chair and closed the eyes again. It was a great culinary experience! Then opened his eyes up and grabbed the glass of wine. As usual, he brought the glass close to the nose, slowly swirled the liquid and took a fast and deep sniff. A whole panel of aromas hit his trained nostrils: the pineapple, the apple, the jasmine and fresh basil were all captured into this white-goldish liquid, making it smell like summer in a glass. John was stunned! How can these guys entertain like this? It is almost like you are in a pretty upscale Restaurant!

-How did you like your dessert, Mr. Parker?

-I absolutely loved it! Both the Zuccotto and the wine were fabulous!

-I am glad to hear this. More wine?

-Sure, why not? I will enjoy my TV even better. Stewardess turned around and brought the bottle again.

-Let me take a picture of the label, please. I never had this wine before. John pulled his cell phone and snapped a shot of the label. This is a great wine! Thank you for recommending.

-My pleasure, Mr. Parker. Anything else you would like to have?

-I think I am set for now. Thank you very much! I will get back to my Sports. John made himself comfortable into his seat, grabbed the glass wine and started playing the Olympics from where he left them of. The enjoyment was total: great athletes running and the awesome wine in his glass made the overall show something to remember. Let’s play a movie now; enough of Sports. There was a huge selection of old and newer movies. He picked an action movie and turned his seat into a bed. At this point, John just wanted to watch something easy to follow, something that was a no brainer, something which would keep you awake and your interest sharp without having to invest much thinking. Now, let’s see: Die Hart or Austin Powers? A little laughter doesn’t hurt so…Gold Member it is! John made himself as comfortable as possible and played the movie. The lights in the cabin were turned off and one could only see the individual lights of each “cubicle” lit up as people were either watching TV or reading. He watched Austin Powers series quite few times alongside Linda. This time was different; something was missing. Soon he realized that he was missing the laughter they were having while watching together, the always changing comments they were making and the snacks which were part of the overall entertainment. John finished his glass of wine and then completely turned his seat into a bed. It was a long day and in spite of the nap he took at home, the events were now catching up on him. Without noticing, he fell asleep. The seat-bed was quite comfortable so he only woke up when the lights in the cabin were switch back on by the stewards. A short announcement made him understand that they were serving another hot meal. A pleasant smell was coming from the carts the stewards were pushing. John was intrigued as it was something that he was familiar with but he just couldn’t pin it into the board. He slept for five hours. On the monitor of his TV, the tracer was showing that the flight was just into its ninth hour mark. Five more hours is not that big of a deal anymore, said John to himself while getting ready for the food. He brought his seat all the way back upwards, brought the stowed table into usable position and curiously waited for the stewardess to show up with his food.

-Good morning Mr. Parker!

-Morning?

-Yes, it is almost 9 am US time.

-As time flies by!

-Indeed. What would you like for breakfast? We have omelets, sausage and bacon with potatoes, we have pancakes and freshly baked bread.

-I will have an omelet, pancakes and tomato juice please.

-Here it is your tomato juice, I will come back with the main course.

John turned the TV back on and switched to financials. Reports, analysis and expert opinions were all bundled up into a show he never watched before. The focus was on the Asian financial market, which captured John’s attention immediately. He was all eye an ears when the attendant came with his breakfast. While still watching, he set his table and nodded a “thank you” for the service. The trends shown on the screen were a little skewed comparing to what he saw at Glenworth and to what he read into the newspapers and pulled off of the Internet. In John’s mind this was a sign that the markets were a little shaky at this point waiting for something to be happening. He ate his food while watching the show. He was totally captivated. Slowly but surely he started understanding that he needs to look at this endeavor from a different angle, from a unique and particular view: particularities of the Asian markets. He quickly finished his meal. This was a sign of how eager he was to absorb the free information which was flowing towards him. For the next two hours or so, he was glued to the screen, not paying attention to anything else but the show. He pulled the stack of papers he looked at before dinner and stared making notes again. At this point he didn’t really know if he will ever use them, but for the moment the info seemed useful and worth the effort. When the show was over, he leaned back into a more comfortable position and reclined the seat. Now he had something to chew on, something that could point him into the right direction while in China. Slowly he got up and started stretching as the numerous hours he spent into the seat took a toll on his joints. There were just three more hours to go and his spirit was high, was full of confidence and hope that he will get to the bottom of the problem. The slippers he received were very comfortable; he took them off and started massaging his feet. Immediately fell how the blood was now better flowing from the foot upwards. It was a trick he learnt from the trainers he had during his football years. Overall, he felt good and resourceful, he felt like he was up to the challenge and the success was not that far-fetched as it seemed on Friday when he got the news from J.J. Now, as he was closing in to reaching China, he was actually welcoming the task, he was eager to step into the field and make that winning throw which will bring the stands again on their feet. He was all pumped up and the fact that the tracer was showing just two and a half hours to go, made him wanting the challenge. Slowly, he chilled down and set the TV on sports again. This time he was just flipping through channels, just to kill some time. Grabbed his notes again and for another ten minutes or so he browsed through them yet again in a hope that he will see something that would lead him to the right direction. He was now comparing Glenworth’s charts with market’s and both of them against the latest notes he took by hand. Nothing popped up, so John decided to put them back into his carry on luggage. When the attendant passed by, he asked for some nuts and another tomatoes juice.

-Right away Mr. Parker! In few minutes, a nicely shaped porcelain bowl with a lid on top was sitting in front of him alongside a full glass of the red liquid everybody enjoys. He thanked and lifted the lid: Macadamia and Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans were all mixed up into the bowl in front of him. These guys don’t go cheap on food! He was pleased again with the selection and now he turned again his attention to Sports. Some College Football highlights caught his eye sight. One of them was the final play of the game he watched on Sunday. Once again he shook his head at the guts that coach had. Without noticing, there was just over an hour and a half left into the flight and the attendants showed up again with food.

-Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now serving lunch. As usual, we have a good selection of dishes. Enjoy your meal. Bon appetite.

John chose chicken Florentine and Pêche Melba for dessert. A red wine to go with the chicken accompanied his order. He was amazed again with the variety and the high quality of the food. At least the Peach Melba was absolutely fantastic. The aroma of the peaches and the thick raspberry syrup poured on top of the vanilla ice cream made him repeat the drill he followed at dinner. Everything was delicious. By the time the attendants were done wrapping up and cleaning, the plane was already into a descending path. It was a sign that soon, the captain will ask passengers to prepare for landing. John pulled the seat into upright position, stowed the table, removed his slippers and put his shoes on. Not knowing how to dress, he switched the TV on Weather Channel. A pleasant 66 F was waiting for him so he decided to leave the jacket inside the carry on luggage.

-Ladies and Gentlemen, we are approaching Shanghai. It is a beautiful sunny day at your destination, the time is 3:45 pm local time and the temperature is 19 Celsius or 66 Fahrenheit. We hope that you enjoyed your flight and we thank you for flying with us. Attendants, please prepare for landing procedures. Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your seat up and seat belt on.

John buckled up and all the way to the point of touch down, he followed the monitor and the plane descending path. Once he landed, for some reason he felt like taking a deep breath. It was a way of telling himself: “it’s game time!”

Pudong was very busy at this time of the day. After retrieving his large piece of luggage, John headed straight for the    Exit. “I hope Vic is waiting for me”! One more time he pulled a picture from one of the Office parties they had when Vic was still in North America. A large guy, with a sweaty and red face was showing in the middle of the picture while trying to exhibit his dancing skills. John cracked a smile. He remembered that party well…Vic got dead drunk and Scott found himself into the situation when he had to give Vic a lift back home. “I hope I am still going to recognize him”. The lines formed at the Customs were immense. Three other overseas flights landed approximately at the same time. Business Class had a fast lane and John headed that direction. The process was fast and soon he found himself out of the Customs and into the Airport itself. The number of people waiving white sheets with the names of the people they were waiting for, was very large. “How am I going to recognize Vic”?

Chapter 19

Vic

John started browsing through the signs. There were few “Johns” but none of the people waiving the signs looked like Vic. John decided to ignore the signs and look through the crowd at people. “There is no way I can’t recognize Vic in this crowd! He is twice the size of any of these individuals here”! In spite of the efforts, he couldn’t identify the man supposed to greet him. “This is unbelievable!” All of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of that gathering, John spotted a very insistent and lively sign with his name. He concentrated his whole attention on the man waiving the sign and to his great surprise, he recognized a Vic who looked not near close to the Vic into the picture John had in his wallet. John was stunned! His eyes couldn’t believe the transformation. He was tall, standing half a head above everybody else, but he was virtually half the size he used to be.

Vic pushed some people out of his way and came to meet John. The hand shake and the friendly hug Vic gave John, were not enough to wake John up from his almost transcended state he got into when spotted Vic.

-Hey, John! What’s wrong with you? Vic’s question, brought John back to reality. He recognized his voice: deep and sober like a Baritone’s voice.

-Vic! What happened to you, man? John hugged him back thus showing a sign of relief, a sign of assertive energy, a sign that he was truly happy seeing him again. Instinctively he knew that something positive happened into his colleague’s life, but for now he refrained from saying or asking anything related to the subject.

-I know that this new image of mine is shocking to you. Actually I am glad I shocked you, John! Both of them burst into a huge laughter which didn’t go unnoticed by the other people in the crowd. Even if many heads turned and looked at them, they both seemed to enjoy that moment of sincere happiness which brought them face to face again.

-Here…I have something for you, Vic! John pulled the picture he had in his pocket and gave it to Vic. Another round of laughter came out of their chests. It is you at that Christmas Party, remember?

-Vaguely! His whole body was shaking from the fun they were having. Vic tried to return the picture back. John shook his head side wise few times.

-It is yours to keep. Scott took you home.

-Yeah, he told me the next day. I was so embarrassed! Thanks for the picture.

-You just had a bit of fun…nothing to be embarrassed for! Well…actually we had some fun too!

-I can only imagine…you guys calling me: “bozo”, “clown”, etc., etc.

-Nobody called you that, but we did have a lot of fun watching you dancing – I have to admit it!

-Here we go! Now you are speaking the truth! Both John and Vic left the Terminal with the strong feel that even if they hadn’t seen each other for so long, they connected at the personal level that the ice was broken between them and they can start now a good and successful professional relationship.

-We will take the fast train. I have tickets. There is one which leaves at 4.35 pm. Can I help you with your luggage?

-I am OK, don’t bother.

Both men headed for the Exit while still chit chatting. Vic was asking questions on rapid fire mode: who else was hired in the Office, did the layout change? Who is sitting now in his old place, was the Happy Irish still in business, etc., etc. John couldn’t help but notice that the last question he asked was: “How is Vickie doing?”  He cracked a large smile realizing that Vic had a little thing going for Vickie. He answered very diplomatically mentioning all the professional qualities Vickie had, avoiding (of course) mentioning to his interlocutor that she annoys him at the utmost level.

The train was already pulled into Pudong Station and the doors were opened for the passengers. After making themselves comfortable, Vic started exposing his welcome plans to John. Prior to today’s meet and greet scenario, he had few conference calls with Scott and J.J. and everything was ironed out in order for John to feel at home, to feel like he had been taken care of, to give him the chance to only focus on his task. Vic checked numerous hotels close to the Office. The prices were into the high range (of course) and the suites were at a range that would’ve not been justifiable over the long run. However, for the first thirty days, Vic found a suite at the Penthouse level at one of the iconic Hotels in Downtown Shanghai.

-OK. We have few minutes to talk about your stay here. The trip as you can see is done by a Maglev train. It is very fast, reaching over 250 miles per hour. It will only take us eight minutes to reach Downtown Shanghai. I rented a suite into a nice hotel for you. You will like it, for sure.

-What is Maglev? I am not familiar with the term.

-Magnetic levitation…basically the train is “airborne” if I can say that and it levitates following a track where magnetized coils are placed and thus repelling the magnets mounted underneath the train. This makes the train to levitate. To say it plainly, the technology replaces the wheels of the train which now are replaced by electromagnets.

-Interesting. Thanks for the educational scientific report! Both Vic and John cracked a laughter, at which point the train started moving. In less than two minutes, the train reached top speed of 264 MPH as the TV mounted on the back of the seats in front of them showed.

-Unbelievable! We are traveling at over two fifty an hour!

-Yeap! In eight minutes we will reach our destination. By Taxi would’ve taken us over an hour. But the investment is worth it. I can’t imagine myself sitting in traffic conditions in a car for over an hour.

-Wow! Looks like somebody is thinking big in this city.

-For sure. You will find out by yourself. We could also learn from the Chinese as they learn from us the know-how related to technology and business. They have an acute talent of absorbing new information and applying it to their needs. It is a very pragmatic culture. Now…I am not sure where you stand regarding jet legging. Are you tired? Do you feel like you need to go to sleep? It is almost six already and if you give in and take a two-tree hour nap, at night time you will look at the walls trying to fall asleep.

-I think I am good. I do feel a little tired but I think I can resist the temptation. What do you have in mind for the rest of the day?

-Well, I will let you settle in first: unpack, shower, and organize your work space. Then I will pick you up and take you out for a nice dinner. It will be Chinese food -this is just to let you know that western food is not accepted tonight! They both laughed again. The train was zooming through the city residential area and the buildings were passing by at speeds that would make one get dizziness.

-Alright, now we are getting off at the Metro Station and will take a Taxi to the Hotel.  John was blindly following Vic and realized how important it was for him that Scott and J.J. organized his arrival by involving Vic. The car was so small in comparison to he was used to drive back in America! Vic saw his reaction and started laughing: it’s a little different from your muscle car, isn’t it? John joined in in laughing.

-Yes, it is a little different indeed.

-Are you still driving that gorgeous 500 HP classic?

-Yes, I am still driving it. Wouldn’t change it for the world.

-Perfectly understandable! I wouldn’t trade something like that for anything else out there. You will have to get used though with these standards. Once you will get to know the city, you can rent your own car if you want.

-I hope I can get out of here before I would get to know the city well! John’s voice was confident and somehow he expected a positive, affirmative reaction from his colleague. It didn’t come. Vic simulated that he was watching something interesting on the sidewalk, but John’s remarkable face reading skills alongside with his feel for any sort of adverse or dangerous situation, made him stop short of another statement regarding his plans. A cold sweat was now running along his spine…”is he in bed with Tony Wang and whoever else”? Nervousness made him bring his eye browses together, signaling discomfort and a need to play safe, to get back into the “pocket” until he figured out what’s going on.

-Alright! We’ve arrived. Let’s go check you in. The bus boy took John’s luggage while they walked towards the Entrance. John’s fine tastes and trained eye for quality interiors couldn’t help but notice the elegance of the Reception area. It was absolutely spectacular: live plants and trees all over, rugs of real quality, plenty of greeting staff, lounges and furniture of hard wood and real leather were decorating the whole area. In few minutes, Vic (speaking in a good Mandarin – one could say) finished the checking in procedure and together with John headed for the elevator. The Penthouse suite was stunning!

An apartment with a living room, a bedroom, kitchen and an Office! Same quality furniture was part of their amnesties. The Office table and the chair were real cherry wood, the table was hand carved while the chair was a beautiful imitation of a Rococo type of chair. John moved his hand over the back frame and the arms of the chair, almost like petting a cute cat or dog. “Yes, it is hand carved indeed”. The small, fine irregularities into the wood betrayed the chair as being manually sculptured while the amount of detailing showed a willingness for a top quality product. One of the bedroom’s walls was entirely made out of glass, so from the bathtub one could watch TV. The living room was large and could entertain many guests. It was almost like it was designed for partying. The large screen TV, the sofas and a couple of tables with chairs were part of the overall room arrangement while a very large and beautifully and lively colored wool carpet gave the penthouse an even more sense of openness and spaciousness. The kitchen was designed with an open concept mind set, with an isle in the middle, dining area and was fully equipped with the best kitchen cookware possible. John cracked a large smile as he felt right away at home. He already pictured himself preparing some orange coated sweet and sour chicken with noodles or a Teriyaki beef with noodles or Linguine.

The view from both Office, Living room and Dining room was stunning. The whole busy business district of Lujiazui was stretching in front of the viewer giving him a sense of unrest, a sense of fast paced life, a sense of “everybody on his own”. But at the same time, the smooth waters of Huangpu River were bringing the viewer a sense of steadiness and stillness, a sense of calmness and tranquility. The apartment, the amnesties and the view were spectacular!

-So, John…I booked this apartment for you for thirty days. If you feel comfortable here, we will extend the contract. If you want more privacy, I can go out there and look for houses for rent. There are many options available in high class residential areas where the owners – either because they are mostly out of the country or because they just keep the houses as investment opportunity – rent out their properties. I have seen gorgeous properties in gated areas, where the houses are built in traditional Chinese style – bungalow type – and the landscaping they have is absolutely gorgeous. There are little man made lakes and almost all year round there are blossomed water lilies and other water plants you can watch while trying to gather your thoughts. You can do your jogging, they have gyms and even small authentic family restaurants.

-Vic, I don’t want to put a dent into Glenworth’s pocket. I really don’t need all these facilities. A decent hotel room where I can make phone calls from, where I can have a good Internet speed and where I can comfortably rest it’s all I want.

-Unfortunately it’s not up to you, John! J.J. demanded that you should have everything you need to feel like home, in America. He burst into laughter. John looked Vic into the eyes and pulled a large smile thus showing that he is ok with whatever Vic is arranging accommodation wise. However, in the back of his mind he was still trying to process the look on Vic’s face when he told him that in a months he expects to head back home. “Now, instead of getting started with my investigation, I have to make sure that he is on my side and not sleeping with the enemy! Damn! Not the start I wanted and expected”.

-Let me show you how you make phone calls from your Office…we have a land line which will be paid by us of course, line you can use to make phone calls anywhere in the world. No time limit, no specific hours to make the calls, no restrictions. You can call your wife as many times you want. And here it is your cell phone for China. I activated it, you don’t have to worry about SIM card, activation, etc. If you want, you can change your voice mail. I suggest you do that when you have a free moment. Here, it shows personality and character as if you just have a general robot answer, shows carelessness and apathy. By the way, don’t forget to change your password on your voice mail…it is 123 for now. This is about it…do you have any questions for me? What do you think about your place?

-Vic, you did an amazing job and I want to thank you for this. I think I am good. I will take a shower, call my wife and unpack as much as I can.

-Very well, John. It is almost 6.30 pm; how about I pick you up at eight o’clock and then we’ll head to a nice decent restaurant for dinner?

-Excellent. I will be down at the reception at 8 pm.

-Fantastic! I will see later, John. Vic turned around and headed for the door. The same time as he was opening the door, the bell boy showed up with the large luggage. Vic tipped him and both of them headed out.

 

Chapter 20

Zhaohui

John dragged the luggage into the bedroom and opened it up. He realized that he will need lots of time to unpack everything, so he just pulled a pair of blue jeans, another pair of shoes, and a short sleeve T-shirt. The weather was gorgeous – still into the low twenties which made John smile as he was ready once again to wear a short sleeved T-shirt. Shortly he hit the bathroom with the idea of soaking into some hot water into the tub, but the numerous hours of flight took a toll on him and he started feeling tired. He realized that a bath instead of a short shower would be a killer, it would send him straight to the bed. He decided to resist temptation and follow Vic’s advice. Dropped his cloths and got into the shower. He set the water temperature to just warm, so the sensation of tiredness would go away. It took two or three minutes to get accustomed to the lower water temperature. But it felt really good and now he was feeling perfectly sharp, awake and ready for the remaining activities of the day as agreed with Vic. He went even a step further and completely turned the hot water off. The cold water flush made him yell, but it did the trick: he was now completely awake without any sign of tiredness bothering him anymore. John wrapped a towel around his waist and got out of the bathroom only to get right back in with his shaving set. The normal routine followed and shortly he was all done with the bathroom activity. While dressing to go out for dinner, his mind was working…the new hypothesis that was already bothering him, wouldn’t leave him alone. “What if…” the question which felt like was now almost glued to his brain was popping up all the time. He quickly dressed and moved into the living room. The view over the Business District was spectacular indeed. John only spent a couple of minutes to admire the scenery. He reached for the wallet, grabbed the cell phone and the room card and headed out in spite of the fact that was still early. He decided to take a short walk around the hotel’s neighborhood so he can talk to himself. Many times before, when he found himself in situations where he didn’t feel perfectly safe or didn’t have the proper answers, he used to take long walks or jog. Now he had half an hour to kill before Vic would show up. Once at the Reception and out of the building, he picked up a side street and merged into the crowd. And it was crowded indeed. His stature allowed him to be with at least a couple of inches above everybody, so he used this advantage to scrutinize the surroundings. The busy and the vibrant life in the Lujiazui District was bringing back memories from back home, memories of the crowded Downtown at peak hours and not only then. But there was no match whatsoever to the amount of people on the street, here in this particular area of the city. There were so many people on the sidewalks, like a tide that was slowly invading the shores. At the green light, everybody was setting into the motion walking to and from a direction. The street was jam packed with cars; this also brought back memories from back home. “Looks like these guys have their traffic issues too”. John tried to memorize the names of the streets as well as the directions he went from the hotel. It was not hard, as the town had its streets built similar to North American streets: like a chess table. When John realized how easy it was to navigate through the city, his face became as expressive and his facial expression as bright and colorful as a well-polished sapphire. He stopped by one of the kiosks which were promoting the city to tourists by offering maps and flyers. Grabbed a map and immediately identified the hotel and the surroundings. He saw on the map some of the streets he passed by and this gave him confidence. “It is actually pretty easy to get around in this area!” This statement came out of John’s mouth pretty loud while he was lowering the map.

-I am sorry, Sir? Would you like some directions? Where do you want to go?

John was in a state of shock! He just realized that his out loud statement was actually addressed to somebody who was passing by…and there were a lot of people doing that! In front of him, two girls stopped by to answer John’s “question”. First shocking image (to John) was that one of the girls was holding other’s arm. “Are you kidding me? Did I just talk to a pair of lesbians?” John felt like a cold sweat was running down his spine…he was so embarrassed by the situation that he really dropped his head in a sign of asking for forgiveness. But the girl who spoke to him, burst into laughter and made him understand that there is no issue whatsoever.

-We just want to help, Sir! We heard you say: “to get around in this area” and realize that you are foreigner and you need help.

– I am so sorry for this! Actually I was kind of congratulating myself when realizing that it is not that hard to navigate through the city. I did not even realize that I was talking to somebody! My apologies again.

-Oh, you no worry. Shanghai is large city but no hard to get around.

-This is what I thought! I looked at the map and it’s like I am almost back home to America.

-You, American?

-Yes, I am.

-My boyfriend study in America. He do his Master in Business.

-Aha, OK. He is doing his Master in US. At which University?

-In California.

-OK. Well, I am glad I met you two…my name is John Parker.

-I am Chu Hua and this is my friend Yue Ying. John stretched his hand and shook her hand. Before doing the same for Yue Ying, the most beautiful and melodious voice he has ever heard, greeted him:

-Nice meet you, John. She looked straight into his eyes and pronounced again her name: Yue Ying is my name.

John was stunned. He didn’t know how to react. A “nice to meet you” came out of his mouth while his face turned red from emotions.

-Her name is: Yue Ying; she only speak little English.

John understood right away that Chu Hua was in charge of conversation as she had a pretty good command of English, thus speaking for her friend too. Dropping the map and gathering his thoughts, John was still holding Yue Ying’s hand. The face of the girl lit-up like a Christmas tree and John realized that the beautiful big nicely slandered black eyes were complimenting a gorgeous smile which in turn was creating two pinkish hues into her cheeks. The scene was something John was not prepared for and this was the reason why he didn’t know how to react. Her hand was still locked into his palm and for some reason he didn’t want to let go. He was virtually still hypnotized by the fire power that was coming out of those two wonderfully shaped almond eyes which were releasing a mystic but in the same time a peaceful and relaxing energy, eyes which were capable of saying stories from the past – equally of chivalry and rightness or stories of conquest and brutal murder. Her long, black hair was freely flowing on the shoulders giving the interlocutor the image of a warrior in search for justice and peace.

John nodded in an affirmative way. This was all he could pull out of his communication panel giving the circumstances. His eye sight was still captured by the gorgeous black eyes which were still looking at him, eyes which were trying to pierce two holes through his armor.

Chu Hua realized the awkwardness of the situation and grabbed her friend’s arm once again. It was a sign that they should go now.

John released the hand he was holding hostage for half a minute now, not knowing what to say anymore.

-We should go now, John.

-It was nice meeting you two.

-Good bye, John! We hope to see you again some other time. They both turned towards the direction they were initially heading and made a farewell sign to John. All he could do was the same: waive a good bye sign with his right hand. For few seconds John felt lost. He was still trying to process what just happened. Out of nowhere he met two girls, one of them offering to help with directions while the other one made him feel like a high school boy standing in front of a beautiful girl ready to talk to him. He shook his head in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous! What am I? A teenager getting all excited when girls are willing to crack a word with me?” He felt mad at himself and nervously turned around and headed back for the hotel. All the way back, he dissected the event without paying attention to the surroundings anymore. He remembered all of a sudden that he was supposed to meet Vic at 8 pm in the Lobby. He looked at his wrist watch and realized that was already late by twenty minutes. He tried to increase the pace of his walk but finally he understood that he could only walk as fast as the crowd was doing it. There was no chance to pass by people, to speed up. The walkways were jam packed. When he made it to the hotel, Vic was already into a panic mode.

-For goodness sake, John! Where have you been? I was very close of calling Police!

-Call the cops for what?

-What do you mean? I went up to your apartment, you were not there. Then somebody from Reception told me that you went out. You got me worried sick, man!

-Oh, don’t worry my friend…I just took a walk in the neighborhood. I wanted to get myself accustomed to the surroundings. I got caught into the rush hour traffic.

-You have my cell number. Why didn’t you call me?

-Well…I didn’t realize how fast the time passed by. Sorry, man!

-You scared the hell out of me!

-Don’t worry, my friend. I’m a big boy. John burst into a big and healthy laughter. But this time Vic didn’t join in. Common, Vic! I can take care of myself.

– I believe that you can take care of yourself, John. I truly believe that. But you just landed into a city you’ve never been before and you don’t know that there are certain areas where you cannot go by yourself.

-I understand, but I just wondered around the block for a while. Don’t tell me that you booked for me a hotel in a bad area! Vic couldn’t argue with John’s argument, but the fact that he ventured out without letting him know, was almost like a bad joke.

-Common, Vic! I promise to be a good boy from now on!

-Damn you, John! You know that I can’t be mad at you! Both men started laughing and a friendly poke into John’s shoulder put an end to the situation.

-OK. I am hungry. Where is that restaurant you were bragging about?

-Before we go there, I want you to meet somebody.

-You want me to meet…who?

-Just a moment. Vic slowly headed for one of the lounges. He grabbed from behind the seat someone’s shoulders and murmured few words into the person’s ear. John was completely mesmerized when a woman stood up and together with Vic was now heading towards his direction.

-John, please allow me to introduce Zhaohui to you. She is my fiancée.

John wouldn’t have been so perplex and shocked even if the sky was about to fall upon him. For the second time in a matter of probably twenty minutes he was speechless. The surprise was total, was huge and was something he couldn’t quite comprehend. He pulled the introductory phrase: “Nice to meet you, Zhaohui. I am John Parker” with a weak and trembling voice, showing this way that the level of emotions in his head reached a peak he thought he would never achieve.

-Mr. Parker, Vic told me a lot about yourself. It is my pleasure to finally meet you.

-Please call me John, Zhaohui; between friends there is no Mister. John put a smile on his face, even if was already feeling that he wouldn’t be able to disguise the difficulty he found himself into, for too long.

-As you wish, John. I hope that your stay in China will be fruitful and you will return home to your family as soon as possible.

-This is my hope too, Zhaohui.

-OK guys! Let’s head out. I am as hungry as a wolf in spring time. Vic pulled a laughter while John tried to accompany him. “Who is this woman? Nobody said anything about her back home. It looks like Vic already briefed her up on my assignment. Do I have to worry about another piece into the puzzle?” These questions annoyed him and all of a sudden he felt like all the odds are against him. The man who thought he was always in control, who thought that he would be able to always manage his state of mind, was now shaky and emotional, uncertain and untrusty on the next move he was going to make, but most of all, he was untrusty on the next decision he was going to make. This was immensely bothering John as he was now struggling to understand whom he can trust.

All three of the headed for the exit. A taxi was waiting for them. In less than ten minutes, they arrived at the restaurant. Vic paid the driver and confidently walked into the restaurant. It was not an upscale place, but it was decorated with lots of taste: traditional Chinese handmade art was hanging on the walls while the atmosphere was a family type, with tables for large gatherings or with tables separated by everybody else through “walls” of reed wicker. While having a sit, John couldn’t help but notice that Vic’s fiancée was a woman into her late thirties maybe early forties, with a typical long flowing black hair and beautiful almond eyes. The lips were thin and the skin white. No sign of wrinkles whatsoever, which made John debate in his mind the age of the woman. She was quite tall, not the typical short Chinese female. Her body was perfectly shaped: slim, narrow waist, long legs which were betrayed even more by the tight blue jeans she put on and also by the high heels she was wearing. The eyes were bright and investigative (in spite of their black color), leaving one with the feeling that she was trying to find as much information as possible about the interlocutor at every eye contact. The rules of the game were changing by the moment and John realized that he had to use all the tricks in the bag, all his life experience to pull this assignment through. “Why is he introducing me to his fiancée? Is this a custom? Is this another way of saying: I have my life here, I will help you as much as I can but don’t rely on me too much?” Lots of other questions popped up into his head and the first encounter with Shanghai was far from what he expected, far from what he envisioned and what he was prepared for.

The waiter came to their table and brought the Menu. He simulated that he was focused on what he would like for dinner, but his mind was somewhere else: the street episode when he met Ying Yue and now the fact that the puzzle was getting more and more complex by adding new players, made him retreat into defense and expectation. For few minutes nobody said a word and the quietness was becoming embarrassing to everybody at the table. John didn’t really know what to do. Back home he would’ve cracked a joke, would’ve brought a sports or a political scenario into the discussion. But at the moment, he simply couldn’t find anything. It was like his brain froze and was incapable to come up with anything. This was obviously due to the fact that he had so many questions in his mind: Vic’s reaction in the taxi, the presence of a woman he was seeing for the first time – and presented as Vic’s fiancée – and maybe the whole new environment which didn’t really seem like being close to anything from back home.

Finally, (to both Vic’s and John’s satisfaction), Zhaohui looked at John and with a waggish tone asked him:

-John, back home in America, when you go to a Chinese restaurant, what do you order? I expect you order Chinese food, right?

-Of course!

-Well, I guess in China we just have to order food, don’t we?

Both John and Vic dropped their Menus and a huge laughter came out of their chests. John was holding his head into his palms while the whole body was shaking like a leaf into the wind. Tears were coming out of his eyes. Vic was in the same state of mind, as his tall and (now slim) body was following the same ritual.

-I have to admit that I never looked at this little detail like this!

-Me neither! Vic’s voice was betraying a sense of accomplishment, a sense of proudness as his fiancée managed to break the ice and say a joke that made both him and John laugh like in the old days, back home.

-This is a good one and with your permission Zhaohui I will be using when I will have a chance.

-I did not patent it yet, but sure, you can go ahead and use it, John!

Another round of laughter broke out and from that moment a friendly and inviting environment settled at the dinner table. All his worries were gone for the moment, Vic’s face was radiant while Zhaohui’s eyes were showing joy and happiness, emotions which John initially did not think she was in mood of showing.

-Have you decided? The waiter was standing by the table with his note book in his hand.

-No, we have not decided yet. But how about we get started with some appetizers first? Both John and Vic nodded affirmatively. While Zhaohui was ordering, John looked at the drinks Menu and softly asked Vic what he wants. He raised his shoulders in a sign that anything will do it. After ordering the appetizers, Vic’s fiancée calmly asked John:

-What would you like for a drink, John?

-I guess we can have a beer or a shot of something strong…either one…I really don’t mind either one.

Zhaohui placed the order and for the next ten minutes small talk was part of the discussion: weather, the Olympics, world affairs, Education system in China and US and the prospects of the Economy, now that it reached global dimension.

– Zhaohui let me ask you a question if I may…

-Go ahead, John. You can ask as many questions as you want.

-How come you speak such a good English? Did you study in US?

-Let me answer your question, John: first of all, thank you for your compliment.

-You are welcome Zhaohui, I was just stating the obvious.

She nodded with an appreciative gesture and explained that she was teaching Chinese to the English speaking foreigners who were coming to Shanghai for business or to settle in the town for good. Now things were coming together for John…so, Vic took a Chinese course to learn the language and this is how he met Zhaohui. He stopped short from smiling as he earlier noticed that Vic’s fiancée had a keen sense for reading people, as her eyes were as sharp and investigative as a detective’s eyes.

-I see. It makes sense now. Congratulations once again.

-Thanks, John.

The waiter showed up with three beers. To John’s disappointment, he didn’t see the specific condensation on the bottles. He grabbed one and held it into his hand. His supposition was confirmed. The beers were not kept into the fridge. Vic realized John’s dilemma and told the waiter to bring another one from the fridge. To John’s wonder, Vic accepted his beer like that.

-Cheers guys and thank you for taking me out for dinner.

-Cheers John and let’s hope we can do this as often as we can.

-Cheers, John! Welcome to China and good luck with your assignment.

-Thanks again you two guys!

The appetizers showed up and the smell of the food made the three of them only concentrate on the goodies in front of them.

Zhaohui started describing each appetizer and how are they made. John realized that she was doing the cooking, as her knowledge of mixing ingredients was far above someone’s who only cooks occasionally. The spring rolls looked fantastic: the light goldish color, the greens from inside the roll contrasting with the few drops of raspberry sauce “thrown” on the top, showed that the presentation on the plate was at least as important to the Chef as it was to deliver good, tasty food. Also, the coconut breaded large shrimp and the spare baby ribs made in Teriyaki sauce looked at least as inviting as the rolls. Overall, the good looking platter of appetizers sitting on the table completely broke the ice between them and a joyful and sincere atmosphere was the set mood for the rest of the night. Again, small talk and chit chatting kicked in, only to be momentarily interrupted by the main course: Peking duck, steamed vegetable with a bit of Teriyaki sauce on top of them and Himalayan rice with cashews and dried fruits. The food looked stunning indeed and the three patrons sitting at the table felt like the feast in front of them was perfectly complementing the good atmosphere which was surrounding the table. For dessert, the mango pudding was “out of this world”, as John exclaimed! Both Vic and Zhaohui started laughing and by the end of the evening all three patrons had the feeling that the event was extremely pleasant, relaxing and represented a good start of a great collaboration and maybe a great friendship.

It was already 11 o’clock when the taxi pulled in front of the hotel. Both Vic and Zhaohui got off the car, shook John’s hand and wished him good night.

-John, what time do you think you can be up tomorrow? How about I come over and pick you up after you call me?

-Sure, let’s do this. I really don’t know how my body will react. I managed to stay up, so I don’t think it will be a problem to wake up at 6-6.30 tomorrow morning.

-OK, have a good night John!

-You too, guys!

-Have a good night John and again, it was really nice to finally meet you.

-Likewise, Zhaohui. It was my pleasure to meet you. Good night!

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