Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 31 (The purple 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 31

The purple Orchid

 The cab was already waiting for him. John had the bag with drinks in his hand. He realized that he was about to make a big mistake! “I am such an idiot! I am taking drinks with me and I have no flowers to give to the lady of the house! Unbelievable!” He stopped the taxi and speaking very slowly, he tried to explain the taxi driver that he needs to buy flowers. “This is great! He doesn’t speak a word English…now what?” He looked at the wrist watch and realized that there were just ten more minutes to six. The decision was quickly made: he picked up the phone and called Vic.

-Hey, man…listen. I will be a bit late. I must apologize.

-No worries, man! Are you on your way?

-Yes, I just have to get some flowers and I am heading your way.

-Cool! No rush, we are waiting for you.

-Great, I see you in a few.

-Bye.

-Hey…do me a favor please. The driver doesn’t speak a word of English, please talk to him and make him understand that I need to buy flowers from somewhere.

-Sure, let me speak to him…

John passed the phone to the driver. A large smile flourished on the man’s face as he was speaking to Vic. The conversation was short. He gave the cell phone back to John and stepped on the acceleration pedal in a way one would think that he wanted to make up for all the time they had lost.

“Jesus Christ! He is now racing” The cab driver was making the turns at such a high speed, that the small car he was driving was shaking from all the nuts and bolts, while the tires were squealing as loud as two squirrels fighting each other.

“This guy is crazy! I am not sure I am going to make it to Vic in one piece!” John tried to temper the man by making the universal sign: “slowdown”. It wasn’t necessary anymore. The driver stepped on the breaks as hard as if he was about to hit someone. There were no seat belts in the back, so the hard stop made by the man almost made John pass through the two front seats. “What the hell is wrong with this guy? Why did he step on the breaks so hard? This guy is nuts!” He was at the point of showing (somehow) the driver that he drives too fast, but the smile and the happiness seen on the man’s face, made John realize that in his mind, the driver considered the little adventure a job well done. While getting out of the car, John felt like stretching his legs…the little leg room he had in the back and the suicidal way the driver drove, made him wanting to do some stretches right there in the middle of the walk way. It was Saturday and the night life started slowly to pick up steam in that particular area. Again, similar to the area where he bought the books from, this particular neighborhood was also a commercial like type of district. Lots of ma and pa shops, selling everything. The flower shop in front of him, was packed with freshly cut, nice flowers. John was baffled! “Now, what do I pick? How do I know which sort of flowers Zhaohui likes?” The owner, a lady in her late sixties (probably) showed up right away…she smelled a good sale as she knew that a westerner never goes cheap when is about buying flowers – especially if they are for the ladies. She didn’t speak any English, so all the Chinese she was using, was actually going right by John’s ears while he was looking around for something nice, for something that could have a meaning, an appreciation, a sort of: “my respects”. All of a sudden, his eye sight fell on a little shelf which was placed behind the counter…seven stunning orchids in seven separate pots were sitting on that shelf. They were magnificent, to say the least! One was of purple color, one was pink, one was white like the snow, one was orange and the fifth one was yellow. The other three were a combination of pink and white, pink and yellow and pink with orange. John was stunned! He just couldn’t take his eyes off the flowers on the shelf anymore…they were so beautiful, so majestic and the colors were so lively and genuine!

For some reason, John thought that it was enough to whisper around them and they would simply vanish, this is how feeble and delicate they seemed to be. In a blink of an eye he decided: he will buy one for Zhaohui. “Now which color do I get? They are all so gorgeous, that it is almost impossible to pick one over the other ones”

The old lady saw John’s dilemma and with a large smile on her face, walked behind the counter, looked John straight into his eyes and started speaking something in Chinese. It was a move which puzzled John as the shop owner was now standing between him and the flowers, trying somehow to protect them. On top of the fact that he couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, he realized that the tonality of her voice has changed. It was not the same she used when he entered…now it had no commercial, or advertising inflections in it. It was flowing nicely, naturally and almost motherly like, a voice of a person who is giving you advice rather than trying to sell you a product. The confusion reached maximum level. Finally, John realized that he will be too late for the dinner and he must make a decision: he picked the purple one.

Once again, the face of the old lady was flooded with joy and smile as large as her mouth could hold. John paid and the store owner moved to wrapping the flower. It was a whole procedure she went through: bringing a specially made plastic support (taller than the flower to protect it), then actually wrapping everything into a nicely colored and coated type of paper which was now encompassing the whole vase, the plastic support and implicitly the flower. At the end, she deeply bowed, leaving John with no option but to bow himself. “It must have a meaning…I think it is more than a thank you for your business. I will have to ask Vic” John grabbed the pot, and headed for the car. This time he didn’t want to take any chance anymore. He sat into the passenger seat and placed the pot on the seat, between his legs. He did not want any sort of accident to happen to the precious gift he was holding. The driver followed the same routine: sharp acceleration which made John sink into his seat, sharp turns, and finally a stop on the dime when reaching Vic’s condominium and town homes residential complex. John was fuming from frustration! His bottles in the back seat were all lose now and he was wondering if anyone was broken. But his flower was sitting nicely and protected in his arms. “This guy is mental! I can’t believe I ran into such a nut head! I hope my drinks are all OK”

The security guard at the gate made the phone call and Vic’s voice was heard into the microphone. The barrier lifted up and the driver again stepped on the accelerator in a way which made John tilt his head backwards and hit the head rest at a velocity he felt that his neck muscles went under significant stretching. He was about to put the flower on the floor and choke the cab driver. But the very thought of ruining such a beauty, made him take another thirty seconds of abuse. Finally, the driver hit the brakes again…this time John was prepared: he knew that eventually the driver will have to stop, so he planted both his feet on the floor and pushed into the leg muscles as hard as he could, so he would defy this way Newton’s first law of motions and prevent his head from hitting the windshield. “What a numb nut! What a numb nut! How the hell did I run into such a lunatic?” The smile on the driver’s face made John understand that his driver truly believed that his customer liked the way he drove. It was a sort of excitement on his face, a satisfaction of a job well done. “He is definitely mental” whispered John. Slowly he got off of the car; his legs were shaking like spaghetti as he had to hold on to himself not to hit the windshield during those hard stops. Vic was waiting for him.

-Hey, what’s up? You OK?

-I will tell you…let me find my bottles first. Please hang on to this…careful, it is very sensitive stuff in it. John started collecting both his wine bottles and the hard liquor ones. He paid the driver and he swore that he would never get into the same car with that guy again. But in spite of all the hassle, he put his card into the pocket. It was that cautionary and self-preservation instinct which prevented him from tossing the card.

Vic was living in a complex of condo apartments surrounded by individual townhouses. He owned one of the town homes. In the front, he had a little front yard and a small patio on which he was barbecuing and entertaining guests when the weather allowed. The unit he owned, had three bedrooms, a living room and two bathrooms on a two tier level. One bedroom, the kitchen, a small dining room, the living room and the master bathroom were all on the ground floor, while the other two bedrooms a small office and another bathroom were on the second level, to which nice wooden stairs were taking the guests for the overnight sleep. The open concept of the whole unit was providing a nice overview of the main floor from upstairs.

The living room was superbly decorated with calligraphy written on papyrus; the red and black color of the writings didn’t mean too much to a westerner, but to a Chinese who valued the art of hand writing, these were art, were history and poetry. The black frames (on which the papyrus was hanging from), were made out of mahogany wood which was giving to the whole painting a sense of exclusivity, a sense of nobility, a meaning of aristocracy and fine taste. In the master bedroom, a library full of books was facing the bed and the opening into the middle section of the main shelf was providing a storage space for a TV and the other electronics. The dining room was actually an extension of the living room, as the overall open concept took care of removing all the unnecessary walls which would’ve made the house smaller and less welcoming.

Zhaohui, came to greet John. It was a warm, friendly and inviting welcome and the sincerity in her voice almost made John shed a tear. He gave her the flower and then passed the bag of drinks to Vic.

-No way, man! Why did you have to buy all of these? I have enough buzz in my house to keep us busy for the rest of the night. Both John and Vic burst into laughter.

-It is a small gift, I really didn’t know what to get you…John felt a little embarrassed as he knew that his friend quit drinking and only on occasions he was still indulging in having a glass or two of liquor.

-I thank you for your gesture. I hope you are hungry. Zhaohui has been cooking since this morning.

-Like a wolf, man! Like a wolf.

-Again you are using my line! Another round of heavy laughter came out of their chests and after taking the shoes off, they both headed for the dining room where the table was full of freshly home-made cooked food. The view was stunning and John could help but loudly admire the multitude of dishes laid in front of them.

-These are just the appetizers. I suggest you pace your appetite and eat smartly. The main course will come a little later.

-You are kidding, right? There is food one this table to feed a whole battalion!

-I am not sure if we will be able to feed a battalion, but for sure there is enough to feed three hungry bodies. A large smile flourished on Vic’s face. It was a smile of satisfaction, pride and elation directed towards his fiance’s cooking skills. While chit chatting with Vic, Zhaohui was unwrapping the package which was protecting the gorgeous flower John brought for her. At the very site of the orchid, she covered her mouth in an attempt to stop a sigh of deep surprise. John saw this gesture and attributed it to the fact that she was pleasantly surprised by the gift.  But soon, he realized that it wasn’t quite a sign of admiration as her face turned pale and her hands starting shaking while trying to finish unwrapping. John was stunned! He thought that he brought a great gift which will be appreciated. A great disappointment settled on his face. “She does not like it…I knew that I shouldn’t’ve bought orchids! Not everybody likes them!” Almost instantaneously, Zhaohui realized John’s dilemma and with a sincere but yet soft tone in her voice said:

-Thank you, John! It is absolutely beautiful! John put a large smile on his face and a sigh of relief came out of his chest.

-For a moment I thought that you didn’t like it…

-Nonsense! It is absolutely gorgeous! And it is purple, my favorite color. How did you know that I love orchids and that purple is my color?

-I didn’t…and I have to admit that it took me a while to decide.

-Where did you buy it from? Vic asked this question while he was admiring the table and multitude of dishes on it; his fine ears picked up the conversation between his fiance and John and just felt like he wanted to but in.

-A flower shop…don’t ask me where it is because I couldn’t memorize anything from the surroundings. I told you about the nut head taxi driver I picked up at my hotel.

-Hahaha! Yes, you did. I would love to be once in his cab!

-You are crazy! No, you don’t want to be in his cab. The guy is a maniac. John and Vic broke into yet another big laughter, following at the same time Zhaohui’s urge to sit at the dinner table. The scenery was magnificent to say the least! Little bowls and plates filled with all sort of dishes: spicy Sichuan pickled vegetables placed by deep fried prawns and shrimps marinated into a soy sauce (by the look of it), breaded chicken bits sitting right by the side of some lovely looking pickled Korean style cabbage and beets, raw shrimps on the plate with the choice of hot ginger sauce or Japanese wasabi, breaded calamari rings with a garlic sauce of sesame seeds, spring vegetable rolls with a great looking mango sauce sitting right by its side, chicken satay with a spicy peanut sauce and a paste of creamy hot paprika and finally, a fantastic looking grilled salmon and a garlic paste mixed with a light soy sauce; all these dishes were making this table look like heaven on the earth. It must’ve taken Zhaohui a long time to prepare all these dishes, which truly looked magnificent!

The atmosphere at the table was jovial and cheerful and all three of them wanted to enjoy the multitude of the dishes in front of them at the fullest. There was little talking. Back home, John took his family many times to the Chinese restaurants and knew how to handle the chopsticks. However, he was no match to Vic or his fiancé. The food was so fresh and tasty, so well balanced and assorted, so well presented and it looked so good, that one could say: “you can eat it with your eyes”. Vic poured some drinks and “cheers” came right away out of everybody’s chest. The variety and the quality of the dishes on the table, made John wanting to try everything. The vegetable rolls were crispy but not hard, the chicken satay served with the spicy peanut sauce were a delight and the shrimps with Korean pickled vegetables were something to die for!

Soon, everybody at the table felt like having a rest. It was the need for a break after tasting so many different types of entrees. Vic poured some white wine and by raising his glass, he signaled that he wanted to say a toast. Both John and Zhaohui looked at him waiting for the speech.

-Guys…I am a bit emotional right now, so I will keep it short. I would like first and foremost to say: “thank you John”, for accepting our invitation.

-No, I must say: thank you guys for inviting me. You prepared so much food and you truly are the perfect hosts. I really feel like home.

-Thank you, John! Both Zhaohui and Vic tilted their heads forward, in a sign of deep respect and consideration.

-May I continue, please? It was this question that brought a huge laughter out of everybody’s chest, making the dinner night even more interesting, funnier and the atmosphere open and friendlier than ever.

-When I saw you at Pudong Airport, I really didn’t know how to approach you, John. It had been seven years since we hadn’t seen each other anymore. Lots of things are changing on daily basis, leave alone seven years…I didn’t know exactly what to expect from you (as you had your “Texas Hold’em” face on). Another round of laughter broke up and Vic took advantage by pouring some more wine into the glasses. But as days passed by, I learnt that you were still the nice, reliable guy I had the pleasure to be colleague with back home. John tilted his head forward into a silent “thank you”. Now, I am proud to call you: “friend” and I thank you again for accepting our invitation. Vic raised his glass and another round of joyful “cheers” was heard. At this point, John felt like he wanted to say something too. He cleared his throat, stood up and raised his glass:

-Guys, I can only say that I am overwhelmed by your hospitality, by the warmth you are showing me, by the fact that you took the time to prepare such a wonderful dinner and of course by the fact that you are helping me so much with my assignment. Without you, I would’ve never been able to move forward. I hope I can one day re-pay you for your kindness, for your support and for the friendship you are showing me.

-Don’t mention it, John…we are happy to have you over for dinner and that you like the food we prepared. Zaohui’s voice was crystal clear and the softness from the beginning of the conversation completely disappeared. She was now showing that she is indeed the lady of the house and she knows how to make a guest feel comfortable and relaxed.

-The food is fantastic, to say the least, Zhaohui. There is so much diversity on this table that makes me wanting to ask for more…

-There is plenty of it left and the main course will come as well.

-I was just kidding! Both Vic and John burst again into a big laughter and shortly Zhaohui joined in. Everybody was having a blast and the time was passing by fast and very pleasantly.

-Now, we should have a break so we can show you the rest of the house.

-Vic, you go ahead and show John around. I have to wrap up the left over appetizers so we can make room for the main course.

-Sure. John, you can take your glass with you. Vic picked up his glass and started showing John the main level and then the second level. It was a beautiful townhouse, built with a taste for utility and comfortable living. Once upstairs, it didn’t take too long to Vic to show the upper level to John. There were two bedrooms, a bathroom and a little office where Vic and his fiancé were doing their work from home. The bedrooms were nicely painted in lively colors and hand painted canvases inside beautifully carved cherry tree frames were hanging on the walls.

-If you decide to spend the night over, you have two rooms to choose from.

-Thanks for offering, Vic but I will be heading back to my hotel. Tomorrow morning I will have to call my wife.

-I was just offering an alternative in case you decide not to head back to your hotel.

-I know and I thank you for this, but I will stick with my initial plan.

-Very good then. Now let’s sit down and talk. Vic showed John a couch he had in his office, while he took a sit into his chair. So, how was your day? Before you start though, let me tell you what kind of feedback I got from Yuhuan.

-Yuhuan is the handsome guy?

-Hahaha! Yes, he is the handsome guy from our team. Remember he told us that he has a friend in Beijing who is in the same business as he and Zihuan are?

-Of course I remember. This is getting interesting…John put his glass on a table nearby, moved to the edge of the couch and started rubbing his hands showing a deep interest.

-Well, apparently Tony went to Beijing and visited the Forbidden City.

-And what’s so special about this? Anyone can go and visit the Palace.

-Wait…don’t jump to conclusions. Inside of the Palace he met with four people, among them being your neighbor.

-But we know that they are either friends or they are in a sort of boss-subordinate kind of relationship.

-Yes, we know that. But who are the other two persons? Well, Yuhuan got a bunch of pictures and Zihuan’s sister is now working on compiling everything and putting them into a slide show. So, next time we meet with our detectives we will have a lot of viewing to do.

-Fantastic! Well done!

-Hang on, I am not done…after leaving the Forbidden City, they went together to the “Order of the Seven Orchids”.

John startled…he looked deep into Vic’s eyes which made his friend ask if he is alright.

-Vic, I bought today an orchid for Zhaohui…

-So…what’s the problem? Everybody who has a decent income can buy orchids. They are indeed expensive, but…

-Vic…please allow me to stop you right here…John took a deep breath and started rubbing his temples in a sign of deep disturbance.

-Now you are scaring me, man!

-Vic, when I was into that flower shop, the woman who apparently owned the shop looked very insistently into my eyes for few seconds. This made me a bit uncomfortable – I have to admit. She had seven orchids into the store…all placed behind the counter. It seemed like she didn’t want to sell them. I asked her to sell me one; she didn’t do it until she scrutinized me; it was a sort of: “I am only selling these to the right people”. I felt a little embarrassed, but I was happy that I got one as they were all stunning.

It was Vic’s turn to hold his head with both his hands and few moments of silence settled into the room.

-You have to tell this story to Zhaohui!

-While we were chit-chatting, I couldn’t help but watch her face expressions: I am sure she liked them, but there was something else, there was something else into her eyes…I cannot describe it. It was wariness, prudence and nostalgia, it was a sense of avoidance and circumspection.

-You have good eyes, John…I didn’t realize all of these.

-Maybe I am wrong and overreacting because of the peculiar day I had…

-I think you are not overreacting. We shall have a talk after the dinner…the three of us. By the way, did you meet with Wang?

-Yes, I did.

-How was it?

-He told me a story which gave me goose bumps…he told me about the Curse of the General and the Curse of the Emperor.

-What? There is another curse?

-Apparently when the Imperial Palace was taken by the peasants of Li Zicheng, the emperor cursed General Wu Sangui. However, this curse is not due to meet its finality for another twenty years, I believe.

-You must tell all of these to Zhaohui.

-I will.

-OK then, now let’s go downstairs and continue our dinner. She is calling for us anyway.

-I hope you are hungry…we have: sweet and sour pork, we have deep fried chicken with mango, orange or apricot sauce, we have beef and broccoli with a black pepper, and chili sauce – be careful with this one, as is very spicy, typical Sichuan Cuisine – or if you would like, I prepared a sauce based on mustard and sesame seeds mixed in sesame oil and soy sauce. We also have fried shrimps with oyster sauce and to top everything, I cooked fried rice with vegetables.

-Wow! This table looks unbelievably attractive! Zhaohui, I extend my compliments again to you. You are indeed an amazing cook!

-Thank you! John I appreciate and I thank you for your compliments.

-I am so hungry right now! Vic’s eyes were expressing his admiration towards the variety and the overall aspect of the dishes, while a mute appreciation pointed towards his fiancé’s cooking skills encompassed his whole face.

-Well, gentlemen…dig in! Zhaohui’s face was expressing a sentiment of pride and accomplishment, it was that great feeling of a job well done as a host. The food was delicious and that could be seen on both Vic’s and John’s faces: joy and delight, satisfaction and appreciation. For the second time that evening, everybody at the table was simply minding its own business: eating. The food was so delicious and fresh, the spices used by Zhaohui to decorate the dishes: from fresh Thai basil, thyme and rosemary (spread on top of the broccoli and beef) to red chili pepper and sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the fried chicken, that one would think a famous chef prepared all this fantastically looking meal. Vic poured red wine into new glasses he brought from the kitchen and a joyful round of “cheers” broke up again into the dining room.

-I am full! This exclamation came from Vic who leaned against the back of the chair in an attempt to catch a breath, to rest or to simply make room for some more food.

-I am full too! The food was absolutely fantastic! Well done, Zhaohui! You are truly a great cook!

-Thanks again, John. Your compliments are much appreciated.

-Hey, how about me?

-What did you do?

-I did the grocery shopping!

All three friends burst into a huge laughter and the atmosphere turned from quiet and sober (as they were occupied with the great food in front of them), into open, jovial and cheerful. It was the moment when they realized that it only takes very little to be happy and that good, quality friends are so hard to find.

-Ready for some deserts?

-I am so full, that I think I will skip the stuff for the sweet tooth.

-Me too…I ate so much of that deep fried chicken with apricot and mango sauce that now I would probably be unable to even walk!

-OK then. We will wait an hour or so and then we will try again. How does this sound, gentlemen?

-Perfect! In the meantime, let’s wrap everything up from this table and let’s have a conversation. We have plenty of talking to do. In few minutes everything was nicely wrapped, packaged into containers and placed into the fridge. When the three friends found each other again sitting at the table, a sudden quietness settled in. There were a lot of things to talk about, there were so many unanswered questions and a certain level of uncertainty was floating in the air.

 

 

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Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 28 (All cats are black at night)

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 28

All cats are black at night

Shortly, the room service showed up. It was ten o’clock and the dinner was ready and delivered as per request. The table in the living room was rapidly filled up with containers and plates waiting for the hungry diners to taste the superbly looking dishes presented by the two waiters. A knock at the door was the signal that Vic made it just in time. Zihuan and Yuhuan were accompanying him as per earlier discussion. The pleasantries were short. John invited his guests to take a seat and dig into the many dishes which filled up the table. The advice was well taken by everybody and for a quarter of an hour, nobody said a word anymore. Everybody in the room was solely concentrated on the great food in front of them. The chopsticks into the hands of Vic and the two detectives, were creating wonders by breaking the meat and grabbing the tiniest pieces of the meal. John knew how to use them but was by far much slower than his guests in manipulating them. When the bellies started to fill up, everybody took a short break and relaxed by leaning against the sofa or against the back of their arm chairs. It was the time when John felt like he wanted to open up a discussion:

-Well…any news, gentlemen? I saw you Zihuan following a limo. Any idea who was inside?

-Your neighbors, Mr. Parker. They come back to hotel. Stay an hour and then they left. I follow them. They go to White Orchid Club. I cannot go in there – very private and exclusive.

-You meant that it is an exclusive Club, meant only for VIPs.

-Yes, you right Mr. Parker. Very, very private. I hear that not if you very rich, you cannot become member. You must be part of “Orchid Group”.

-“Orchid Group”? Vic, any idea what is this? It this some kind of a Country Club back home where not anybody can get in even if they are filthy rich?

-I guess so…I don’t know. I have to ask Zhaohui.

-OK. This is a pretty good piece of information! Thank you Zihuan!

-You are welcome, Mr. Parker!

-How about you, Yuhuan? Did you manage to get some intelligence on Tony?

-No Mr. Parker. But he fly to Beijing yesterday.

-Aha, that’s why I haven’t seen him into the office today.

-He go to airport, I looked at terminal and check in. The flight was for Beijing.

-I wish I knew what he did there.

Yuhuan started laughing and his face was literally irradiating from happiness. John didn’t know how to react and neither did Vic. But what they heard next, made them both jump from their seats.

-You will know what Tony did in Beijing, Mr. Parker. I called friend and send picture to him. He wait at the airport and follow Tony all the time. He will call me when Tony leave Beijing.

-Unbelievable! Fantastic work, guys. I am so happy I have you on my side!

-This is awesome! Vic’s voice was chocked by positive emotions while his eyes were showing respect, admiration and a great deal of confidence into the two guys he hired.

-Great work guys, great work!

-Thank you Mr. Parker. We good detectives and we know people everywhere in China. We built network. We know detectives. We are a group of detectives. And we help each other.

-Unbelievable! This is fantastic! It means that we can have our eyes on Tony and my neighbors 24/7. I can’t believe that I can get this much help. Well done, guys! Well done!

-Thank you again, Mr. Parker. What do we do tonight?

-You didn’t tell them?

-No. You go ahead and brief them up.

-OK…gentlemen, tonight we break into a restaurant.

It was the turn of the two detectives to jump off of their seats.

-Mr. Parker, Mr. Parker…this dangerous. We don’t want trouble with Police.

-Relax, Zihuan…relax. We may not even go in. But we have to find out if one person is on our side or not and we must take some pictures of an atlas. It is apparently very old and it has some significance over the Emperor Chongzhen’s last days before he committed suicide. John’s last sentence made the two detectives feel at ease and the discussion continued with Zihuan and Yuhuan giving more details on their pursuits.

The time to put the plan into action was closing in. While John was removing and placing the dishes on the cart left by the room service waiters, Vic and the two detectives picked up their luggage. Two large and two small flashing lights were brought by Vic, while the two investigators had their laptops and other pieces of equipment specific to the work they were performing.

As per plan, fifteen minutes before eleven o’clock the team of four men was standing on the opposite walkway from Wang’s restaurant. The street was still busy as lots of cars (especially taxis) were moving people from one side of downtown to another or to the suburbs close by. The clubs were open and so were many other restaurants. Wang’s restaurant was making an exception: it was all into the dark, thing which would normally jump out of the ordinary had anyone had the time and the patience to pay attention to these small details. John was trying to keep up the spirits by carrying a casual conversation. Vic was weighing in, picking up on his friend’s strategy. But it looked like the two detectives were not paying too much attention to the small talks between John and Vic. They were all eyes and ears on the restaurant and surroundings. John couldn’t help but notice this.

-Why are you two guys concerned?

-We no concern, Mr. Parker. We think how we get in.

-Zihuan, we will find out in a minute. We wait five more minutes. It is already eleven. Something is telling me that Wang is on our side and he must’ve left some trail, something we could follow so we can get into his restaurant.

-OK. We wait. Yuhuan was still not engaging in the conversation. His eyes were scrutinizing Wang’s restaurant with the patience and the thoroughness of a cat which is closing in on its prey.

-Why curtains pulled down? No normal. All restaurants let street light get in.

Both Vic and John looked at each other and in that very moment they understood that Wang dropped the curtains so it would shelter them from the street light, so it would help them get in without being noticed by the passers.

-We are getting in! That’s it! Good eye, Yuhuan! Wang did it on purpose to help us. Now, I am sure he is on our side! Zihuan’s face lit up and followed John who was already standing in front of Wang’s restaurant.

-OK, guys…we cannot get in at once…all of us. We will do it one by one. I am sure the door is open. We will stand here like we are just talking. Vic, you go in first then Zihuan. Yuhuan you are next while I will cover for you and get in the last. We will do this at two minutes intervals, so we won’t betray our intentions to any curious passer or cop. Now let’s simulate that we are carrying a conversation. Vic, you are first. We start the clock now. Remember, every two minutes one of us is getting in.

Vic waited few more seconds, time in which he pretended that he was conversing with other three men. Then slowly, he moved towards the door. As John expected, the door was open. Like a ghost, he got in and turned on one of the small flash lights until he reached a point from where his light could not be seen by anybody, keeping it pointing to the ground.

Two minutes passed by and another silhouette made it through the door. It was Zihuan. Vic guided him with his flash light and in few seconds he joined Vic by the place chosen for regrouping.

The plan was working just fine. Yuhuan made it in and joined the other two men. It was John’s turn. The two minutes were almost up. “OK, now it’s my turn” John said to himself, when a man approached John and asked for a light to lit up his cigarette. John politely told the man that he is not a smoker and thus doesn’t carry a lighter with him. The answer apparently did not satisfy the man who started yelling in Chinese something John obviously couldn’t understand. Vic and the other two men were sweating buckets. They heard all the conversation and right now found themselves in an impossibility to react and help their partner outside. John was trying to keep calm, as attracting the attention of the passers was the last thing he wanted to be happening. One would even find the situation hilarious as the unknown man was yelling in Chinese while John was trying to calm him down in English. Eventually a policeman stopped by and this was the moment when the strange man took off, leaving the scene as rapidly as he entered it.

-Any trouble sir?

-No officer, no trouble. He asked for a light. I told him that I do not smoke. He became irascible and started yelling – nothing else, nothing special. I thank you for your help, sir!

-No problem, sir. His mental no good. Many times he harass people. Look like he no like Westerners. John cracked a huge laughter and in few seconds he was accompanied by the police officer. You have good night, sir.

-You too officer and thanks again for your help.

-No problem, sir! He made a sign that he wanted to depart when all of a sudden he stopped and while looking John straight into his eyes, asked a question at which John was not in a real good mood of answering:

-You are alone here, sir. Are you lost? Need help get somewhere?

-No officer. I am just waiting for my friend to pick me up. He is on his way. In few minutes he will be here. Everything is just fine. John was also looking straight into his interlocutor’s eyes, thus relieving a sense of sincerity and trustfulness, a sense of easiness and positive energy.

-Very good, Sir! You have good night!

-Same to you officer! Enjoy the rest of the night. The cop made a good bye sign and quickly departed, maybe as quickly as he showed up. It was a strange scene, a scene which made John think at what just happened. The two men who just showed up out of nowhere, exactly at the time he was supposed to get in. “Very strange” told John to himself and slowly started moving towards the door, while still keeping an eye on the street. Once in, he followed the little light fascicle that was coming from Vic’s flash light.

-What happened, whispered Vic?

-A guy approached me and asked for a light. When I told him that I am not a smoker, he started yelling and made a scene. Then a policeman showed up and he ran away. Apparently was just a mentally unstable individual.

-How come he showed up exactly when you were supposed to get in?

-I don’t know, man! I really don’t…

-Ok, let’s head to the back. I go first. Zihuan you are following me, Yuhuan you are the third. John, you cover. Here it is the second flash light. You keep the light fascicle on the floor only, so we can see where we are stepping. I am leading with my flashlight. Let’s go! We have work to do. Vic didn’t wait for any approval from his colleagues and headed for Mr. Wang’s office following the path which was passing by the kitchen, the stairs going to the first floor and furthermore, down the dark hall which was eventually ending up into owner’s office.

The emergency lights on the stoves were the only source of light in the kitchen area. Their shadows looked grotesque as they were projected on the walls.

When passing the window (where the waiters were picking up the food from), all of a sudden a loud clinging noise made their hearts stop; both Vic and John turned immediately their flashlights off. They felt how the sweat was now pouring down their foreheads, temples and cheeks, ultimately joining underneath their chins in an unstoppable stream of salty liquid.  Apparently two stainless pans hung into the long nails from the wall, touched somehow each other (like someone intentionally grabbed one of them and let it freely swing), thus making that clinging noise. How did they get to move and touch? All four of them stopped breathing and moving. This sinister noise was so unexpected and so badly timed that none of the four men wanted to whisper one single word. Nobody counted the time they waited in that petrifying state of mind, but soon they found out the cause for the noise:

-Meow…meow! A superb short haired cat came out from the kitchen and her shadow was now projected as well on the wall, while only her green, slender eyes were seen in the darkness. It was clear that this is how Mr. Wang was keeping the eventual rodent problems under control. Vic and John took a deep sigh of relief while the two investigators broke into a quiet laughter, into a laughter of: “Thanks God, it’s just a cat!”

-Damn cat! Almost gave me a heart attack! Vic was wiping the sweat off of his forehead, while John was using the handkerchief he was always carrying into his back pocket to wipe out the cold sweat that was running down on his temples and around the neck.

-Man, I thought that my heart stopped, whispered John with a trembling voice which was betraying a great state of emotions. Why did the cat jump when we entered?

-Most likely she saw us coming in and came to greet us. She was probably on a table by the wall and when jumped, caught one of the pans making it swing and touch the pan nearby.

-Right. Good explanation. Let’s now get back to work. Vic, please lead.

-Sure. Follow me. The hallway was completely dark and while passing by the stairs to the first floor, both Vic and John couldn’t help but turning their heads in a sign that the memory of the woman who was hiding behind the door was still alive and was now coming back as they were heading towards Wang’s office. As they expected, the door to the office was not locked. Once inside, they turned the large flashlights on. It was enough light to figure out that Wang left a large key on his desk. Both of them knew right away that this was the key from the library. John grabbed it while Vic was trying to remember how Mr. Wang used it, where was the lock so they can use the key and open the rotating section of the library. Both flash lights were pointing towards the lower portion, where they both saw Wang trying to open it. Soon, an opening which was matching the shape of the old key was relieved by the combined light of the flash lights. Without any hesitation, John put the key in, turned it and pushed into on side of the section which was supposed to open. A sinister squeak followed, which made John and Vic sweat again. Instantaneously, both of them looked at the door through which that mysterious silhouette showed up into the room, an individual who never introduced himself and Mr. Wang never bothered to present him to his guests either. It was like they expected that individual to come in and torment them, as he looked like a keeper of Wang’s office.

The multitude of books and old manuscripts was stunning! The yellow color of most of them, betrayed the fact that these pieces of Literature, History and Geography were old indeed and they were priceless. This is why Wang was keeping them locked, in a safe place. It seemed like the dark corridor, the woman upstairs, the individual who entered the room while Vic and John were there, were all guardians and custodians of the library. The dust which was slowly getting airborne, was enforcing an atmosphere of mystery, of treasure hunting, of search for the hidden fortunes or for the magic answers to world’s problems.

Once the rotating part of the library was open, their sights fell right away on the immense book which Wang showed to them at the time of their first visit. It was a masterpiece of book making. The covers were all made out of many layers of papyrus paper and in spite of the fact that the corners and the edges were all worn out, they were still strongly holding together providing support for the massive book. Slowly, page by page, Zihuan was taking pictures with his little photo camera he built himself. It was a tedious type of work which required patience and dedication, repetition and steady hand. John wanted every single detail to be captured. It took the detective some time before he figured out the perfect settings (given the circumstances). Then it was just a matter of execution and lots of perseverance. In the meantime, John and Vic were checking other books Mr. Wang had on the shelves. It looked like the library of an old antiquarian, one of those places where the very moment you get in you feel like you are transponded into a world of legends, into a world long gone, into a world of chivalry and bravery but in the same time into the ruthless world of betrayals, murders and assassinations, into the cruel world of wars and fight for survival.

Yuhuan was following John’s requests and was trying hard to keep up with the demand. John was like a kid into a candy store: he wanted everything. He wanted geographical maps, copies of the written stories from those books and most of all he wanted pictures of the personages drawn into those manuscripts. He wanted to get accustomed with the way the important people at the Emperor’s Court were dressing, with the etiquette which was essential and was dictating their type of cloths, with the relationships between personages and in turn, with their relationship to the Emperor or Emperor’s advisers and councilors.

-OK. I am finish here. Zihuan’s voice was confident and the tone of his voice expressed the satisfaction of a job well done, well executed.

-Fantastic! You can help Yuhuan now.

-OK. No problem Mr. Parker. But how much time do you think Mr. Wang give us? When you think he be back and lock the door?

-This is a good point, Zihuan. I don’t know. John was murmuring and so was Zihuan when he opened the conversation. The existing feel of mystery in the room probably made them keep their tones so low, or probably the fear of their presence being uncovered and revealed, of their presence being noticed by the mysterious personage from the other room.

-It is midnight. We have been here for an hour. We will stay half more hour and then we go. In the meantime, let’s take as many pictures as we can. Vic, we need some military maps if possible. I want to understand the circumstances of the events which put an end to the Dynasty.

-Sure, but old writing is different from today’s writing. I think you need to get a hold of scholars to help you out.

-Would Zhaohui know? I don’t want to show these pictures to a stranger.

-I don’t know. I guess we can ask her tomorrow.

-Good deal. Now let’s try to find a military map. Scrolls of papyrus were opened one after another one and then rolled right back. John wanted to take pictures of everything, but given the circumstances he understood that he has to be selective. There was so much information at their fingertips! So much information he didn’t want to miss!

-Bingo! Vic’s voice betrayed a satisfaction he could barely hide. The papyrus scroll he unfolded was a beauty! It was the map of a battlefield, clearly showing troops positioning, from the infantry men and cavalry to artillery and auxiliary personnel. In the background, the two commanders and their staff were presented with great colorful details. Overall, it was a beauty. It was more like a work of art, rather than utilitarian. Zihuan took over and started taking snap shots. In the same pile, Vic found more scrolls like the one he just discovered. It seemed like the lady luck smiled upon them: a whole collection of maps unveiled their secrets to them. Yuhuan was now joining Zihuan as the work load was greater and greater with Vic’s discovery. John was using his cell phone as well to help expedite this task. He wanted to photograph all those maps they found.

When they were done, it was already one o’clock in the morning. John made the sign which told everybody to wrap up and get ready to leave. Both he and Vic tried to place the books and the scrolls in the same order as they found them. Then swiveled the rotating section of the library in place and locked it while placing the key in the exactly the same place where they found it.

-OK. Now we are turning the large flashlights off and we head back to the entrance using the small ones. Same formation as when we got in. I go first. John, you close up and cover the end.

The corridor was as dark as it could get, especially after they exposed their eyes to a better type of lighting inside of M. Wang’s office. It took them some time to get accustomed with the darkness, but once they reached the kitchen area they felt at ease and felt safer. The cat who greeted them on their way in was there again and it felt like she wanted to say: “Good night, gentlemen. Stay safe!”

Once at the door, John asked them to follow the same drill: one at the time at two minutes intervals. This time, the gathering place was the lobby of the hotel. Zihuan pulled a baseball hat out of his backpack and put it on. He also pulled the zipper of his jacket all the way up and disguised like this, quietly slipped out. Vic lifted the corner of a curtain to check out if it was safe to exit.

-Yuhuan, your turn. We’ll meet in the lobby. Following his friend’s idea, he pulled as well a baseball hat from his luggage and same like a ghost, the detective squeezed through the small opening of the door and disappeared into the night.

-OK, John – you go.

-You first. I will cover.

-No. It looks like whenever you cover, there is always something happening. You go first. I will leave the last.

-Alright. Take care buddy! I’ll see you in the lobby. John tried to make his massive tall structure as small as possible and slowly he glided out of the restaurant. Once in the street, he started walking towards the hotel. He barely got to the first intersection, when the same individual who asked for a light earlier stopped him again while showing a cigarette. It was obvious that he was asking for the same thing. Now, John started to be worried: “Same individual, same street, same proximity to the restaurant…this is not a nut. He is doing this with a purpose”. However, he tried to keep calm and through gestures showed the man that he didn’t have a lighter. While explaining the man that he was not a smoker, he took a peak up the street: Vic was exiting the restaurant. He saw that John was in trouble and the first instinct was to come down and help. John very discretely made a stop sign with his hand. Vic picked up the message on the fly and crossed the street on the other side. While slowly walking, he carefully supervised the activity on the other side of the street just in case he had to step in and help out. The individual was becoming more and more vocal. In the meantime, John was showing him over and over that he does not have a light. Shockingly, the same policeman appeared out of nowhere and sent the strange man away. It was now clear to John that this was not a pure incident and wasn’t just simply happening. It was a premeditated act, it was meant to torment and harass him. His mind was already putting together scenarios on which Tony was the mastermind behind these games. However, for the moment he had to get away with a break into activity, hoping that the cop did not observe anything.

-So, did you find friend?

-Yes, I did. We had dinner and now I am heading towards my hotel.

-May I know which hotel you are staying on?

John’s heart was pumping blood at a rate at which he was feeling it flowing into his temple veins. Back home he would’ve probably said: “I don’t think this is any of your business, sir” but here, facing a new culture and especially after his break into endeavor, realized that he must be diplomat, that he must get over this night and safely make it back to his apartment.

-I am sorry, sir but my company does not allow us to disclose to anybody the place of our accommodation.

-Ohhh…I understand, sir! I just try to help and take you safe there.

-That’s OK, sir. I thank you again for your help.

-Yes, that person no good head.

-I understand. And just to make you feel at ease, look…I am taking a cab.

-OK sir. Have good night.

-You too, said John while waiving at a taxi which was passing by. He got in and couldn’t help but realize that the policeman followed him and even dropped his head in an attempt to hear where he was heading to.

-To the subway station, please! John placed the request as loudly as he could so it would give the “officer” a false venue. The cab’s tires squealed in a sign that the driver was in a rush. While watching into the rear view mirror to make sure he is not followed, John asked the driver to make a right on the first intersection; this is where he got out, paid the driver a hundred RMB and asked him to continue. The cab driver looked at John the same way you look at a lunatic. He got paid seventeen dollars for a couple of hundreds of yards. His face lit up like the moon on sky which in that particular night was bright, beautiful and majestic. He pulled a card and gave it to John making signs that he could count on him whenever he wanted. John thanked, closed the door and headed back towards the main street. Before reaching it, he saw Vic on the other side of the main street, making desperate signs towards him. He was trying to tell John to stop. Following his friend’s advice, he closed in to the main street, but only to make himself one with the wall on the last building before the main street. Taking a discreet peak, he could see how the “policeman” and the “crazy guy” were arguing with each other only to get into the same car and start driving down the main road on a pursuit which now both Vic and John knew it was meant to follow John all the way to his hotel.

-Good strategy! They were following you.

-Yeap. Let’s get as quickly as possible to my apartment. Now I know that Tony has people following me.

-Do you think they know of our break into endeavor from tonight?

-I am afraid so. We need to talk to Wang and let him know about the episode.

-Agree. He is clearly on our side.

-I will go there tomorrow early afternoon to speak to him. You have lots of things to take care of, for the dinner.

-Sure. Good deal. You should be fine. I suggest you show up way before lunch, so he will have enough time to talk to you. At lunch, that place is getting packed (as you saw it) and he will have to supervise the kitchen area. Won’t be able to assist you with anything…

Both men increased the walking pace and shortly they made it into the lobby where the two detectives were waiting in an advanced state of uneasiness. When Vic and John walked into the hotel’s lobby, Zihuan pulled a big sigh of relief and with a voice which was still betraying a very concerned man, asked them if they went through some trouble.

-Yes, we did get into some trouble, but Mister Superman here, took care of it. It was a joke which both investigators liked so much, that they were laughing so hard, so sincere and loud, that a Receptionist took his sight from the computer and looked up into their direction.

-Let’s go upstairs; we will have a short chat and plan the next moves. While taking the elevator, Vic explained in Chinese what happened. It was Zihuan and Yuhuan’s turn to shake their heads, showing concern and uneasiness.

-This no good. Tony has spies. We are follow.

Shortly they were inside John’s apartment. John pulled some drinks, same as last time. He made Vic a large Bourbon with lots of ice, while he stayed on that awesome single malt, straight up. Juice and soft drink for the two detectives completed the preparations for their meeting.

-Ok, guys. Fantastic job tonight! We have now plenty of material we can study and somehow relate Wang to the whole picture. Zihuan and Yuhuan…how long do you think you need to put together a folder of pictures we can look at?

-We have many pictures, Mr. Parker. This take time. We need combine 3-4 into one frame so we can see all but we need details as well.

-Right. You start doing this and once you have an idea you tell me.

-OK. We can do this. But we also need keep eyes on Tony and friends. When we out watch Tony and his friends, cannot work on pictures.

-Agree. But now Tony is gone. You can start doing the folder.

-Yes Mr. Parker, but Yuhuan start design software so we can see Li Jie work in office. This important.

-Damn! You are right again. So, what do we do with the pictures? I need them compiled into a readable format.

-No worry. We have Yuhuan sister to help. She good with office stuff.

-Fantastic. Great job guys! Let’s toast: to the success of this endeavor, which unexpectedly turned into an adventure! The good mood encompassed the living area ones again and for few minutes everybody was speaking in the same time and nobody was actually listening. John was very happy with the way this night went in spite of the fact that he found out that Tony is keeping an eye on him. At least now he was aware of this and he knew that he must be in an alert mode all the time.

The clock showed one forty five in the morning. Vic and the two detectives stood up and signaled that it was late and it was time for them to go. John was tired too, so he walked his guests to the door, hit the bedroom, put his pajamas on and called it a day.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 27 (The book of knowledge)

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 27

The book of knowledge

The alarm clock was set to go off at seven thirty. Long before that, John was awake. It was still dark outside, so he decided to stay in bed and think at the events which changed his life, hoping not for good. Raised the pillow and crossed his legs in a Yoga position leaning his back against the pillow. The eyes were looking somewhere in the dark, at a point he randomly picked. His brain was trying to comprehend the depth of the story rapidly unveiling in front of him: the mysticism, the sense of eternity, the broken circle of cosmological predestination which had to be closed somehow, the unfinished feuds between some warriors of the past who were all bonded to some sacred codes of honor, made him grab his temples with his hands. Again and again, he asked himself why he is part of this circle of energies which seem like they are all spinning around the same time frame, around the same set of events: last days of the Ming Dynasty. In his mind, he was picturing all the personages who participated at the episode like electrons gravitating around the nucleus, placed on different layers, different orbits. He started understanding that the nucleus was the Emperor while the electrons were the individuals he already met or he was about to meet, people who were closer to the Emperor either through the blood line or the position they were holding at the Imperial Court.

There were so many questions to which he didn’t have answers and so many personages involved into a story which seemed to be dramatic and tragic, fateful and predestined, yet beautiful and theatrical – a story which was sucking into it everybody who was meant to be part of the celestial predestination.

The alarm went off and John headed for the bathroom. The usual morning ritual kicked in and shortly he was out. This time he didn’t spend much time picking suits as he dressed for casual Friday: blue jeans, T-shirt, V-neck sweater, black Western cowboy boots and his beloved leather jacket with the logo of his team embroidered on the back. While stepping out of his apartment, he couldn’t stop but throwing another look at the neighbor’s door. He shook his head in a sign of helplessness, given by the fact that he didn’t know the identity of the people living across the hall, in a sign that this situation was already making him nervous as he intuitively realized that Tony Gang and his neighbors may be the key to his assignment. “What do these people do? Obviously they are rich, as not too many folks could afford to pay for such luxurious apartment in such a high class hotel. But how are they related to the story? How do they relate to Tony?” These questions were pressing all his buttons, were making him stay alert and wakeful, but in the same time were putting him into a self-preserving mode, into a defensive position which he simply didn’t like. He was an offensive type of player, the one who didn’t wait for the best opportunities; he was used to go after the opportunities himself, making things happen, winning on a high note while attacking.

The breakfast was fast and frugal. A couple of steamed buns, scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee. He headed out of the restaurant and decided to walk to the office. On his way out, he couldn’t help but notice the beautiful fully blossomed lemon tree. The weather was beautiful and another gorgeous sunny fall day was about to shine above city of Shanghai. The morning rush was in a full swing and once again, John couldn’t help but shake his head: “so many people!” He cracked a large smile and blended in. Due to the fact that he was dominating the crowd through his height, he was able to have perspective view of the street and the side walk. A black limousine – similar to the one he saw yesterday picking up his neighbors – was passing by and John felt like turning around and follow it. No chance of doing so, as the crowd almost lifted him from the ground…it was a green light and this mob of people was moving in one direction only: forward. However, his keen eye and sense for details, spotted something which was standing out from all this cars and people madness: it was another small car following the limo. Nothing out of ordinary, but the driver’s window dropped down when passed by and John could easily recognize Zihuan. He was trailing behind the limo. John smiled and a sort of conspiratorial nod of his head made his detective understand that he was seen. The window went back up and the pursuit followed. John couldn’t help but congratulate himself that this guy was part of his team and happily continued to walk along with the crowd all the way to the office building.

Most of the people were already at work, which gave John the chance to scrutinize the work force and analyze the office itself: the space was divided into typical cubicles with the top portion being transparent. Before reaching his office, he couldn’t help but take a look at Tony’s bureau. The door was closed and nobody was inside. Immediately he remembered Tony’s sentence: “I only work during the night. I am a predator” which was followed by a sinister laughing. “Brrr….this guy gives me creeps” and he headed straight for his office.

He opened the door and as usual, first thing was to admire once again the great view over the Huangpu, which on that nice, shiny fall morning was looking nothing short of spectacular. Then placed his suitcase on the desk and decided to start grinding through those personnel files. Pulled from the suitcase his laptop and the material he brought from back home with all the personnel in the office, logged into the system and started again the tedious work of getting familiar with the people working for Glenworth, their roles and their seniority with the company.

Nothing out of ordinary popped out of the lists he had in front of him. He realized that it was extremely hard to figure out the relationships between people in this office just by screening the files, crunching numbers or assuming that a recently hired person would be totally loyal to Tony. Something was missing and John felt like he simply couldn’t wrap his mind around this question mark which was already making him nervous.

-Knock, knock!

-Hey, Vic! What’s happening, man?

-Not much, John. How about yourself? How did you sleep?

-Like a baby, man…like a baby! They both burst into a nice and sincere laughter as the events of the last forty eight hours took a toll on both of them. I can’t wait for this Saturday, so I can sleep as much as I want.

-Sure, but don’t forget that you are invited to have dinner with us at our place. Zhaohui is cooking. She is a great cook, I can tell you.

-I have no doubts that she has the skills of a Chef and of course I have not forgotten that I am supposed to be your guest.

-Fantastic! We will have a great time, I assure you.

-I wouldn’t mind taking a peak on how she is cooking Chinese food…

-Well, then you better be at our place in the morning. That’s the time when she will get things rolling.

-Wow! Not that early! OK. I will be there whenever you want me to be. In the morning I will have to call Linda, I will hit the gym and probably take a walk around Downtown as I want to be as familiar as possible with Shanghai.

-Good plan! So, anything new? Any other out of ordinary things happened from last night?

-No, nothing new. Going through these files I brought with me, I am trying to figure out if there is something that could help out with my investigation. Nothing so far.

-Yeah, I am not surprised…Tony is a smart guy. He knows very well how to cover his tracks. I am not saying that you are wasting your time, but I don’t think you will find in there anything to help you out. This is my humble opinion. Vic accompanied his last statement shaking his head side wise, in a negative way of enforcing his utterance.

-This was my fear too, but I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

-John, you gotta’ relax. You are in charge of a tremendous complicated task. Yes, we know that Tony is in the middle of this scam, we know that he coordinates God knows what sort of networks of people who are loyal to him, we know that he has the money and has some high level protection. We both saw in the restaurant the couple who is your next door neighbor and we both agreed that both the woman and the gentleman are high class people who most likely have connections in politics and business world. Then what? We are stuck with whatever Zihuan and Yuhuan found out. They went to a funeral, a funeral to which we are still not sure they participated. We believe they did participate as our detectives followed them. But we still have no proof. And if they indeed were there, what was the purpose? Who was the deceased? Obviously, he (or she) was very important as Gang and your neighbors attended. What was the relationship between them? I think this is the ground we need to cover. A long silence followed Vic’s dissertation and John couldn’t help but agree with his friend. He finally understood that he must follow the pace and the rhythm of the place where the mystery stands, the customs and the so intrinsic relationships between people and between people and their heritages, the people’s purpose in this life and the one’s duty of closing the cosmological circles, the finality which is moving the world forward to another and another circle of destiny.

-Yes, I think you are right Vic. I have to be more patient. It will take me a while, as I landed here from a totally different world, you know that.

-Of course I know it, John! I belonged to that world too, remember? Both men cracked another big laughter and the scene was set for a beautiful, sunny, pleasant day again. Trust me, John…when I came here for the first time, I thought I was gonna’ lose my minds. I’m serious! I started asking the same questions you’ve probably asking yourself: “Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? How am I going to ever adapt to this life style?” Well…here I am, a totally different person!

-Yeah, but you met Zhaohui who got you out of your own mess – you have to admit it!

-Sure, no doubt! Without her I don’t know if I would be speaking to you right now.

-Listen…I am going to ask you a straight question…you don’t have to answer. Vic looked at John and quietly asked him to release the question. John hesitated for few seconds, but ultimately he figured out that unasked questions, will never get answers. So, with a sturdy and firm voice he asked Vic if he believed that J.J. is part of the curse too. A couple of minutes of silence followed. Vic’s head dropped in a sign that he didn’t want to answer or he didn’t feel comfortable of answering. Finally, he raised his head and with a strong and steady tonality released the statement John didn’t want to hear or acknowledge:

-Yes, he is!

It was John’s turn to drop the head and grab it between his palms. “So, J.J. used me; He came up with all the emotional tricks from the book: family ties, kids, Linda, company and so on”

-Did he know that I was part of it, or I just became part of it when I showed up here?

-You cannot become part of the curse, John. You are either part of it from the beginning, or you are not. There is no other way around. I was part of it and this is why he sent me here. And so were you.

-Wait a minute…this fund drainage issue has become a concern just a couple of years ago, if I am not mistaken. Then why did he send you five years prior to this to China?

-John…J.J. sent me here the moment he hired Tony. Your next question would be: “Why did he hire Gang?” The answer is: he knew who Tony Gang was and wanted to keep him as close as possible to his watchful eye. Mr. Glenworth is a very intelligent man and he possesses something not too many people have: an extraordinary vision and intuition, a great sense for danger and most of all, an unusual way to make people never say “no” to his requests. It happened to you too, right?

-J.J. was like a father to me, said John with a voice which was still betraying a deep respect for the man with white hair from back home, for the man who promoted him to this professional level when he was just a young man – a man with great dreams and energy to succeed.

-Exactly. And he knew very well how to manipulate your emotional state of mind and made you accept the task. I have nothing against him…ultimately his decision made me meet Zhaohui who got me out of my own mess (as you said) and made me the man I am right now. But I am sure that he saw all this prior to sending me here, I am sure that he just pulled the right strings knowing that I would be helpful to him while in China. And this is what actually happened: I keep an eye on Tony and report to him every move he is making – with the help of Zihuan of course.

-How long have you been spying on Tony?

-Immediately after J.J. hired him.

-Unbelievable…so, Mr. Glenworth hired him just to keep an eye on him.

-Not necessarily. Tony Gang is a good professional, he knows his job and he is smart and educated. He makes money for J.J. Unfortunately, Glenworth and Gang are on two opposite sides, two sides which eventually will find themselves on the collision course. This is why Gang is stealing from J.J. First he makes money for him, then steals a fraction. Right now they are at the phase of a guerrilla war. Everybody is trying to get his opponent weakened for the final countdown, for the final battle – into whichever form or aspect this will turn. J.J. made a mistake by bringing Tony on board in an attempt to watch him closely. He found himself into the situation when now he is losing his money…slowly but surely. He brought the thief inside his house and gave him shelter, he put the viper on his arm. If he fires Gang, he still won’t be able to stop the bleeding. This guy engineered something very sophisticated. You heard what Zihuan said: it is designed to make you think it’s a network issue and give up. It is diabolic, but it is very smart – can’t deny it.

-Yeah, they definitely know what they are doing. You said that you know that you are part of this…curse. Do you know what your role was when it happened? Who were you at that time? I am assuming that all the initial players of this game are now metamorphosed into whoever we are now, today. Do you know who was I at that time? How about yourself? How about your fiancée?

Vic inhaled a great quantity of air and slowly released it. John could see that he was uncomfortable of speaking or revealing what he knew.

-This is something you will find out tomorrow, John.

-I see. So, Zhaohui will tell the full story.

-She will tell as much as she wants to say. I cannot force her to unveil more than she wants.

-Ok, I agree. Do you know the story?

-I know a portion of it. Zhaohui told me that the full story will be revealed when all players are ready for the final battle. I don’t know if there is someone else supposed to join the team (our team). I don’t know where Gang and your neighbors stand regarding their “army”. Zhaohui only told me bits and pieces which I put together making some assumptions of course.

-OK then. Tomorrow it’s the day we will find out how we all relate to the last days of Great Ming Dynasty.

-Hopefully. Now let’s go grab a bite. How about that?

-Unbelievable! It’s already lunch time. Sure. What do you have in mind?

-Let’s pay Mr. Wang a visit.

-Fantastic! I absolutely love his Wonton soup and Sichuan Kung Pao chicken said John while getting his coat. However, last time we didn’t leave on very good terms with Mr. Wang. He kinda’ asked us to leave when I asked him where the chief bodyguard was during Emperor’s last moments.

-Yeah, you see what your insatiable curiosity does? Both men burst in a huge laughter as they were already in front of the elevators and out of the office.

Mr. Wang’s place was jam packed. It was Friday and it was lunch time.

-Boy, we’ll never get a table at this hour of the day, especially on a Friday.

-Let’s wait a bit. I wouldn’t mind seeing Mr. Wang again. I want to apologize for asking that question which apparently ticked him off.

John was right in suggesting to wait…Wang showed up and asked them to follow him. On the other side of the restaurant, he had a couple of cubicle like establishments where he was entertaining important guests. It was an unusual gesture from him and both John and Vic thanked for this gesture. John actually took it one step further and apologized for the question he asked last time.

-No worry, Mr. John. I over reacted indeed. Sorry. What can I get you?

-Same as we had last time, Mr. Wang: we will have your famous Wonton soup and the Kung Pao chicken.

-Sure. Good choice. I send waiter. That being said, Mr. Wang disappeared back into the kitchen area where he probably had lots of work to do – judging by the amount of customers he had into the restaurant.

-Did you realize he was actually trying to tell us that any discussion related to his ancestors was a taboo and any related questions should not be addressed? John shook his head into an affirmative way and weighed in:

-Yes, he stifled us. He pretty much said: “I don’t want you two guys to know more than what I have already told you”

-You pissed him off big time when you asked him where the great warrior was when the events took place.

-It was an innocent question – or so I thought it was…Anyway, I have a plan in my mind – I need to find out more about that warrior who apparently is one of Wang’s ancestors. John’s voice turned soft and a waggish smile flourished on his lips. This latest turn of events made Vic almost jump off of his seat:

-Oh, no! No, no, no, no! Don’t tell me that….he didn’t finish his sentence as another smile, larger and more expressive flooded John’s face.

-Don’t tell me that you are planning to go in there and do whatever your mind is asking you to do right now.

-You got it buddy! You got it! And you will have to help me out.

-What? I don’t think so! Vic’s voice picked a high volume and two other customers looked into their direction, wondering why this westerner is yelling.

-Common, man! We have to know everything about the players which will eventually be part of the final countdown, players who will be part of either team. There is no way around it. We need to know who our allies are as well as who our enemies are.

-So, you believe Wang is part of the game.

-I am suspecting so. Why was he taking us to the back and show his ancestors to two strangers? Just because I am John and you are Vic? Why didn’t he show this to you earlier? Why he decided to share this information now, when I am part of this curse, game and cosmological circle as you said? Things are coming together, Vic. We need to know on which side Wang is playing this game. Why did you ever pick up this place as one of your favorite places?

Vic grabbed his head with both his hands and for few minutes he looked at a point he picked on the table. John realized that he was thinking deeply at what he just heard and now his brain was looking into scenarios which would be helpful to employ if it was coming down to break into Wang’s secret room.

-I really don’t see how we can get in there…

-Wherever there is a will, it must be a way.

Their conversation was interrupted by the waiter who showed up with their order. The food looked indeed delicious and appetizing which made the two friends dig in without talking anymore about the subject in discussion. They both just wanted to taste the meal at its fullest and leave the matter of breaking into Wang’s office for later on. The spicy Kung Pao chicken made Vic order two beers as well and while the waiter was on his way to bring the drinks, he grabbed his head into his hands once again. He was now considering all the options he could think at, all the little tricks he learnt during his seven years of Shanghai living.

-I will have to talk to Zhaohui. She always finds a way.

-Sure. Maybe we can bring this subject out tomorrow at your place, after dinner.

-I will talk to her tonight, just to make her aware of what your plans are.

-Great. In the meantime, tomorrow morning I will hit the Library and do some digging myself. I want to get familiar with this specific period and most of all, I want to understand at a greater extend the history of this Dynasty.

-Good. Now let’s finish the meal and get back to the office. It will be a short day for me as I have to plan tomorrow’s day. I will have to do lots of shopping.

The two men finished soon the food in front of them and headed for the cashier to pay. Mr. Wang was there, supervising the waiters inside of the restaurant while keeping a close eye on the kitchen through the door which was for some reason open. John couldn’t help but take a peek at the kitchen activity: the chefs, the auxiliary personnel, the waiters ringing the bell for their orders, everything showed a well-oiled machine, everything showed a business that was running smoothly and quietly. Wang’s hand was present everywhere. Everybody knew exactly what to do, what their assignment was and what their role was in that fast paced environment. “I am wondering if we can do this at one of these peak hours, when everybody is busy and not much attention is paid to the corridor towards Wang’s office. How about that strange person who showed up from the side door? Where is that door leading to? Still few questions we need to find answers to, before breaking in”

Vic paid and when he was about to turn around and leave, Mr. Wang asked a question which made them both startle:

-Do you know that no light after eleven? Everybody leave by ten. Bad electricity. Made complain at city. No fix yet. Problem big.

The two friends were looking at each other in a state of shock. Virtually Wang read their minds through some unknown sense, through an exquisite unearthly intelligence and capacity of being always one step ahead of the interlocutors. John made a good bye sign and in a rush he was on the walkway followed closely by Vic. He was almost running and in five minutes he reached his office, asked Vic to close the door and dropped into one of the armchairs by the small table. Vic did the same and both of them were now holding their heads in their palms trying to digest the latest encounter with Mr. Wang.

John pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and started wiping out the sweat that was now covering his temples and forehead. He was in a state of shock.

-Do you think he has microphones into those booths?

-I don’t know man, but this guy started freaking me out.

-How did he manage to find out so quickly what our plans were? This is the first time we are talking about breaking into his office and taking pictures of the book. I just mentioned this to you half an hour ago, while we were eating. Can he read minds? Is he for real, or he is an alien on earth who is trying really hard to torment us?

-I don’t know, man! This is so weird! I guess he has the capability to read other people’s thoughts…unless he has a bug planted under that particular table.

Another round of silence encompassed the room. Neither of the two friends wanted to open up another conversation. The latest event simply ruined their plan and now both of them were trying to come up with something else. All of a sudden, John jumped from his seat and looked at Vic with the eyes of a victorious general on the battle field, with the eyes of a detective who just found a crucial lead into the investigation he was conducting.

-Wait a minute! What if he is trying to help by deliberately telling and inviting us to go in? What if Wang is on our side?

Firstly, Vic looked at John the way one looks at a nut, at a mentally unstable person who just came out of an institution. Then, he realized that John could not be terribly wrong and it was worth putting together a plan. His face lightened up.

-And your plan is…

-My plan is to get in tonight.

-Wow! You really don’t like to waste any time! Both of them burst into a great and healthy laughter signaling an end to all the tension which grabbed their entire pallet of senses for the last thirty minutes.

-No, I hate to lose time because time is something you never get back.

-Good point. So, we go in tonight assuming that Wang is on our side. How do we open the door? Once we are into his office, how do we open the library? I believe I saw him pulling key from the desk which he used on the book shelf behind his chair. Then that whole section of the library had rotated.

-Vic, at eleven we go there. As you said: we are doing this assuming that he is on our side. If he is not on our side, I guess we will find this out right away…not sure how, but we will for sure. If he is on our side, he will probably leave some tracks to guide us in. I don’t know what sort of traces he will leave behind, but how else would we do it?

-Maybe you are right. At least tonight we will find out if he is on our side or not.

-Yeap! One doubt out of our way. By the way: first time when we came here, you told me that you know Wang. When I asked you how come you know the owner of one of the most famous restaurants in Shanghai, you told me: “I know lots of people”. I wanted to ask you: “What sort of people do you know? Good people or bad people?” But I refrained from popping the question out. Not sure what actually stopped me. I guess in the beginning I didn’t know if you were on my side a hundred percent.

-It was a legitimate fear and I thank you now that you fully trust me. Where shall I start? Vic took a seat again into his armchair and John did the same. It took Vic another couple of minutes to recollect the conversation they had and to organize his thoughts.

-Well, I guess you should start with the beginning, wouldn’t you?

-Right! Good one, partner! Another round of laughter filled up the room and now both of them were into an excellent mood for a great chat.

-When I got here, I didn’t know anybody, I couldn’t speak the language, everything was different from back home: the food, the pace of life, the people…everything in a nutshell. And I started doing whatever I was doing back in America: after work partying and gambling. Yes, I got into gambling and I am ashamed of myself: I got into the underworld of illegal gambling. I was betting on cock and dog fighting, I was betting on bare fist fighting – combination of martial arts and boxing, which sometimes was ending into deaths, as no rules applied. I was betting on sanjiegun fights. I saw so many broken heads and jaws and ribs! Who do you think was running all that activity?

-I can only imagine.

-Exactly! However, I guess due to the amount of money I was spending there, I got to know some of those guys who owned or were in charge of that kind of business. Actually I played many times Texas Hold’em with them. It is unbelievable how popular this game was among them!

Gambling was obviously just a portion of their business. They were running prostitution rings and drug selling as well. However, this is how I started picking up Chinese. Of course it was the street language, but I got to know it. Then I started getting classes and I met Zhaohui. The rest is history.

-Wow! You lived quite a riotous life, man! You were saying that they were selling drugs too? What sort of drugs?

-Yeap! I had a tumultuous life. I don’t know what sort of drugs they were selling as I never did drugs and I will never do. But here, the drugs are much different from back home. You wouldn’t find cocaine or heroin. In the past, the Chinese used opium and many other plants which have hallucinating effects on you. Why do you want to know this?

-I can’t get off of my mind that smell which was coming out of my neighbors’ apartment. It was like a tobacco smell but in the same time was complemented by the aromas of the field flowers, it was sweet but in the same time was manly, aggressive, but noble I could say.

-Wow! This is a very nice description. Tell this to Zhaohui. Maybe she can recognize it. She knows everything about plants, trees and flowers.

-Good deal! I will ask her.

-So, we have an understanding. Tonight at eleven we are breaking into Mr. Wang’s office.

-Yes. This is the plan.

-Fantastic. I will pick you up at a quarter to. I will bring two heavy duty flash lights and few smaller ones to light up our way to the office. We need the heavy duty ones inside of the office, not outside.

-Good thinking. I am glad we have a plan. I will see you at ten forty five then.

-Yeap! You have now a good day ahead of you and please, stay out of trouble! Yet again, they cracked a laughter of friendship and good mood while Vic turned around, opened the door, waved good bye and disappeared.

John walked his friend to the door, then inevitably headed for the window to watch the spectacle on the Huangpu. The barges were following their usual ritual, their ancient route towards the Great River only to be discharged of their cargo in the Wusong Port and afterwards return to their origins in Nanjing, Zhejiang, Jiangxi or maybe even Hunan or Hubei.

He spent the rest of the day doing again and again the same thing, even if he was slowly losing his confidence that he would eventually find something among office personnel, something that would point him towards another path, lead, venue towards Gang’s hidden world. One thing he liked about all this exercise, was the fact that he was slowly getting accustomed with people’s names, their backgrounds, job responsibilities and line of reporting. When the dusk knocked at his window, he was still deeply scrutinizing the activity of the office. His eyes were hurting from so much concentration so John decided to call it a day. Logged out, grabbed his coat and the suitcase and headed for the door. Everybody was gone as it was a Friday and the office had a short working day. Downtown was packed with people and cars. The night life was about to start and the restaurants couldn’t keep up with the demand. The tumultuous life of the city was breathing through every single pore, through its lights and congestion, through its myriad of cars, people and delivery trucks. The short walk to the hotel was a great pleasure as the temperature was still comfortably oscillating into the mid-sixties. The lobby was busier than ever showing a healthy and steady increase in business. As usual, he stopped few feet away from his neighbors’ door. The lack of sound or any movement betrayed the fact that they were not home. “Well, I guess I have to be more patient. Something has got to happen here, something out of ordinary, something which would eventually point me to the right direction. I guess I just have to stay patient”. John entered his apartment, took his clothes off and headed for the bathroom. He felt like he needed to take a long bath, to soak up and spend an hour just for himself, in an attempt to gather his thoughts and possibly come up with a miracle answer to the multitude of questions he had. There were four hours left before Vic was supposed to show up, so he dived into the hot water and started watching TV through the glass wall. Nothing special caught his attention; he decided to close the eyes, enjoy the benefits of the Jacuzzi and process all the information he had already gathered into almost a week since he landed at Pudong International.

It was a full week, filled with so much new knowledge, knowledge he never thought he would acquire, he never thought would even cross his path. A whole new culture he didn’t know much about was unveiling in front of him, a culture which was transpiring through all its pores the greatness, the splendor, the mysticism and the inevitable, intricate ties to the past. While trying to digest the huge amount of information he was now possessing, the fatigue and the nice feel of the warm water took a toll on him and he fell asleep. When he woke up, the water in the tub was almost cold. He was shivering, so he turned right away the red handle on. Soon, the same comfortable and cozy feeling encompassed him. However, the clock was pointing out the fact that in a little more than two hours, Vic would show up for their assignment. He quickly got out of the tub, entered the shower cabin and rinsed then wrapped a large towel around his waist and in few seconds he was standing in front of his large built in dresser weighing on what clothes to put on. In no time he made a decision: grabbed a pair of lose jeans, a T-shirt, a nice V-shaped sport vest and his favorite sneakers. While moving to the living room, the phone rang: it was Vic.

-How are you doing, big guy?

-I am doing just fine…had a long bath, fell asleep into the tub and now I am all pumped up for our endeavor.

-Hahaha! It’s good you didn’t drown. J.J. would’ve transferred the assignment to me right away.

-This can be arranged; you know that, don’t you?

-Thanks, but no! Both of them broke into a laughter of good mood and great disposal which was quite necessary keeping in mind that they really didn’t know what to expect from the task ahead of them. Listen, I am bringing both Zihuan and Yuhuan with me. I managed to get a hold of them. They are available to join us at Wang’s place. Not to mention that they have photo equipment which one can put it into a pocket.

-Great! The more the merrier. Come by at ten and we will have dinner too.

-OK. I will let them know.

-Fantastic. I will order something for ten o’clock, though.

-I see you then, big guy. Bye.

-Bye, bye and be careful when you come up. I don’t think my neighbors are at home, but please pay attention to this detail: listen for a second at the door to see if they are back. Something is telling me that they are not only the key to this story, but they are the main players, not Tony.

-Will do so. Bye now.

John turned on his laptop, hooked it up to the TV and while the pictures folder he got from his detectives was loading up, he called room service and ordered dinner for the time when Vic and the two investigators were going to show up. Then he started digging again through the photos. This time he was scrolling through the folder much slower than first time, he was paying a lot more attention to the images (while zooming into areas he thought were relevant) and he was a lot more concerned with the little details which were barely visible at the first sight.

One by one, the photos in the album were making it to the big screen TV. The people in the pictures seemed like they all belonged to the high class; their attires as well as their way of conducting and interacting among themselves betrayed a highly sophisticated group of individuals who belonged to a forgotten world of aristocracy, of rulers and intellectuals who once ruled these lands. The overview was stunning: one could see the ladies dressed in high quality deux-pièces suits with large birch hats which were hiding most of their faces releasing a mystic and hidden look, while the gentlemen were dressed up with top notch suits, most of them wearing beautiful thin expensive wool overcoats. The whole party was clearly meant to be a gathering of refined individuals coming to pay respects to a fellow leader or consociate.

Same like the last time when he looked at the pictures, nothing out of ordinary jumped out of them. In spite of the attention to details he was paying while scrolling through the folder, he couldn’t see his neighbors as part of the crowd who showed up to pay their respects to the deceased. John was now even questioning the fact that they did participate at the funeral. However, Zihuan was confident that they made it there. A little bit of frustration encompassed him as he was not seeing real progress in his investigation. He wanted to get to Tony somehow and for now he felt like he was just spinning his wheels. “Well…I guess tomorrow I will find out more from Zhaohui. Probably her story will lead me towards some venues I simply cannot see right now.” He realized that it was almost time for Vic to show up. Wrapped up the slides viewing, put his laptop onto the office desk and took a seat into one of the comfortable arm chairs.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 26 (Yuhuan)

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 26

Yuhuan

Vic turned around and for the second time that day made the “good bye” sign while walking to the door. John spent few more minutes watching the downtown crowds and inevitably the barges sailing on Great Huangpu. Eventually he pulled the chair and started testing the programs one by one. Whatever Li Jie did, it seemed like it worked out. The Program was running much faster now…still not at the same speed as back home, but quite satisfactory. “Just wondering what he did” said John to himself and a typical anxiety grabbed his mind. “What if this is the key to what I am after? What if this is the lead which I need to get to Tony? Is Li Jie working for Tony? Apparently he knows all the software in this office by heart. What if Tony got to him somehow and he is black mailing Li Jie? I need to find out everything about this guy”. John started browsing through the personnel lists he brought with him from America. First he pulled Tony’s information. Nothing different from what J.J. mentioned to him when they met. His background was impressive whatsoever. Shortly he got to Li Jie. He was one of the first people hired by Scott and J.J. in this office. He had a background in IT one hundred percent. Before being hired by Glenworth, he worked for a Singapore based company in Nanjing. John couldn’t help but remember the fact that Tony asked him to go to Nanjing and Beijing into a joint trip so he could get familiar with a fraction of rich Chinese history. “Nanjing is a big city…why would it be a connection between Tony and Li Jie based on a supposedly common ground in Nanjing?” John shook his head side-wise in a negative sign of rejecting this idea. However, in his subconscious, he didn’t want to give it up. So, he placed it into an invisible drawer, a place which he was opening sometimes just to make sure his old ideas are still in there and they are still usable. His curiosity did not stop here. He separated all the personnel by the hiring date. The more senior people were, the closer to the table they were placed. To his surprise, majority of the hiring happened after Gang joined the Company. Then he separated all the files of the people hired after Tony joined and started going through every single one in great detail. Nothing out of ordinary popped up. The skill sets were normal (required) to this type of business.

John turned his chair around, put his feet up, wrapped his hands around the back of his head and fell again into a sort of contemplation, lethargy and meditation. He felt like he wanted to fully absorb the image of the sun going down above the great Yangtze and setting into the far West lands of Xinjiang. The sunset was spectacular! The big, round, orange, incandescent solar disk was ready to join the earth for the nuptial ritual, but its last rays of the day were stubbornly refusing to go away, turning the delta waters of mighty Yangtze into thousands of living fires, into a myriad of dancing fire-flies guiding the fishermen boats towards their night fishing spots. Everything was surreal and in the same time it was so close to one’s touch, as if the magical powers of the sun transcended their deity and turned human, turned touchable and palpable. It seemed like the sun was tired and needed to cool down taking its daily ritual bath into the waters of the sacred River, only to raise again the next morning from the China Sea’s waves to give people another day of hope.

Soon the room turned darker and John realized that it was already six thirty in the evening. He turned around, gathered the pile of papers he had in front of him and placed it into the suitcase, logged out, placed the laptop into the case as well, grabbed his coat and headed for the door. When he lifted his head, his heart stopped. Tony was again standing in the door and to give the impression that he just arrived, knocked into the frame of the door.

-Knock, knock…anybody home? He was trying to put as much waggishness as possible into his voice to cover the fact that he managed to scare John yet again.

John’s heart was pounding from emotions. He didn’t exactly know how to feel…to feel angry because this was the second time when Tony was scaring him to death almost or to feel cautious knowing that the man in front of him was spying on him and was watching all his moves. His head prevailed over the impulse of his heart which was telling him to slam on Tony for his behavior. But he remembered what Vic’s said: “patience is a virtue the Chinese value the most”. He took a deep breath and with a balanced and controlled tonality which he managed to keep under control, answered:

-Hello, Tony. How are you doing this beautiful evening?

-It is beautiful? I wouldn’t know I guess, I just woke up. He started laughing and his massive body was shaking up and down. John couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing an all-black suit with a white shirt and also a black tie and black shoes. These little details jumped right away into his eyes and the dressing up similarities with his neighbors from this morning were striking. It looked like all three of them went to a funeral. From this moment, John was all eyes and ears and actually he thanked in his mind Tony for dropping by.

-You are a funny man, Tony. You just woke up…it is six thirty in the afternoon.

-Yes, I like working during the night. I am a night predator. His body went again into spasms like type of shaking and his laughter was even louder this time. John didn’t know how to take Tony’s last phrase…as a threat or simply as a statement meant to warn him, meant to give him a heads up? It was a dangerous game Gang was playing, a game which John started to understand. Tony was practically playing the Russian roulette: he was giving John hints strongly believing that he wouldn’t be able to touch him, to get him red handed. He was actually telling John: “here it is a bullet, place it into the cartridge, put the gun at my temple and pull the trigger.” It was the mistake John was waiting for: “Now I know how to play this game…you have way too much self-esteem, you are arrogant and you are full of haughtiness. I will get you, Mr. Gang. I will get you. I found the weak spot into your defense.” John put up on his face the largest smile he was capable of producing and with the voice of a novice who is ready to be lectured by his teacher asked Tony to explain himself.

-You are something different, Mr. Gang! You like to work during the night…Boy, I would be toast the whole next day. Actually I read somewhere that not too many people can do this and if they do it for an extended period of time, their brain gives up on them. They develop psychological diseases. Be careful. Tony burst again into a laughter of superiority, of pity and mercy. His face was now all in the dark, but the two perfectly white rows of teeth betrayed a man who was having lots of fun at his interlocutor’s expense. Eventually he stopped and with a totally changed voice asked John:

-And how do you know I am part of that category, John – “many people”?

-I didn’t say that, Tony…my apologies. But at the end of the day we are all humans and our DNAs are not much different from one to another. A long pause followed, with John waiting for Tony to step in and reply. It didn’t happen and John started getting irritated. Another long two minutes followed, during which the silence was so deep that the men could actually hear each other’s breath.

-And how do you know I am a human? John felt like a cold, icy torrent was running down his spine. His forehead was covered in sweat and because he didn’t want to show emotions, he let it drop on his cheeks, nose and eyes. He eventually had to close his eyes to prevent the salt from the sweat get into his eyes. With an effort worth of admiration, he managed to pull a laughter out of his chest, but anyone could’ve realized that it was an unconvincing, false, forced and feeble expression of good disposition.

-This was a good one, Tony! Please don’t tell me that you had been abducted by Martians and brought back to Earth to recruit as many followers as possible in order to conquer Planet Earth.

-Not quite, John. But you are not too far from the truth. Anyway, I saw that you were still in and I dropped by to say hi.

-Appreciate this, Tony. So, you are now going to do some work as you are well rested? This time John’s burst of laughter was genuine and waggish.

-Hahaha…funny guy. No, I will go home and work from there. The office closes at nine and the alarm is set. John startled and he thanked God that inside of the room was already dark. His bottom jaw dropped. “I hope Vic knows the pass code”.

-So, if you want to do some work tonight from your office, you will need the pass-code. John realized right away the trap: “if I tell him that I need it so I can work from here, the question would be: why can’t I remotely work from my hotel? If I tell him I don’t need it, if Vic has the pass-code, he can check tomorrow morning that we went in…” It was that type of situation when one has to think fast and react accordingly.

-Thanks Tony, but I will go to my hotel room, hit the gym and have an early go to bed. I am just a human, Tony. I sleep during the night. Both men laughed and Tony turned around making again the good bye sign while walking out. John locked his desk drawer and headed for the door. “It is clear: Li Jie briefed him up about the work he did for me. He knows. But why did he mention the pass-code and actually invited me to come to the office? This bastard knows everything and it looks to me that he is always one step ahead of me. I gotta’ talk to Vic right away”. He took the elevator down and once in the street, he hailed for a taxi. It took less than ten minutes to get to the hotel. Once in his room, he called Vic.

-What’s up, John? It is just seven o’clock.

-Vic, I think we need to change the plans.

-Why? I already asked Zihuan to come over. He is bringing his buddy as well.

-Great! Just come to my apartment with both of them. We need to change plans.

-Why?

-I tell you then. I bumped into Tony again.

-Damn, what else happened?

-Just get here as soon as possible.

-Well…Zihuan is calling me as we speak. It will take him half an hour to get to my place and then will take us another half an hour to get to your hotel.

-Fantastic! I will hit the gym for forty minutes. I will order food for all four of us.

-Great! I will see in an hour.

-Vic, make sure you keep an eye on the neighbor’s door.

-Will do. I see ya’ later.

John took his clothes off, put his shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt on and headed for the gym. As expected, the exercise room was equipped with latest machines for cardio work out as well as with brand names bench presses and other equipment for weightlifting and muscle training. While jogging on the tread mill, his thoughts were gathering around his latest meeting with Tony. He realized that this man was a high caliber player, sneaky, very intelligent and ruthless. John couldn’t get out of his mind one of Tony’s questions: “how do you know I am a human?” He felt again how he was getting goose bumps, how the cold sweat was running down his spine. “What if this guy is just crazy? I can’t believe that he is willing to give me so much leverage. It is almost like he wants me to figure out what’s going on. I can’t believe he can be so foolish and arrogant to actually lead me into solving this thing and catch him”. In John’s mind, there was no doubt that Gang was the one who was siphoning Glenworth’s money. Also, the meeting he had with Scott and J.J. back home during which J.J. unconditionally accused Tony of the leakage, contributed decisively to his assumption.

-OK, time is up. Let’s head upstairs and wait for Vic. Once he reached his floor, he couldn’t help but getting close to the neighbor’s door. He felt that smoky type of smell, that unusual aroma of herbs he wouldn’t recognize. It was obvious that his neighbor was burning them again while meditating into that Yoga type of position. John headed for his apartment, opened up and sneaked in. He picked up the phone, called room service and ordered dinner. Then headed for the bathroom where a short half warm shower made him feel like new. Once in the bedroom, he pulled a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of nice comfortable sporty shoes from his luggage. In few minutes he got dressed; he was all pumped up and ready to jump right into the danger. The renewed and increased energy he was feeling, made him realize for the first time that he now owned the assignment, that he wanted (as much as J.J. and Scott wanted) to catch Tony red-handed. He stepped into the living room, opened up his laptop and logged into the data base. One by one, he tried again the few office software Glenworth had on board. There was no difference between the speeds they were running in the office versus his hotel room. “Well, let’s wait for the specialists”. That being said, he dropped into an armchair and turned the TV on.

Nothing interesting: business – John was up to date with everything that was going on in the world of finance and didn’t pay much attention to these channels so he flipped to sports: European Soccer highlights – not much of an interest to him – and the Olympics. He set for the swimming and closely followed the competition. He loved this Sport, as he was a very good swimmer himself. His childhood memories inevitably were bringing back the moment when he had to make a decision: Swimming or Football. His parents left it entirely up to him. He loved them both but could only focus on one, as he wanted to be a “somebody”. His love for the local NFL team pushed him towards this great Sport and the rest was history.

The phone rang and John knew that it could only be Vic. He was downstairs.

-Come on up, Vic.

-Sure, I will be there in a minute. I have both Zihuan and Yuhuan with me.

-Great. I’ll see you in a few. John cracked the door open and propped it with the little carpet found at the entrance. He moved towards kitchen, to grab some cold drinks for his guests. A double knock at the door, was the sign that Vic and his protégés arrived. John couldn’t help but notice that (as the name was stating), Yuhuan was indeed a handsome individual. He was at the same height as his friend while the body was thin but not skinny. One would say that his face was the work of a very talented artist: regular, beautiful lines were harmonizing the transition between the forehead and the cheek bones and then further down between cheeks and the chin. The chin was square and was baring a cleft in the middle, which was adding to the overall look a sense of strong personality. The hair was dark black and it was carefully maintained and cut. On top of all these great features, the warm, candid smile was completing the overall picture of an individual with great looks and supposedly a great personality.

John smiled and headed for the door to greet his guests. Shook hands and invited all three of them to take a seat into the living room area specifically designated for receiving guests. Zihuan and Yuhuan shared the large couch, while Vic took an armchair. The remaining armchair was John’s. Before seating, John asked each of his guests for a drink preference:

-Gentlemen, what can I get you? I have soft drinks and I have liquor. I also ordered dinner, I believe it should be here any minute now.

-John, you can hit me with a scotch on the rocks if you don’t mind.

-Not at all, my friend, not at all. How about you two gentlemen?

-I have orange juice, Mr. Parker said Zihuan.

-John is my name, please call me that. Do you want ice in it?

-OK, John. I call you John. Both of them laughed. No ice, please.

-How about you, Yuhuan?

-I have soft drink, please.

-Great. Any ice in your drink?

-No ice. Thank you.

-All right then: one scotch on the rocks for my dear friend Vic, an orange juice for Zihuan and a soft drink for Yuhuan. How about me? What do I want?

-This is a question you have to answer yourself, John. All four men in the room started laughing and a nice and warm atmosphere settled in the living room. While John was preparing the drinks, the bell rang and John knew right away that it was the room service.

-Vic, would you mind getting the door, please?

A military type of “Yes, Sir!” was the answer to John’s inquiry, an answer which made both Zihuan and Yuhuan burst in laughter.

It was the room service indeed. The cart was pushed to the table and shortly, the table was all full of dishes filled with great Chinese food: from Wonton soup and spring rolls to steamed dumplings filled with crab leg meat. The salmon sushi and tuna Sashimi was also part of the menu while traditional orange chicken with fried rice didn’t seem to miss the party. The great Sichuan Cuisine was present at the dinner table with the well-known mouth burning hot chilly beef stake as well as with its spicy hot chilly Kung Pao chicken. The multitude of the dishes, the fantastic green and red color of the vegetables well assorted with the meats and the sauces, made everyone salivate.

-Boy, I am as hungry as a…John stopped short of saying the magic word. Vic looked at him and both of them cracked a huge laughter.

-Told you…don’t use it anymore. It’s my line.

-Sir, yes Sir!

Another round of laughter followed but eventually stomach’s call for a good meal prevailed and all four men ended up focusing their whole attention on the food in front of them only. Nobody was saying a word anymore and just the noise of the chop sticks hitting the plates was heard in the living room. The gastronomic delight displayed on the table, made all their five senses stretch at the maximum of their supportability and everybody wanted to indulge from this feast of tasty mouth-watering food, colors and great smells

When most of the food was gone, a pleasant sense of sufficiency settled in and the smile on their faces was showing four men who enjoyed having a meal and being together.

-Ok guys, I am full! John’ exclamation was followed by approval across the board and immediately the cleanup activity started. In a heartbeat all the plates and other eating utensils were piled up on the cart left into the room by the room service personnel. John pushed the cart towards the door and took a seat. Then, started laying out his plan for tonight. He mentioned to interlocutors his encounter with Gang and his suspicion that Li Jie actually works for Tony.

-John, before we go further on, let’s hear from Zihuan and Yuhuan. They have things to tell us based on their today’s mission.

-Great, let’s hear the story. John took his glass (where he initially poured his favorite Kentucky Bourbon), relaxed, took a comfortable position into the armchair and prepared himself to hear the story. He was all eyes and ears. Vic did the same, while the two detectives came closer to the edge of the couch, in a sign that they are ready to reveal their findings.

-Ok…when I left morning hotel, I told you I will follow Yuhuan. Zihuan’s voice was timid at the beginning, but as he was revealing his story, the voice became firm and a great degree of self-esteem kicked in. John loved this, as he wanted in his team people who can make decisions by themselves, people who can master their emotions, people who can perform under stressful situations without losing the big picture from their eye sight.

-Yes you did, Zihuan. Yes you did. And you also said that Yuhuan will follow them up to a point and then you will switch cars.

-Yes, this is what I say and we followed. They went to funeral. It was the point when John stopped him.

-Well…let me tell you something: I believe Tony Gang was at the same funeral. Vic’s eyes almost popped out of their eye sockets. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan startled and looked at John with an astonishing wonder on their faces.

-How do you know, John? Actually I am not surprised anymore. Every time I leave you alone, you manage to do something, to find out something, you never stop to amaze and dazzle. An immense smile flooded his face while John chuckled and looked him straight into the eyes:

-When I had the discussion with Tony, I realized that he was wearing mourning cloths, same like the pair we saw this morning in the Hotel’s restaurant.

-Good observation, but it doesn’t mean that he went to the same funeral.

-Agree, but we need to remember that he is visiting my neighbor, right?

-OK, good point. Zihuan, do you guys know Tony Gang?

-No, Vic. We not know Tony Gang. A moment of silence settled in, a moment in which everyone was trying to come up with an answer, with a lead into the investigation.

-Wait a minute! Did you guys take some pictures? Actually let me ask you this: did you manage to get close to the funeral cortege?

-No Mr. Parker. Security very heavy. Private funeral.

-So you didn’t take any pictures of the people attending the procession? John’s voice was showing some disappointment. He really wanted to see who was there, who the personages are, as now he understood that he is dealing with higher up individuals who belonged to the privileged class of rich and powerful.

-I say we no get close, but I never say we not take pictures. The smile on both their faces was a huge relief for John and he understood that Zihuan managed somehow to take some pictures. He grabbed his backpack from which he pulled his laptop, turned it on, plugged a memory stick in and started showing the pictures they took. John and Vic moved to the sofa trying to have a glimpse of what he was showing. It was the moment when Yuhuan came with a solution which brought John to a high level of anxiety.

-Mr. Parker…this is smart TV?

-I think so…not sure

-Let me see please. He grabbed the remote and started playing with it. In few seconds, he confirmed that John had a smart TV in his living room. We need now to sync laptop to TV. We can all see pictures after.

-Fantastic, let’s do this! Vic was at least as excited as John was. It took Yuhuan little time to synchronize the laptop with the TV and soon, the pictures from the memory stick showed up one by one. Everybody in the room was now “glued” to the screen. There were lots of pictures to show and Zihuan started browsing through the folder slowly, so everyone could see.

The pictures were so clear that one would think they were taking from close range. John was amazed and astonished! He just couldn’t understand how these two guys took these detailed pictures (apparently from a large distance) so well-focused on people’s faces, attire and posture. He understood right away how important the two guys sitting on the couch were for him. They did an amazing job without getting themselves exposed.

It took some time before the pictures from the folder were all played and neither John nor Vic couldn’t figure out where the two personages they saw that morning into the restaurant were.

-I will have to go myself trough these pictures one by one, in a lot more detail. It’s impossible not to find them into that crowd! You guys followed them all the way, right?

-Yes Mr. Parker! They go to cemetery in Christian area.

-There is a Christian area in Shanghai? Actually…wait a minute: this was a Christian burial judging by the ritual! It makes sense.

-Yes, Mr. Parker, Christian ritual. We no familiar with Christian faith but look at pictures better and you see crosses at people neck. John followed Zihuan’s advice, grabbed the remote control and started browsing again through the files.

-So, it looks like my neighbors are either Christian or have friends into Christian community, here in Shanghai. Through a logical assumption, do I have to believe that Tony is Christian too or somehow related to them through my neighbors? I must find out what the relationship between Gang and my neighbors is! This is an absolute priority!

-Mr. Parker…good plan. I follow your neighbors and Yuhuan will follow Tony Gang. We must divide forces.

-I never liked to divide my resources, Zihuan…never liked it. But it seems that we have to do this. It is getting complicated. So, we have a plan: starting tomorrow, Tony and my neighbors will be under constant surveillance. But how will you guys be able to keep your eyes on them all the time? You will get tired and eventually will have to sleep.

-No worry Mr. Parker, said Zihuan with a large smile on his face. We professionals. We have good resources. John started to like that smile, as every time Zihuan was putting it on, good news was following it. He was just a little concerned about a certain portion of Zihuan’s statement: “We have good resources”. What exactly does this mean? Do they have reliable, quality resources? Do they have enough resources? John refrained from asking these questions as Vic nodded in an affirmative way, basically saying: “I trust them”

-Fantastic! Now let’s move on to our tonight’s assignment. Vic, did you brief them up? Vic shook his head side-wise in a sign that he never had the chance to do so.

-Ok, so I mentioned to you guys my encounter to Tony. All of them nodded: “yes”. Before he left, he almost like gave me a hint: the office door closes at 9 pm and the alarm is set. Vic, do you know the pass-code?

-I do, but then he would know that we went in.

-True. Can we do this from here, guys? His question was addressed to both detectives who instantly nodded like: “yes, we can”

-Mr. Parker, we can, but Li Jie would know that we hack system. At this point, Yuhuan stepped in again and came up with a compromising solution.

-Mr. Parker…we can get in and look at what he did. When we tell you, you have to come and see software. We no inquire job he did. Then we go out.

John was trying to understand what Yuhuan was saying or at least follow him as rationally as he could, but the gimmick on his face was showing that he was puzzled and he was not able to follow him. At this moment Vic stepped in and in a fluent Chinese carried a conversation with the two detectives.

-Alright, here it is the deal, John: they will break into Administrator’s rights, and follow Li Jie’s work. But at a certain point, they need your help to identify the software you are concerned about.

-Fantastic!

-They were saying that we couldn’t have gone in, as the video surveillance system is active 24/7.

-Right. However, we need to figure out how to temporary disable it – have we ever had the need to get in after hours.

-Good point. Let me talk to them. Vic started again a conversation with Zihuan and Yuhuan and explained John’s request.

-Mr. Parker. We can do it. But we need to know server location.

-Vic, I guess we have some work to do tomorrow…

-Yeap…let me think how I can get my hands on an office plan…

-Vic…you need talk to Maintenance…Building Maintenance. Yuhuan’s face was carrying a waggish smile and Vic understood that he just got a lead he had to follow.

-Great! Good one, Yuhuan! I have to figure out whom am I supposed to talk to…leave it with me. I’ll work on it.

-Mr. Parker, your laptop please. You log into Glenworth system.

-Right! Let’s go guys, I like the progress we are making! John logged in and in few minutes he handled his laptop to Zihuan, who passed it to Yuhuan. John understood that the latest one was the IT guru. However, after few minutes, Zihuan pulled his laptop from his backpack and shortly asked John to remotely log into Glenworth from his laptop too. For first few seconds John hesitated. Logging into company’s system from a different computer than company’s computer would leave traces which could be followed in order to hack into Glenworth network…but his assignment was way too important. He remotely logged again into the network and handled the laptop back to Zihuan. At this point, Yuhuan pulled a cord from his back pack and connected the two laptops from one USB to another. Now they were working as a team, in tandem, each one knowing in real time what the other one was doing.

Both John and Vic understood that it will take some time before the two detectives will manage to break into Administrator’s rights, so John poured another round of drinks for them. Without being asked, he placed another orange juice and soft drink on the table for the detectives and then moved with Vic to the window area. Quietly, both friends started admiring the great spectacle of the night life in Shanghai and the fluvial traffic on Huangpu. It was spectacular indeed!

Do you regret that you left? Do you miss America, Vic? John asked this question softly, with a low tonality in his voice. The need for silence and an environment in which one would need to focus his whole attention to performing a task, made Vic and John almost whisper at each other. The question took Vic by great surprise as he startled and looked his colleague straight into his eyes. Before Vic answered, John felt a short hesitation into his body language, into his willingness to provide an answer. It was something barely perceptible, but John’s keen eye and experience in reading people’s faces and non-verbal conscious or non-conscious movements, made him realize that he actually put Vic into an uncomfortable position.

-I am sorry I asked this question, Vic…really sorry. Please forgive me.

-That’s alright. No worries, man! And to answer your question…no, I do not regret that I left. Do I miss America? Maybe…a little. But here I found the inner peace I’ve been looking for my whole life. I do believe that here, I found the answer to the way I was living my life back home, I found the answer to all those questions I was asking myself: who am I? Why do I do what I do? Why do I feel the urge of living my life on the edge, at such high level pace? Why do I get the call to drink, gamble and party so often? Well…all of these questions were answered here: I was living my life in the wrong place. Two worlds were colliding with each other: I was the product of one of them, but I was living in a different place than the one where I should’ve lived. And why not mention that here, I found my better half. It was John’s turn to startle and look Vic straight into his eyes. Immediately he recalled a short phrase his friend said at the dinner table while Zhaohui was taking a breath of fresh air: “You were part of the curse from the beginning, you participated at the events and you cannot leave the fight until is over”. A cold sweat was covering his forehead and temples. He was in a state of shock. “Why me? What did I so specially do that I had to be part of the events? Who was I at the time that my presence was so important there? What events are we talking about? Who were the players of the event and how do I relate to them?” This myriad of questions was making his head spin and in the same time was putting his brain into a high alert mode. With a trembled voice, John asked:

-So, you do believe that you should’ve been born here rather than in America.

-John, do you have any idea how fast I picked up speaking, reading and writing in Chinese?

-No idea, man. You have been here for…what? Seven years or so?

-Exactly. In my first year, I was already fluent in speaking. In the second year, I was able to read and write.

-I am not expert, but it seems very fast to me. I can’t imagine myself learning this language so quickly.

-It is not very hard if you have a good teacher. You know what I mean? His voice became waggish and he winked at John. It wasn’t hard for John to decipher the meaning of that tonality and eye closure: Zhaohui.

-Yes, I figured that you had a great teacher. A muffled laughter came out of John’s chest and the tensioned atmosphere which settled between them for a little while, perished. However, John was still at unease and Vic picked it up right away.

-John, on Saturday Zhaohui will tell you the story. Don’t occupy your mind with these details. We have work to do and we need our minds clear so we can make the right decisions. Again, it is nothing you can do. This is your fate in this world, in this life I should say and you have to accept it the way it is.

John dropped his head as Vic’s last statement came as hard as the decision of a judge who is not willing to believe your story. He was part of this strange game, or curse, or fight, or whatever this was supposed to be. And it looked like there was no way out of it. He was bonded to some ancient ties, to some mystic believes, to some legends which apparently are bringing characters of the past into the present only to fulfill their cosmological path, their birth given meaning and their known end. He dropped his feet down from the comfortable position he took in the beginning and headed for the bar.

-Do you want another round?

-Sure, why not? Just dump a little more ice into the glass. John nodded in a sign that he understood the request. He poured himself another straight Bourbon and came back by the window.

-Here you go, my friend, my fellow prisoner of a world I do not know and never knew actually, of a world which is strange and mystic and full of drama.

-You summarized it perfectly, John! This time it was Vic’s turn to crack a muffled laughter while grabbing the glass of scotch from John’s hand. Cheers, my friend!

They made themselves comfortable again and for a long time, nobody said a word anymore. They were just silently watching the night lights of Downtown Shanghai and the barges sliding on Huangpu, like ghosts following a mortuary procession.

-Mr. Parker, we need help please.

Zihuan’s voice made both Vic and John jump off of their chairs and move to the middle of the living room where the two IT gurus were working.

-Yes, Zihuan! How can I help?

-We need you recognize software. We put on TV so it is clear. That’s being said, Zihuan’s computer was already displayed on the big screen TV in the living room.

-So, what do you want me to look at, Zihuan?

-Mr. Parker, we need you look and try recognize in the lines on screen, commands from software.

-Aha, I understand. Please go slower when you scroll down.

-I will give you control. Please use TV remote control.

-Got you! John picked up the remote and patiently started browsing through the numerous pages of programming lines which were displayed in front of him. This was a task that could take some time, so Yuhuan came up with another great idea: to bring the TV from the bedroom and hook up his laptop to it so Vic can do the same thing as John was doing. John pulled a giggle of happiness; Vic managed to hire two skillful and smart guys. Shortly, Vic started scrolling through the pages himself. Zihuan and Yuhuan moved to the window to admire the view.

-Do you know what to do?

-Of course I know what to do. Wanna’ bet on something?

-I thought that you quit betting, said John and a bid laughter came out of his chest.

-I did, but this would be fun and it wouldn’t ruin either of us.

-What do you have in mind?

-I bet you that I find the software before you do.

-Ooo…this challenge is something I simply cannot miss! I’m in. What are we waging on?

-A bottle of single malt of the best quality.

-Done!

-Good luck, but you are dead meat anyways.

-Ooo…trash talk! We’ll see, Mister! We’ll see.

Both Vic and John pulled the arm chairs closer to the TV screens and patiently but rapidly pushed that down arrow on the remote in a hope that they will quickly identify the lines the two IT guys were looking for. The work was tedious and soon both John and Vic felt like their eyes were watering from looking at so many lines and characters. John felt like he had to rest his back and quietly dropped into the armchair. He grabbed his head with both his hands and rubbed his eyes in an effort to chase away the tiredness which was slowly embracing him. The events of these three days had overwhelmed him. He found himself as being part of a saga that took place probably few centuries ago, nobody knowing when this circle of cosmological trajectory would come to an end.

-Bingo, came from Vic’s direction. John realized that his short break was skillfully used by his colleague and he probably identified a line or a key word of the software in question. Vic also realized that John was not even competing anymore.

-You are tired, I can see.

-Yes, a little bit. But this doesn’t matter anymore. Good job! You identified the line that could take us inside Mr. Li Jie’s world. Not to mention that you won a bottle of single malt. Both John and Vic burst into laughter, while Zihuan and his friend took over yet again of the laptops and eagerly started the second phase of their search: isolating this particular software from all the other ones, so they could figure out what sort of filters or even small pieces of software Li Jie implemented to manipulate John’s access to information. Once again, the two friends moved to the window and quietly sipped their drinks without starting another conversation. John felt like he wanted to gather his thoughts. He found himself tangled into a story he did not understand and did not want to be part of. He just wanted to go back home to Linda, to his house, to his habits and hobbies and to his normal job. This was a challenge his competitive spirit accepted, but he didn’t expect to emotionally get connected to it, he didn’t expect to be part of it. He envisioned his role in this assignment as being more of a consultancy role, more of a supervisory type where his management skills would place the right people in place and he would just compile the results. He was wrong…he realized that he has to deep dive into the action and get his hands dirty. It was a “do or die” situation…the game was getting nasty, his opponent was using dirty tricks and ultimately his reputation was on the line. He looked at Vic…his sight was somewhere far away, beyond the great spectacle of the downtown lights or the lights of the barges slipping down on Huangpu towards the junction with the Great River. John couldn’t help but ask himself: “I wonder what his role is in this story? Why was he sent here? He said that in China he found peace and strength as this is the place he should’ve been from the beginning. He said that his struggle back home was due to the fact that he was living in the wrong place, incompatible with his celestial destiny. Is J.J. part of this fight too? How come he knew that he had to send Vic here to clean up, to become who he apparently was supposed to be? Who would J.J. be and what would his role be into this cruse, or story, or fight, or whatever else is? If I am part of this story, what is my destiny? How do I blend into this story which apparently has a divine fate?” He dropped his head in a sign that he was puzzled and didn’t really know which direction to proceed. It was a strange feeling, a feeling he never experienced. He always had a plan, he always knew exactly which steps he was going to take first and then the next ones and the next and so on. Scott’s suggestion came again into his mind: “you have to improvise…you have no pocket, you have to use your feet for the first down”. He lifted his head and looked at Vic. It seemed like he came back from the transcendental phase he was into. The two men looked at each other and without opening a discussion, they both understood each other’s fears and line of thoughts. At this point John realized that both of them are fully dependent on each other, that they are on the same part of the barricade, that they have a destiny to fulfill and they must work as a team or they will lose the fight. They were doomed to look out for each other, they were doomed to walk and fight side by side regardless of how strong the enemy or how adverse the situation was in the field.

-Yes! This is work Li Jie done! Both John and Vic jumped from their chairs and in a heartbeat were again in the middle of the living room by the couch were Zihuan was sitting.

-OK, please explain to us what’s happening here.

-Yuhuan better. He can explain.

-Fantastic, let’s hear from you, Yuhuan!

-Mr. Parker…please see TV. He transferred to the TV a set of lines which had no meaning whatsoever for John.

-I am sorry, Yuhuan, but you have to explain to me what am I looking at.

-Of course. Please understand: lines on TV are small software…tick software. John started scratching his head as he didn’t understand what his interlocutor wanted to say. Vic took over the conversation right away and started having a direct conversation with the two detectives he hired. At the end, he nodded in a sign that he understood and immediately turned to John:

-John, it looks like Li Jie installed a bug type of software meant to spy on your activity when you are using the outgoing transactions software.

-Bastard! How do we know that he installed it?

-Mr. Parker…he did work. Look at time and look at the user ID. Instantly both John and Vic checked their wrist watches, trying this way to remember the time Li Jie was in the office. It matched exactly the time they remembered having the conversation into John’s office, when they called him to trouble shoot. Vic recognized his ID on top of the screen.

-Unbelievable…this bastard is watching my moves.

-This is not too bad, John. We know that he is watching, we have to feed him information we want.

-Good plan. How do we do this? What other piece of software is he spying on? Actually let me rephrase: what other office activity of mine is he spying onto? John eye sight fell on the two IT gurus.

-Not sure, Mr. Parker. We need think. It is very complicated. We need more time. Li Jie use common spy software – we use this too. He modify it to add delay for you or other Americans when you come China, to slow down. You lose patience and system crash will soon crash. Is for you to give up and no follow. You think is Internet issue because of China. No, is spy strategy.

Both Vic and John were in a state of shock. Whatever they were hearing it was out of their comprehension. On the other hand, John couldn’t help but notice the ingenuity of the method: it was combining the technical skills of a professional with the mindset of a Psychologist who knows that human patience is limited.

-This is brilliant! John released this statement with all the admiration he could put into it, admiration and praise for a job very well done, for a job that was taken to the end using a stroke of geniality. Vic felt like he wanted to wage in as he was equally mesmerized by the method:

-Unbelievable! I would’ve never imagined that something like this was even possible.

-Vic, Mr. Parker…this no genius work. This common work. Li Jie just smart and know how to spy. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling as they were amazed themselves how come the two Americans didn’t know it. It was the time when John started to understand that his assignment will face bigger challenges than what he thought, that the tactics and the strategies he wanted to employ must be changed. He was facing an opponent who was playing dirty, an opponent who didn’t give a damn about fair play, an opponent who was playing all the cards possible (legal or illegal) to win the game. It was the time when he understood that he has to pull himself all the dirty tricks from his pocket, from his baggage of knowledge. A short pause followed and nobody was saying a word anymore. John and Vic were trying to assess the situation, while Zihuan and Yuhuan were waiting for John or Vic to say something.

-Ok, we made a huge progress today. Guys (John was now speaking to the IT gurus he had in front of him), you did an amazing job.

-Thank you Mr. Parker. We happy.

-You truly did an amazing job and I am extremely happy to have you in my team.

-No mention, Mr. Parker. We like you. You great Quarterback!

-Well, I thank you for this, Zihuan. I am not sure how great of a Quarterback I was. I didn’t play in NFL. John’ voice felt a little soft and Vic picked up the vibe right away. He understood that John’s biggest dream was to be a starter into a game on Monday night Football. He looked at him and the sorrow into his eyes, confirmed his assumption.

-Yes John, but you made that last seconds throw which won the Championship for your team. You are a great athlete.

-I was a good athlete, Vic and I thank you for your words. Few more seconds passed by. John shook his head in a sign that “whatever was in the past is in the past, now we need to focus on the present and look into the future”

-OK, guys…enough with the past. Let’s sketch up a plan on what our next moves will be. Li Jie is spying on me. Great! Let him think we don’t know this. Now, how do we outsmart him, how do we manage to be all the time one step ahead of him? He is indeed very smart and we need to be smarter. I understand that he is using this strategy to slow me down so I cannot watch the outgoing transactions. Why? Here is the key…These outgoing transactions are closely monitored from America by J.J. and Scott. They couldn’t find anything out of ordinary. It is the same system, the two offices are linked to each other, and they communicate to each other. How come nobody from overseas can pick up the funds drainage? It was the time when another pause took place and everybody in the room was trying to find the logic behind it. Yuhuan raised his hand, signaling that he needs to say something…all eyes in the room were now watching his face, his hands, his moves.

-Mr. Parker, it looks like here, in China, someone modify software. I not understand how. How can same software work here different than in America? We need to see. But we need access total. Now we just solve small piece. You are spied. We need access to server, here. We can copy software and look at home. We need many time to do this. Very complicated.

-Well, let’s do it then! Vic, do you think we can get into the server room somehow?

-Good question, John. I don’t know. We need to be absolutely sure that Li Jie is not all of a sudden coming to work to do some maintenance to the server or to any other office software.

-Can we do it tonight?

-It is eleven already. The alarm is set. I do have the pass-code, but don’t you think that Tony already instructed Li Jie to keep an eye on the security camera system as well? They would see that we popped in.

-Good point. What do you two guys think?

-Mr. Parker…we need plan this. Tonight it is danger.

-Alright, I can see your concerns. I agree, we need a little patience here. So let’s put together a plan: Vic, we need to figure out what Li Jie’s patterns are. Everyone has patterns, habits, own rules by which they are guiding their lives, their behavior. We need to know exactly when he will not be in the office for routine maintenance work. However, how do we bypass the video system without leaving a trace that we were in?

-This not complicated, Mr. Parker. We record video and write on top. No issue. We record time, day, year and write on camera software. Nobody come in. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling again which made John very happy. He knew right away that the two Chinese experts were already familiar with a solution for breaking into the server room without leaving a video trace.

-Great! How about breaking into the system? How do you break Li Jie’s pass-code to get in? Is this going to leave a trace which he could follow?

-Mr. Parker, we already break his pass-code when we look for small tick software, one it is spy on you. For third time that night, both of them crack a laughter which made John and Vic burst into an unstoppable, laud and healthy laughter too.

-Right, you already did. I forgot all about this! Now here it is another question: what if he changes the pass-code before we get in? What if he set up his pass-code to be automatically changed?

-No worries Mr. Parker. We come in second time. And maybe three times. We can see pattern. We see at that time. We keep video record on the door and just change time and day.

-Ok, guys. I think we have a plan: Vic, you will have to figure out Li Jie’s patterns somehow – I will help if I can; Zihuan, for now, you will continue to keep an eye on my neighbors, while you – Yuhuan – will have to start monitoring Tony Gang.

-Good plan, Mr. Parker. Remember…we need more and more information on: video system, Li Jie and server room.

-This is on me. John, you are watched; you need to stay put. You have to talk to Tony on regular basis so you make him understand that you have no idea what’s going on around this office.

-Understood. I have to look pretty and smart and do nothing…I love it!

A huge laughter erupted into the room and a great, friendly atmosphere set in. It was the beginning of a great friendship between the two detectives and John.

-Mr. Parker, we need to go. We have work.

-It is eleven o’clock into the night! Don’t you go to sleep? Both detectives laughed and Zihuan’s answer confirmed what Vic told him earlier: they have other assignments on the roll.

-Mr. Parker, in our job no time to sleep.

-Ok, I am not arguing with this. You two gentlemen have a good night and we will touch base soon, for sure.

John walked them to the door while making a sign to Vic to stay a little longer.

-I am not walking you downstairs, as I don’t want you two to be seen with me. You take the elevator and leave by yourselves.

-Understood, Mr. Parker. Make sense. Good night!

-You two guys have a good night too and try to catch some sleep, for Goodness sake!

-Hahaha! We try, we try.

John opened the door and the two detectives quietly and discreetly slipped out of his apartment. He kept the door cracked watching them taking the elevator down. He just wanted to make sure his neighbors didn’t see them coming out of his room. After he closed the door, he walked again to the window where Vic was waiting for him. Two minutes of silence followed up. Both of them were trying to sum up the events and process the amount of information they had on hand.

-It’s been just three days since you came to China, John and I have to admit that you are indeed the right person for the job.

-Now you are trying to be nice and flatter me. You know that I hate these things.

-Not at all, man. Not at all. Since you made it here, we made huge progress. We have four leads now which we need to follow and this is solely due to your eye for details, due to your feel for people, due to your keen sense of identifying where the danger is coming from. I never thought of Mr. Wang as being part of this fight. Now I truly believe he has an important role into it.

-Are you thinking at what happened in his restaurant?

-Of course. That strange individual who sat all the time into the darkness, that woman upstairs who was watching us when on the hallway and that strange atlas and book he showed us.

-The way I understood this, was that he was trying to tell us he was the descendant of some great warrior close to Emperor Chongzhen.

-He said that the warrior was the head of the Emperor’s personal guard.

-And when I asked him where Yonggan Zhongcheng was, he invited us to leave.

-Right! We need to read more about this Dynasty…but the way I know it, in those times, if you could not protect your Master, it was your honorary duty to commit suicide.

-I read something about the Samurai code of honor. It is similar to what you are telling me. The question is: how is Wang stepping in to be part of this story? Why do we need him?

-We will find out…on Saturday, Zaohui will tell us more.

-I better bring plenty of booze with me. For sure it will be very enticing. John wanted to ask the question: “But who is Zhaohui? What is her role into this saga? Why did she suggest we go have lunch at Wang’s?” He realized that he had to keep these questions for himself, as they could’ve put Vic in a delicate situation, in a position he was not comfortable with.

-Well, my friend…it is late and I have to hit the road. Tomorrow it will be another day in the office. Try to keep Tony on his toes and get as much information as possible. It looks to me that he has no problem giving you details and leads. I just hope that he is doing this out of arrogance and vanity. Otherwise, I think the knot is tightening up and we are getting close to the conclusion. I am only afraid that we are not ready yet. John wanted to ask: “what conclusion?” but refrained from saying it. There were too many unknowns in his mind and too many obscure and mystic meanings to the questions he’s been asking since he set foot in China.

-Alright my friend, I hope you have a good night and I guess I will see you tomorrow. John once again opened up the door and watched Vic take the elevator down. Before closing the door, he took a last look at his neighbor’s door. Nothing out of ordinary, nothing that could tickle his curiosity, no apparent activity from that side. He closed the door and made himself comfortable into one of the armchairs while opening up the file with the multitude of pictures he got from Zihuan. One by one, he looked at them again. He couldn’t see either Tony or his neighbors at that funeral. His eyes were watering again and John decided to call it a day. Waked to the bedroom, put his pajamas on and slipped under the warm blankets. The multitude of the happenings from the busy day that was slowly coming to a closure made him fall asleep immediately.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 25 (Shanghai Office / Zihuan / Li Jie)

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 25

Shanghai Office. Zihuan. Li Jie

It was already eight o’clock in the morning when John opened up his eyes. He realized that he slept into the cloths he wore the day before. Slowly he got up, completely undressed and headed for the shower. “The suit and the shirt will have to make it to the dry cleaning” John told himself while stepping into the shower cabin; once the warm water hit his skin, a calm and relaxing feel encompassed his whole body inviting him to spend as much time as possible in there and enjoy the benefits of a morning shower. His mind was always working when bathing or showering and so did this time. Following the many unanswered questions from last night, he started organizing his thoughts. First, the office work…trying to figure out who are the main players into the office who are helping Tony. How do they relate to each other and what their hierarchical roles are? Secondly, John realized that he has to do lots of reading and fully understand the circumstances of the last Ming’s days. Thirdly, he had to gain Tony’s trust. He was now convinced that this man is the key to solving the problem, the main actor of this play who managed to conceive a system of draining company’s money which was unbreakable (apparently) – or at least this is how it sounded to be – from J.J.’s description. John cracked a smile. He put a plan together and now he had to follow it to the letter. Gradually, opened up the cold water knob until the jet was completely cold. It made him release a yell of manhood and from a burnt out person as he was last night, he felt like he turned into an individual with lots of energy, many ideas in his head and lots of desire to get to the bottom of this thing. In few minutes he shaved and was out of the bathroom. While dressing, he turned the TV on and set it to Business channel. Nothing new, old stuff, things he already knew. A new suit and shirt, another pair of shoes and he was ready to leave the apartment. It was already eight thirty and he figured out that he still has time for breakfast. The Restaurant was at the ground floor with a clear view of the Entrance. The hotel was providing buffet type of breakfast for the customers who were staying in and John decided to take advantage of this little facility. He picked up a small table in a corner, trying to stay away from too many curious looks. He was by far the tallest person in the room and this couldn’t’ve passed unnoticed by the people who were already eating their meal. John realized that he was now exposed to any spy work which Tony could’ve set up. He grabbed a plate, placed some food on it and went back to the table he picked in the first place. He had a wall on two sides, a window on the other side and thus the front was being left open to the main room. Curiosity settled in again and John decided to closely look at the people in the Restaurant. His fine sense of screening people by looking at their faces, posture, gestures and mimics helped him right away take a snap shot of whoever was taking breakfast in the Restaurant at that particular moment. “OK, so it looks like we have mostly business men here: Asian, Europeans and Americans. So, the price for even a normal room must be pretty high. But I have to admit that the amnesties are top notch and the service is outstanding”. The waiter came by and asked him if he would like a coffee or a tea. John went without hesitation for the coffee while keeping himself busy with the delicious steamed buns stuffed with meat and an egg pancake. Some fantastically well-presented fried rice balls wrapped in bamboo leafs and filled up with lotus seeds completed his choices for the breakfast. He initially wanted to go for some Western food but changed his mind. “I am in China, why not try the local Cuisine at the maximum possible extent?”

The food was delicious and so well presented! A “cling” on his cell phone let him know that he’s got a text. It was Vic: “Are you up?” John realized that it was already 9 am. He was ready to get up and leave when a couple entered the Restaurant and headed for the opposite corner of where he was staying. John had a strange feeling that the woman was the person he met in the hallway while trying to fix the light. She was of a medium-tall height regardless of the fact that she was wearing high heels. Her attire was all black and stunning! The hat was a big black retro hat with a white silk ribbon and an exquisite oversize and down turned brim (which was covering a portion of her face). The coat and the dress were of a high quality Cashmere, tailored by an artisan who knew exactly where to cut the notches into the collars and to place the two buttons so the coat will emphasize the nicely shaped breasts and who knew how to cut the dress right above the knees showing thus two beautiful long legs. The shirt was all white with fine vertical stripes which were making her look even taller. The black stockings and high heel shoes, were giving this woman an aristocratic profile which was also enhanced by a mysterious look. The man was of a medium height, stocky but powerful. One could see that the span of his shoulders was quite large, thus releasing a sentiment of power, self-confidence and leadership. He was wearing also a cashmere overcoat and an elegant wool hat with an upturn brim. The suit was a designer suit with a classic two button closure and notched lapel. The shirt was white with vertical stripes, while the silk tie was light grey in color also with vertical stripes. It was a nice combination, as the vertical features of the two pieces discussed above, were helping him “stretch” his upper body and made him look taller.

John pulled the Menu as high as he could so he would hide a portion of his face. With one hand, he held the Menu and with the other texted Vic back: “At Restaurant. Neighbors have meal”. He pushed the Send sign. As he expected, Vic replied immediately: “Don’t move. I’m coming. Where are you sitting?” Again, with one hand John texted: “Left, last table, by the wall. Neighbors sit opposite”. “OK. Will be there in a few”. Slowly, John dropped the Menu in a way that would allow him to have a better look at the couple. The man was sitting by the aisle and thus with his back turned at John while the woman was facing him. John realized that it’s just a matter of time before she would recognize him as being the man from the hallway. It was important for her not to know that John is part of Glenworth. At this point, he almost regretted that he allowed Vic to come over.  What if she knows him somehow? Then he will be exposed. These questions didn’t leave him alone until Vic showed up and took the empty chair across the table. While slowly walking in, he managed to disguise the curious look he threw at the couple’s table.

-I am dying to see the face of the man!

-Let’s wait a bit. The waiter showed up right away and Vic ordered a green tea.

-I think this is the same man I have seen through the cracked door. His skin is tanned and the neck is thick and short.

The waiter went to the couple’s table. Shortly he came back with a plate on which there were three cups of tea. It seemed like the man and the woman did not want to eat anything.

-Do you have a plan?

-Always, said Vic and he grabbed his cell phone. He texted something in Chinese. John was stunned. It looked like his colleague not only knew how to speak, but he knew how to write as well.

-What’s your plan?

-You’ll see. These two guys won’t be here for too long. They didn’t order food, so it looks like they have to go somewhere. Today is Thursday already. I have to do some investigation. Where they could go dressed up like this, at first time in the morning? I mean…look at them: they look like royals.

-Well said. Great looking couple…if I could only see their faces.

-Patience. Help is on its way. John raised one of his eye browses as always a sign of wonder and looked at Vic.

-Do you think I am kidding? I never do when I have something to get done.

-Ok, ok. I trust you. But you better hurry up with that help of yours because our neighbors are about to leave. Boy, they look great! Those cloths they are wearing are top notch designer cloths and the materials are of a very high quality.

-Yeah, who cares what they wear? I want to understand who they are. John cracked a large smile, as he knew that Vic was not paying too much attention to people’s attire. For him though, it was another good piece of information: these are not only people who have money, but are also people of great, refined taste.

-Ok. They are on their way to the door.

-Good timing. My man is here. At this point, a little skinny man stopped by the table. Vic pulled a chair and invited him to sit down. His name was Zihuan. John shook hands and realized that the individual in front of him was speaking a decent English. He was wearing jeans and sneakers and a sports jacket with the brand of a well-known NFL Team.

-Do you like Football?

-Yes, Sir! I watch American Football in TV.

-I guess this team is your favorite team.

-Yes, Sir! I like this team. They good and strong and fast.

Both John and Vic couldn’t help but start a laughter. Good, strong and fast.

-Well Zihuan, do you know that John was a Football player too?

-Wow…Mr. Parker you Football player?

-Not anymore Zihuan, not anymore. A breeze of sadness crossed John’s face, like a vagrant cloud on a nice clear summer morning sky. This little change of mood was observed by Zihuan.

-Why you sad, Mr. Parker?

John startled as he didn’t expect the new interlocutor to pick this up. On the other hand, he liked it! “This man has a keen sense of observation, of reading people’s faces and for sure will be an asset to the team”

-Just a little gloomy that I missed playing into NFL due to an injury.

-John, do you still have that big poster showing that throw of yours for the win in the last seven seconds of the game?

-I don’t know…I still should have some in the basement. I can ask Linda to send one over for Zihuan if he wants it.

-Wow…Mr. Parker you throw ball in last seven seconds and win?

-Well, this is what I was told, Zihuan. A Defensive Lineman hit me and I blacked out. I woke up in the Hospital. When I opened up my eyes, my future wife was there and she told me that we won.

-This is movie story Mr. Parker. This is movie story.

-Well, Zihuan…nobody contacted me so far. All three men started laughing and John understood that he could fully rely on his new addition to the Team.

– Zihuan, please listen up…Vic lowered the tone of his voice and in a cursive Chinese explained to the new interlocutor what his job was.

-John, I asked Zihuan to follow this couple. Wherever they go, he has to go. I also asked him to take pictures, snap shots, anything that could help us identify these two individuals.

-No worry, Mr. Parker. I know this work. I did many of this before.

-Of course I fully rely on you, Zihuan. If Vic trusts you, I trust you. Just please, take your time and get as many details as possible. Doesn’t matter if you take a thousand snap shots which would seem irrelevant. Maybe in there, there is something we can use.

-No issue, Mr. Parker. I know job.

-Fantastic. Now I think it is time for you to go…the couple is leaving.

-Not yet, said Zihuan with a large smile on his face.

-Not yet? They are leaving, you will lose them.

-Mr. Parker… no rush. If I follow them, they see me and job not good.

-But you will lose them!

-No, I not lose. My friend follow with his car. Then we change cars and take mine.

John couldn’t help but admire the strategy.

-Ok, then. I guess I just have to fully trust you and your judgement.

Vic placed a hand on John’s shoulder:

-He knows what he is doing. He built himself a camera which you can keep in your palm and take pictures you would normally take with the zoom in lens tower.

-What? Are you serious? John’s eyes moved to Zihuan and a sense of deep admiration flourished on his face.

-Yes. He is an Electronics Engineer and he has a Master in Optics and Acoustics.

-This is unbelievable! Why aren’t you working as an Engineer for a Corporation? I am sure that the pay is good. This question was addressed directly to Zihuan and John placed the maximum amount of stupefaction he was capable of generating into that inquiry.

-Yes, I know Mr. Parker. But work for Corporation boring. You not allowed freedom. I like use my brain, not follow orders and rules. His smile was candid, intelligent and genuine showing in the same time two rows of white, well maintained teeth.

-So, do you have a shop where you build all these devices?

-No. I have apartment. That is my shop. He laughed, but John was perplex. “This guy has a shop in his apartment. How about neighbors? Aren’t they complaining?”

He realized that this is one of those things with which he has to get accustomed, those little things which don’t make sense from a westerner point of view, but they are part of day to day life in China.

Zihuan picked up his phone. The “cling” of an incoming text made both Vic and John switch their attention to the devise which their interlocutor was holding in his hand.

-Now I go. Yuxuan follow them. I follow my friend. We talk by radio.

-You have your own radio frequency? This is fantastic! But you must pay a fortune for this.

-Mr. Parker…in Shanghai if you pay for everything, you no eat nothing. Zihuan burst again into a laughter and stood, signaling the fact that he has to go. John and Vic wanted to do the same, but their detective put his right hand up into the air into a “stop” sign. Both Vic and John looked at the man in front of them with perplexity not understanding why he was telling them to sit down.

-I go first. You wait five minutes and then you go. OK?

John couldn’t help but appreciate his plan. “He does not want all of us to be seen together while leaving. Smart!”

Zihuan made a sign of good bye by dropping his chin and in few seconds he disappeared through the Restaurant doors and eventually he was out into the street.

-So, Vic…tell me please what is this Zihuan story about?

-As you can see, J.J.’s money can go a long way in China. We have a private detective working for us. Vic’s laughter managed to pull a large smile on John’s face, however, Vic realized that his friend was not satisfied just with this answer.

-How much are you paying him that he agreed to do this for you full time?

-No, he is not hired full time…he has other things on the go, like: building all sort of electronic devices and selling them to God knows who (I think he is even connected to the underworld individuals and organizations), doing the detective work and I think he even fixes complicated devises for private individuals. Once, I was in his apartment – I needed him to do some work for me…at one point, an individual knocked at the door and stepped in. I swear to God, John…this guy was the largest Chinese I have seen in my seven years of China. He was the size of a Sumo wrestler, the size of the largest Linebacker you have seen back home. His skin was tanned like Gang’s and the eyes were typical Mongolian: very thin and almond shaped like, obviously slandered upwards. He gave him a backpack in which there was something the shape of a bowling ball. I never asked him what that was. I actually don’t even want to know what was inside of that backpack. Zihuan took it into another room and came back. God knows what sort of activity he is doing in there.

-Well my friend…I think this is a wrong approach. We need to know as much as we can about the people we employ in helping us with this task. You are saying that the individual who visited him while you were there might belong to the underworld organizations?

-I am not saying that! I am just conveying a piece of information. John couldn’t help but notice that Vic was in a sort of distress and affliction, a situation he was trying to avoid and hide as much as possible. He started getting worried again about his friend: “Why is he getting jumpy, fidgety and crusty? Does he have connections to the underworld of Shanghai? It appears to me that when I asked him that question about the appurtenance of that large fellow to the underworld fauna, he became irascible. I have to be more careful. I think he does have something to do with the hidden world of outlaws”

-OK, OK…sorry, man! Just a supposition. I guess I watched too many movies. John’s laughter was not genuine and he realized it by looking at his friend’s face. Vic’s mimic was frowned, was not relaxed anymore and was showing a certain level of distress and wariness.

-I think Zihuan’s five minutes are up. Let’s go to the office and see if we can get something done for today.

-Sure, let’s go. It’s already ten o’clock.

Both men stood, pushed the chairs under the table and headed towards the Exit. The temperature was already into the high sixties and it was again a beautiful sunny fall morning with a clear sky above. The taxi ride was short as the lunch rush hour had not yet started. Once in the office, both of them headed towards John’s office. John opened up and once he reached his desk, he placed his suit case on it, unlocked the drawers and asked Vic to join him to watch the view. It was spectacular as usual and for two minutes both men quietly admired the sun ray’s reflections from the calm and majestic waters of Huangpu.

-Listen, I am sorry about what I said a little earlier.

-Ah, don’t worry about. I also feel like I have to tell you a little story, as between friends. But not now. At the right moment only.

-I am not forcing you to tell me that story, Vic…

-I know John, but we are both into the same boat here and we need to be a hundred percent honest with each other, we need to row in the same direction, otherwise we will drown.

-Totally agree. Are you paying Zihuan well enough to fully rely on him?

-Don’t you worry about this! J.J. receives a monthly bill from me. I pay Zihuan cash obviously. Let’s put it like this: if he would only rely on this source of income, he would be more than ok. He would make more than an Engineer working for one of the big Corporations around here. But this job allows him freedom to move around, to do what he likes and to always meet new people. He makes a lot of money. That’s why he figured out that he had to team up with his friend.

-Did you ever meet that friend of his?

-Who? Yuxuan?

-Yeah, I think this was the name he gave us.

-No I’ve never met Mr. Handsome.

-What?

-This is what this name means in Chinese: nobility and handsomeness. Both John and Vic burst into laughter. At least John, simply couldn’t understand the way the names are picked in Chinese culture.

-Well, my advice is to eventually know Mr. Handsome as well, whenever we have a chance. I would like to meet all the members of my team.

-Sure. We’ll do it sometimes. Listen, I gotta’ go do some work now. I’ll see you tomorrow I guess.

-Yes, for sure. Thanks for all your help Vic.

-Don’t mention it. We are team mates now. Vic turned around and headed for the door. Before exiting, he turned around and walked back to the middle of room slapping his forehead in a sign that he forgot something. John, Zhaohui asked me to invite you for dinner at our place on Saturday night.

-How nice of her! Please extend my compliments to her and convey the following message: invitation accepted with many thanks.

-Fantastic! We’ll have a good time. She is a great cook. Is six o’clock ok with you?

-Absolutely. Where else am I going to go? This last phrase was followed by a big laughter and Vic simply joined in.

-Right! You are now a prisoner in a nice hotel and a luxury apartment. Way to go, man!

-Yeah, sure…wanna’ change?

-As much as I would like to…no, thanks. The volume of the laughter started few seconds ago became even lauder as the two men felt like letting it go and get back to work on a high note.

-Alright then. Saturday night I will join you two guys for dinner at your place.

-Great! Saturday morning I will probably do all the shopping. When we have an event like this, she cooks the whole day.

-Can’t wait to try some real, authentic Chinese.

-The food we ate at the Restaurants was also good and authentic. Not sure what she has in mind so far, but you’ll see that it will be good. By the way, on Sunday we are planning to go to Suzhou and visit again the gardens. Many of them are protected UNESCO sites. They are absolutely gorgeous and the weather is still great for visiting. On Sunday, the temperature will be in the mid-seventies, perfect for a walk through the gardens. We visited them many times. Every time we go there, I have hard times to get Zhaohui to leave the place. She is obsessed with these gardens. There are also many kiosks where you can have a sit, rest and take pictures at the surroundings, as they are fabulous. If you want, we will be happy if you joined us.

-Thanks very much, Vic! You two guys are awesome! I appreciate your kindness in trying to make me feel at home. I will definitely come for dinner on Saturday. What would you like me to bring over?

-Just bring yourself, man! Vic burst again into a laughter of joy hearing that John accepted the invitation.

-Ok, I will bring some drinks.

-You don’t have to, but if you really want to buy some drinks, there is a liquor store just five minutes of walking away from your hotel. You take the main street going North and at the next major intersection, it is right there, at the North East corner. Please, don’t spend too much money.

-Why? J.J.’s pocket is pretty deep! Both men cracked another big laughter and judging by the fact that this time tears of joy were coming out of Vic’s eyes, one would only imagine that he was having lots of fun. When he finally managed to stop from the burst of happiness which encompassed him, Vic placed his right hand on John’s left shoulder and while wiping his tears with his left cuff, he looked into John’s eyes and with a friendly and sincere voice he said:

-John, both I and Zhaohui love you, you are a great person and you can rely on us. We’ll get this thing done somehow. We’ll figure out together how.

-Thanks you two guys, I love you too. You are great human beings and I am happy to call you friends.

-Thanks John. I will convey your compliments to Zhaohui.

-Fantastic! I can’t wait to taste her food! I think she is a great cook.

-You better make room, so you can eat everything she is planning to cook.

-Don’t you worry Mister…Saturday I will hit the gym twice and I won’t eat anything the whole day.

-Ha ha ha! You want to put a dent into my budget, huh? That’s OK. I’ll expense it and get J.J. to pay for this. Another round of laughter burst out of their chests, only this time Vic made a sign of “good bye” and headed for the door.

-Hey, Vic! John remembered that he wanted to ask Vic something and until that moment he was struggling to remember. All of a sudden his memory helped him out and he asked the question:

-Why is the software we are using to track outgoing transactions so much slower here than back home?

Vic was about to leave John’s office and when hearing the question, turned right away a hundred eighty degrees and looked at John completely puzzled.

-It is slower? Are you sure? Never noticed that…hmmm.

-I am positive. I used it hundreds of times. I checked the Internet speed and it is no different comparing to what we have back in America. Still…why so much slower? Is this temporary, has anyone else from this office complained?

-John, I had no idea that we even had this problem…never heard anybody complaining that software is slow. And by the way…nobody from this office went to America at our head office to have something to compare against, besides Tony Gang. Let’s have a look.

John pulled his laptop and fired it up. Shortly he logged in and starting running the usual applications, used by everyone in the company. When opening the specific application, indeed, the speed at which the system was working, dropped dramatically. Vic tried himself and shortly both men were scratching their heads.

-Honestly, I never noticed this. To me, this is normal.

-It’s not…I am telling you, it is at least three times slower than back home.

-Wow…I have been gone for seven years now and I really can’t tell the difference. Let me call the IT guy. He picked up the phone and called their IT office Manager. He will be here shortly…hmmm, this is strange.

-This is what I am saying. Very unusual. Are there any filters, which would slow down the search?

-We’ll see what our hero will have to say.

-You mean the IT Manager is a hero? This is the meaning of his name?

-Yeap! Li Jie is our hero. Let’s see what he has to say.

Vic couldn’t help but noticing that John put a puzzling gimmick on his face in a sign that these Chinese names were becoming a headache for him in trying to remember them.

-Don’t worry, John…you will get accustomed with their names. It won’t take long. I suggest you wright them down and read them whenever you have a chance.

-Yeah, I have to admit that I have hard times remembering them.

-Patience my friend, patience. This is what they are taught from an early age. You have to be patient if you want to achieve anything serious in life.

-I know, unfortunately back home we dumped this concept and we want everything and we want it now.

-Yes, this is the dumpster (in which we tossed one of the greatest virtues of human kind): fast pace environment, multitasking, prioritization, fast food, fast learn, etc.

-You were part of the “fast forward” culture too…I can see that since you came here, you significantly changed though.

-Yes, I did. Unfortunately, China is following right into America’s footsteps. I realized this in these seven years of my stay here. Great cities (like Shanghai) follow America’s example. Things are changing rapidly and so do the people.

-Well…this is the pace of the evolution, I guess.

-I would say it is the pace of involution. We are going away step by step from our nature, from our essence, we are walking away from humanity and turning ourselves into the slaves of few material things which are insignificant to the Universe: a TV, a car, a house, a job, a hobby, etc.

-Wow! You became quiet philosophical. Any other things I should know about yourself? A friendly smile flourished on John’s face, in a sign that he agreed with everything Vic just said.

-No, I don’t think I became more philosophical. But I started paying more attention to things which now I believe really matter in life.

-I can see this, Vic and I have a tremendous respect for you and your choices.

-Thanks, John. I will tell you what my dream is…but not now.

-Of course, especially that our hero showed up. During the conversation between the two colleagues and friends, Vic stood with his back at the door the whole time. John, obviously was able to see the man standing at his door and knocking into the frame of the door as he was facing it. Vic turned around and in a perfect Chinese he invited the IT specialist inside.

-Li Jie, this is John Parker. John, this is the IT Manager of the office: Li Jie.

-It is nice to meet you Mr. Parker.

-John is my name. Nice to meet you too.

Li Jie smiled and replied with a waggish voice:

-Very well, Mr. Parker. I will call you John. What is the problem you having?

-Well, when I run the outgoing transactions, the software is a lot slower than what we have in America. Why? I checked the Internet speed and there is no significant difference. Do you guys have some filters which may slow down the software’s function? Both Vic and John couldn’t help but notice that the smile on Li Jie’s face perished and a barely perceptible grimace replaced otherwise a pretty good looking smile. He was thin and quite tall for the Chinese standards. The nice dress pants and the white silk shirt and grey tie, showed a man who knew how to take care of his attire and thus send a signal of neatness and a certain level of elegance.

-Let me check, John. May I have your laptop for five minutes?

-Sure, go ahead. John walked him to his desk, logged in and then came close to the middle of the room where Vic was waiting.

-So, I guess I see you on Saturday.

-Great! I think you are OK now. Actually you know what? Let me show my office to you and let me introduce you to few people you need to know during your stay.

-Sure. Let’s do that.

Both of them walked towards the entrance into the office where Vic’ office was. The window was facing downtown. The majestic sky scraper line and the swarm of people down on the street was the usual view and one would realize how vibrant, rich and fast paced this city was.

John couldn’t help but notice the framed pictures that Vic had placed on his desk. There were four pictures and in three of them he was shown beside Zhaohui. In one of them (on the left side of the desk), John could see the man he knew from back home: the heavy guy with a round face and the hair all messed up, with a double chin and the skin all moist and stretched to a limit when one would believe it will explode. The other three pictures (all on the right hand), it was a man who was barely resembling the one from left. Only the eyes were the same: sharp, lively, intelligent, investigative and inquiring. The second chin was gone, and so was gone all that extra weight he was carrying. His face was now a sum of bones: cheek bones, the square chin and a forehead which was not covered anymore by messy and unkempt hair. He was now employing a short cut style which was making his head look even thinner and sharper. Zhaohui was holding him from the back, with her hands encircling his waist and the chin resting on his shoulder while Vic was hugging her with his hands wrapped around her neck. These three pictures showed John a happy and emotionally balanced man, a man in control of his life, a man who was now living a second life.

-Your life has changed so dramatically, Vic…

-Aaaa….you looked at the pictures. Yes, I can say that lots of things have changed since I left America. My leaving was a blessing and probably I should say thanks to Scott. Zhaohui is saying all the time that it was meant to happen, that it was meant for us to meet. I started believing in this philosophy, in the theory that everything in this life happens for a reason.

-It is part of Christian believe too, you know it very well.

-Yes, but I want to go further more and add a little Confucius: “Everything happens for a reason; don’t worry about reason, just live with what happens”

-Did you start reading Confucius? I can see that you have become a little more intellectual, more philosophical.

-Yes I did. Confucianism is a great philosophical system and has been part of Chinese culture for twenty five hundred years. It gathered so much wisdom in it that we would be so much better as a society if everyone would follow the teachings of this great philosophy.

-We both know that this is not possible. The human nature is not kind by birth. We are mammals and we have the instincts of the wild animals. That’s why we have possessions, that’s why we (unfortunately) start wars and kill other people, that’s why we have a competitive nature.

-Agree, but this is why we have that thing called Education. The Chinese saw the role of the mass education twenty five centuries ago when this great man started putting together his thoughts and sharing them with others.

-Have you turned into an idealist, into a humanist, into a visionary and wishful-thinker?

-I hope I just turned into a better person, John…that’s all.

-Wow! This is deep, Vic…I thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts with me.

-You are a good man, John. Zhaohui says that you have a good heart too. What a Confucian you could be! Again, both men burst into a heavy and uncontrolled laughter which was heard all around the office as the people in the cubicles started raising their heads and look through the open door and the glass hallway wall of Vic’s office, trying to figure out what was going on inside.

-Let me consider…never say never.

-Exactly. We will talk more on this subject on Saturday. We will engage Zhaohui as well so we can have an expert guiding us through the thinking process.

-Is she a Confucianism practitioner?

-Yes, she is. We, Americans, could also say: she is practicing Yoga as well. No, she is not practicing Yoga, she meditates following a ritual of breathing learnt from some Confucian monks.

-Wow…now I understand the change. This is where John stopped short of continuing, as he didn’t know how Vic would react. He obviously wanted to say: “now I understand the change in you, in your physical appearance, in the way you think, in the way you conduct your life”, but the subject was touchy and he didn’t want to touch a sensitive chord.

-You can continue if you want. I don’t care. I know very well who I was and who I am right now. I don’t give a damn about this stupidity called political correctness. I was wasting my life partying, drinking and gambling, I was morbidly fat and I was one step away from death (I will eventually tell you the story). In other words: I was a bum. She picked me up and turned me into the man you see. I owe her almost everything.

-I kinda’ figured this out myself, but I didn’t want to bring it up. When you first time introduced me to Zhaohui (in the Lobby), I realized that she played a major role into your metamorphosis and this was actually a blessing in the sky – knowing how hard you were partying back home.

-Yes it was, John. Yes it was. Funny how things work out in this life…I had to go half way to the end of the world to realize that I was dumping my best years into partying, alcohol and gambling. Both John and Vic kept quiet for few seconds. It was a moment of reflection, of meditation and forethought in which the two men tried to gather their own thoughts. A knock into the frame of the door made them startle. It was Li Jie who was standing there and wanted to obviously convey a message.

-Yes, Li Jie. Are you done?

-Yes, John. Come see please. He turned around and headed back towards John’s office, followed by Vic and John. Before reaching his office, John grabbed Vic’s arm in a sign of: “I need to talk to you”. Vic stopped and a question mark made his eye browses join above the nose bridge. It was the moment when John came closer and whispered into Vic’s ear:

-How long did it take him to fix this?

-Probably fifteen minutes at the max. We haven’t been talking for more than fifteen, after we left your office…why are you asking?

-Just a thought…I will tell you later. Vic’s face turned from a questioning type into a wondering type of gimmick.

-So, Li Jie…did you manage to fix it? What was wrong?

-Nothing major, Mr. Parker…I mean John. Both John and Li Jie smiled at each other showing a mutual respect and consideration. I cleaned up cookies, internet temporary files and some other junk you don’t need.

-And this was it? Really? Hmm…It was that easy. I could’ve done that. Li Jie smiled again while John took a seat and started testing the program. It was indeed much faster. However, he still felt like it wasn’t that fast as it was back home in America. He decided to keep it for himself. Li Jie, please tell me why other programs were not affected (speed wise) the way this particular program was affected? Outlook was just fine, Internet browsing the same and other typical software we are using (large programs) were not affected either.

-Good question, John. Li Jie’s face brightened up and with the same confidence a professor is ready to present his lesson to the pupils, he mentioned to John that this particular software is very large as it carries lots of macros and links between different levels and stages of the program.

-Aha…I understand. It is a very complex Program and it takes more time to run the background information.

-Yes! Very well done, John. You are good IT person.

-No, I am not a good IT person Li Jie, but I know a thing or two about computers. He put a big smile on his face which in turn made his interlocutor smile back. Thanks for your help, Li Jie.

-You welcome, Mr. Parker…I mean John. You call if you have problem again.

-Of course I will, of course. Thanks again, Li Jie. The IT specialist turned around and was ready to head for the exit when John stopped him with an apparently trivial question:

-Li Jie, please tell me…John stopped for two seconds waiting for his interlocutor to fully turn and look at him. Please tell me…is the incoming software (which tracks our entries) as large and complex sort of software as the outgoing one?

-Yes, John. It is large software and complex as other one.

-Thanks Liu Jie. That’s all for now. You have a good day.

-You too, John. Bye, Vic.

At this moment, Vic made a good bye sign to John signaling that he wanted to go to his office. John raised his right hand simulating a stop sign.

-Vic, two more minutes please. Vic froze in the middle of the room and inquiringly looked at John trying to understand what else he needed from him. John made a barely perceptible sign with his head: “come on over” and turned again with his face towards the window. He was not resting his butt against the desk, inviting Vic to take a seat into his chair. Vic refused politely and calmly took the same position as John. Now both of them were facing Downtown and that particular stretch of Huangpu.

-God, I love this view! This river fascinates me. Vic raised his eye browses in a sign of nervousness…”What the hell is wrong with him? This is why he called me to sit with him?” John realized that his friend was at least puzzled by his request and put the again a large and kind smile on his face. The tonality of his voice was low, telling Vic that he wanted to keep it between them.

-John…I have things to take care of…

-Vic, please tell me what you know about Li Jie. Vic’s lower jaw dropped.

-This is why you are holding me here for? You are kidding, Right? John looked straight into Vic’s eyes and while keeping the same smile on his face, replied:

-No Vic, I am not kidding. I want to know everything about this guy. Vic looked again at John and his mimic was still showing a man who was all puzzled.

-Well…he’s been here forever. He was here when I joined this office. He knows everything, every piece of software.

-So, he was not brought here by Tony.

-No…why are you asking these questions, John?

-Simple! Have you heard what he said about outgoing and incoming transaction software?

-Yes, he said that both of them are complex and require lots of resources to run.

-Exactly! However, I tried both of them during my first day into this office. The incoming transactions program was running just fine, at the same speed as it was running back home. Vic’s face was now showing the face of someone who is perplex, who is at one more punch away from being knocked down.

-So, you are telling me that…

-I am not telling you anything. I am just asking some questions trying to put together the pieces of an apparently complicated puzzle. Remember when I asked him if you guys have some filters on the software you are using in this office?

-Yes, his face kinda’ turned blue and lost the smile.

-Exactly! But when I asked the question, I was actually thinking at some antivirus software you guys may be running on daily basis. Now, I am thinking at other things…

-Do you think he may have planted a piece of software into your laptop during those fifteen minutes of chatting we had? It is an awfully short amount of time, in my opinion.

-It seems to me too that it is not enough time to do something like this, but neither I, nor you Vic, are IT specialists.

-You are right, John…hmmm. How do we find out that he messed with your laptop and most of all: why he did it if this is the case indeed?

-This “why” is something that scares me, Vic. But it may as well be the lead we need to get to the bottom of our assignment. Vic took another look at John and started scratching the top of his head with his right index finger in a sign of confusion and encumbrance. Both men kept quiet for a couple of minutes and at that point, all their intellectual resources were focused on finding an answer to an already burden: who is Li Jie? Vic’s face all of a sudden brightened up. John looked at him and with a voice which was betraying impatience, eagerness and hastiness to find an answer, he grabbed Vic by the arm:

-Don’t tell me that you figured out a way already. Vic smiled and while fighting to get his arm out of John’s strong grip, he picked up his cell from his pocket, went to speed dial and made a phone call. What followed, was a short conversation in Chinese. After hanging up, he looked straight into John’s eyes and with a waggish accent into his tonality, said:

-Mr. Parker, we shall know soon if Li Jie is playing games on you.

-Whom did you talk to?

-Zihuan.

-But he is not a software Engineer…

-Trust me, man…he knows everything. Think about…he builds all sort of devices, only he knows the kind of stuff he is making. He built a camera you can hold in your palm. Do you think he doesn’t know how to look into a software?

-Good thinking, man! Good thinking. You are smart.

-Please tell J.J. this, maybe I can get a bonus or a raise.

-I am not sure about that. He is tight with the money right now, as his cash is drained God knows where. Once again, the two colleagues and friends burst into a laughter, this time a laughter of relief that they could be on the right path towards deciphering the mystery. So, what do we do?

-Tonight we come back to the office and we bring Zihuan with us.

-Now this thing really started looking like a detective type of work!

-Do you have another option?

-No I don’t. That’s why I am relying on you.

-Great. Now let me get to my office and do some work. God…it is noon already.

-I guess it’s time for lunch, though.

-Ha ha ha! I didn’t know you had such a great sense of humor. I see you tonight. I will pick you up at your hotel. I am figuring that if we come back at eleven, nobody will be around. By then, the cleaning crews are gone and we can look at the work Li Jie did for you.

-Listen, why don’t we do this at the hotel, in my apartment?

-Zihuan wanted to try this into the same environment Li Jie did it.

-Got you! I will wait for your phone call. I will probably hit the gym, have a bite at the hotel’s Restaurant and then go to my room and do some reading.

-Fantastic. You may want to take a nap. I am not sure Zihuan will figure this out as quickly as we would like to.

-We have a deal. See you tonight, my friend.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 24 (A history lesson)

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 24

A history lesson

-Before the final assault began, the Emperor gathered all his concubines and children and killed them all with the exception of the male children. He did not want his family to be mocked, humiliated and fly-blown by the peasants. However, his noble Consort – Lady Yuan – survived. And so did Changping and Kunyi – two of his daughters. Changping placed her left arm in the way of the mighty sword, trying to defend herself. The arm was cut instantly and she fainted. Kunyi was spending her spring vacation in Suzhou thus not being present at the events. The two Portuguese sailors who were doing business with the Imperial Court dropped on top of Changping and begged the Emperor to spare her. It was this moment when he decided to stop and walk away heading for a hill nearby, still part of the Forbidden City, where he hung himself. At this point, Zhaohui stopped. Both John and Vic could clearly read on her face a sentiment of deep sadness, gloom and melancholy. A tear came out of one of her eyes and slowly made its way across the cheek only to drop on the table cloth in front of her. She apologized, quickly stood and told the two gentlemen at the table that she needs some fresh air. Vic stood up as well and tried to follow her, but she raised her right hand in a sign of: “please stop”. He remained pinned into this position and could only watch her walk out. Vic virtually dropped on the chair and grabbed his two temples into his palms. John was completely perplexed. He did not expect this story to take such an unexpected turn of events. He felt like he was responsible for this and felt ashamed and embarrassed. With a wavering stretch of the hand, he grabbed Vic’s shoulder. Vic startled and looked John right into the eyes.

-I am sorry, man…I did not want to be the cause of this distress between you and your fiancée.

-Unfortunately you have no choice, but to be that.

-What do you mean, Vic? I am sorry again and I would like to make it up to you and to Zhaohui.

-You will understand soon, John. It is nothing you can do about. You were part of the curse from the beginning, you participated at the events and you cannot leave the fight until it is over.

-A game! A fight! A curse! What the hell, man? What are you talking about? I am here just to figure out how J.J.’s money is funneled…God knows where.

-Exactly. Did you ask yourself why J.J. picked you? Instead of answering, John replied with a question of his own:

-So, you are telling me that J.J. is also part of this game, or curse, or fight, or whatever the heck you want to name this?

-Nobody knows so far…he could be, or he could not be part of it. My guess is that he is part of this too. It was the moment when Zhaohui returned and again she apologized for her behavior. John mumbled a sort of: “there is no problem”, but his mind was already absent from the table. “I am part of a game, of a fight, of a curse…how did I get myself into this? Now I have to start doubting J.J.? I can’t believe that I am now part of a conspiracy, or whatever this is”

-John…Zhaohui’s voice was no longer emotional. It was the voice of a woman who knew how to master her own feelings and emotions, the voice of a strong person who saw and lived through lots of hardships in her life.

-Yes, Zhaohui! This “yes” came out of his mouth smooth, soft, mild and unconvincing. He was now terrified that he was indeed part of a game he did not understand and never wanted to be part of. His palate was now as dry as a piece of tinder. The Adam’s apple was sliding up and down, in a sign of deep difficulty.

-Earlier I said that you should move.

-Yes, you did.

-I gave it a second thought. In order for you to solve this fund drainage mystery, you must find out as many details as possible about Gang’s private life. I don’t know any more if moving out would be the right thing to do. Right now, you are just one hallway away from him, or whoever lives there and he is visiting. You already found few details which are very interesting. For instance: that smell of some burning material…leafs, or spices, or pieces of wood, or whatever it was…we can find out lots of things by accurately identifying the nature of that smell and thus the place where it was brought from or purchased from. The mysterious woman who doesn’t want to show up her face and the other woman she brought to the apartment. Maybe all these things are connected to each other and will eventually help you understand where the money is going. You have to remember, John…everything that happens in this world it happens for a reason. Nothing is circumstantial, random or accidental. Everything is connected to everything, in spite of the fact that your rationality can’t see it for the moment. Rationality at a point becomes an obstacle in our way to see life the way it is, to see life as a blessing and a gift from heaven. You have to start believing in faith too, in things you never trusted or you were never taught to trust.

A long pause followed; John tried to gather his thoughts as the amount of information he was trying to absorb and process was piling up on him, not from a quantity point of view, but from a contextual and meaningful way of thinking.

-So, you think I shouldn’t move…but eventually Tony will see me in the Lobby or getting out or in from or into my apartment.

-We will deal with it at that moment. Gang knows everything in the Office. He is also connected to people I would simply call: not trusty. I don’t know if he is part of an Organization or a Sect, or something like this; Vic can tell you more about this.

-John, we need to sit down – the two of us – and have a long chat.

-Agree. But before we do this, I need to ask you two guys a simple question.

-Sure, go ahead. Zhaohui looked at John and slightly bent her head down, in an affirmative way. It was another moment of silence before John spoke and placed the question which he badly wanted to get it out of his chest:

-Are you two guys with me? Can I fully trust that you will be by my side regardless the circumstances? Both Vic and his fiancée looked at each other first and then at John. Their eyes were expressing disbelieve that John ever doubted them, which made John feel again embarrassed. He apologized once more. It took another moment of silence. Nobody was saying anything anymore. This time, John felt like it was his mistake and needed to do something to fix it.

-So, what happened after the Emperor killed himself?

-It’s enough for today, John. Too much too soon is never good. You need some time to get accustomed to the Chinese way of life, to our way of dealing with adverse and hostile situations. I will finish telling the story for you soon. It’s getting late. It is ten o’clock already. Shall we go?

-Sure, please ask for the check. As I said, it is my treat.

-Thanks, John.

-No problem, Vic. It was my pleasure again to have dinner with you two guys.

-You are a gentleman, John. Thank you for the dinner.

-Again, my pleasure, Zhaohui.

-You are getting good with your Chinese accent! She started laughing; John and then Vic, both joined in. Everybody was happy that those few moments of tension and emotions were over and the evening ended up into a positive and high note of optimism.

The taxi ride was short. Vic asked the driver to wait. All three of them, went inside the Lobby to have a final word. The place they picked, was a darker corner of the Lobby near a cherry and a lemon tree. John couldn’t help, yet again, watching Zhaohui getting close to the lemon tree and almost fall into a transcendental state of mind. Both Vic and John moved closer to her…this time, she managed to hold onto her emotions and murmured: “it is so beautiful, the flowers are perfectly blossomed…same like…” The last few words were inaudible but John (almost involuntarily) continued the phrase still on a low and soft pitched tone: “…same like the lemon trees’ flowers in the garden”

Zhaohui startled and her face looked thrilled, while the chest was throbbing from the almost uncontrolled heart beats. Vic’s face turned white like a sheet of paper. His Adam’s apple was racing in an uncontrolled vertical motion, while a cold sweat was dripping buckets from his forehead. He was stunned! On the other hand, looked like John had joined in alongside Zhaohui in admiring those surreal white flowers which were bringing the perfume of a heavenly garden. For few seconds, he did not realize the change into his demeanor. From a realistic and hard to impress Executive attitude to almost a romantic, sensible and delicate stance. Now, both Vic and his fiancée were looking at him with complete different eyes. Zhaohui was in a state of complete shock. Hearing John’s sentence, was like a cold shower. She was now frightened and her big, black, slender eyes were expressing this feeling by wide opening and thus emphasizing even more their beauty. John realized the situation he was into. He felt embarrassed and apologized. Zhaohui was still keeping her eyes on him, scrutinizing his face to the latest detail. Finally, John broke the ice yet again:

-It is late, I guess we have to call it a day.

-Absolutely! I am tired too. Vic simulated a yawn and covered his mouth. It was just a gesture to hide his uneasiness produced by the late events.

-Good night, John. We will finish the story some other time. It was much of a pleasure again to have dinner with you.

-Thank you, Zhaohui. It was lovely to have you two guys with me. They shook hands and both Vic and his future wife turned around and headed for the doors.

-By the way…do you want me to pick you up tomorrow morning, John? Vic asked this question while half turning his head towards John’s direction.

-No, that’s fine Vic. I will grab a taxi. Thanks for offering though.

Vic turned around and made the well-known “good bye” sign.

John watched them for few seconds and then headed for the elevators. A different way of looking at the hallway was now part of his ritual. Upon exiting the elevator, he was cautiously looking towards the direction of his apartment door on which he had a clear view. However, Tony’s apartment was around the corner, so he was blindly walking towards his door not knowing if he would eventually bump into Tony (or the person he saw through the cracked door) or the mysterious woman apparently living into the same apartment. He was almost walking on his toes when he reached his door. Swiped the card and he was in. He rested his shoulders against the door for few seconds, then slowly started sliding down until he dropped on his buttocks; he brought his knees close to his mouth and grabbed them with both his arms. His head was now resting on his knees while he was trying to clear up his mind. The multitude of events which he’s been through that day, drained his tank of energy and resources: both physical and mental. He just wanted to lay into his bed. It was almost 11 o’clock and he had to call J.J. Slowly picked himself up and headed for the window. On his way there, he took his shoes off and left them in the middle of the living room while placing his coat on the back of a chair, as he never did before. The long and eventful day took a big toll on him. He stopped by the bar, and looked inside. Spotted a bottle of 12 years old single malt Scotch he loved. Without hesitation opened it up and poured himself a glass of the great spirit from that bottle. The first sip was taken with his eyes closed; he wanted to relish that drink and feel it how it burns the palate while smoothly sliding down the throat and then into the stomach.

He grabbed his cell and dialed America. J.J. picked up right away. It was a short conversation. J.J. realized that his man is dying to go to bed. John refrained to mention all his adventures, as he was dead tired and did not want to give his boss just bits and pieces of information. Ultimately, J.J. just wanted to make sure John is safe and the accommodation is alright. After hanging up, John placed a stool in front of the window and put his feet up letting himself being dragged into contemplating the Downtown lights and the river traffic. The lights from the barges that were sailing on Huangpu, made him relax. This great river was conveying every time the same sense of eternity and serenity, the same sense of endurance and strength.

The events of the day overwhelmed John. There was so much information he absorbed, that he was now wondering what to do with it. And most of all, he felt like he was slowly getting sucked into this three hundred sixty six year old story of the last Ming Dynasty days. “Why me? Why? Why not somebody else? Who am I to be “the right person” for this job? Why all the persons I have met here are pointing towards the same direction? Why did Vic say that I am part of the game now, that I am part of the fight? Which game? Which fight? Fighting on whose side? Who is the enemy? Who is Zhaohui? How did Vic become part of this? He is clearly into it. But how was he sucked in? Who is Tony Gang and Mr. Wang? Who is that person who participated at our conversation with Wang, who sat into the dark all along? Who is the mysterious woman getting in and out from the apartment across the hallway?”

All these questions made his head spin and he realized that the maze of connections between people who were part of this “game” was so intricate and obscure, so enigmatic, mysterious and mystic that it was impossible for him to decipher the message of the story. He finally understood that he has no other option but to fully trust Vic and Zhaohui. At this point, he felt like his hands were tightened up and he had to completely rely on his friends. One of Tony’s remarks came to his mind: “We are all the products of the past, John” and this was already bothering him…why do we have to go back into the past? Why the dying days of the Ming’s?” So many questions were popping up into his head, and so very few answers! Suddenly, he remembered an advice Scott gave him, using a Football analogy: “When your pocket doesn’t help you on the field, what do you do? You still have to win the game, right? How do you win it? You have your legs! If you have no pocket and you cannot throw the ball, you have to use your legs and try to get the first down, right? This is what you have to do there, John. Of course, instead of using your legs, you have to use your eyes and ears, you have to use your feel for people; you have to ask questions, you have to gain people’s trust”.

It was enlightening and John cracked a smile. “I guess I have to win this game without the help of my pocket. It will be hard, but at least I can try”.

John finished up his drink and headed for the bedroom. It was the moment when he physically dropped on the bed and fell asleep right away.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 23 (Tony Gang)

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 23

Tony Gang

Vic hailed for a taxi and in less than ten minutes they arrived in front of the building where Glenworth was located. Ironically, the same floor (27th) was the floor on which Glenworth Financial had its Chinese operations. The elevator took the two men up in a blink of an eye and while entering the office, John couldn’t help but notice that the layout was almost identical to the office back home in America. Same cubicles for the non-managerial staff and same layout (alongside the walls) for the Managers’ offices. Vic passed by Tony Gang’s office. The door was opened but he was not in.

-Ok. He is not in. I will introduce you to him later. Let me show you to your office now. At exactly the opposite side from Tony’s office, John got himself a nice place with a great view over the downtown and a portion of the Huangpu River. The furniture was hard wood, nothing special though. The blinds were up, thus letting the natural light to flood the office. For the guests, a sofa and a couple of arm chairs were placed around a table by the left wall. On the opposite wall, there was a library which had the shelves almost completely filled with binders. It looked to John that this room was a sort of storage room for the entire office and whoever was assigned to turn it into a working space didn’t quite finish. All those binders were supposed to be moved somewhere else and leave room for the new tenant to place his stuff. Vic pulled one of the chairs and invited John to have a sit at the guests table.

-Ok, I am setting you up with everything you need to know around here. In few minutes Vic set up John’s laptop, his temporary password for Windows and other Applications they were routinely using. Then, he pulled an access card out of his pocket. “You need to swipe this into elevator or it won’t stop at 27th floor. It is the same access card for the office and this is your office key”. Vic pulled a key from his pocket and handed it over to John alongside the access card. “The desk drawers are opened, you will find a key in one of the drawers which locks’em all. You are now set with your cell phone, laptop, access to office software (it is the same as what we have back home). I suggest you lock your drawers and your office door when you leave. The cleaning crew has a key to the office and they are instructed to close and lock all the office doors when they leave”.

-Thanks for doing all this leg work for me, Vic!

-Don’t mention it, John! I will help you as much as I can. Just take a piece of advice from me: take it easy. Life flows differently here than back in America. You have to blend in, otherwise you will be like one of those guinea pigs which walk on the wheel never to reach their destination.

-Thanks for all advises you gave me and for everything you do for me!

-Again…no sweat, man! Both men burst into laughter as John didn’t hear this expression in a long time.

-You didn’t forget the cool expressions from back home.

-How could I have forgotten’em? Remember? I used to bet on horses for God’s sake! You have no idea the kind of vocabulary you learn there!

-Hahaha! Yeah, you lost your shirt betting on horses!

-Hey, hey, hey…I made some cash on betting.

-Cash you lost aftermath. Hahaha!

-Well, I am not sure if I lost or I broke even, but now I am out of it. Vic stood up, headed for the window and exclaimed with great admiration: “What a view! You got yourself a really nice office, Mister!”

-Thanks to you, I guess.

-Actually Tony Gang insisted that you should have this one. We had an Account Manager (who quit few weeks ago) holding this room. Then, Tony made a deposit out of it – as you probably already figured out. Ok, I gotta go do some work. I will pick you up tonight again. We’ll dine somewhere to a place that’s not too expensive, a place that’s not too sophisticated, but where we’ll find good food. I will pick you up at 8pm; don’t make me come look for you again! Both men laughed and Vic headed for the door.

-Vic!

-Yes, John!

-How did you decide to go to Wang’s Restaurant today, at lunch?

-My fiancée suggested. I even forgot about this place, but when she mentioned it, I said: “Hey, why not? The food is good and it is on our way to the office”. John looked at Vic and a feeling that Zhaohui knew a lot more of Mr. Wang’s whereabouts crossed his mind.

-Fantastic! I will pick up the bill tonight.

-If you want…oh, by the way: I forgot to give you a Credit Card. It is company’s card and you have a five thousand dollar limit on it. There is an ATM machine down stairs into the Lobby. Your PIN is: 1234. I suggest you either call them (do this immediately) and change your PIN. You will need money for the Taxi anyways. I will leave early today – I have to take Zhaohui to the doc. Nothing major, don’t worry.

-Great! I will get set and probably in three-four hours I will leave too. It is three o’clock already. Let’s hope that Tony will drop by and directly introduce himself.

-I am so happy you are here, man! In a burst of sincerity, Vic shook John’s hand and hugged him as if they were two inseparable friends who were forced to live apart for too long. I will see you tonight.

-Yeah, take it easy now.

-Hahaha! You are telling me to take it easy! You learn fast, man! Vic turned around and made a “good bye” sign while walking out and disappearing into his office. He started right away writing an e-mail to Scott and J.J., giving the report on John’s first day in Shanghai, skipping of course all the little “adventures” John and him went through. Ultimately, Mr. Glenworth just wanted to know if John made it safely into Shanghai and has everything he needs in order to do his work.

After Vic left, John walked to the window and for few minutes he just stood there admiring the scenery. The bright light of that sunny fall afternoon was flooding his office, thus giving one the warm and inviting feeling to take a seat, to relax and simply watch the barges sail downstream Huangpu River towards the place where it will empty its waters into the Great Yangtze River, or just watch the vibrant life of the downtown, swarmed by cars and pedestrians. Either way, the view was magnificent: it showed not just a vibrant city, it showed a city of tremendous economic power, moved by business and entrepreneurship. Finally, John pulled the nice office chair he had, opened up his laptop and started going through the same material he went so many times back home. In his sub consciousness, he thought that now, being in China, he would solve the mystery of the funneled funds immediately. It was a sort of: “I am here, I know what I’m doing and I should be able to get to the bottom of this thing”. The reality was not even close to what he expected; same lame numbers which didn’t make sense with whatever J.J. presented during the big meeting, same positive trends shown by the market. Regardless, the graphs showed a deep into Glenworth’s financials in spite of all the new business picked up in China and America for the past two years.

When John hit again a dead end and wanted to call it a day, he realized that the office software Glenworth was using to run numbers and compile graphs and information, was much slower than whatever he was used to. Initially he thought it was an Internet connection and speed issue. He checked the speed and to his surprise, it was more than enough than whatever he needed to run the Program safely and rapidly. John raised his left eye browse, a gesture he was making when he didn’t have a logical answer to something, a gesture of doubt and confusion. He never liked these sort of situations, but now he felt like he had his hands tight. Not only he wasn’t able to figure out why the fund drainage is happening, but he was now facing a simple technical issue. “Ok, I will talk tonight with Vic”. He logged out and closed his laptop. Then he placed it into the top drawer of his office desk, grabbed the key and locked the desk. Carefully, he placed it onto the key chain where he was holding all other keys from back home. It was six thirty already and he was still planning to hit the gym for at least half an hour and take a shower before Vic was going to show up at eight. A slight knock into the door’s frame, made him startle. John raised his head and understood right away that the person who knocked and waited to be invited in, was Tony Gang. He was a middle age person, with a round face and a tanned skin; he was shaving his head but he kept a little goatee, one would wonder why? The hair into that goatee was scanty and soft. Eventually, John understood that the habit of smoothening that beard was one of the reasons Tony was keeping it. However, there was more than that into his gestures. It was a sort of proudness and haughtiness of growing that goatee beard, which John remarked right away. Tony’s face was all smiley, but that smile was a sort of pity smile, probably driven by the fact that he truly believed that John was just losing his time trying to decipher the mystery of lost funds. John captured this little detail too and smiled back. He learnt from J.J. that in business you have to master the way you cover your emotions, the way you make your interlocutor feel that he is superior, that he has the upper hand. “Ok, so looks like vanity is his weakness. Let’s play along and see what we can find out”.

Gang was of a medium height, but stocky and well built. One would say that he was overweight, but at a closer look, one would realize that his broad shoulders frame, his thick arms and neck and overall body profile were the attributes of a man who valued physical work or was practicing sports.

His brand name shirt, tie, pants and shoes showed a taste for high quality stuff which John couldn’t help but admire. “Well, I am dealing here with a gentleman who is all smile and who has apparently good intentions of cooperating. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I believe there is lots of hidden stuff underneath this nice gimmick and great attire”.

-You must be John Parker!

-And you must be Tony Gang!

-I am Tony Gang and I would like to say: “Welcome to China”, John…if I may call you John.

-Of course you can call me John. It is nice meeting you, Tony.

-Likewise, John. So, how was your first day in China? Tony’s oblique, slender eyes were scrutinizing his interlocutor like a laser, trying to find out everything, to the smallest detail. He was scanning John from head to toes, looking at his facial expressions, at his hands, at his posture, analyzing his attire and not lastly, looking straight into his eyes in an attempt to read his mind. John realized that he had a master of disguise in front of him, that Tony was very intelligent, cunning, crafty and slyly; he understood that he has to call upon his “A” game against Tony right from the beginning.

-It was very good. I settled and went out dinning last night with Vic. He was about to say: “with Vic and his fiancée” but he didn’t know if Tony knew of Vic’s endeavors and thus, he refrained from mentioning. He also stopped short from saying it, as a result of the fact that now he was in a self-preserving mode. Since he realized that Tony is a heavy weight fighter, he became very cautious on everything that was coming out of his mouth.

-Excellent! Where are you staying?

John was about to say the name of the hotel, but a glimpse of last night’s encounter on the hallway, made him to again avoid a straight answer. Instead, he changed the subject immediately.

-I thank you for this office, Tony. It is great! It has a wonderful view over downtown and especially over the Huangpu. I absolutely love it.

-Fantastic! I knew you would like it. Yes, Huangpu is the life line of this city as it has been for so many, many years. Shanghai is relatively new comparing to Nanjing, but its economic and strategical importance is by far superior to the old great capital of China.

-Nanjing was the old capital? When? When did the capital moved to Beijing?

-I can see that you have a curious mind and you are opened to learning new things, said Tony while smoothening his goatee. His voice was calm and the tone was smooth, the words were flowing quietly bringing the interlocutor at ease, giving him the impression that he was taken care of. John recognized right away the strategy Tony was employing and became even more alert. “What a crafty bastard!” said John to himself and from that point on, he was all eyes and ears.

-I have to admit that I don’t mind learning new things. For now, he diverted Tony’s curiosity on finding where he was staying. It was something that John in his sub consciousness felt like he had to keep to himself for now, away from Tony’s reach and curiosity.

-Well, where do we start? Are you familiar with the Ming Dynasty period? John startled and Tony’s fine sense of reading people, realized that.

-Just a little bit, from what I have read in the past or I saw in the TV. I know that it was a great period of economic and cultural achievements in China. John understood that he has to keep his guard as high as possible. Tony was watching every single detail of his face mimics, hands and posture expressions.

-In 1420, Chengzu Emperor moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing including his army, the court and ministries and starts building the Forbidden City. It was his desire to place himself in a safe place. Nanjing becomes again the capital in 1644, but just temporarily, as the rebels took Beijing.

-Thank you, Tony! Appreciate your little History lesson.

-Anytime you want, John. Anytime. Ultimately, we are all the products of the History, of what happened into the past, aren’t we? This question almost caught John off guard and involuntarily raised again his left eye browse. Looking straight into Gang’s eyes, John tried to investigate and figure out if he knew where he was staying and if he knew he had lunch at Wang’s restaurant. He was now asking himself if Tony was somehow part of the dark room event he and Vic were part of. It was so strange that both Wang and Gang were talking to him about the same period from China’s History with a particular emphasize on the dying moments of the Dynasty.

-I have to go now. I want to hit that gym, I will have dinner and then go to bed. I am tired. Probably the jet legging is still taking its toll on me.

-Absolutely! It must be that! I let you go now. Have a good night, John.

-You too Tony.

-By the way – Tony turned around as if he forgot something very important to mention to his interlocutor – I would like to invite you to dinner (whenever you are available). And I would also like to take you for a nice trip to Nanjing and Beijing eventually. I know quite a bit about these two little towns. He put up a large smile on his face and in spite of the fact that John was ready to leave the office, he was again occupying the whole opening of the door with his large frame waiting for an answer. It was getting dark into the office as the sun went down already. The obscure light that was still coming through the window was now falling right on Tony’s face. For the second time that day, a deformed face appeared in front of John’s eyes, a face which exhibited a strange sort of satisfaction and self-confidence. Again, John felt his hands all sweat and just an immense effort of self-controlling himself prevented him from drying his palms by grabbing the handkerchief from his pocket.

-Of course, Mr. Gang. We will have dinner sometime. I am not sure about the trip as I will be probably very busy for a while.

-Tony is my name…remember? He burst into a laughter and John saw an opportunity to get out of the uncomfortable situation by joining in. But his laughter was more like a shriek, more like a yell, a shout, something he has never done before. He understood that he got away without telling Tony where he was staying and without committing to any trip to Nanjing or Beijing.

-Alright. I see you tomorrow, Tony.

-Have a good night John! Don’t forget to lock the door.

John took Wong’s last sentence as a warning. He closed the door and locked it. Something felt really strange…he was missing something. “Damn, I didn’t take my suitcase from the hotel”. He took the elevator down, headed for the ATM machine and withdrew some cash. Scott warned him that he must have cash at any time in his pocket as Credit Cards don’t necessary work or are accepted everywhere. The trip to the hotel was short. The taxi driver was a short, skinny middle age person who apparently was smoking like a chimney. The car smelt like a smoking house and John couldn’t see himself out of there. At the hotel, he literally ran out of the car, gave the driver a hundred yuan and headed for the elevators. It was also late: seven thirty already. He didn’t want to be late again. “I am going to miss the gym again” said John to himself while getting into elevator. The hallway was quiet, but John’s curiosity beat the fact that he was trying to be punctual for dinner. He slowly approached his neighbor’s door and started listening. He thought he heard some music playing inside. Listening more carefully, John’s fine ear and sense for music realized that someone was actually chanting, or reciting lines from a poem as the rhythm was steady, even and rhythmical and was following a certain cadence. Also, a strange smell was coming out of the room; he right away recognized and identified the smell from last day, when he managed to look for a little while at the activity in the room. Now he was intrigued and wanted to know more about his neighbors. He wanted to know who they are, what they do, what sort of practices are they employing while burning that stuff which he did not recognize. The “cling” of the elevator made him realize that someone on that floor was coming and obviously it couldn’t’ve been anybody else but one of his two neighbors. Even if he would’ve made it to his door, he didn’t want to be seen, as from elevator there was a clear sight path to his door. He had to make a split second decision. By the end of the hallway there was a vending machine, so he decided to simulate a purchase. When he got to the machine, he realized that there was enough space between vending machine and the wall, so he hid himself in that space, while being all eyes and ears with whatever would happen on the floor. He was right…his neighbors across the hall were coming back to the apartment, or at least people they knew. Five double knocks on the door followed and John realized that that was a coded knocking as the knocking intervals were identical time wise. His curiosity reached a climax. Soon, the door opened and the guests entered, not before having a short conversation with the person who opened up. The voice of one of the guests sounded familiar. “Swear, I heard that voice before”…John was about to leave his hide-out, when his fine ears picked up a noise coming again from that direction. The door opened and while one person was walking out, another person (still inside) mentioned something in Chinese. This time, John recognized the voice of the woman who was standing in the dark while he was trying to fix the flickering light. Shortly, another person started walking towards the vending machine. John felt a torrent of cold sweat running down his spine. He even refrained from breathing. The sequence of making a purchase at the vending machine followed: cash in, selection, product dispense. John realized that a beverage was bought judging by the noise made by the falling container. All of a sudden, when he thought that the person would leave, he felt like a grenade just landed into his lap: the individual who just made a purchase spoke into a very good English, but with a heavy Chinese accent: “Did she ask for a diet or regular? Hmmm…why don’t I buy both, to be safe?” He chuckled, made another purchase and headed back to the apartment. Same routine followed: coded knocking, door opening and then silence. It was Tony Gang! John still spent another five minutes or so into his hide-out. When everything was settled, he got out and headed straight for his room. Carefully opened the door trying to not make a sound and got in. He then leaned against the door wiping his sweat with the back of his hand. Immediately looked at his wrist watch and realized that it was already eight o’clock. “Ok, no time for shower”. He opened up the door without trying to make a noise and headed towards elevators. Now he had Tony as his neighbor or friend of his neighbor. Vic was already in the Lobby. John could also see Zhaohui admiring a lemon tree which just blossomed and was spreading an out of this world perfume. When Vic grabbed her arm in a sign of: “we have to go” she was almost in state of transcendence, trying to fondle every flower with her eyes sight, trying to embrace the whole tree and call it “brother”. She startled and looked at Vic. Her look was the look of somebody who was just woken up from a meditating state of mind and was now making efforts to come back to reality. John’s fine sense of reading people’s faces picked up this little detail, adding it to the other three strange encounters of the day. It was a day to remember for sure. All three of them walked out and in a minute the taxi that was waiting for them headed to the place Vic or his fiancée picked. Same like last time, it was a place where one could have a nice dinner with the family or with the friends without living his shirt with the waiter or at the cashier. Again, they had a booth which was surrounded by fake trees and a fence made out of bamboo wood, which was giving an overall rustic look at the place and customers a sense of privacy. Lights were skillfully hidden into the fence so the customer wouldn’t see them and also between the branches of those fake trees “planted” into large pots. Once they were sited, John ordered right away a round of beers. Vic looked at him and realized that he didn’t even change the cloths he wore earlier. The two men looked at each other and John understood right away that he owed Vic some answers. He slightly bent his head in an affirmative way, thus telling Vic that they need to talk. In spite of the fact that John tried to make Vic understand this should stay between them, his friend pretended he did not understand and with a tone which showed a complete confidence in his fiancée, he asked John to tell them whatever he had in mind. At this point, John understood that from now on he has no other choice but to trust Zhaohui. Her slender eyes were now the shape of two knife blades, scrutinizing every emotion shown on John’s face, every gesture he was making. Once again, he felt like he was going through an interrogation, though a Purgatory where he was analyzed, weighed and placed into a certain category, a category he felt like he had nothing to do with. He looked again at Vic. Unfortunately, his friend had his head almost buried into the Menu, thus telling John that he either wants out of this, or John will have to share everything he wanted to tell him with Zhaohui. Finding himself into a situation with no end, he opened up and released everything he’s been through that afternoon. As the story was revealing, both Vic and his fiancée became more and more engaged into participating into events by virtually absorbing every word which was coming out of his mouth. At the end, Zhaohui placed both her hands on the table and while still looking John straight into his eyes, she said something which made both John and Vic startle.

-You need to move.

These words made John feel like he was hit with a hammer right into the back of his head, it was like the earth opened up and was ready to swallow him alive.

Why? What is wrong with him being there? So what if Tony Gang was his neighbor – or his neighbor’s friend?

-Why do I have to move? His tone was almost abrasive, angry and investigative.

A long silence followed up his question. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations he’s been into. Neither Vic nor Zhaohui were willing to say something, so John felt like it was his duty to break the ice and do whatever was necessary to make the atmosphere friendly and pleasant again.

-Why do I have to stay away from Tony? Who is this guy anyway?

Another round of deep silence followed, at which point John started to be afraid. He didn’t know exactly why, but the two episodes of unusual behavior from his interlocutors made him retreat into defense, into a self-preserving mode. This whole endeavor, the strange situations he’s been through in just twenty four hours, the things he just couldn’t comprehend and understand, took a toll on him already. His instinct was telling him to back up and wait for things to clear up. But his competitive and fighting nature prevailed. He was not going to give up fighting before the battle even started! That’s for sure!

-I guess I need an answer from you two guys…

-Beers, Sir! Want to order? The waiter came at a moment at which the tension between them was reaching its peak. It was like a safety valve of a pressure vessel kicked in and released the built up steam, released the tremendous forces accumulated into a boiling container.

-Yes, we would like to order. What do you recommend some hungry folks should have for dinner? What your specialties are?

Vic picked up the vibe on the fly and in an impeccable Chinese ordered without asking everybody else at the table what would they want to eat. It was a moment when all three of them released a sigh of relief, a sigh of easiness and disengagement a suspiration which saved the night. John and Zhaohui were still looking at each other in a way which one would say it was confrontational, hostile, adverse and abrasive. However, still a warm trusty feeling was floating in the air and the actors were just waiting for something to happen, for some positive energy to take over and relief the tension.

-Did he tell you anything else besides explaining why the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing?

-No. But he did invite me to take a trip with him to see these two cities.

-You didn’t mention it when you told us the story.

-Oh…sorry, I obviously missed it. Why is this so important? Once again Zhaohui’s eyes turned into blade sharp shapes and John felt one more time how he was scrutinized and weighed.

-Because Gang does not do anything without a purpose, without using all the tools he has on hand (especially people) to achieve his goals. He wants to have you close to him for a longer period of time to find out what you want, why you are here (probably he already figured out by now), what are your weaknesses, what are your strengths, how he can manipulate you in order to divert your attention towards dead ends.

-Wow…J.J. warned me and during the short conversation I had with Tony last night, I figured out he is sneaky, well versed in reading people and very crafty.

A large smile flooded her face. Zhaohui pointed her index finger towards John and with a calm and balanced voice said:

-John, I believe you are the right person for this job. J.J. is lucky to have you on his side.

-Thanks, Zhaohui. Appreciate. But I will need big time help from you two guys.

-That’s why we are here, discussing this thing. John realized that for a while, Vic hasn’t been saying a word. He refrained himself at reading the Menu in spite of the fact that the orders were already placed.

-So…I believe that both of you or at least one, was planning to tell me something. John looked straight into Vic’s fiancée eyes. He realized that Vic made a step back, leaving his future wife to do the honors and answer John’s questions. Zhaohui turned her hands with the palms facing the ceiling and with a jovial and cheerful (this time) voice asked John:

-What’s the rush? We have time. Let’s eat first.

He understood that he has to slow down, to pick up the pace at which people function in this country, that he cannot rush things as the output would’ve probably been different from what he expected.

-Sure. I am hungry like a wolf. Both Vic and John burst into a big and healthy laughter, accompanied by Zhaohui. John couldn’t help but notice her beautiful, crystalline tone which gave up a person with a talent for singing.

-I told you! You gotta’ stop using my line!

-Alright, Sir! I promise, not to use it again.

The atmosphere was now relaxed, cheerful, joyful and sociable. At the same time, the dinner showed up and soon, all three of them became fully concentrated on meal only. From time to time, Zhaohui was explaining the kind of dishes brought at the table, where they originated, how were made and what other dishes from different Provinces would be similar to what they have on the table. Overall, the dinner was great, they told lots of jokes and John started picking up bits and pieces of Chinese humor.

The meal was great and all three of them felt like the time they spent together around the table was time well spent, was time in which their friendship strengthened and was taken to a different level: to a complete trust status. At the end, while waiting for their desserts, Zhaohui started telling the story which John was waiting for so anxiously…her voice was clear and well balanced, was melodious and soft, thus keeping ones attention tuned to the subject

-That April twenty fifth of 1644 was unusually warm. The lemon, the cherry and the mandarin trees were all blossomed into Imperial Garden. There was so much peace, tranquility and quietness in the garden and the lemon flowers were smelling like they were from a different world. At this point, John couldn’t help himself but startle. He remembered the gimmick on her face when she was admiring the blossomed lemon tree in the Lobby of the hotel. Also, she was speaking in a way which would give one the impression that she was there. His heart was now pumping blood at a rate he felt like would explode. Are all these personages: Mr. Wang, Tony Gang and Zhaohui linked somehow together to the last days of the Ming Dynasty? Are they time travelers? His American background, Western education and rationality made him calm down and take a deep breath. “No way, man! Nobody is travelling through time all the way from 1644!” He sketched a little smile and was again all eyes and ears at her story.