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.
John set the alarm for 6.30 am. He wanted to get a head start for the day and be in the Office as early as possible, in spite of the fact that Vic was hinting that they should go later.
When the alarm went off, he felt like the whole ceiling fell upon him. Those six and a half hours of sleep, were not nearly enough for him. The previous day was long and was filled with surprises making him go through emotions he didn’t want, emotions he didn’t need to start his new endeavor with. He hit the snooze button and turned on the other side with a deep satisfaction that he had the choice not to wake up and go for another short nap. Eventually, he was awaken by his cell phone. Still half asleep, he reached to the night stand and searched for the cell. Vic was calling. Immediately he knew he overslept.
-Good morning, John!
-Hey, Vic! Morning! John’s voice was similar to a sound made by a grossly out of key musical instrument.
A huge laughter one could’ve heard on the other side of the line. It was Vic, who understood immediately that John was going through the jet legging phase and he needed more time to rest.
-Looks like someone still needs a bit more time to spend into the bed. John, why don’t we do this: I let you sleep another three hours and I come over to pick you up and take you out for lunch. What do you think?
-Sure, let’s do it. I feel like I need another 24 hours of sleep.
-Ha ha ha! OK, I either call you from the Lobby, or I will ask the Receptionist to take me up to your apartment. See ya, buddy! Vic hung up and John went back to sleep with an immense contentment that he had another two or three hours of sleep on his hand.
The sun’s rays were now hitting John’s window and before John opened up his eyes he let the bright light and the rays flood and play games on his face, feeling that this new dawn deserved a little pampering. When he finally opened up his eyes, the bedroom was immersed into the natural light of the sun, emphasizing the modern layout of the room. John headed for the bathroom and decided to take advantage of the great amnesties provided by the hotel, so he took a deep into the bathtub. He then set the TV on news. The Chinese version of his favorite news channel was broadcasting in English. Nothing to catch his attention but a graph on the Financials section which was showing a market trend different from what he saw back home. This was on an ascendant trend all the way to the end of the year as opposing the one he saw yesterday which was showing a descending trend. He raised his left eye browse in a sign which was showing that he was not convinced that what he is seeing is right. He started paying more and more attention to what it was shown on the screen. To his distress, another channel which was based in Hong Kong showed the same trend which made John nervous this time. “How are these guys doing their number crunching? How are they coming up with graphs which are completely different from ours?” He shook his head, got out of the bathtub and entered the shower. In few seconds he rinsed himself, got out of the shower, put the robe on and headed straight for the living room. He turned on the TV into this room as well, while drying his hair. The view was spectacular. The business district was already looking like a swarm and John figured out that it must be around lunch time. The TV was showing 11.20 am so he headed straight for the dresser where last night he placed his suit, the shirt and the shoes he was planning to wear today. A “ding/dong” sound came from the entrance and John realized that it was Vic. He took a look through the peep hole and confirmed: Vic was standing in front of the door, accompanied by the receptionist. John opened up and vigorously shook his hand. Vic thanked the girl for accompanying him up and closed the door behind him.
-I have visited this room twice before, but I have never seen it in the middle of the day, never seen it bathing into the full day light. It is awesome! And the view is simply breath taking.
-Yes, Vic! You did a good job. Both men laughed.
-Vic, I still have to dress. Please make yourself at home. I don’t even know what is in the fridge. If you want a shot of a Cognac now, before lunch, just go ahead and help yourself. I had a drink last night when I got into my room. It is a very good quality Cognac.
-No John, thanks for offering. Not much interested into spirits. John stopped into the door’s frame while still looking at Vic. Actually he realized yesterday at the dinner table that he refrained from ordering another beer. First thought into John’s mind was: “he doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his fiancé”, but now, he had the proof: Vic gave up drinking, or he was very cautious while having a drink. John quickly understood that Zhaohui was a big part of this change and felt like he was lucky that Vic was now completely off the hook when was coming down to drinking. “Now I can completely rely on him” murmured John to himself while stepping into the bedroom to dress up for the first day into the Shanghai Office.
Vic opened up the fridge and then the kitchen cabinets. Little bags of cashews and Brazil nuts were available, as well as candies and other typical Chinese pastries. He grabbed a bag of cashews, made himself comfortable into one of the sofas and started watching TV. John finished dressing into a record timing.
-Looking good, Mister…looking good! Vic pulled an admiring laughter and stood up ready to head out. John was wearing a nice, light green with thin bluish color vertical stripes suit and black shoes. His shirt was light blue and the tie a light green also with very fine grey stripes. His nice black lightly grizzled hair was complementing the suit revealing at the end a man of a great attire taste and dominating posture. Both men headed out towards the elevators. One could’ve said that they were both in a very good mood as their faces were radiant and jovial. But a finer human behavior observer would’ve immediately realized that behind these nice smiles, there was a deep sense of inquietude, a sense of uneasiness, of worry and anxiety. For John was the “D day”. He found himself engaged into this new endeavor completely new to him, into this attempt to do a detective’s work, to investigate a situation which was probably the field of expertise for a FBI financial expert. Last night, while contemplating the great view of the Huangpu River he asked himself this very question: “Why isn’t J.J. talking to FBI? Looks like this thing has been lingering around for some time now. Why isn’t Glenworth asking for professional help?” But every time John was calling upon this dilemma, he was the one who provided an answer: “He is too proud to ask for help”. On this particular morning while showering, John’s mind produced another hypothesis: “What if he doesn’t want to get to the bottom of this? What if he is deliberately draining funds and place them into a safe heaven, a tax free place? He spent lots of money on his horse farm in Montana and on the breeding program he has on the go. He wants to have a Kentucky winner, this is one of his dreams. What if he is trying to make now up for all the investments he made into the farm?” This was a long shot and John put it into an imaginary vault in his brain. He didn’t want to believe that this could be even remotely possible, as J.J. was like a father for him. He had such a great respect for his boss and a scenario like the one he imagined, would’ve been devastating for him.
For Vic, it was also something new, something he really didn’t want to be part of, something which was putting him into a situation to make waves in the Office. He didn’t want that. He just wanted to go on with his new life, get married to Zhaohui and enjoy a good life in Shanghai. That is why, his forehead was showing shadows of discomfort which he was trying to hide through showing a happy, jovial and cheerful face. But Scott instructed him into the smallest details on what to do and how to help John with his work. There were many late night conference calls with J.J. and Scott and the gravity of the situation was numerous times stressed out and emphasized by the two top Executives of the Company. Now, he had to step out of his comfort zone, to join John in doing probably some field work and detective type of investigation. “This doesn’t look too good. Let’s see what John can come up with. I will play by the ear”.
Before reaching the elevators, John stopped few feet from his neighbors’ door, positioning his body as close as possible to the angle from which he spied on them. The door was closed but John turned his head and looked the opposite way. It was a clear view of the other’s apartment’s door. “Hmmm…did they want to keep an eye on those guys? Why was the man sitting with his back at the door?” John shook his head in a sign of: “can’t answer this” while a barely visible cloud of restlessness traveled across his forehead.
Vic carefully watched latest John’s moves and with an intrigued, puzzled voice asked him what he is doing.
-I will tell you a story when we get to the Restaurant. Right now, I cannot say it. I am as hungry as a wolf.
-Hey, this is my line!
Both of them burst into a big and noisy laughter while the doors of the elevator were closing. The restaurant was not too far from the hotel. It took the taxi driver five minutes but only because it was already lunch time and people were pouring into the streets in search of a place to eat. This particular one which Vic picked, was the type of restaurant where you get served fast, you have a limited variety of dishes you can choose from, but whatever one orders is of good quality and decent price. As expected, the waiter showed up pretty fast and Vic took the liberty of ordering by himself after asking John if this was ok with him.
-Now, let’s hear what you wanted to tell me. I am dying to find out! Vic rubbed his palms against each other in a sign that his curiosity level reached proximity. He couldn’t quite understand how John managed to get into something “exciting” in just one day.
John paused for a little and looked straight into Vic’s eyes. In his mind, it was his last chance to figure out where his colleague stood, if he could trust him, if he could grant him his whole trust. For few seconds, the two men looked into each other’s eyes…finally, John decided to open up. It was a sign that he decided to fully trust Vic and move forward. He started the story from the moment he tried to fix the bulb light. The wall picture made it into his tale, the scare he went through when a woman who was always standing into the dark suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the opened door and the male who was doing a sort of Yoga on the floor and finally the appearance of the woman who scared him, this time accompanied by another woman.
-Wow! You really got yourself into big trouble Mister! Vic tried to keep a straight face. John realized the irony and jokingly punched his interlocutor into the shoulder.
-You can laugh as hard as you can, but last night I thought that my heart stopped for few seconds. That terrifying mythological scene on the wall, the flickering light and the mysterious woman who showed up out of nowhere and just wouldn’t show her face made me break a good sweat.
-I believe you. I would’ve probably peed into my pants. They both broke into an immense laughter at which time the waiter showed up with their Shanghai Wonton soup. It looked delicious and John couldn’t wait to taste it.
-It doesn’t look at all the way it does back home.
-Of course it doesn’t. No Chinese food in China looks alike to what we have back in America. Those are customized for the American market. Even so, this Shanghai Wonton Soup you can only find it around Shanghai area. If you ask for Shanghai Wonton soup in Canton, you will not get what you are getting here. Not too many people know how to make it and the recipe is passed from generation to generation from father to son. Some people think they know the secret. Don’t trust them. This is one of the few places that makes it for many, many years. The owner proudly is telling anyone (who wants to listen to him) the story of their family business. They started first in the old Shanghai area, by the docks. That was the time when they made a little fortune by selling this soup to the dock laborers. Mr. Wang is the owner and if you want I can introduce you to him.
-You know the owner of a place that sells one of the most famous Chinese soups in the whole Shanghai?
-I know lots of people, John…lots. I know how to get around in this little town. With one hand, Vic grabbed John by the left shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. For John, the last ounce of doubt disappeared. He knew that he could trust Vic from now on. However, he still was a little uncomfortable with the fact that Vic was sharing everything with his fiancée. The Office stuff should stay at the office in his mind. However, he remembered that he just did the same back home when he told Linda everything including the funds drainage and the fact that J.J. was suspecting Tony Gang. He kept quiet, refraining from asking Vic a question which probably would’ve put a dent into their relationship. And right now, he badly needed Vic’s help. John looked at him and with a straight forward manly voice he thanked Vic. He was sincere and Vic realized that right away. It was like he picked up a sixth sense since he moved to China. John was more and more surprised by the “new” Vic: the all new look, the sharpness of his thinking, the lively, dynamic and energetic way he was moving, all these made John understand that he will be a great help in getting his task done. One phrase though, worried him a bit: “I know lots of people, John…lots”. What sort of people? Good or bad? John realized that there is no point in splitting the hair, so he quit making up scenarios based on suppositions. “I will find a way to ask him more about Zhaohui.” The main course showed up and John had the nice surprise to see one of his favorite Chinese dishes showing up: Kung Pao chicken. “Wait a minute…how did he know that this is one of my favorite Chinese dishes? He ordered in Chinese…” But before even finishing asking himself the question, Vic came up with the answer:
-I figured that you like Kung Pao chicken. It is on the top of the Americans’ preferences when they come to China. However, it is a bit different from back home. I asked them to go easy on red chilly papers. I remember myself eating this dish for the first time. My mouth was on fire. I couldn’t eat more than half of what they brought. I was crying like a kid and the people around me were laughing their pants off. Vic started laughing and eventually a sigh came out of his chest putting an end to his amusement…it was a sort of: “those were the days” sigh. His face brightened up completely as one would’ve rightly guessed that Vic was re-living the days when he first came to Shanghai. “I have to ask him more about his life in China. These seven years turned him into a totally different person. He dropped half of his body weight, by now he is probably few years alcohol free (well, he is having a beer there and there as I understood), he is about to get married and he has plans for the future. Why didn’t Scott tell me about Vic’s metamorphosis? All along I thought I would find that fat Office guy who was partying like nobody else, who had alcohol issues and was also gambling. Honestly, I don’t even know how he managed to keep his job back home. Or maybe that’s why J.J. and Scott sent him here, to clean himself up” There were still so many questions John wanted to ask, but he realized that he must be patient. He realized that Vic changed not only physically, but also on the way he was thinking, on the way he was conducting himself: more cautious, more balanced, more laid back. For John, this sort of pace was completely new and unexpected. He wanted things to move fast, as if he was stepping on the gas pedal of his muscle car, like back home in America. But to his disappointment, he was more and more convinced that this was not possible. He realized that he walked into a completely different environment, a different culture, into another way of doing business.
-This looks great!
-Yes it does, John. And I assure you that its taste is at least at the par with the way it looks.
-Fantastic! I am as hungry as a wolf!
-Hey, stop using my line! I want to patent it so I can make some money off of it!
The mood at the table couldn’t have been more favorable to a great lunch and a great discussion among old colleagues, among two men who in spite of the fact that they were never good friends, found a common ground to understand that they are on the same side of the fence and need to complement one another, need to work together and get the job done. At this point, John wanted to ask Vic about his opinion on the assignment, but again…something stopped him. He didn’t realize why he stopped short from asking the question, but his gut feel, his consciousness or just a hidden instinct told him not to do it. He already realized that he has to change, as life here (in spite of the fact that this was China’s most vibrant city), follows ancient traditions which are mostly praising patience.
-Oh, Mr. Wang! Mr. Wang, how are you? I have not seen you in a long time. I hope everything is alright.
-Mr. Vic! Mr. Vic! I am well. Thank you. Very busy, very busy, Mr. Vic. Restaurant give headache.
-Nothing wrong with being busy. Is good for business.
-Yes, but too much business not good, said the man in front of them while pulling a high pitched laughter out of his chest. Mr. Wang was a short to medium built man, in his mid-sixties almost bold (just a thin tuft of hair was left on his head, which he was letting grow so he could turn it few times to cover as much as possible of the top of his head). He had a decent size belly on which he was resting his fatty hands by always having his fingers crossed, assuring this way that the hands won’t slip. His fingers were complimenting the hands and looked like little sausages. Mr. Wang was always wearing a white shirt and a tie. At the first sight, John understood right away that Mr. Wang gained significant weight lately as the buttons of the shirt he was wearing were so tensed that one would believe they are ready to pop up. His face was white and probably from the extra weight he was carrying, was always sweaty. A handkerchief he was holding between the left thumb and left index finger was often used to clear the sweaty forehead, the neck and the hands. His pants were held by a pair of suspenders, which same like the shirt’s buttons, showed as being under a high level of tensile stress.
-Mr. Wang, let me introduce to you my friend John. John, this is Mr. Wang. John stood up and with a smile on his face and a respectful voice greeted his new interlocutor: “Nice to meet you Mr. Wang”.
-Nice to meet you Mr. John. My pleasure. Mr. Wang (probably due to the fact that he was a short man), had a habit of lifting his body in a way in which the heels were not touching the ground anymore, giving thus the interlocutor the feel that he was taller. However, the up and down motion of his body was creating a pretty hilarious scenario, as the top of his head was obviously following the same direction as the body and sometimes the tuft was turning into a long thin strand of hair falling all over his face.
-How long you be in Shanghai Mr. John?
-Mr. Wang…I hope to stay as little as possible. Instinctively, John looked at Vic. This time he slowly and barely perceptively raised his left eye browse in a sign which John should’ve read: “Don’t raise your hopes so high, buddy”
John saw Vic’s reaction and understood that he was not against him, that he could count on him, but the time frame set by John to get the job done was unrealistic. John’s face brightened up. “That’s OK, I will show Vic that we can do things at a faster pace, like back home”.
-Mr. John, I see that you finish meal. You are Mr. Vic friend. I like show you my family roots, if you don’t mind.
-Mr. Wang, we have to go, maybe another time…Vic’s reaction was unexpected and John was quite surprised.
-Mr. John, no much time. Just five minutes.
-OK Mr. Wang, but we need to make it short as we have to head for the Office.
-Of course, of course! Wang took the lead and headed for his Office followed by John and Vic. John turned around and with a muffled voice asked Vic:
-What was that? Why did you react so adversely?
-You’ll see. He will begin the story of his family starting all the way from Ming Dynasty. John almost burst in laughter. He stopped and Vic bumped into him. “We are screwed, man! You should’ve never accepted. He is preying on people to tell them the story of his ancestors.
-How was I supposed to know?
-Next time, just say that I make the schedule and you must follow my lead.
-Good deal. This is what we will be doing from now on. Let’s learn some History now…Vic looked at the ceiling and grabbed his head with both hands. The very idea that he had now to listen (yet again) at Wang’s speech was driving him insane. Most likely he heard the story many times before, as his face was now showing real anger. But he decided not to make an act out of it and followed Wang and John. From the Restaurant, the back door was the “secret” passage towards Mr. Wang quarters. But first, they passed the kitchen area: it was packed with chefs, cooks, auxiliary personnel, while the waiters were waiting at a window to pick up their orders. Wang stopped for few seconds and with the eye of someone who knows the business inside out, made a quick assessment: cooks, helpers, auxiliary personnel, were all at their work stations and the waiters were busy as bees. A large smile flourished on his face, as he personally trained most of them. It was one’s pride after a job well done. The corridor was dark as most of the bulb lights were not functioning. One bulb light was flickering and John again tried to fix it while passing by.
-Don’t bother Mr. John. I call electrician. No bulb light fault. Electric problem.
John couldn’t help but relate this situation to the one from the hotel. “Hmmm. This is becoming a nuisance. Flicking bulb lights, dark hallways, and enigmatic women showing up from the darkness” When John’s eyes got again accustomed with the obscure light of the corridor, he realized that Wang was not standing in front of him anymore. He turned around and looked at Vic:
-Where is Wang?
-He went upstairs while you were playing with that bulb light. John looked at his left and realized that some wooden stairs were connecting the ground floor to the upper level. Mr. Wang was apparently rich, as he could afford to pay the rent for this two level building. The stairs were as dark as the hallway; this whole scenario almost made John sweat and a sense of mystics and pre-destiny grabbed his shoulders. Wang showed up at the top of the stairs and while walking down, apologized to John about his detour. The stairs were badly squeaking, telling one that the building was really old and nobody ever bothered replacing them. Actually at a closer look, one could see the edges of the steps worn out in the middle as a sign of heavy usage during its many years of existence. John couldn’t help but realize that behind the owner’s office door, the silhouette of a woman was trying to stay as much as possible into the shadow but in the same time was throwing curious looks downstairs in an attempt to see the faces of the people and to feed her curiosity. Instinctively, John made a couple of steps side wise until he hit the wall. He wanted too to see the face of the woman hiding behind the door. Wang’s sharp look saw the move and stopped three steps short from completely making it all the way down. A barely perceptible turn of the head towards the direction of his office and John understood that Wang realized that the person upstairs was scrutinizing the activity down on the hallway. A three second silence followed up and both Wang and John were looking at each other not knowing how to get out of the freakish situation. Vic realized the dilemma and stepped in:
-Gentlemen, it is late and we have to go. Mr. Wang, can we do this another time?
-Oh, no, no, no! I know you never bring Mr. John back! It will take five minutes. I assure you. That’s being said, he headed again towards the end of the hallway where his office was. The hallway was even darker now and John asked himself how this was possible? How is it possible to keep a large portion of an access way almost completely in the dark? What if there was a medical emergency or if the fire fighters had to get in? Wang flipped the switch on in his office and a light as pale as the face of a cadaver lit up the room exposing something which resembled more like with a storage place than an office. Cardboard boxes were stacked on top of each other (ceiling height) in two corners of the room. John could only guess that the desk was made out of solid mahogany wood as the poor lighting wouldn’t allow him to make an educated decision. However, the myriads of carvings on the legs and on the sides of the top (representing mythological figures) looked like the work of a master wood sculptor, a master who probably spent many months to finish this work of art. The chair was also a master piece of fine art furniture making. The back was all leather wrapped while the frame was all carved wood which together with the office table showed the fact that Wang was not opposing luxury and respected fine quality products. Behind the chair, there was a wooden library (also made out of solid wood), full of albums, books, maps and what actually looked like papyrus manuscripts. In one corner of the library, there was a majestic globe, which by the worn out colors was probably really old. John was stunned! The confused light sent by a lamp hung on the wall was making the old books and the yellow maps look like they were moving, look like they were performing a ritualistic dance, look like they were ready to jump of the shelves and start telling stories forever forgotten, stories of mythological creatures and brave warriors fighting for truth and humanity. John had the feeling that he stepped into an old antique store where the owner was actually a reincarnated legendary figure living another life, in a perpetual search for the truth or for revenge. The dust gathered on the books and all over the furniture was now airborne as Wang reached his desk, pulled a key he was wearing around his neck and opened up a desk drawer. From there, he grabbed another key (which looked like one of those heavy cast iron keys made to lock old prison doors) and to John’s great astonishment he turned around and carefully introduced it into a hidden lock that was somehow part of one of the shelves. Neither John nor Vic could actually see the place of the lock, as Wang made sure he was standing between the two visitors and the lock. The atmosphere inside the office was now at least strange and creepy as a narrow portion of the library completely turned around (obviously set in motion by a hidden mechanism). The squeaking sound and the surprise motion, gave both Vic and John creeps. Both men felt a cold sweat running down their spines.
-How come he never showed me this? Vic’s voice was trembling from emotions he thought he never had to deal with. But the surroundings in that little room made him alert and curiously started scrutinizing every element of the office. John was at least as emotional as Vic. The whole scenery looked like it was designed for filming a scary movie. The dust floating into the pale rays of the poor lighting, the squeaky piece of furniture, the boxes in the corners (which were giving one the feeling that the ceiling needed to be held in place), the overall sense of mystery and the fact that Wang was still turned with his back at them looking for something, made John slowly swallow, thus showing a great deal of discomfort. To make things worse, the bulb light faltered and for a second the room was in a complete darkness. Both John and Vic felt a torrent of cold sweat running down their spines while drops of the same cold sweat were dripping from their foreheads and temples and landing on their faces. Both tried to wipe the sweat off as it was now getting into the eyes. A back up light kicked in. It was as bad as the main source of lighting, maybe even worse. At the same time Wang was turning towards them holding a large, thick, heavy book in his hand, another door (perfectly hidden into the right wall of the room) was opening and a tall and skinny silhouette showed up into the office. The surprising appearance and most of all the timing, combined with Wang showing his face and holding a large book, provided the ingredients for one to freak out. A barely perceptible yell came out of John’s chest. Vic was at least as surprised and involuntarily grabbed John’s arm. Wang’s face was looking freakishly deformed by the bad lighting and by the optical games the same light was playing when throwing its rays on the old, yellow manuscripts. It was a scene – one would say – cut from a Zaju play, a scene where demons metamorphosed in humans came to the earth to torment and torture people.
-No worry. Power off. Be back soon. The “phantom” who walked through the side door had a moderate, quite pleasant voice, a little high pitched one would say. He was skinny and tall. His clothes looked too large for that particular body frame. Due to the fact that the room was almost dark, John couldn’t see his face. He was hoping that Wang would introduce this newcomer to him and Vic. It didn’t happen and the mystery around this man was escalating into John’s mind. The woman upstairs who didn’t want to be seen, this man who looked like he deliberately wouldn’t leave the cone of the darkness where he was still standing, Wang’s reluctance to introduce the man standing by the left wall made John raise a big question mark about this place and their owners. “Why do I bother with these questions? How would these characters relate to what I want? Most likely won’t relate at all. Why am I losing my time and try to understand these family ties which probably are as complicated as a Greek puzzle” He didn’t have an answer, but something was pulling him back into the game.
-So, Mr. John, let me show you…I know light not good, but you see my family. John was already wondering how long he is going to be kept in that room while Vic told Wang that they do not have much time on hand and have to leave.
-Mr. Vic…it is pleasure to see you. Why rush? You do not have meeting. This not take long. Both Vic and John startled…how did he know they didn’t have a meeting to go to? The two men looked at each other and from the first sight agreed to take a close look at what Mr. Wang wanted to show them.
-This is my great grand grandfather. He come Shanghai from Shaanxi Province. It was a picture which now was of a yellow-light brownish color and showed a group of happy and smiley dock workers sitting on a big pile of sacks. Mr. Wang pointed at one of the workers. In spite of the fact that the light was of such poor quality, John managed somehow to find a certain resemblance between the man standing in front of him and the one in the picture. He took the picture and held it in the light, trying to get all the details possible this piece of souvenir cold hold. He immediately realized that there was some writing on the back and turned it over. It was in Chinese but the date was written in Arabic numbers: 12-03-1879. John gave the picture back to Wang and carefully listened to his interlocutor speech. Wang walked John through the next generations (his grandfather then his father) inevitably reaching his childhood and youth. The pictures were carefully kept into an album and every page was numbered and protected by a plastic film. Wang proudly showed pictures with him and his two children: a son and a daughter. At that moment John asked himself if the woman upstairs wasn’t somehow his interlocutor’s daughter and the man still standing in the dark his son. He was really intrigued that Wang wasn’t introducing the man who managed to scare the hell out of him and Vic through his surprising appearance. The mystery was growing and John felt like he was slowly sucked into a story he didn’t want to be part of, into a labyrinth of intrigues and betrayals, into a maze of unpaid dues and outstanding revenges. The feeling that he was gradually becoming part of Wang’s life story was strange but at the same time it was captivating, it almost became addictive and dependent of more information, of more knowledge of family’s background. John’s sight was now set on the large book Wang brought from the library. It drew John’s attention as Wang was keeping a hand on it. “Is there anything which he is keeping from showing, from sharing with anybody else? Why did he take it out of the hidden portion of the library other than letting us know that he wants to make us aware of some stuff he believed it would be of some interest to us?” It didn’t take too long before Wang opened up the old, yellowish heavy book while looking John straight into his eyes. John’s question was now answered and he felt again how his Adam’s apple was running again up and down signaling a deep distress and unforeseen troubles. Wang’s gesture meant more than simply opening that book…it meant that he was putting his trust into his new interlocutor, it meant that he decided to share with John a part of his past, a past which was a big question mark for John. The book started relieving its mystery as Wang was flipping the pages. Hand drawn figures of legendary Chines figures were passing by one’s sight in an attempt to make one either frighten or blend in and be part of the story. Ferocious warriors fighting enemies or devilish creatures were presented in those pages, princes and courtesans showing the luscious life at the Emperor’s court, armies facing each other while waiting for the signal to charge in, dragons rumbling through villages killing everybody in their path only to be speared by the “good” warriors, the warriors of the people, the warriors of the good deeds. As Wang was slowly flipping through the pages, John had the impression that a cartoon was played in front of him. He was totally captivated by the figures, by the drawings, by the characters without realizing that his interlocutor was actually saying a story. He eventually realized that he completely missed Wang’s speech. He got goose bumps and tried to follow now whatever was coming out of Wang’s lips. It was like he was listening to a History lesson from a dedicated and talented teacher. He eventually caught up with his interlocutor at the time when he mentioned the sad story of the Ming Dynasty. In spite of the poor lighting, John couldn’t help but noticing that one of those legendary figures shown to him by Wang resembled him to the last detail. It was warrior, dressed up into his war gear, meditating into a Lotus type of position. John grabbed his interlocutor’s hand and stopped him from flipping the page. Instantly, Wang turned his head towards John and looked him straight into his eyes. The two men found each other in a dead locked scenario, neither one dropping the chin in a sign of: “OK, I give up; you win”. Vic realized that the situation could become tensioned and stepped in:
-OK, OK, let’s not lose focus here. Mr. Wang, looks like John would like to take a better look at that particular picture. Is this a problem with you?
-Oh, no, no, no…sorry. It is OK. John released Wang’s wrist, tilted his head in a sign of gratitude for allowing him to take a better look at the picture and bent from the core section of his body towards the hand drawn portrait. He then pulled his cell phone off of his pocket and lit up the standing. A light, barely audible shout came out of John’s chest: the resemblance between Wang and the personage in the picture was astounding! The only difference was that the man from the book did not wear glasses and his head was completely shaved. Other than that, the two men looked stunningly alike! The configuration of the cheeks, the foreheads, the eyes, the chins, everything was one hundred percent a match. John’s native curiosity didn’t leave him alone and with a voice which tried to put Wang at ease, asked him:
-What is the name of this warrior, Mr. Wang? It was a question which apparently the man standing by John’s side did not want to answer and a short hesitation created another impasse into their conversation.
-It is Yonggan Zhongcheng said Wang with a soft but firm voice, a voice which showed such a deep respect for the personage drawn on that old piece of paper, that anything else would’ve been completely unacceptable.
-Thank you Mr. Wang! I am sorry, but I am not familiar with China’s history; would you mind telling me more about this warrior? Again, Wang didn’t immediately answer the question and a long, uncomfortable pause followed. Vic looked at John and by nodding his head side wise, he told John: “didn’t I tell you not to get involved into this?”
-Very well, Mr. John. I tell you story of great warrior Yonggan Zhongcheng…at that moment, a slight coughing came from the direction of the side door; both John and Vic turned their heads into that direction, acknowledging the fact that the man who entered the room was still standing there, in the frame of the door, wrapped in darkness. John took that cough as a sign of warning, a sign of: “why are you telling them these things?” and so did Vic. Both of them looked at each other while Wang startled and from the half bent position he used to show the pictures to John, lifted up the upper portion of his body into a vertical and defying position, almost conflictual with the personage standing into the dark.
-OK. I leave. Have good day gentlemen.
-Good day to you too, Sir! John wanted to add: “whoever you are” just to make a point that both Wang and the mysterious person who was just leaving were rude by not making the introductions. But something stopped him. He started to understand that the customs from back home not necessarily apply here and the life has a different pace and things which back in America were called “common sense” may not be seen in that regard. The door closed behind the mystery person and Wang started his story. It was a story of court intrigues and betrayals, of nobility struggling to cling to the power and preserve their privileges in an attempt to oust the eunuchs who controlled the political games at the Emperor’s court and economic life of the country, it was a story about the moral values of the warrior soldiers and their utmost and supreme pledge to serve their masters to death. Neither John nor Vic understood too much of the story, as neither one was familiar with Chinese History, leave alone particularly the Ming Dynasty history. Based on Wang’s story, the warrior in the picture was the head of the personal guard of the Chongzhen Emperor, the last Emperor of this Dynasty. John’s great capacity to synthesize tried to put together the pieces of information that were coming from Wang’s mouth and in spite of a certain language barrier, he managed to locate in time the moment of the story he was listening to. It was the moment when Beijing fell to the rebels and the thirty three year old Emperor committed suicide. The story completely captivated John’s attention and he already started creating a visual image of the characters who took part of those terrible events. “Is there a connection between those times and Wang? Is his lineage going so deep into the History? He is basically trying to tell us that the warrior from the picture is one of his ancestors”
-Mr. Wang, you are telling us that the soldier in that picture was the Head of the Personal Guard of the last Ming Emperor. When the city fell to the rebels, where was he? Apparently the Emperor committed suicide. Wasn’t Yonggan Zhongcheng around? What happened to him?
Wang raised his upper body again and looking straight into John’s eyes, invited both of his interlocutors to leave.
-Gentlemen, you have meeting. It is late.
John’s heart stopped from beating. Vic startled, his face started changing colors and a shade of wariness encompassed his whole tall frame. John realized that he touched a sensitive spot as Wang did not want to continue his story.
-I am very sorry for asking so many questions, Mr. Wang. We are actually about to leave. You have a good day and thank you for sharing your family memories with us. It was a pleasure listening to you. Vic thanked him in Chinese. It was the moment when John observed a barely perceptible smile on their interlocutor’s face. Probably the fact that he thanked him very nicely for his time, or probably because Vic tanked him in Chinese, made an impression on the moody person in front of them. However, John was now extremely interested to find out the whole story. His insatiable thirst for knowledge and immense curiosity, took this task as a challenge.
On their way out, both John and Vic couldn’t help but notice that the man standing by the wall waited until Wang put the book and the atlas back into the library, locked the swinging portion and the drawer of the desk and only then disappeared like a phantom: without making the slightest noise, without saying a word, almost without being noticed.
The corridor was completely dark as the power wasn’t restored yet, which made the atmosphere even creepier than initially was. In spite of this, Wang managed to find the way, it was like he had the eyes of a bat and he could see into the dark. John and Vic bumped into each other few times as instinctively they tried to stay as close to each other as possible. First ray of light came from the kitchen when they passed by; the kitchen had its own generator, telling one that Wang didn’t want to have anything to do with the frequent power outages and the customers had to be kept happy at any cost. Once inside the restaurant, the natural light which was flooding in, felt like a blessing for both John and Vic. They had to cover their eyes for a couple of minutes to get accustomed to the new environment, as they spent their last half an hour or so into Wang’s “catacombs”. Vic headed for the cashier to pay for the meal. Wang stopped him with a very authoritarian gesture: “This is on the house. I thank you gentlemen for visiting my restaurant”. Both John and Vic thanked the host for his generosity, shook hands and headed outside. There was so much information they absorbed in that place, that none of them felt like wanted to talk.