Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 51 (White Orchid)

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 51

White Orchid

Xiǎo lǐzǐ managed to stay close to the car he was following in spite of the fact that they soon reached an area which looked a little rough and was totally unknown to him. The streets were barely lit (as the few bulb lights were shyly providing a certain level of luminosity) showing that the city in that particular area was not very generous when came down to citizens’ safety. John felt how he got chills. However, he wanted to know more about this mysterious girl, the girl who had the trust of the old lady from the store, trust which turned into assigning her to a delicate mission: reaching “Nine Orchids Order” – apparently an exclusive and highly elitist place.

She eventually reached her place. A blind, barely lighting bulb light was trying as hard as it could to provide some light at the entrance. The building was a four- storey flat and one could see that the inhabitants were trying to save as much as they could as only a couple of lights were turned on. The girl entered, not before turning again her head to see if she was followed. At John’s requests, from the moment they reached that particular neighborhood, Xiǎo lǐzǐ shut down his head lights. They were now into the complete darkness of the night. The lights and the engine were turned off and both of them were barely breathing, trying somehow to increase their level of cover. The taxi which the mysterious girl took turned around, passed Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s car, accelerated and in few minutes was lost into the darkness of the night. An oppressive silence settled into the car and for one or two minutes nobody said a word.

-Mr. Parker…what we do now? Xiǎo lǐzǐ whispered the question in a way that made John almost guess it.

-Now I get out of the car and I will go in the back of the building. You stay in the car and watch at which apartment the light will come up. I will do the same into the back. There are four apartments per level. You watch these two sides. I will do the same in the back.

-OK Mr. Parker. Careful…

-Don’t worry.

John quickly got out of the car and rapidly moved towards the rear of the building. It was completely dark and he was more or less guessing his way. His logic was telling him that it must be a way for the inhabitants to get into the back where probably the dumpster was. He pulled his cell phone from the pocket and used the light to navigate. He was right…the dumpster was in the back; unfortunately garbage pick-up day was far away as the smell from the garbage container was suffocating. He took the handkerchief he was always carrying and turned it into a bandana. It was not long before the light at one of the apartments at the last floor turned on. Then the girl he was following showed up at the window, pulled the curtains and disappeared. John waited few more minutes. Shortly, the light went off.

-OK. She either went to sleep or she is using a night stand lamp. Good, now I know where she lives. Let’s get back to the hotel. Xiǎo lǐzǐ was patiently waiting.

-So, Mr. Parker…you see? I see nothing.

-Yes, Xiǎo lǐzǐ…I saw what I needed to see. She lives at the fourth floor, that corner…let me see where the North is. John looked at his wrist watch:

-OK, so the North is that way. Great, she lives at the apartment from the South-West corner of the building. Now let’s go back to the hotel. Do you know how to get there?

A huge laughter came out of Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s chest.

-Mr. Parker, I taxi driver…remember?

It was John’s turn to burst into laughter:

-Sorry Xiǎo lǐzǐ, I almost forgot you brought me here.

-No problem Mr. Parker. Here we go!

John was completely unprepared and again the sudden step on the accelerator made him hit the back of the rear seat and bang his head against the head rest of the seat. “That’s it! I made up my mind! This guy is mental! Why does he have to do this every time he puts this car into motion?” He shook his head and decided to keep quiet and watch the places which were passing by. Same ghetto neighborhood was laying in front of him: poorly lit streets, apartment buildings in a rough shape, bad roads filled with pot holes and a great sentiment of emptiness, of a place that is deserted and is just waiting for some creatures from another planet to populate it. John felt some chills along his spine. “It’s good I didn’t make it into this neighborhood alone…so creepy!”

Shortly, the environment started changing and a different type of streets were showing up. They were better lit, the quality of the pavement was much better and soon restaurants and little ma and pa shops started showing up, thus signaling an area that was thriving through commercial activities.

Suddenly, John put his hand on Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s right shoulder and with a voice which was not accepting any sort of opposition asked him to stop. The cab driver stepped on the brakes so hard that made John completely hug the front passenger seat. “Damn it! I knew he would slam on those brakes! I should’ve given him a two mile notice!” John got out of the car and started walking back, as the taxi passed the store he wanted to get into. Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s was following him closely. Once in front of the store, Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s smiled and exclaimed:

-Oh, Mr. Parker…you remember. You buy orchid Saturday night.

-Of course I remember and I want to buy another one.

-Orchid expensive…but very beautiful.

-Let’s see if they still have some left and up for buying.

That’s being said, John stepped into the store. He realized that the owner was preparing to close. However, the old woman who sold him the purple orchid (the orchid which he bought Zhaohui), recognized him. A large smiled flourished on her face and immediately started speaking to him. She knew that she would eventually make a good sale off of John. The store was filled up with fresh flowers but John had his eyes once again on the place behind the counter. He graciously refused woman’s offer to take a look at the flowers placed into shelves on the side walls and headed straight for the back of the store with his eyes pinned at the gorgeous flowers which somehow he felt they were guarded by the owner of the shop. And yet again, she placed herself between John and the orchids, as she did last time. John smiled and speaking as slowly as he could, he said:

-I want to buy one of them.

The old lady had the same smile on her face and replied to John in Chinese. It seemed like she didn’t want to sell him any of the orchids. It was the time when Xiǎo lǐzǐ stepped into the conversation:

-She say you bought one Saturday. Why you buy one more?

John was perplexed! He thought he didn’t hear properly what his driver told him.

-I want to buy another one…that’s all. Is there a problem with this?

Another round of conversation started between the store owner and Xiǎo lǐzǐ.

-She wants know who you buy for.

-What? This is unbelievable! It’s my business to whom I am buying this flower for!

After another short conversation, Xiǎo lǐzǐ looked at John and with a great disappointment imprinted on his face said:

-Sorry…she no sell to you.

-Unbelievable! That’s fine. Let’s go find another store. I hope that there are still some shops open. I want to buy some flowers for Yue Ying.

At the sound of Yue Ying’s name, the old lady’s face physiognomy changed. Yet, one more time she had another conversation with Xiǎo lǐzǐ.

-Mr. Parker, Mr. Parker…John was almost at the door. He turned around and looked at his cab driver quite puzzled.

-What happened?

-She say she sell to you…but only one.

-Great! What made her change her mind? John’s face was now radiating with happiness and his great smile came back making his whole appearance look so relaxed, joyful and cheerful. He was stunned by the beauty of those flowers.

-I have never seen orchids this beautiful. I can understand now why she is so protective. It looks to me like she treats them the way one treats his babies. While listening to the translation, the woman was speaking to John. Obviously John couldn’t understand a word she was saying, however Xiǎo lǐzǐ was trying to keep up with her in translating back to John.

-She say you lucky man…she say you handsome…she say you born under lucky stars….

John was mesmerized by the freshness and the beauty of those orchids and all Xiǎo lǐzǐ’s words just flew by his ears. “Wait a minute: there were nine orchids, I bought one for Zhaohui and there are six left. Somebody bought two of them or two people one each. If she is so careful to whom she is selling these flowers, then who are those two persons who bought the two missing ones? Hmm…strange. Anyway, I will buy one for Yue Ying. I believe she will like it. Which one, though? OK, so it looks like the yellow and the yellow with pink are gone. That yellow was gorgeous! And so it was the other yellow one, which had pink spots on it. Which one do I buy?”

Once again, John had the feeling that while looking at those beauties one should be quiet as a simple whisper would simply make them vanish, this is how feeble and delicate they looked. The colors were so pure and genuine that making a choice on the spot was an impossible task to achieve.

Which colors does she like? This is the question I guess I have to answer! John’s memory started bringing back scenes from the cloth store and from the night when Yue Ying performed at Black Swan. Nothing out of ordinary popped up into his mind. All of a sudden, he remembered the white traditional coat she was wearing yesterday night on the stage. The coat was still with her into his hotel room. The decision was made: he picked the white orchid. He stretched his left hand and pointed towards the flower:

-I would like to buy the white one, please.

The old woman starting speaking again…this time her voice was softer and the inflections carried into conversation showed a great level of happiness and in the same time of relief. The cab driver was trying hard to keep up with translating, but his English was not that great and only made John burst into laughter. He didn’t know why John is laughing so hard and in turn he joined in. It was a great, relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The store owner was now carefully wrapping the orchid following the same procedure: she brought the plastic protector and then methodically folded the nicely coated white paper around the whole package. When she handed the flower over to John, a sigh of almost sorrow and regret came out of her chest. It was probably her way of saying goodbye to a child she raised until the moment the kid has to leave home. And yes, the way she was taking care of these splendid flowers was nothing short from love and passion.

John paid and lifted the flower slowly and carefully, then bowed to the old lady and headed for the door. The store owner did not stop speaking until John was out of the flower shop.

-What did she say while I was heading to the door?

-She say: you take good care of flower and Yue Ying. You born under good stars. You lucky and you have good destiny in front.

-Did she say if I will be able to stop Tony and my neighbor stealing from Glenworth?

-Don’t understand…who stealing?

-Never mind said John while bursting into laughter. It was a joke!

-Oh…you joke! Ha, ha, ha! You joker, Mr. Parker.

-I believe I am…John was still laughing hard when he entered the car. He decided to sit into the front seat as he had to protect that valuable thing he was planning to give to Yue Ying. He put the seat belt on and wrapped his hands around the flower he was holding the way a mother holds her baby after birth. And he was right to do so, as Xiǎo lǐzǐ stepped hard onto the accelerator, following his natural habit. John shook his head and once again the same question came up: “Why is this guy so fond of killing those pedals? I guess I will just have to live with this. He is a valuable asset. He knows the city very well and he actually took me to Yue Ying. Was this just a coincidence? What if he has his own role into this story or curse or whatever else could be called? No, I am getting paranoiac now. I hope that Chang mao dashi will take my offer and we will be done. The question is: what would he want in return? I guess it won’t be too long before we will find out”

John turned his eye sight to the right passenger window while looking at the trees on the side of the roads pass by one by one; his mind started wandering through the intricacies of this story which turned his life upside down. His assignment, Vic, Zhaohui, Mr. Wang, his strange neighbors – who apparently belong to one of the greatest aristocratic families of the Ming Dynasty – and now, Yue Ying. “Who is she? Does she hold a role into the story too? What sort of role? Why did I get so attracted to her from the moment I saw her for the first time in the street, on my first day in Shanghai? And now she is waiting for me in my hotel room…how will this story end? Zhaohui mentioned that she is responsible to close this cosmological circle from her side of the family – which is the Imperial family of Chongzen Emperor. On the other hand, my neighbors are the descendants of Yuan Chonghuan – the general executed by the Emperor due to Court intrigues – and they have the same task as Zhaohui. Very peculiar story. I just hope that will end soon. How will it end? Probably not even Mr. Wang knows”

It was the moment when the cab reached the entrance of the hotel. John pushed hard into his legs as he knew that Xiǎo lǐzǐ will slam onto the brakes. He did the right thing. Once he reached the destination, he hit the brakes in a way that made John congratulate himself for the decision he had made – to prop into his legs as solidly as he could. When out of the car, he reached for the wallet but to his surprise Xiǎo lǐzǐ nodded in a negative way and said:

-No Mr. Parker! You paid me at market, remember? It is good.

-Are you sure it’s enough?

-Yes Mr. Parker. You have good night.

-Thank you Xiǎo lǐzǐ and you have a good night too.

Xiǎo lǐzǐ got into his car and according to his habits, hit the accelerator pedal hard, leaving a trace of fumes coming out of his exhaust pipe. John shook again his head and murmured: “at least he is an honest man”

When he entered the apartment, Yue Ying was already sleeping on the couch with the TV still on. John carefully took the remote from her hand and turned the TV off. Then slowly headed towards the office area and placed the flower onto the desk. When returning to the living room, he grabbed a thick blanket that was laying onto an arm chair and covered her. From the bedroom he brought a pillow and placed under her head. Finally he headed for the bedroom, got into his pajamas and called it a day.

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