Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 36 (Investing in books is always a good idea)

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 36

Investing in books is always a good idea

-So, John…what would you like to share with us? Vic’s voice was the voice of a man who was a little puzzled, the voice of a person who was expecting something out of extraordinary, something new and exciting.

John brought the glass in front of his eyes trying somehow to filter his thoughts through the red liquid, trying to balance the way he was going to get out of his chest the story. After taking another sip, he placed the glass on the table and calmly, looking straight into his friends’ said:

-Last night I met my neighbors…

A heavy silence (similar to the one when they all looked at the barges sliding on Huangpu) settled. All three glasses were now resting on the table, signaling the fact that John’s last statement managed to completely capture the attention of his friends. Vic was mesmerized…his face showed a man who was deeply disturbed by the announcement. Zhaohui’s face was expressing astonishment, surprise, wonder and perplexity, but in the same time was betraying a deep and insatiable eager to know more about the event. Jon picked up on the fly that Zhaohui is dying to find out more about the encounter. He grabbed his glass, took another sip and started speaking while looking straight into his friends’ eyes. The story came out naturally. John was totally relaxed and while telling it he felt how his mind and heart were easing, were giving up a heavy load which they were unable to carry anymore. Both his friends were literally absorbing the words which were coming out of his mouth. John tried to keep the inflections on his voice as steady, as flat and emotionless as possible, in order not to influence his interlocutors. When the story got to the point when John described the weaponry his neighbor possessed, Zhaohui startled and her eyes became slimmer and slimmer, indicating that she was now concentrating her all attention only on this matter. She looked at John and with a whispery like tonality in her voice asked him:

-Did you somehow manage to count the numbers of antlers on each side of the two horns?

John hesitated to answer and for few seconds he rubbed his forehead with his right palm. He was trying to bring back the whole endeavor: the moment when he was attracted by the arsenal hanging on the wall, the strange feeling he had when grabbed the cold, yet very expressive handle of the blade and the very artistic touch of the scabbard. The butt of the handle with the beautiful hart head and two red goggled eyes was still imprinted into his memory, but he couldn’t recall himself counting the antlers.

-I really can’t remember and I never did count them. I am sorry, Zhaohui…

-It’s alright John. Judging by what you are saying, your neighbors belong to a high nobility family and they admitted it. If somehow you remember the number of antlers of that stag and if you can compare that smell with anything known to us, maybe I can precisely pin-point who your neighbors are.

-I have to scratch my head really hard…not sure. A short moment of silence followed, a moment when John was trying to remember these little details, while Zhaohui was almost begging him with her eyesight to do an effort and answer the question.

-Wait a minute! Didn’t you say that on the wall he had the head of a majestic stag? I bet you that the number of antlers would be the same on the sword’s handle!

-Good one, Vic! Zhaohui’s voice had an upbeat and excited tonality, signaling a glimpse of anticipation and hope. John’s eyes dilated and a spark one could’ve seen into his eyes…

-Right! The massive stuffed head on the wall! It was so big and frightening and those two eyes trying to tell the story of that hunting event which apparently ceased the existence of that superb beast were so expressive and large!

-Exactly! Now try to remember the number of the antlers, John…her voice was switching now to a soft, begging tonality, to a voice which was eagerly asking for an answer to questions that were burning inside of the heart. Again John started rubbing his forehead but this time he didn’t realize that he was actually loudly speaking, trying to recall the chain of events and hoping that it will somehow tickle his memory.

-I got in; it was dark…few fascicles of light were trying to squeeze themselves underneath the bathroom door and were barely reaching the living room area. Someone was taking a shower…this was the moment when John stopped. He didn’t know if he wanted to tell his friends about the encounter with the beautiful woman living next door. His hesitation was promptly speculated by Zhaohui. Her eyes were asking many questions and John knew that he had to be fully transparent and honest with his friends. The story started flowing and soon all the details of last night’s event spilled over the glass. Vic and Zhaohui were all ears. John felt like taking a break to catch his breath. It was the moment when Zhaohui pulled a question which made John startle:

-So, she is beautiful, isn’t she?

-Yes, she is! She is very beautiful. John’s voice turned soft and tender, still betraying a great level of admiration for the woman he saw naked, for the woman he had got to understand that was a warrior from a very high level aristocratic family – same like her brother – for the lady who served him tea while his eyes were undressing her from the thin like air bathrobe she was wearing. Few long minutes of complete silence followed up. Each of the three actors participating at the scene tried to put their thoughts in order, sensing that the outcome of this discussion will shed some light on the next steps they will have to make. One could hear his heart beating – this is how quiet it got into the room. Everyone was now waiting for someone else to say something. Finally, Zhaohui summoned up her spirits and ask again the question:

-How many antlers did the stag have? Can you remember?

To everyone’s surprise (including his own), John answered without hesitation:

-Seven on each side.

Zhaohui startled! Her face became white like the wall of the living room. Her hands started shaking and the sweat on her forehead was showing a deep distress level. Both Vic and John were mesmerized; they were looking at her with the eyes of two individuals who just saw a ghost. Another round of quietness struck the room; John started to feel very uncomfortable but refrained from saying anything. His eyes were pointing straight at Vic’s fiancée, waiting for her to reveal what she had in mind.

-It’s them…

Her answer made the two men present in the room look at each other…their eyes were exhibiting fear, discomfort, dread and anxiety as Zhaohui’s enigmatic statement completely caught them by surprise. The unknown of the situation laying in front of them was terrifying and their line of thoughts broke down into an array of unasked questions, into a panel of scenarios made up by second guesses and probably unrealistic assumptions.

-Do you remember their names, John?

-They gave me two names which are most likely not their real names. One of them was: Zhiming mao and the other one was Zhiming de jiàn.

-So, she is a master of the sword…

-Apparently. The man told me that he is equally good with both the lance and the sword, but prefers the lance. Few more minutes of silence encompassed the room. It looked like now the ice was broken and at least the three friends were at ease to communicate with each other.

-They are members of the “Seven Orchids Order”

-What does this Order do and how do you know they are members of this Order? Zhaohui was about to answer the question, when John realized that all of a sudden she hesitated and changed her mind by dropping her head while holding it between her palms. Few more moments of heavy silence and uncomfortable quietness made the two men feel like chocking. Suddenly Zhaohui lifted her head, stood and with a calm and firm voice said:

-It is time…she grabbed her glass and headed towards the window again; one would’ve said that the few moments she spent by the large window were meant to take a last look at the night spectacle on the river. But whoever better knew her, would’ve realized that she wanted to say “good bye” to Huangpu, she wanted to apologize for the fact that she won’t be coming back again to watch the barges slide down or up the waters of the river which was feeding the Great Yangtze since the beginning of time.

-You must move! You have to do it! He may kill you if he wants. This time her voice was harsh and authoritarian, a voice that was missing any sort of inflections and was demanding nothing less but obedience.

-I thank you for your concern, Zhaohui…but I will not move. I asked Zhiming mao: “what do you want in return for stopping to drain money from Glenworth?” He said that he will think about. I want to pursue a negotiation path as well, rather than catching him red handed. Slowly and silently, Zhaohui returned to the couch. Placed the glass on the table and looked straight into John’s eyes.

-John…you still don’t understand that we are all caught – actually we are all part – into this curse. The fact that Tony and Zhiming mao are stealing from J.J. is just secondary facts. This curse must end and will end soon. This is why I said: “It’s them”

-Then tell me who are: “them”? I am tired of this story already…I want to solve the mystery and go back to my wife, my kids, my home and my life! John’s voice became loud and the gradual increase into the tonality made both Zhaohui and Vic startle.

-I am sorry guys…I am sorry that I raised my voice. But I want this thing to end as soon as possible. And I am willing, yes, I am willing to negotiate with Zhiming Mao.

-You are willing to negotiate with him even if this comes at the cost of one of our lives? Her question hit John the same way if someone would’ve punched him right between his eyes. He dropped into the closest love seat and mutely asked Zhaohui to finish her story.

-Your neighbors’ real family name is: Chonghuan; they are descendants of this great family, one of the highest aristocratic houses during Ming Dynasty. Their blood line stretches for few centuries before Ming. This family produced many great generals and high officials. They are the founders of “The Order of the Seven Orchids”. Only members of the highest aristocratic families were allowed to join and only based on their bravery onto the battle fields. It was exclusively a military Order; you had to be a soldier by profession in order to join. Many representatives of the high level aristocratic families joined “Seven Orchids”. It was one of the highest honors in state and the Emperor encouraged and supported the Organization. However, after the decapitation of Chonghuan, the Order was dismembered and many members found their end under the sword of the executioner.

-Chonghuan was charged with treason and executed. Why? He defended the country against the Manchu invaders.

-Politics at the Court…politics and scheming from the eunuchs. Chonghuan was a great warrior and a brilliant general. But the eunuchs managed to convince the Emperor that he deliberately let the Manchu army slip away to make it to the walls of Beijing and then crash them, in order to gain even more power and fame.

-Hard to believe that the Emperor fell for this.

-He was surrounded by bad advisers and unfortunately he listened to them.

-So this is how this curse started? This great General cursed the Emperor, cursed him because he knew he was innocent and he did nothing wrong but defend his country. Zhaohui dropped her head again; John remained mute and refrained from saying anything anymore. He knew at this point that this was a gesture of acceptance, an act of being at peace with the past and with the decisions of the past no matter how harsh they were. In John’s mind, the mystery around the Curse started to clear up and he understood that the two opposing sides cannot be other but Zhaohui on one side and Tony and his neighbors on the other side. He got goosebumps. “So, Vic’s fiancée is a royal? She belongs to the lineage of Chongzhen Emperor?” This scenario made him look at her with lots of uncensored respect and astonishment. “She can trace her lineage back to the late days of the Ming! This is unbelievable! What if she came back from the past to close this thing called “cosmological path”, this Curse which is supposed to end after nine generations from its origination?” He shook his head and with a smile on his face he reminded himself: “there is no such thing as time travelling!”

Few minutes of complete quietness fell again on top of them and nobody wanted to say a word anymore. Everyone was chewing on his own thoughts, on his own plan to eventually break the silence and open up a conversation again. John couldn’t stand anymore the situation and stood up. He looked at his friends and with the voice of a commander who is making a decision said:

-OK. We know that they are stealing from J.J. We also know that they are descendants of this great family. What do they want? Other than securing funds for their royal life style, what do they want? John’s voice became high pitched and the frustration in his tonality brought both his friends to the point on which they mutely asked him to keep it down. John apologized and dropped into the love seat. He just wanted to get all his frustration out, as once again he felt like he started spinning his wheels. Zhaohui stood up and with a calm and well balanced voice made John understand that things must be left to happen naturally, without being pushed, without being rushed or forced into the action.

-Your neighbors have the task to close this Curse from their family side. I am tasked to close it from my side. This is the short story. John felt how the goosebumps were slowly sneaking underneath his skin while poking it with a myriad of sharp red hot needles. Both Vic and him looked at Zhaohui frightened and scared in the same time, helpless and interrogative. “So, she will lead the defense. She will probably have to withstand by herself whatever was coming from the other side”

-Can you tell me a little more about the lance you saw on his wall? Can you remember more details? I am particularly interested in the tip, the way the iron tip was shaped…did the iron triangular blade have another two smaller “fins” on it, somehow perpendicular on the main surface? John grabbed his temples signaling that he was trying to remember…

-Is this little detail important?

-It is not a “little detail” John…it is something which defines a certain fighting method, it is a feature not every lance has. Only the most skilled lance fighters have this little “wings” on their lances. They add weight but they can be lethal if the person who is handling the lance knows how to make use of them. Let’s put it this way: instead of two cutting edges, you have four. The two main ones are meant for killing (obviously), while the other two (smaller ones) are meant for wounding the opponent and thus offering a greater advantage during a fight one on one. If you manage to wound and weaken your opponent, it is just a matter of time before you have the chance to kill him.

-I wish I could remember…John started rubbing his temples. Methodically, he reconstructed the whole previous night scene from the moment he got to meet Zhiming mao and the moment he got to hold and admire his weapons. His mind was still set at the exquisite piece of art represented by the ceremonial sword…for few moments he closed his eyes and tried to remember anything unusual on that spear which he believed it was just a secondary type of weapon, a weapon used by poor and unimportant soldiers. It turns out that it was a weapon of choice for many nobles, for many representatives of the highest aristocratic families. “It had that black painted wooden handle, the metal tip and the two edges were very sharp…I could actually sense it. Then it had that red piece of shredded material. What else? Did it have another cutting edge?” Few minutes passed by and John was still holding his temples between his palms…all of a sudden, he raised his head and with the voice of someone with a high degree of certainty in his mind, said:

-Yes, it did have two little wings, closer to the base of the triangular shape of the metal. They were small, but were placed perpendicular to the main cutting edges. I thought they were meant for defending purpose, to stop a sword from making it closer to the man.

-They can be used to stop a sword blow, John…yes, they can be used for this purpose. But it is not what they are meant for. As I said, their main function is to create cuts on opponent’s face if possible. Why face? Because you will lose lots of blood as this particular section of the human body is heavily irrigated with blood and if the blood flows into your eyes, you won’t be able to see, right? Cuts on arms, upper body and legs are also making your opponent weak due to the blood loss. It is a very dangerous weapon into the hands of a trained soldier and it seems to me that your neighbor is one of those skilled great warriors who knows how to handle a lance.

-OK then. It looks like the big fella’ is a master of the lance. Is this so terrible?

Zhaohui looked at John and then with a gesture of a very worried person dropped her head. It was something strange and unusual into that attitude of resignation, something John couldn’t have ever associated with her.  In his mind, she was a strong and balanced individual, she was a master of knowing how to hold her head upright even in the most adverse situations, a person of high confidence and great moral virtues. But now, seeing her so distressed and turbid, a different feeling encompassed him: it was a sense of fatality, a sense of set destines which cannot be changed, a sense of sorrow and grief, of bitterness and dismay.

All of a sudden, she raised her head and looked John straight into his eyes:

-John, I need to see those books you bought yesterday.

Both Vic and John looked at each other the way two individuals would do it after they barely escaped the strike of a thunderbolt. Their face expression showed two men completely caught off guard, incapable of saying anything which could be either legible or audible.

John pointed with his hand towards the office desk and towards the coffee table in the living room where the large Map collection book was resting. Zhaohui picked it up and shortly after, she put it right back…apparently there was nothing in there that could interest her. With a swift movement, she stood up and headed towards the office table close to the window. Her hands were opening one book at the time and feverishly flipping pages in search of something which apparently was of great importance to her. John and Vic were stunned! Vic at least, has never seen her so emotional, so pale and distressed, so impatient and in the same time so afraid of what would her findings uncover. Eventually, she pulled a barely audible yell out of her chest…it looked like she found what she was looking for. Her fingers were now quickly turning page by page and judging by the fact that her face was slowly lightening up, made both John and Vic crack a timid smile. Few minutes passed by and Zhaohui stood up again, this time holding the book.

-I need to borrow this book from you if you don’t mind.

-That’s it? Uff! You scared us! Vic and John burst in laughter to relieve some of the stress that built up in the last few minutes, but both of them knew that situation is still not very rosy and it will take Zhaohui some time to give them an explanation. The two men picked up on each other’s mute signal and kept quiet, refraining to ask Zhaohui what is so special about that book.

-OK, I will be heading home now. You two guys can stay here and look at the pictures made by the detectives.

-OK, I am ordering a cab for you. I’ll see you soon.

-Great! I am heading down. John, please give me a bag. I don’t want strangers’ eyes to see this book. Maybe I am overreacting, but now we all know who your neighbors are and we know that they are spying on you.

-Sure. Here it is, Zhaohui. While handing over the bag to her, John couldn’t help himself but taking a sneak peek at the book’s cover. It was a book on weaponry used during Medieval times of China, specifically during Ming Dynasty, a book which captured his attention when he came back from dinner last night. The hand drawings were so real, that made him spend some time flipping through content. The book was not only an atlas of weaponry, it was also a book on handling those deadly weapons.

At this very thought, he startled! “Don’t tell me that Zhaohui wants this book because she wants to learn some fighting technique!” Then, out of nowhere, he remembered that she insisted quite a lot in finding out from him about that little detail about the construction of Zhiming mao’s lance. He looked at her with the eyes of someone who believed that just unlocked a puzzle; however, something was telling him to be cautious and not draw conclusions based on assumptions. Zhaohui carefully placed the book into the bag and headed for the door.

-You have your key with you, don’t you? It was a question directed at Vic…

-Yes, I do have it. In a couple of hours I will be home too.

-OK. I will see you later.

She opened the door and before heading for the elevator, she turned around, looked John straight into his eyes and with a voice which demanded nothing less but obedience said:

-You must move! You are not safe here anymore. Then quietly she slipped away along the corridor towards the elevators.

 

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