An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.
Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.
Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.
Vic hailed for a taxi and in less than ten minutes they arrived in front of the building where Glenworth was located. Ironically, the same floor (27th) was the floor on which Glenworth Financial had its Chinese operations. The elevator took the two men up in a blink of an eye and while entering the office, John couldn’t help but notice that the layout was almost identical to the office back home in America. Same cubicles for the non-managerial staff and same layout (alongside the walls) for the Managers’ offices. Vic passed by Tony Gang’s office. The door was opened but he was not in.
-Ok. He is not in. I will introduce you to him later. Let me show you to your office now. At exactly the opposite side from Tony’s office, John got himself a nice place with a great view over the downtown and a portion of the Huangpu River. The furniture was hard wood, nothing special though. The blinds were up, thus letting the natural light to flood the office. For the guests, a sofa and a couple of arm chairs were placed around a table by the left wall. On the opposite wall, there was a library which had the shelves almost completely filled with binders. It looked to John that this room was a sort of storage room for the entire office and whoever was assigned to turn it into a working space didn’t quite finish. All those binders were supposed to be moved somewhere else and leave room for the new tenant to place his stuff. Vic pulled one of the chairs and invited John to have a sit at the guests table.
-Ok, I am setting you up with everything you need to know around here. In few minutes Vic set up John’s laptop, his temporary password for Windows and other Applications they were routinely using. Then, he pulled an access card out of his pocket. “You need to swipe this into elevator or it won’t stop at 27th floor. It is the same access card for the office and this is your office key”. Vic pulled a key from his pocket and handed it over to John alongside the access card. “The desk drawers are opened, you will find a key in one of the drawers which locks them all. You are now set with your cell phone, laptop, access to office software (it is the same as what we have back home). I suggest you lock your drawers and your office door when you leave. The cleaning crew has a key to the office and they are instructed to close and lock all the office doors when they leave”.
-Thanks for doing all this leg work for me, Vic!
-Don’t mention it, John! I will help you as much as I can. Just take a piece of advice from me: take it easy. Life flows differently here than back in America. You have to blend in, otherwise you will be like one of those guinea pigs which walk on the wheel never to reach their destination.
-Thanks for all advises you gave me and for everything you do for me!
-Again…no sweat, man! Both men burst into laughter as John didn’t hear this expression in a long time.
-You didn’t forget the cool expressions from back home.
-How could I have forgotten them? Remember? I used to bet on horses for God’s sake! You have no idea the kind of vocabulary you learn there!
-Hahaha! Yeah, you lost your shirt betting on horses!
-Hey, hey, hey…I made some cash on betting.
-Cash you lost aftermath. Hahaha!
-Well, I am not sure if I lost or I broke even, but now I am out of it. Vic stood up, headed for the window and exclaimed with great admiration: “What a view! You got yourself a really nice office, Mister!”
-Thanks to you, I guess.
-Actually Tony Gang insisted that you should have this one. We had an Account Manager (who quit few weeks ago) holding this room. Then, Tony made a deposit out of it – as you probably already figured out. Ok, I gotta go do some work. I will pick you up tonight again. We’ll dine somewhere to a place that’s not too expensive, a place that’s not too sophisticated, but where we’ll find good food. I will pick you up at 8pm; don’t make me come look for you again! Both men laughed and Vic headed for the door.
-How did you decide to go to Wang’s Restaurant today, at lunch?
-My fiancée suggested. I even forgot about this place, but when she mentioned it, I said: “Hey, why not? The food is good and it is on our way to the office”. John looked at Vic and a feeling that Zhaohui knew a lot more of Mr. Wang’s whereabouts crossed his mind.
-Fantastic! I will pick up the bill tonight.
-If you want…oh, by the way: I forgot to give you a Credit Card. It is company’s card and you have a five thousand dollar limit on it. There is an ATM machine down stairs into the Lobby. Your PIN is: 1234. I suggest you either call them (do this immediately) and change your PIN. You will need money for the Taxi anyways. I will leave early today – I have to take Zhaohui to the doc. Nothing major, don’t worry.
-Great! I will get set and probably in three-four hours I will leave too. It is three o’clock already. Let’s hope that Tony will drop by and directly introduce himself.
-I am so happy you are here, man! In a burst of sincerity, Vic shook John’s hand and hugged him as if they were two inseparable friends who were forced to live apart for too long. I will see you tonight.
-Yeah, take it easy now.
-Hahaha! You are telling me to take it easy! You learn fast, man! Vic turned around and made a “good bye” sign while walking out and disappearing into his office. He started right away writing an e-mail to Scott and J.J., giving the report on John’s first day in Shanghai, skipping of course all the little “adventures” John and him went through. Ultimately, Mr. Glenworth just wanted to know if John made it safely into Shanghai and has everything he needs in order to do his work.
After Vic left, John walked to the window and for few minutes he just stood there admiring the scenery. The bright light of that sunny fall afternoon was flooding his office, thus giving one the warm and inviting feeling to take a seat, to relax and simply watch the barges sail downstream Huangpu River towards the place where it will empty its waters into the Great Yangtze River, or just watch the vibrant life of the downtown, swarmed by cars and pedestrians. Either way, the view was magnificent: it showed not just a vibrant city, it showed a city of tremendous economic power, moved by business and entrepreneurship. Finally, John pulled the nice office chair he had, opened up his laptop and started going through the same material he went so many times back home. In his sub consciousness, he thought that now, being in China, he would solve the mystery of the funneled funds immediately. It was a sort of: “I am here, I know what I’m doing and I should be able to get to the bottom of this thing”. The reality was not even close to what he expected; same lame numbers which didn’t make sense with whatever J.J. presented during the big meeting, same positive trends shown by the market. Regardless, the graphs showed a deep into Glenworth’s financials in spite of all the new business picked up in China and America for the past two years.
When John hit again a dead end and wanted to call it a day, he realized that the office software Glenworth was using to run numbers and compile graphs and information, was much slower than whatever he was used to. Initially he thought it was an Internet connection and speed issue. He checked the speed and to his surprise, it was more than enough than whatever he needed to run the Program safely and rapidly. John raised his left eye browse, a gesture he was making when he didn’t have a logical answer to something, a gesture of doubt and confusion. He never liked these sort of situations, but now he felt like he had his hands tight. Not only he wasn’t able to figure out why the fund drainage is happening, but he was now facing a simple technical issue. “Ok, I will talk tonight with Vic”. He logged out and closed his laptop. Then he placed it into the top drawer of his office desk, grabbed the key and locked the desk. Carefully, he placed it onto the key chain where he was holding all other keys from back home. It was six thirty already and he was still planning to hit the gym for at least half an hour and take a shower before Vic was going to show up at eight. A slight knock into the door’s frame, made him startle. John raised his head and understood right away that the person who knocked and waited to be invited in, was Tony Gang. He was a middle age person, with a round face and a tanned skin; he was shaving his head but he kept a little goatee, one would wonder why? The hair into that goatee was scanty and soft. Eventually, John understood that the habit of smoothening that beard was one of the reasons Tony was keeping it. However, there was more than that into his gestures. It was a sort of proudness and haughtiness of growing that goatee beard, which John remarked right away. Tony’s face was all smiley, but that smile was a sort of pity smile, probably driven by the fact that he truly believed that John was just losing his time trying to decipher the mystery of lost funds. John captured this little detail too and smiled back. He learnt from J.J. that in business you have to master the way you cover your emotions, the way you make your interlocutor feel that he is superior, that he has the upper hand. “Ok, so looks like vanity is his weakness. Let’s play along and see what we can find out”.
Gang was of a medium height, but stocky and well built. One would say that he was overweight, but at a closer look, one would realize that his broad shoulders frame, his thick arms and neck and overall body profile were the attributes of a man who valued physical work or was practicing sports.
His brand name shirt, tie, pants and shoes showed a taste for high quality stuff which John couldn’t help but admire. “Well, I am dealing here with a gentleman who is all smile and who has apparently good intentions of cooperating. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I believe there is lots of hidden stuff underneath this nice gimmick and great attire”.
-You must be John Parker!
-And you must be Tony Gang!
-I am Tony Gang and I would like to say: “Welcome to China”, John…if I may call you John.
-Of course you can call me John. It is nice meeting you, Tony.
-Likewise, John. So, how was your first day in China? Tony’s oblique, slender eyes were scrutinizing his interlocutor like a laser, trying to find out everything, to the smallest detail. He was scanning John from head to toes, looking at his facial expressions, at his hands, at his posture, analyzing his attire and not lastly, looking straight into his eyes in an attempt to read his mind. John realized that he had a master of disguise in front of him, that Tony was very intelligent, cunning, crafty and slyly; he understood that he has to call upon his “A” game against Tony right from the beginning.
-It was very good. I settled and went out dinning last night with Vic. He was about to say: “with Vic and his fiancée” but he didn’t know if Tony knew of Vic’s endeavors and thus, he refrained from mentioning. He also stopped short from saying it, as a result of the fact that now he was in a self-preserving mode. Since he realized that Tony is a heavy weight fighter, he became very cautious on everything that was coming out of his mouth.
-Excellent! Where are you staying?
John was about to say the name of the hotel, but a glimpse of last night’s encounter on the hallway, made him to again avoid a straight answer. Instead, he changed the subject immediately.
-I thank you for this office, Tony. It is great! It has a wonderful view over downtown and especially over the Huangpu. I absolutely love it.
-Fantastic! I knew you would like it. Yes, Huangpu is the life line of this city as it has been for so many, many years. Shanghai is relatively new comparing to Nanjing, but its economic and strategical importance is by far superior to the old great capital of China.
-Nanjing was the old capital? When? When did the capital moved to Beijing?
-I can see that you have a curious mind and you are opened to learning new things, said Tony while smoothening his goatee. His voice was calm and the tone was smooth, the words were flowing quietly bringing the interlocutor at ease, giving him the impression that he was taken care of. John recognized right away the strategy Tony was employing and became even more alert. “What a crafty bastard!” said John to himself and from that point on, he was all eyes and ears.
-I have to admit that I don’t mind learning new things. For now, he diverted Tony’s curiosity on finding where he was staying. It was something that John in his sub consciousness felt like he had to keep to himself for now, away from Tony’s reach and curiosity.
-Well, where do we start? Are you familiar with the Ming Dynasty period? John startled and Tony’s fine sense of reading people, realized that.
-Just a little bit, from what I have read in the past or I saw in the TV, I know that it was a great period of economic and cultural achievements in China. John understood that he has to keep his guard as high as possible. Tony was watching every single detail of his face mimics, hands and posture expressions.
-In 1420, Chengzu Emperor moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing including his army, the court and ministries and starts building the Forbidden City. It was his desire to place himself in a safe place. Nanjing becomes again the capital in 1644, but just temporarily, as the rebels took Beijing.
-Thank you, Tony! Appreciate your little History lesson.
-Anytime you want, John. Anytime. Ultimately, we are all the products of the History, of what happened into the past, aren’t we? This question almost caught John off guard and involuntarily raised again his left eye browse. Looking straight into Gang’s eyes, John tried to investigate and figure out if he knew where he was staying and if he knew he had lunch at Wang’s restaurant. He was now asking himself if Tony was somehow part of the dark room event he and Vic were part of. It was so strange that both Wang and Gang were talking to him about the same period from China’s History with a particular emphasize on the dying moments of the Dynasty.
-I have to go now. I want to hit that gym, I will have dinner and then go to bed. I am tired. Probably the jet legging is still taking its toll on me.
-Absolutely! It must be that! I let you go now. Have a good night, John.
-You too Tony.
-By the way – Tony turned around as if he forgot something very important to mention to his interlocutor – I would like to invite you to dinner (whenever you are available). And I would also like to take you for a nice trip to Nanjing and Beijing eventually. I know quite a bit about these two little towns. He put up a large smile on his face and in spite of the fact that John was ready to leave the office, he was again occupying the whole opening of the door with his large frame waiting for an answer. It was getting dark into the office as the sun went down already. The obscure light that was still coming through the window was now falling right on Tony’s face. For the second time that day, a deformed face appeared in front of John’s eyes, a face which exhibited a strange sort of satisfaction and self-confidence. Again, John felt his hands all sweat and just an immense effort of self-controlling himself prevented him from drying his palms by grabbing the handkerchief from his pocket.
-Of course, Mr. Gang. We will have dinner sometime. I am not sure about the trip as I will be probably very busy for a while.
-Tony is my name…remember? He burst into a laughter and John saw an opportunity to get out of the uncomfortable situation by joining in. But his laughter was more like a shriek, more like a yell, a shout, something he has never done before. He understood that he got away without telling Tony where he was staying and without committing to any trip to Nanjing or Beijing.
-Alright. I see you tomorrow, Tony.
-Have a good night John! Don’t forget to lock the door.
John took Gang’s last sentence as a warning. He closed the door and locked it. Something felt really strange…he was missing something. “Damn, I didn’t take my suitcase from the hotel”. He took the elevator down, headed for the ATM machine and withdrew some cash. Scott warned him that he must have cash at any time in his pocket as Credit Cards don’t necessary work or are accepted everywhere. The trip to the hotel was short. The taxi driver was a short, skinny middle age person who apparently was smoking like a chimney. The car smelt like a smoking house and John couldn’t see himself out of there. At the hotel, he literally ran out of the car, gave the driver a hundred yuan and headed for the elevators. It was also late: seven thirty already. He didn’t want to be late again. “I am going to miss the gym again” said John to himself while getting into elevator. The hallway was quiet, but John’s curiosity beat the fact that he was trying to be punctual for dinner. He slowly approached his neighbor’s door and started listening. He thought he heard some music playing inside. Listening more carefully, John’s fine ear and sense for music realized that someone was actually chanting, or reciting lines from a poem as the rhythm was steady, even and rhythmical and was following a certain cadence. Also, a strange smell was coming out of the room; he right away recognized and identified the smell from last day, when he managed to look for a little while at the activity in the room. Now he was intrigued and wanted to know more about his neighbors. He wanted to know who they are, what they do, what sort of practices are they employing while burning that stuff which he did not recognize. The “cling” of the elevator made him realize that someone on that floor was coming and obviously it couldn’t’ve been anybody else but one of his two neighbors. Even if he would’ve made it to his door, he didn’t want to be seen, as from elevator there was a clear sight path to his door. He had to make a split second decision. By the end of the hallway there was a vending machine, so he decided to simulate a purchase. When he got to the machine, he realized that there was enough space between vending machine and the wall, so he hid himself in that space, while being all eyes and ears with whatever would happen on the floor. He was right…his neighbors across the hall were coming back to the apartment, or at least people they knew. Five double knocks on the door followed and John realized that that was a coded knocking as the knocking intervals were identical time wise. His curiosity reached a climax. Soon, the door opened and the guests entered, not before having a short conversation with the person who opened up. The voice of one of the guests sounded familiar. “Swear, I heard that voice before”…John was about to leave his hide-out, when his fine ears picked up a noise coming again from that direction. The door opened and while one person was walking out, another person (still inside) mentioned something in Chinese. This time, John recognized the voice of the woman who was standing in the dark while he was trying to fix the flickering light. Shortly, another person started walking towards the vending machine. John felt a torrent of cold sweat running down his spine. He even refrained from breathing. The sequence of making a purchase at the vending machine followed: cash in, selection, product dispense. John realized that a beverage was bought judging by the noise made by the falling container.
All of a sudden, just when he thought that the person would leave, the individual who made the purchase spoke into a very good English, but with a heavy Chinese accent: “Did she ask for a diet or regular? Hmmm…why don’t I buy both, to be safe?” He chuckled, made another purchase and headed back to the apartment. Same routine followed: coded knocking, door opening and then silence. It was Tony Gang! John still spent another five minutes or so into his hide-out. When everything was settled, he got out and headed straight for his room. Carefully opened the door trying to not make a sound and got in. He then leaned against the door wiping his sweat with the back of his hand. Immediately looked at his wrist watch and realized that it was already eight o’clock. “Ok, no time for shower”. He opened up the door without trying to make a noise and headed towards elevators. Now he had Tony as his neighbor or friend of his neighbor. Vic was already in the Lobby. John could also see Zhaohui admiring a lemon tree which just blossomed and was spreading an out of this world perfume. When Vic grabbed her arm in a sign of: “we have to go” she was almost in state of transcendence, trying to fondle every flower with her eyes sight, trying to embrace the whole tree and call it “brother”. She startled and looked at Vic. Her look was the look of somebody who was just woken up from a meditating state of mind and was now making efforts to come back to reality. John’s fine sense of reading people’s faces picked up this little detail, adding it to the other three strange encounters of the day. It was a day to remember for sure. All three of them walked out and in a minute the taxi that was waiting for them headed to the place Vic or his fiancée picked. Same like last time, it was a place where one could have a nice dinner with the family or with the friends without living his shirt with the waiter or at the cashier. Again, they had a booth which was surrounded by fake trees and a fence made out of bamboo wood, which was giving an overall rustic look at the place and customers a sense of privacy. Lights were skillfully hidden into the fence so the customer wouldn’t see them and also between the branches of those fake trees “planted” into large pots. Once they were sited, John ordered right away a round of beers. Vic looked at him and realized that he didn’t even change the cloths he wore earlier. The two men looked at each other and John understood right away that he owed Vic some answers. He slightly bent his head in an affirmative way, thus telling Vic that they need to talk. In spite of the fact that John tried to make Vic understand this should stay between them, his friend pretended he did not understand and with a tone which showed a complete confidence in his fiancée, he asked John to tell them whatever he had in mind. At this point, John understood that from now on he has no other choice but to trust Zhaohui. Her slender eyes were now the shape of two knife blades, scrutinizing every emotion shown on John’s face, every gesture he was making. Once again, he felt like he was going through an interrogation, though a Purgatory where he was analyzed, weighed and placed into a certain category, a category he felt like he had nothing to do with. He looked again at Vic. Unfortunately, his friend had his head almost buried into the Menu, thus telling John that he either wants out of this, or John will have to share everything he wanted to tell him with Zhaohui. Finding himself into a situation with no end, he opened up and released everything he’s been through that afternoon. As the story was revealing, both Vic and his fiancée became more and more engaged into participating into events by virtually absorbing every word which was coming out of his mouth. At the end, Zhaohui placed both her hands on the table and while still looking John straight into his eyes, she said something which made both John and Vic startle.
-You need to move.
These words made John feel like he was hit with a hammer right into the back of his head, it was like the earth opened up and was ready to swallow him alive. Why? What is wrong with him being there? So what if Tony Gang was his neighbor – or his neighbor’s friend?
-Why do I have to move? His tone was almost abrasive, angry and investigative.
A long silence followed up his question. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations he’s been into. Neither Vic nor Zhaohui were willing to say something, so John felt like it was his duty to break the ice and do whatever was necessary to make the atmosphere friendly and pleasant again.
-Why do I have to stay away from Tony? Who is this guy anyway?
Another round of deep silence followed, at which point John started to be afraid. He didn’t know exactly why, but the two episodes of unusual behavior from his interlocutors made him retreat into defense, into a self-preserving mode. This whole endeavor, the strange situations he’s been through in just twenty four hours, the things he just couldn’t comprehend and understand, took a toll on him already. His instinct was telling him to back up and wait for things to clear up. But his competitive and fighting nature prevailed. He was not going to give up fighting before the battle even started! That’s for sure!
-I guess I need an answer from you two guys…
-Beers, Sir! Want to order? The waiter came at a moment at which the tension between them was reaching its peak. It was like a safety valve of a pressure vessel kicked in and released the built up steam, released the tremendous forces accumulated into a boiling container.
-Yes, we would like to order. What do you recommend some hungry folks should have for dinner? What your specialties are?
Vic picked up the vibe on the fly and in an impeccable Chinese ordered without asking everybody else at the table what would they want to eat. It was a moment when all three of them released a sigh of relief, a sigh of easiness and disengagement a suspiration which saved the night. John and Zhaohui were still looking at each other in a way which one would say it was confrontational, hostile, adverse and abrasive. However, still a warm trusty feeling was floating in the air and the actors were just waiting for something to happen, for some positive energy to take over and relief the tension.
-Did he tell you anything else besides explaining why the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing?
-No. But he did invite me to take a trip with him to see these two cities.
-You didn’t mention it when you told us the story.
-Oh…sorry, I obviously missed it. Why is this so important? Once again Zhaohui’s eyes turned into blade sharp shapes and John felt one more time how he was scrutinized and weighed.
-Because Gang does not do anything without a purpose, without using all the tools he has on hand (especially people) to achieve his goals. He wants to have you close to him for a longer period of time to find out what you want, why you are here (probably he already figured out by now), what are your weaknesses, what are your strengths, how he can manipulate you in order to divert your attention towards dead ends.
-Wow…J.J. warned me and during the short conversation I had with Tony last night, I figured out he is sneaky, well versed in reading people and very crafty.
A large smile flooded her face. Zhaohui pointed her index finger towards John and with a calm and balanced voice said:
-John, I believe you are the right person for this job. J.J. is lucky to have you on his side.
-Thanks, Zhaohui. Appreciate. But I will need big time help from you two guys.
-That’s why we are here, discussing this thing. John realized that for a while, Vic hasn’t been saying a word. He refrained himself at reading the Menu in spite of the fact that the orders were already placed.
-So…I believe that both of you or at least one, was planning to tell me something. John looked straight into Vic’s fiancée eyes. He realized that Vic made a step back, leaving his future wife to do the honors and answer John’s questions. Zhaohui turned her hands with the palms facing the ceiling and with a jovial and cheerful (this time) voice asked John:
-What’s the rush? We have time. Let’s eat first.
He understood that he has to slow down, to pick up the pace at which people function in this country, that he cannot rush things as the output would’ve probably been different from what he expected.
-Sure. I am hungry like a wolf. Both Vic and John burst into a big and healthy laughter, accompanied by Zhaohui. John couldn’t help but notice her beautiful, crystalline tone which gave up a person with a talent for singing.
-I told you! You gotta’ stop using my line!
-Alright, Sir! I promise, not to use it again.
The atmosphere was now relaxed, cheerful, joyful and sociable. At the same time, the dinner showed up and soon, all three of them became fully concentrated on meal only. From time to time, Zhaohui was explaining the kind of dishes brought at the table, where they originated, how were made and what other dishes from different Provinces would be similar to what they have on the table. Overall, the dinner was great, they told lots of jokes and John started picking up bits and pieces of Chinese humor.
The meal was great and all three of them felt like the time they spent together around the table was time well spent, was time in which their friendship strengthened and was taken to a different level: to a complete trust status. At the end, while waiting for their desserts, Zhaohui started telling the story which John was waiting for so anxiously…her voice was clear and well balanced, was melodious and soft, thus keeping ones attention tuned to the subject
-That April twenty fifth of 1644 was unusually warm. The lemon, the cherry and the mandarin trees were all blossomed into Imperial Garden. There was so much peace, tranquility and quietness in the garden and the lemon flowers were smelling like they were from a different world. At this point, John couldn’t help himself but startle. He remembered the gimmick on her face when she was admiring the blossomed lemon tree in the Lobby of the hotel. Also, she was speaking in a way which would give one the impression that she was there. His heart was now pumping blood at a rate he felt like would explode. Are all these personages: Mr. Wang, Tony Gang and Zhaohui linked somehow together to the last days of the Ming Dynasty? Are they time travelers? His American background, Western education and rationality made him calm down and take a deep breath. “No way, man! Nobody is travelling through time all the way from 1644!” He sketched a little smile and was again all eyes and ears at her story.