The author of this book is Sergiu Mustatea. He signs this book under a pen name: Andrew J. Parker.
From an early age he was drawn to Science (specifically to Mathematics), which eventually earned him a Degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Nevertheless, his insatiable thirst for knowledge of History, Philosophy, Geography and Biology was meant to bring together two completely different cultures: the dynamic Western way of life and the millennial uncanny traditions of the Chinese customs into one book: “Shanghai Sun: The Curse of the General”
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 with the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.
Shanghai Sun: The Curse of the General
Andrew J. Parker
All Rights Reserved
COVER – All rights reserved by: Lacramioara Maria Mustatea
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: John and Linda Parker 1
Chapter 2: John John Glenworth. 12
Chapter 3: A Night at the Theaters. 23
Chapter 4: Long Way to Reach Home. 47
Chapter 5: Perfect Saturday. 60
Chapter 6: Blessed Sunday. 102
Chapter 7: Last Day in America. 136
Chapter 8: First Day in China. 159
Chapter 9: Neighbors, Wang, Gang. 180
Chapter 10: A History lesson; Zihuan, Yuhuan, Li Jie. 207
Chapter 11: The Book of Knowledge. 249
Chapter 12: The Neighbors. 285
Chapter 13: Linda; Sunday Church. 321
Chapter 14: Suzhou Gardens. 344
Dedicated to all those who encouraged me to write, especially to my wife, Mihaela.
The author of this book is Sergiu Mustatea.
From an early age, he was drawn to science (specifically to mathematics), which eventually earned him a degree in mechanical engineering.
Nevertheless, his insatiable thirst for knowledge of history, philosophy, geography, and biology was meant to bring together two completely different cultures: the dynamic Western way of life and the uncanny millennial traditions of the Chinese customs into one book: “Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General”.
Chapter 1: John and Linda Parker
John and Linda Parker are two professionals who happened to live in an upper mid-class suburb of a well-known American city.
John was a manager at a multi-national investment company, which provided a wide range of financial services. He was the team’s quarterback in his college years and made a name for himself by winning a championship game with a clutch last seven seconds throw.
Linda was a teacher and the principal of a reputable high school. Her father, Reverend Wilson, lived all his life trying to bring the word of the Gospel into less fortunate communities and fight with all his energy gang violence by speaking to the teenagers and convincing them to follow a different path. Linda felt like her father’s legacy must live on; she wasted no time getting involved in community projects and volunteering to work with kids from less privileged neighborhoods.
Since kids have left for college, they developed a habit of sleeping with the door of the master bedroom open. It was just another way of keeping in touch with “the world downstairs.”
The smell of the freshly brewed coffee made him crack a smile even though he was still half asleep. He set the alarm clock to go off fifteen minutes before the coffee maker started brewing, and the pleasure of laying in the bed and stealing another quarter of an hour from yet another hectic day to come was bringing him immense pleasure.
Finally, he decided to get out of the bed; turned and rolled over, closer to Linda. John lifted his head, looked at her for a few seconds, then hugged and kissed her on the side of her neck. Even though she was still sleeping, he could see that his kiss brought immense pleasure to her beautiful face and a purring-like sound made him think of naughty things. He bit his bottom lip and slowly rolled out of bed, trying not to wake her up.
When he turned the bathroom’s light on, a moment of hesitation came on his face as the eyes tried to adjust to the new environment. He took his T-shirt off and looked into the mirror. “Still got it, still got it, buddy!” came instantly out of his mouth and flooded his face with an expression of satisfaction.
His flat stomach was still showing the six-pack, which during his football years brought him the famous nickname everybody in the team was envying: “The Spartan.” It was the nickname in the locker room given each year by the teammates to the player with the best-sculptured abs. A great sense of pride brightened his face, and the memories poured in: the great game for the championship, the game won in the last seven seconds by his throw, and the injury which ended an up-and-coming career. Dropped his head for two seconds, then looked again in the mirror and chuckled: “You would’ve made it to the NFL! You sure would’ve made it!”
The morning routine settled in very quickly: teeth brushing, showering, and shaving; he did everything with exact motions and a set time frame; three minutes for teeth brushing, five minutes for the shower, four for shaving. Hair combing came after and was still taking some time in spite of the fact that he lost some hair around his temples. The grey shades in his hair gave him a mature look, the look of a man who is in control, a man who is an established professional capable of providing a comfortable living for his family.
“Coffee time! It is now coffee time!”; he took the stairs down to the living room and then to the kitchen while putting on a lovely silk robe around him and rubbing his hands against each other in the sense of great expectations…like a kid in a candy store, one would say. The smell of the fine coffee he just poured into his cup made him close his eyes and take a deep breath – like he wanted to make sure he absorbed all that wonderful essence of the Caribbean blend he was buying from the gourmet coffee shop across his downtown office. The first sip was short, with his eyes closed, trying not to lose anything of the great bold and robust aroma of the liquid in his cup. “So good, so good,” exclaimed John in such an enthusiastic way, a way which would’ve made one genuinely understand that John was indeed a specialist in gourmet coffees! He put the cup on the kitchen table and headed towards the entrance. He opened the door, wrapped the robe around his waist, and picked up the newspaper. He looked at the sky and mumbled, “It will be a cold winter; hopefully, we won’t have too much snow.” On his way back, he took a quick look at the sports section, “They lost!” A glimpse of sadness – like a lonely cloud on a clear winter morning sky – settled on his bottom lip. “Why did I miss the game? How come I got so out of touch with the sport I love so much that I completely forgot about the game? Aha…the meeting!”
After the unexpected call for a large-scale meeting (directly coming from John John yesterday afternoon), he started digging into his files. Due to the fact that J.J. did not provide any meeting agenda, he was nervous because this had never happened before. “What if I have to present something? No. He didn’t provide any discussion topics. “What if…?” That “if” started torturing him, and he completely forgot that he was supposed to be with everybody else from the office at the usual sports bar to watch the game together. Even forgot that while the guys were leaving, he asked Vicky to order wings for him when she asked him if he was coming? “Of course I do! Today is the big game! I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What sort of question is this?”
– “Just asking, John. Just asking,” said Vicky and left while looking over the shoulder, smiling persuasively. He smiled back, opened a large binder containing notes he took from the past two years’ meetings and started reading. He didn’t even realize when it got dark outside. He raised his head only when John John softly knocked on the frame of his opened office door and asked, “You didn’t go with the guys to watch the game?”
John pulled a chair and had another sip while turning the TV on.
– “Temperature is in the low forties, and we expect it to stay like this for the whole week…it will be a cold winter, folks.” “Yeah, thanks for the late-breaking news!” and switched the channel.
– “Financial markets took a dive, today folks, at the news that Chinese economy will only grow at a rate of 5.7%, much lower than most of the analysts predicted. On the other hand, the Bank of China announced unprecedented reforms to the lending policies trying this way to stimulate an economy which everybody in the world fears will start sputtering and come to a stall after years of robust growth.”
He was now “eyes and ears” at the news and immediately opened the newspaper’s financial section on the table. “Glenworth Financials” lost three dollars and forty-three cents per share between three and four o’clock yesterday, which was unexpected, especially after the steady growth recorded over the past five years. Growth mainly due to the opening of the Shanghai office and exposure to the enormous Chinese market.
– “This doesn’t make sense. It is an emotional sell. People are selling based on the news…Hmm, maybe it’s time to buy a few shares,” and a large conspiring smile showed up on the left corner of his mouth. “Maybe it’s time to buy”; John took another sip out of the cup and continued digging into the written material.
He then finished the coffee with short and calculated sips while devouring the financial section in front of him. It didn’t take too long before he got a clear picture of what the markets will do in the following weeks. Then he stood up and headed towards the living room when all of a sudden everything became clear to him: “This is why John John is calling the meeting! Of course, this is the reason! It has to be!” John John knew about the announcement and wasted no time in calling this emergency meeting. He has been working close to J.J. since he joined “Glenworth Financials” and his reaction felt simply normal. He got to know John John very well, and not being ahead of the game was something he hated the most. “I’m sure that he already has a plan sketched up.”
Moments later, he was upstairs, opened up the closet, and took a quick look at the large wardrobe at his disposal. The shirts were all aligned by color. He picked a light silk cappuccino that beautifully matched the beige suit with thin, vertical, light gray stripes he set his eyes onto. The leather light brown shoes and a tie which wonderfully matched the shirt and the suit, completed his choice for the day. He took all of them into the bedroom, making sure he didn’t make too much noise. Linda was still sleeping, and judging by the look on her face, he figured out that she was having pleasant dreams. He started dressing, and this particular morning he spent very little time looking at the details like a perfect knot or a perfect pants crease. He was dressing with feverish and precipitated moves as opposed to calm and calculated ones – as he usually dressed. He was so eager to get to the office as soon as possible, so he could get access to the network and dissect the financial statements Glenworth publicized two days ago! “Done! Let’s go!”
– “Morning, handsome,” came from Linda’s direction. He quickly turned around and looked at her. Bent a knee then hugged and kissed her.
– “Morning, beautiful,” he whispered into her ear. This made her wrap her arms around his neck and smile again.
– “I have to go, please let go.” Her arms were firmly holding him close to her chest. “I really have to go, now. Come on, be a good girl and let me leave,” repeated John with a soft and calm voice, trying to break loose from the hug.
– “I’ll see you tonight at the theater?”
– “Of course, you’ll see me. Have a good day now. I’ll call you after lunch.”
– “OK. You may go now,” she said, closing her eyes while hugging the big pillow she was sleeping on.
He rushed downstairs with the shoes in his hands. The rule was simple and straightforward: “No shoes inside of the house.” He put them on in the hallway and was ready to storm out of the house when he realized he had left the TV on. “That’s OK” was his first instinct as he knew Linda would watch the news as well while having her tea. But the discipline cultivated during his college football career and the years at Glenworth made him take his shoes off and head for the kitchen. “No electric device should be kept on while being away from the house.”
He grabbed the remote control, and the moment he was ready to push the power button, sports news came up: “And now let’s watch some highlights from last night’s game and especially the last seconds’ drama when our boys came so close to winning.” Memories popped up in his head as he watched the last throw of the quarterback to the receiver; it was a close miss. “It was less than an inch, less than an inch. This is terrible luck, bad luck, folks!” A sigh of disappointment came out of his chest, making him turn the TV off. On his way back to the entrance, he stopped by the room he was using as his home office. Flipped the switch and took a long look at the big poster showing him making the throw with seven seconds left for the championship. He was entirely covered by mud on that torrential rain, making that last throw while tackled by two defensive linemen. And it was the same play that ended his career. He never fully recovered from that torn ACL, and even if the broken ribs healed well once in a while, he was feeling some pain in the area, especially during intense physical effort. “I guess I was lucky. I made the throw. I did make that throw!” came out of his chest while chuckling and flipping the switch back off.
He put the shoes on, grabbed the overcoat from the coat hanger, the suitcase, and then headed straight for the garage. He opened the door of his red muscle car, threw the suitcase and the coat on the front seat, and stormed out of the driveway without waiting for the car to warm up. Usually, he wouldn’t do it, but now there was a different ball game on the line. He had to get into the office as soon as possible. The meeting was called for 9.00 am. “Hopefully, the traffic is not too bad. It is early”. Once he got on the freeway, he stepped on the gas pedal, shifting into the highest gear. The 500 HP engine neighed like a pureblood Arabian horse taken out of the stable for the morning run, and the tires squalled on the fresh asphalt trying to keep up with all the mightiness of the eight-cylinder engine. “Hopefully, there are no cops around,” John said to himself and moved into the most left lane. The superb sports car he was driving was doing what it was designed to do: racing. Virtually there were barely a few cars on the freeway, and the suburbs were left behind one by one. He was closing in to reach downtown when all of a sudden, he started seeing red brake lights from the cars ahead of him. “Damn it! It must be an accident ahead.” He swiftly moved towards the most suitable lane to be positioned for an exit on one of the city streets towards downtown. Within the next half a mile, he got a clear picture of what was going on ahead of him: one lane opened only – accident. Luckily he was close to the next exit and, without any hesitation, took a side street towards downtown. “Not too bad, not too bad! At least I am moving.” It took him another eighteen minutes to reach the street his office building was on as he caught every single red light possible. He truly started believing in Murphy’s laws: “When something bad has to happen, it will happen.”
After making the right turn towards the building, the traffic came to a complete halt. “You gotta be kiddin’ me!” He opened up the door (as nothing was moving) to see what was going on. He had less than a hundred and fifty yards to the front of the building. “Are you kidding me? These jackasses are towing a car now, during the rush hour, so the traffic can get from bad to the worst possible!” His carotids were pulsing from anger. “Think John, think!” came out of his mouth, looking around and holding his point fingers at the temples. Suddenly he saw Leo on the other side of the road, walking on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, rubbing his hands against each other, attempting to stay warm. Leo was one of the valets who were parking cars at the hotel across the street. He met him a few years ago when carpooled with Vic while his car got fixed. It was exactly the same situation, but at that time, Vic had the answer: got Leo to park the car while both of them walked to the office. Obviously, Vic did it before, otherwise how would’ve he known Leo?
– “Leo! Leo! Boohoo,” yelled John as hard as he could. However, people were honking their horns, trying to achieve something impossible: moving. Leo couldn’t hear him. John started waving at him while still yelling: “Leo! Leo!” Finally, Leo saw him, and before heading in his direction, he had a short hesitation. Leo didn’t recognize John. However, Leo was one of those street smarts who have their noses trained in smelling a nice tip from well-dressed people driving sports cars. Just by looking at John’s nice red muscle car, he intuitively knew his day was about to start on a high note. He was a city guy, and it was a giving knowing how to complement your regular income with cash coming from wherever else.
– “Leo, I’m John – we met a while ago. I’m Vic’s friend. Remember me?”
– “Heeey, of course, I remember you! How are you, Mr. Parker? How is Vic? I haven’t seen him in years!”
– “He is in China. Long story…”
– “Ahaaaa. He is in China. Lucky guy! He probably got himself a nice Chinese chick, boom, boom, boom…”
– “He is there for a work assignment.”
– “Oooh…I understand. Work assignment,” said Leo while winking, and a large smile exposed his impeccable white teeth, contrasting with his dark skin were shining like well-polished diamonds.
– “Listen, Leo. I need your help. I have a meeting in exactly thirty-eight minutes, and I still have preparations to make. I need…”
– “Of course, I can park the car for you, Mr. Parker!”
– “Thank you so much, Leo! You have no idea how much you are helping me!”
– “Don’t worry, Mr. Parker. I will leave the keys with the guys downstairs at the information center and a note with the parking spot number.”
– “Leo, you are a treasure!” John pulled the wallet out of his pocket, took all the cash out of it, and gave it to Leo.
– “No, Mr. Parker! You don’t have to do this! However, Leo’s fingers were already counting the fresh bills in his hand.
– “I insist, Leo. I still owe you. You are helping me big time,” said John while running towards the building.
Leo jumped into the car, took his valet coat off, and set the radio to his favorite rap station at a volume any other person would’ve instantly gone deaf. “Yeah baby; yeah baby; yeah baby! Hundred twenty dollars! It’s gonna be a good day, good day, good day! Yeah baby… yeah baby… yeah baby”. Despite the crisp fall morning, he opened up the roof and continued to rap, hoping that the traffic would still be jammed for a while.
John stormed into the building. The elevator was not coming quick enough! He checked his wristwatch: “come on, come on!” and started pushing button 27 numerous times. Glenworth Financials was renting the whole 27th Level of the building. His office was a short distance, down the hall from J.J.’s office. Mr. Glenworth was already in. All the lights in his office were turned on, making John understand that his boss showed up for work very early in the morning.
– “He is reviewing his presentation. He did not provide any sort of agenda!I hope this meeting is his show only.”
He passed J.J.’s office and took a look inside while passing by. He had his laptop set on the table behind his working desk and was typing.
John wanted to stop and say good morning but realized his boss was too absorbed by his work, and disruption wouldn’t have made him a very happy person. So, he just headed for his office, trying not to make any sort of noise that would’ve disturbed his boss from his work. He turned on his laptop and logged into the network. He was particularly interested in the financial statements related to Glenworth’s investments in China. “Bingo!” said John with a great relief of satisfaction on his face while looking at his watch: “I still have twenty-five minutes on my hand.” He feverishly started crunching numbers.
The alarm clock went off ten minutes before 8.00 am. Linda reached for the snooze button and turned on the other side, trying to steal another ten minutes of the morning sleep.
Her first class for the day was scheduled for 10.00 am, so she didn’t feel any pressure to hurry in waking up. Shortly after the second alarm sound, she got up and headed towards the bathroom. She was always brushing her teeth before taking a shower, which she did as a morning routine once again. Then dropped her pajama and got into the shower. Despite giving birth to two children and closing in to be forty-nine, her body was still showing forms that a twenty-year-old girl would’ve been jealous of. All those years spent as a cheerleader, all the gymnastics hours taken during her youth were paying off now. It was actually how she met John. He got out of the pocket during the big game and made a run for the first down. He got pushed out of bounce and couldn’t stop running towards the cheer leaders’ area where Linda was a main piece into the formation. Luckily he got the presence of mind of dropping the ball and taking her into his arms – otherwise, he would’ve knocked her down. She remembered being carried for a few yards without touching the turf. When their little tango came to a halt, she finally felt the ground under her feet, and it was only that time when she had the power to look him up into the eyes: he was John Parker! Every girl in the school had his name in the daily vocabulary or at least a poster with him on the dorm’s wall.
From that moment on, everything was a fairy-tale story: the “I am so sorry” which came out of his lips while looking her straight into the eyes, the party after the game when she was desperately looking for him, the unexpected phone call which came the second day, the visit at the hospital where she saw him in a cast from the waist up to the armpits, the start of their relationship, the wedding, kids, kids going to college…
All these memories were popping up while looking into the mirror when carefully drying her long, beautiful hair, and a big smile was flooding her face.
She grabbed a robe and headed for the kitchen. Then she turned the TV on and started making her morning tea—weather channel, financial markets, sports…nothing interesting.
She poured the tea into a cup and started browsing through the newspaper John brought in. It was still opened at the financial section. She saw the mark made by John with a black marker: it was the quotation on the market of Glenworth Investments. “The news is not too good, I guess,” she said to herself, seeing the negative sign in front of the dollar figure. Then she moved to “Arts & Life.” It was a piece of cake for her – new art at the galleries, movies, and new plays at the Opera House.
– “The shooting which took place last night in front of the Lagoon Paradise left two young men: sixteen and eighteen years old dead and three others in their twenties seriously wounded. The police have sealed up the area, and the investigation behind the shooting has begun. It is strongly believed, though, that it was gang-related shooting” came up, and all of a sudden, all her attention was captured by the TV.
– “This is just great! Yet another shooting! Somebody has got to do something about this; otherwise, the whole city will turn into a war zone.”
As a teacher and the principal of a reputable high school in town, she regularly participated in the City School board meetings and was very familiar with the gang-related issues in the schools. She was spending a great deal out of her free time working with children from underprivileged families, helping them catch up with the learning but mostly offering guidance on day-to-day life. She was doing it with great pleasure as she grew up with the mindset that you always have to give something back to society and help people less fortunate than you.
Her father was the minister of a church in the little town she grew up (not far away from the city) and spent his whole life spreading the word of the Gospel, comforting and helping people in need. Most of all, going into the poor communities and talking to parents, teenagers, and even kids. Reverend Wilson was a true missionary dedicating a good part of his life to the welfare of the kids coming from broken families, homeless people, or teens joining gangs. He was particularly working with kids dragged into the gangs. He believed that they are just missing the guidance and the warm environment of a stable family, of an environment where they can feel having a future, where they feel “important”.
He almost lost his life when he got caught in a crossfire shooting between two gangs. He was having one of his regular discussions about God and the life of Jesus with a few kids close to a community basketball court. A bullet hit him in the neck, and he was fortunate it had not touched any major artery. From that moment on, he truly believed that God chose him to take his will to the poor and unfortunate. He spent the rest of his life trying to build a parish into that community, a community riddled with violence, unemployment, broken families, and gang fighting. He did not live to see the church opening up. He lost a battle only the Good Lord could’ve won. Until the last moments, he thanked God for the life and the family he had, for the chance to be His humble servant on Earth, and for the good deeds he did serving Him.
For the last two weeks of his life, Linda was with him, all the way to the end, and she still remembers him whispering while looking up at the ceiling: “Lord, thank you for not taking my mind away from me.” Then his beautiful blue eyes froze, and Reverend Wilson went to meet Him.
This last phrase followed her for a long time after his passing.
He was her life model, and although she was not going to the church as often as she used to, her dad’s teachings survived into her subconsciousness, and his legacy turned into a mission.
The great Easter Sunday morning when the parish was opened and people flocked in made her feel such a great sense of pride, especially that she had managed to take her father’s project to the end despite all adversities and lack of financial support! And only the fact that her father was not there to see his dream come true stopped her from thoroughly enjoying the ceremony.
Reverend Jackson officiated the mass. He was one of the teenagers her father saved from the gang environment. He followed the path of faith laid in front of him by Reverend Wilson and eventually became the pastor of the parish. He relentlessly continued the work of his mentor, trying to keep his legacy alive.
In all the charitable projects she had in the community, Linda worked very closely with him. The fact that he grew up there and people knew him was of tremendous help to her. The seeds planted by her dad are now producing crops.
– “And with the help of Good Lord, hopefully, we will get to harvest the crops, amen!” said Linda and took the stairs up to the first floor. “It’s time to get ready! It is another day”.She began dressing, and for a reason she couldn’t explain, memories of her first teaching class (at the high school she was still teaching) settled in. The nervousness, anxiety, sense of pride, and fear of failure all came up, and despite that, all of these feelings were pure history. She felt a knot in her throat. She looked into the mirror and realized that small drops of sweat were coming down her face. “What’s going on? Why is this happening?” she called out as she wiped the sweat with the robe’s sleeve and sat on the edge of the bed to gather her thoughts while still looking into the mirror. She had a look of worry on her face. “Why is this happening? Why?” Memories of her father losing the battle with that cruel illness flooded her mind. She covered her face and held the head into her palms for a second. “It has to be just an anxiety attack! It will go away soon, and everything will be just fine,” she said again to herself, then tried to get all these negative thoughts out of her mind by deeply breathing while gently massaging her lower abdomen.
– “It’s gone! See? It was just a short anxiety attack! I knew it!”
She immediately jumped to her feet and feverishly started looking for the suit she wore during her first teaching class at the high school she was still teaching. It was buried among other suits she was not wearing anymore at the end of the walk-in closet.
She took it to the bedroom while it stayed on the hanger and cried while looking at it. Then she did a little pirouette, turned around, and looked from the profile. She really liked what she saw, and a smile blossomed on her face. Her abdomen was still flat, the skin smooth like velvet, and the few little wrinkles around her eyes were only adding charm to the whole bouquet of femininity she was radiating at that moment. She softly bit her lower lip, the same way she did when John grabbed her from the sideline and made her levitate for a few seconds during the championship game. That little lip-biting in tandem with her angelic smile made John forget that he had to get back on the field. He was brought back to reality by “Big K.J.,” who yelled at him while grabbing both his shoulders with his huge palms: “Come on, man! We are losing! What the hell is wrong with you?”
She burst into a big healthy laughter, a laugh that came when she needed it the most. It was like a vane releasing the steam out of a boiling vessel.
Two years later, K.J. was one of John’s “best men”. Eventually, he became a successful businessman who tremendously helped her make her father’s dream come true during the struggling years.
She immediately decided to try the suit out: “Still fits!” yelled with such a pleasure that her whole face was flooded by a large smile which eventually turned into a discreet laugh of satisfaction. “Still fits!”
The decision to wear the suit came without any sort of hesitation, in spite of the fact that it was out of fashion. Probably all those memories which made her go through an emotional roller coaster a few minutes ago made her immune to any thoughts related to what people could say. And the fact that in the evening, she will have a nice movie-watching night out with John pushed her even more towards getting dressed into that particular attire. Maybe her subconsciousness just wanted to trigger memories from the times of her first date with John. From the times when they were just grabbing a bucket of popcorn and had walked into a theater to watch a movie, from the times when there were not too many responsibilities on their shoulders…times she knew will never come back.
A short sigh came out of her chest, and she started dressing. It did not take very long. She took the stairs down to the kitchen and had a last look at the news channel: “…it is going to be a cold week, folks! Dress accordingly” the advice came from the weatherman.
– “Great! It is exactly what we want, a cold October. Probably at Thanksgiving, we’ll have two feet of snow!” and turned the TV off.
While walking towards the hallway, she wanted to shut John’s office door close. For whatever reason, she flipped the switch up and the big poster showing John making the last seconds throw for the championship win appeared in front of her. For a second, she was stunned, completely lost in the poster. The same knot came back into her throat and felt like choking. She had looked at that poster hundreds of times before. This time was something special about it, something she could not explain. Finally, a great sense of pride settled in, and again, that little smile and lip biting made her chuckle and turn the light back off while closing the door.
She grabbed her overcoat and the suitcase, set the alarm, and headed for the garage while in her mind, she had already decided to take the SUV and leave the small convertible she was also driving during summertime at home. Probably the weather forecast she listened to for a few seconds made her set into a self-protection mode when she decided to take the big car to work. She turned the radio to her favorite station and stepped on the gas pedal. “It is a new day! Good Lord, please watch over us!”
She picked the usual route: a street that eventually turned into one of those little two-lane roads through the countryside.
This time of the year, the scenery was fabulous. The colors of the leaves were simply astonishing: hundreds of different shades of red, yellow, and orange combined into a unique pallet of nuances offered a tremendously restful view. The spectacle of colors surrounding the car everywhere made her adjust the volume knob to a minimum. She just felt like wanting to absorb every single detail of the view, every single quiver of those heavenly colored leaves.
All of a sudden, something caught her eye: on one side of the road deep into the farmland, on a little hill, a deer herd was quietly and carefully resting and ruminating on a recent meal.
Linda pulled over, took a little binocular out of the glove compartment, and zoomed into their direction. Their ears were pointing up and rotating, trying to catch every noise that would have signaled danger. It was like a hypnoses session: everything around her became surreal, mystic, and untouchable, yet so close to her senses. The binocular brought the animals she was admiring so close that she felt like stretching her hand and fondling them.
She watched them for a few minutes, completely lost, forgetting that she had a class in less than forty minutes.
Finally, reality settled in, and Linda hit the road again with a sigh of sorrow that she was leaving her “friends” behind. “Maybe they will be back, and I would be able to see them again.”
Chapter 2: John John Glenworth
John John was the CEO and owner of Glenworth Financials. He was well known in the financial business as a “tough” individual who would always say “no” to nonsense and quick profits. He was seen as a guru of financial investments due to his long-term planning, which was why he was so highly respected and appreciated by the business community in the city.
He fought in Korea, and both he and John’s father (William J. Parker) were awarded the Navy Cross Medal for bravery during the fight at the 38th parallel. The two men developed a lifelong friendship. After the passing of John’s father, J.J. took John under his wing and turned him into a fine manager and fierce investor who was seeing opportunities wherever everybody else was seeing a “lost battle”.
Ten minutes to nine. John John was never late for a meeting, not even a single minute. John grabbed his laptop and headed to the boardroom. Usually, he liked to talk to people before the start of each meeting, break the ice and get a feel of everybody else’s mood.
After the “good morning” and a few greeting exchanges, he set his laptop up and pulled on the screen again the file he had just looked at when he stepped into the office. Nothing spectacular, nothing out of the ordinary, yet his gut feeling was telling him that something was going on.
He screened the room again, trying to read on people’s faces if others shared his worries. Not a sign! “Maybe I am overreacting…” and looked again at the financial statements in that particular file.
– “Good morning, everybody!” And as usual, John John looked at the people in the room, trying to see if anyone was missing. “Where is Rick? Where is Tom?”
– “They called in sick,” came the answer right away from Scott. He was the vice president, Glenworth’s right hand. John John was spending a significant amount of the day with him lately. Both Rick and Tom were reporting directly to Scott.
– “Too many rounds last night?” asked John John. Everybody else in the room burst out laughing, a laugh which sounded more like a relief: “He is in a good mood!”
– “OK. Let’s get going: I called this meeting because we do not have good news from our China branch.” He hooked up his laptop to the projector and pulled a file on the screen, showing a chart on investment history for the last seven years.
– “Surprisingly, we are showing positive numbers for the first two years, and then we continuously dropped into the red zone. I cannot explain this trend. Usually, you are losing initially, and then you pick up the pace as you become more familiar with the respective market. I understand the financial meltdown of ‘08 and ‘09, which did affect us too, but there is no reason to keep losing money in the next three to four years. Now let me bring up the overview of the investments we made per year and the sorted out per commodity over seven years. The reason why I want to do this is for you to get a feel for the most resilient commodities during these seven years and eventually keep them in the back of your mind when you invest. You may say that investing in China is different from investing in North America, Europe, or Australia. Agree. But there is no harm in taking a global look at a certain commodity before proposing an investment.”
J.J. was slowly getting into his favorite part of doing a presentation: building up the momentum to the point when he was coming up with facts, hard numbers, and details and always at the end with conclusions.
– “Let’s get into details, ladies and gentlemen…” John was from this point onward only eyes and ears. The way J.J. was conducting a meeting was a piece of art. The tone of his voice was mostly deep and low-pitched but was changing its tonality according to the importance of the paragraph, according to the message he wanted to send to the audience, and most of all, according to what he wanted to achieve. He studied J.J. for years, and he knew by heart what gestures his boss would use with every voice inflection with every look he was giving to the people in the room.
As usual, at the end of the meeting, the conclusions were presented based on hard numbers. Of course, the invitation to comment and express one’s own opinions on the presentation was a part of the company culture that J.J. was anxiously waiting for. His blue eyes, of immaculate incandescent light, were looking for any sign of feedback from the audience.
– “I really don’t understand why investing in China is different than investing in Texas or Australia! Investing is investing. There are market rules and regulations in place. You do your homework according to the company’s philosophy and place the investment,” said John. He felt like somebody had to take the initiative and break down the wall of ice created at the end of J.J.’s presentation when nobody wanted to step up to the plate and ask questions. It seemed like nobody prepared for this meeting, and everybody had the mind occupied with the last night’s game only.
– “What you are saying, John, is partially true. Yes, investing has its golden rules, which apply to any sort of investment you make. But, an essential part of the whole cycle of investing is: knowing the culture of the country you are placing your money into. It could eventually trigger market fluctuations on a specific commodity. For example, car insurance or life insurance. Why would these two commodities take such a deep dive when the economy is doing well?”
– “Something is not right…it is not normal. That graph goes against the trend.” John stood up and walked to the pull-down screen where J.J. still had a slide up. He pointed (with the pen he was holding) towards a specific graph segment where the slope was abruptly changing.
– “That is exactly the area of the investments myself and Scott have been looking at and scratching our heads for a long time,” said J.J. with a large smile while the light that was coming out of his eyes was so intense that one would think he wanted to hypnotize the people around him. “I believe we are done here, and if nobody else has questions, we should adjourn. Thank you, everybody, for your time. We will probably have to meet again in a couple of weeks.”
John was ready to leave the room alongside everybody else when J.J. put his big palm on his left shoulder and said:
– “I need to speak to you, John. In my office, please.”
– “Yes, Sir!”
– “Not now. In an hour, if you don’t mind.”
– “Yes, Sir! I will be in your office in one hour.”
– “Thank you, son.”
– “You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.”
J.J. took a seat at the table and made a very discreet sign to Scott to do the same. When everybody else was out of the room, he pulled the presentation again, specifically at that particular slide that generated some interest during the meeting, and started a conversation with his foreign investments manager and vice president.
John was managing Mid-West and South-West US investment accounts and had seventeen brokers reporting to him. He was reporting to J.J. directly, same as all managers in charge of the US accounts. However, Scott held the Vice President title, so he was (unofficially, but accepted by everybody) above all other managers by one step.
– “J.J. wants to talk to you in his office…Oh! Are we looking here at a brand new big manager? Are we looking at another vice president?” Vicky’s voice was more persuasive than ever, and the smile on her face larger and sweeter than John’s ever seen.
– “I am a manager!”
– “Yes, but you never know what can come out of a private meeting with J.J.,” said Joan, a forty-five-year-old broker reporting to John as well as Vicky. “Maybe he will make you the manager over the whole US accounts…”
– “Why not? He is smart, knows what he is doing, has the experience, and is good-looking,” said Vicky raising the stakes.
– “Come on, guys, you are talking nonsense. He will not make me any sort of more manager than I already am,” said John with adequate quotation marks when saying the word “more”.
– “Or maybe he will be the VP of the company,” said Jay Lee – a broker from the Atlantic group.
– “Guys! Guys! Please! He probably wants to discuss some of the latest investments in our newest market in Texas, nothing more.”
– “Oh yeah, the newest market in Texas! He really needs to have a top-secret meeting to discuss some Texas-style marketing – Eha…” Vicky graciously simulated a cowboy hat salute while partially sitting on John’s desk. Her short skirt showed two beautifully shaped legs, which attracted John’s attention at a point at which he didn’t know how to take his eyes off them anymore. She was beautiful, and she was pushing the envelope at a level any man could hardly resist anymore. The long blonde curly hair flowing down her shoulders, the narrow hips, and the wonderful long legs would drive any man crazy. However, John was always finding her unattractive – for a reason he couldn’t explain. But Vicky was the ultimate predator. She felt the hesitation in John’s eyes. “It is time to go for the kill,” and her wonderful olive-shaped eyes looked deep into John’s. John felt like his legs were trembling; his left hand searched for his chair while his right hand was trying to keep Vicky away.
– “Guys, you are making me uncomfortable already! It’s enough. Please, I need to prepare before the meeting,” said John, and with his left hand, he showed people in his office the door.
– “We understand, John. Please do tell us how the meeting went,” said Vicky while slightly bending forward from the hips, enough to expose her largely-shaped cleavage showing two beautifully shaped breasts barely held together by a pink bra. John almost swallowed his Adam’s apple.He was so relieved when she turned around and headed for the door.
One by one, the people in his office evacuated the room, and he found himself standing and looking at the door with an empty face, not knowing what to do next, not knowing what to expect next. Finally, John burst into a yell of frustration while setting his palms around his temples in an imaginary effort to get her off of his mind: “She is so pushy, I cannot stand her!”
He grabbed again the file he prepared for the meeting while pulling the chair and started digging again into numbers and data which “nobody seemed to have a grasp on” – this is what he set his mind to before J.J. knocked on his door.
He didn’t hear the knock. He had his back turned to the door, completely focused on reading from the file with the face at the window.
J.J. was standing one foot inside of John’s office, waiting for John’s acceptance to be let in. However, John was so absorbed in his lecture that J.J. realized he had to knock again on the door’s frame if he wanted to be heard. That is what he was about to do when suddenly his eyes fell on a few framed personal pictures John had on a piece of furniture in his office – kids graduating from high school, him getting married to Linda (with J.J. and John’s parents in the attendance) and a big black and white picture of John John and John’s father (William) in Korea. Both of them in the infantry uniforms, with the rifles pointing up, while the expression carved on their teenager’s faces showed complete indifference to the fact that they could’ve had not even made it to the next day. “The ignorance and the genuine bravery of the youth” sighed J.J. without knowing that his sigh will be so loud that will make John turn around and jump from his chair:
– “Mr. Glenworth! I am so sorry! I didn’t hear you…please, come in!”
– “That’s quite alright, John! I am sorry for disturbing you. I was just trying…to see if you are ready for the meeting.” And his sight fell again on the photo where he and Will thought they could move the mountains only by looking at them. John followed his eyesight and understood right away J.J.’s emotional state of mind.
– “Whenever you want me to come to your office, Mr. Glenworth…I am ready.”
– “Please start calling me by my first name,” said J.J. while grabbing John’s left shoulder with his huge right palm and looking right into John’s eyes. “Give me fifteen minutes, please,” and J.J. disappeared as elusively as he did when he walked into John’s office.
The fifteen minutes J.J. asked for passed by quite fast. All this time, John couldn’t take his eyes off the picture showing his dad and J.J. in those dirty infantry uniforms, with their faces almost completely covered in mud. Their blue eyes were throwing bolts of fire, trying to convince the photographer that the battle wasn’t over. He looked at this photo hundreds of times before but never was he as emotional over it as he was now. Probably the way J.J. was looking at the picture, the way J.J. was looking into his eyes when he grabbed his shoulder, the way he slipped out of his office without making any noise made John believe that this picture holds a magic power and needs to be beheld as it was sacred. He picked up the file he had prepared earlier and headed for J.J.’s office.
John John Glenworth
J.J.’s office was classy, to say the least. From the entrance door made out of solid oak wood to the desk made out of hand-carved mahogany and from the library (covering the whole wall on the left and made from oak wood as well) to the smaller meeting table and the coffee table (all beautifully assorted to the thick Persian carpet on the floor), one would’ve realized that the man who worked in that office was a fine gentleman with exquisitely refined tastes. The multitude of the “reds” on the carpet (so wonderfully distributed) made the furniture gradually blend in, starting from the door and finishing with J.J.’s working desk.
Opposite the door, a big glass wall showed the busy downtown while a view over the river was always astonishing no matter which the season of the year was. This time of the year, the red color of the trees along the river gave the sight a particular majestic appearance, inviting people from the office buildings to take short walks during their lunch breaks. It was also a usual jogging route for the condo owners in the downtown area.
A large bookstand with few shelves was placed behind his chair, to the right. It was the place where John John put several framed personal photos, mostly family-related. He and his wife Jen, he and his son George right before the accident, a picture of the whole family at John John Jr.’s College graduation, and a few more that couldn’t be clearly seen just by standing in front of his desk.
After the passing of his wife Jen, he had to go through yet another tragedy: the death of his second-oldest son – George – killed on a racing track. George loved racing cars, and his dream was to make it all the way to the top and become a NASCAR driver. George’s death left enormous scars on J.J.’s behavior. He became quieter; he used to laugh so hard that it shook his entire massive body like a leaf in the wind. Now, he was quietly smiling, and just from time to time, he was letting go of one of his great laughter. His blue eyes were still as expressive and deep as the sea, which, in conjunction with the thick white hair, always sent a message of self-confidence and implied respect from the interlocutor.
Whoever didn’t know him tended to be frightened by his imposing stature or by the sharpness of his sight or by the way he was looking straight into one’s eyes. But deep inside, he had the heart of a child. Alongside his career at Glenworth Financials, he helped numerous young professionals become top advisers in a tough, relentless market. Few of them even ended up owning their own companies. He was a master at molding young, energetic, rough and unpolished gems (willing to learn) into diamonds of financial markets’ gurus.
John was one of those young talented guys turned by J.J. into a well-known leader at Glenworth Financials and well respected throughout the industry. John John immediately saw his potential: native intelligence, adaptability to new circumstances, and ability to find a way out of the situations considered lost by others. After just a few years at Glenworth, John was promoted into middle management and had a team of three brokers reporting to him. Now, after almost twenty years, he had become the manager of the most important accounts – asset wise – of the company.
When John reached his boss’s office, he stopped at the door and tidied up again: straightened the tie and some invisible wrinkles on his coat and tried to guess by looking into a nearby window if his hair was still properly brushed.
The door was opened as usual. He softly knocked on the door’s frame as J.J. was facing the big glass wall – probably admiring the riverside of the downtown and the amazing multitude of colors this early fall has brought over the city. John could only see the top of his head and the thick white hair above his elegant executive leather chair from the door. He knocked again, this time harder. Nothing. At this point, he decided to do the trick, which would probably never fail in any sort of situation similar to the one he was into: slightly coughed.
Immediately John John turned his chair around, and a large smile flooded his face.
– “Come in, come in, have a seat!” J.J. showed John to the meeting table while shaking his hand. “Do you want to have a seat on the couch?” The coffee table was in front of a superb leather light-colored couch, making this way the room “bigger” by neutralizing some of the sober yet elegant dark colors of the book stands, chairs, and working table.
– “It’s quite alright, J.J. I am perfectly comfortable at this table. Thank you.” John pulled a chair, waiting for J.J. to sit first.
– “Let’s talk now…man to man,” said J.J., pulling the chair and inviting his guest again to sit. “I have known you for such a long time, John;” John John stopped for a few seconds to remember the exact number of years he’s known John. “How old are you now?”
– “I will be fifty-one in March next year.”
– “It’s been fifty-one years since I know you! It was like yesterday when Jen and I came over to your parents’ house to say hi to you! Fifty-one years! As time goes by! In the meantime, you grew into the man you are today, and I only wish Will was still with us to see what good job he has done. How is Judy?”
– “She’s alright. She does lots of volunteer work at the church, and whenever she has time left, she does the same at the senior center nearby. She tries to stay busy, which is good.”
– “I am glad to hear that. I haven’t seen her since…since the passing of your father. Please say hi to her for me.”
– “I will, Mr. Glenworth, and I thank you for this in her name.”
– “How is Linda? How are the kids? I believe Jerome is in his last year at the college, if I am not mistaken? And Anne-Marie has two or three more years to go, right?”
– “Linda is very busy with school. She is the principal now of the school – not sure if you knew.”
– “No! I didn’t know! I am so happy for her. Please congratulate her on my behalf. She is a very smart lady and so goal-driven! I knew she would make it to the top in her career.”
– “I will say hi to her on your behalf and tell her that you said congrats. Besides school, she is trying to keep her father’s legacy alive. She is investing lots of time at the church after hours. I help her whenever I can.”
– “Oh, I remember now! Reverend Wilson was her father! What a man! I remember now! Please tell her to come over and see me. I am sure I can help her iron out some financial hurdles she is most likely facing.”
– “Thank you again, J.J., but I am not sure she would take it. You know her. She will not just accept a generous check from you to spend it – even for a noble cause.”
– “Nonsense! We’ll find a way to do this. I know lots of people in the financial business, and we can put together a charity event. Just ask her to give me a call, please.”
– “Probably this way is going to work,” said John. “Actually, this is the only way it will work,” and a little discreet laughter came out of his throat.
John John smiled and asked again:
– “You didn’t finish…how about the kids?”
– “Oh, Jerome is indeed into his last year…can’t wait to go to his graduation. And he is a quarterback too,” said John, while his chest filled up with such immense pride that his eyes were already betraying him, even though he tried to stay as humble as possible in front of J.J.
– “Fantastic! How about Anne-Marie?”
– “She has two more years to go to graduation. She is taking political studies, hoping she could one day get into politics.”
– “Aha…politics! Never liked it. But it is a necessary evil. You have a wonderful family, John, and I am so happy for you!”
– “Thank you, Mr. Glenworth.”
– “John John is my name – especially when it’s just the two of us.”
– “Thank you, J.J.”
– “Better. Now let’s get down to business.”
As he pushed a button on the remote control, a screen came out of a library opening. He then connected his laptop to the screen and pulled the presentation again on the screen.
– “I looked at these slides a hundred times. I still can’t understand what’s going on. Why are we losing money when we should be making it? This is why I called you here in my office, John. I don’t expect you to find an answer just by looking at the numbers or digging into the files. Something else is going on, something I just can’t get my fingers around it…I am on the verge of giving up, and this notion – you know very well – it’s not part of my vocabulary. Still…I just cannot understand what’s going on.”
– “Do you want me to start over, from scratch, from square one and dissect this thing into the smallest bits and pieces possible?”
– “No. I don’t want you to do that. It will be a loss of time. If Scott and I couldn’t come up with anything, neither will you. I want you to do something else…” and J.J. took a long break. His eyes looked first somewhere at a specific point on the large window. Then he looked John straight into his eyes. John’s Adam’s apple started going up and down. Cold sweat was running down his spine when J.J. took his right hand between his two huge palms and said something he never expected:
– “I want you to go to China and sort this matter out.”
If somebody would’ve thrown a pin on the ground, the ding made by the fallen pin would’ve been heard all the way to the front desk. John’s face was petrified. He thought he did not hear right.
– “You want…you want…you want me to go to China? This is what I am hearing?”
– “Yes. This is what I want, John. With all my heart, I have no choice…I don’t think anybody else in this organization can get to the bottom of this damn thing. You are smart, experienced, with exceptional people skills, and you have something else, something nobody in this company has: a feel for traps. You combine the training of an office executive with the nose for the danger of a street guy you developed during those football years of yours. You are the perfect fit for this job. This is why Scott and I came up with this decision.”
– “So, whose idea this was? Yours or Scott’s?”
– “It doesn’t matter. The job must be done. And it will be done! We cannot afford to pull out of China!” His voice, usually low-pitch and calm, became authoritarian, the voice of a CEO who wanted a job done regardless of the hurdles laid down in front of his path.
– “How can I help? I have never been there. I don’t know the culture, I don’t know people’s mentality, I can’t speak the language, I don’t know how they do business. You said during your presentation that it is important to understand how people think – when investing abroad – so we can be on the same page and eliminate the cultural aspects…”
– “These things you just mentioned are important indeed, and I am glad at least one person listened to my presentation! Ha, ha, ha!” A big laugh came out of his big chest, and his eyes were already watering from laughing. After a short pause, he took his hanky out of his suit pocket and wiped out his eyes.
– “In the beginning, you should focus on reading people, trying to see what sort of relationships have developed between them in the office, who is running the show. Tony Gang is the China branch manager. He will be your contact person there at the highest level. Also, Vic (you remember Vic from the Atlantic division) will help you get around there and translate. He’s been there for a few years now, and I hear that he has become fluent in Mandarin. He also knows lots of politics in that office, and you should heavily rely on him.”
– “I need some time to think about it, Sir.”
– “Yes, for sure. I hope that by Monday, you have agreed.”
– “Today is Friday!”
– “You have the weekend to make up your mind. I am asking this as a favor from you, a favor with respect to all these years we’ve been together in this business! I have no one to send there, John! Please, help me out!”
J.J.’s eyes were slowly mellowing down from a thunderbolt throwing machine-like to a more desperate type of a look. A look one would’ve never seen. John felt how a cold sweat traveled down his spine and started trembling while his right leg was nervously shaking up and down.
– “I didn’t think it was that desperate, Sir. I didn’t think…”
– “Yes, it is. I didn’t want to show the real numbers in that meeting. We lost 20 million in the last five years. I buried the numbers so people wouldn’t see them. That graph was bogus. This is the real one,” and J.J. pulled another slide John hadn’t seen during the meeting. The deep was severely more abrupt, and John’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets.
– “God! This is bad!”
– “Yes, it is. We are left with two alternatives: we either shut down that operation, or we fix it. And this is where I want you, John, to step in and help.”
– “But I have no experience in overseas investments, I don’t know the culture (as you said), I don’t know the people, I can’t even understand what they are saying…how am I supposed to fix this mess?”
– “I don’t expect you to fix the mess, John. I want you to lead me to the right track! That’s all I need. I need you to lead me to the right track! I will take care of business from thereon. I spent endless nights thinking about what to do, thinking if I have to pull the plug or not. I do believe that we should be there, but something is not right! I cannot keep sinking the company’s money into a bottomless pit. This is why I need you to go there and figure out what the hell is happening with that organization.”
– “Let me talk to my wife, J.J. I’m sure she would understand. She loves you. You are a mentor to both of us. You have my answer. I hope you understand.”
– “Thank you, John. Please send my respects to Linda. I can’t wait to see her again.”
J.J.’s eyes were watering again, and for John not to see this, he stood and went to his desk facing the window. He was the kind of man who never let his emotions come out in front of his employees, and even John was so close to him, he did not want to see him getting weak – or this is what J.J. considered that state of emotion to be.
He kept looking through the window while he had his hands joined at the back, giving a clear sign that the meeting was over.
John figured out that it was time for him to leave and quietly slipped out of the office. He walked to his office and sat on his chair facing the same side of the building as J.J.’s: the riverside view of the downtown. It was absolutely spectacular at this time of the day, and his head was spinning already… “What am I going to do in China? How can I help? I know absolutely nothing about doing business there. I know nobody. How am I supposed to come up with a solution?” All these questions started haunting him, and a strange feeling of uncertainty wrapped him, although he was trying to stay calm and not panic. For the first time in his life, he was panicking. He grew up being taught by his father to keep a cool head regardless of the situation. He had his endless football training sessions where he learned to stay cool into the pocket and not panic, rely on his big offensive linesmen to protect him from the hits, and rely on his teammates to give him those two seconds he needed to make the throw. In the office, he had a team of professionals who knew how to make a trade, who knew how to make a call when it was about a good investment opportunity, who knew how to alert him when things went south.
This time, he figured out he would be all alone in uncharted waters, in a world where the rules are different, where he could not even speak the language, in a world where he could not rely on anybody else but himself. He panicked! “I have no pocket! How am I supposed to win a game like this?”