Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 35 (The dream of an October’s evening)

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 35

The dream of an October’s evening

As the day was coming to a conclusion, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was particularly beautiful. Something was making it different from all the other days when she visited and meditated here. It was probably the fact that in that early October day, the sun was still generously releasing its warmth over the city while the shadows of the evening were splendidly encompassing the leaves colored in a pallet of a myriad shades and hundreds of tonalities and blends. The birds were relentlessly chirping and singing in a symphony of unmatchable tunes and unimaginably diverse musical keys. That evening was special indeed and one could say that God was in a very good mood of making the surroundings beautifully blend with the color of the leaves and the birds singing, while people were carefully watching and listening to his majestic creation. It looked like the nature was trying to get a last full breath of summer before the winter would set and a last glimpse of a superb spectacle of music, sounds, colors and nuances represented the fourth movement of a well-orchestrated symphony.

The noise of the galloping horses was slowly reaching the Garden. The Humble Administrator’s fine ears picked up the echo and startled. With a firm gesture, he ordered one of the bodyguards to run and check with the guards who were on watch in the towers. In the meantime, another set of orders generated a rampage inside of the Garden…a swarm of people came out of nowhere and started picking up the precious china vases, silk fabrics, cloths, pillows and bed covers and run towards a place which seemed to be an escape route as it was dug into the close by hill. The precision at which everybody was moving, showed that dry runs were done before as nothing was chaotic, random or in disarray.

The old man was now standing in front of the water fall which with a nice and melodic whisper was greeting the visitors entering the kiosk and then the garden itself. His tanned skin was contrasting with his long white goat beard, beard he was smoothening with calculated and slow motions. His small, oblique eyes were as sharp as the eyes of a badger, betraying a highly intelligent and educated man. He was keeping his hands joined together in front of him and one could see that they were small and delicate thus telling the interlocutor that he was not used with the physical labor or with the art of handling war weapons. Everything about this old man transpired peace, study, intelligentsia and academic achievements. His small stature was emphasized even more by the fact that his back was bent from the middle section, showing a man at a very respectable age. However, the way he was moving around and giving orders to the servants, showed an individual still highly active and energetic, showed a man which in spite of his age was as sharp intellectually and physically as a young man.

Beside him, a girl was playing with her toys. She was probably twelve years old and was dressed in an all-white silk suite with green jade buttons closing her tunic. The hair was long and dark and the eyes equally black and vivid, full of life and energy. From time to time, the old man was stroking her hair, in a sign of respect, pure love and untainted affection, denoting deep and meaningful ties with the girl or her family.

-Where do they all go, Teacher?

The old man startled and looked the girl straight into the eyes. There was so much affection, love, respect and in the same time fear into the old man’s eyes that the girl started weeping. Something in her child soul was telling her that they were in danger and bad things would happen to her and the Teacher.

The guard sent by the old man to check the source of the noise came back accompanied by two strangers, two westerners (judging by their cloths and by their faces). They were full of blood and sweat while their cloths were bearing multiple cuts, showing that they have been through some sort of fight. Beside them, a little girl, probably two or three years younger than the girl who was calling the old man “Teacher” was trying hard to hide a severe injury and not cry from pain. Her left arm was cut and the bandages she was wearing in that area, were soaked in blood.

Both old man and the girl from the Garden jumped to hug her, showing an affection hard to imagine if they were not blood related. The old man had tears into his eyes and didn’t know anymore how to hug both little girls at once.

-Teacher…Teacher…It was one of the two men who was trying to communicate that they are running out of time. He was tall, thin, with a tanned face and grizzled hair. One would say that he was in his fifties. In spite of the fact that he was thin at the first sight, the cuts on his shirt were reveling a muscular individual, a man used with the sword or lance fight, a man who had been through lots of hardship in his life, a man who was bearing on his body the results of a tumultuous life spent mostly in battles. Three healed wounds on his face showed that once, three deep vertical sword cuts struck him.

The man standing beside him, was a young, tall individual, with the stature of a wrestler. His broad shoulders and thick arms was revealing a man who was valuing physical activities and judging by the fact that he also had a deep cut on his forehead, one would safely assume that he was used with the sword fight as well. The cut was fresh, as his whole face was covered in blood; the sweat and the dust from the riding did him a favor and patched the wound. However, his tanned skin and the height, his dark short cut hair and the fresh wound, his athletic build and the fire power of his eyes were all working together in presenting to the audience a superb warrior.

-Teacher…we are running out of time. Just the two of us escaped the ambush. The Emperor gave us twenty guards. They are all dead. We killed most of the attackers, but more of them will come as those few who escaped will get back to the peasants camp. I am sure Li Zicheng will send more troops. We need fresh horses. We must leave now. We have to make it to Shanghai port. Our ship is docked there. Emperor’s order is to take the girls to a Monastery in Canton.

At that time, the Garden was also serving as a fortress and was surrounded by walls with watch towers. One could see the two horses the men rode: they were covered in a white and red foam, telling the viewer the story they had recently been through a fight and many miles of galloping. Their black skin was now mostly covered with their sweat and the enemy’s blood. The horse keepers were wiping the sweat off of their skin; their legs were shaking like the leaves into the wind showing that they had been through a rough and prolonged galloping.

-Changping needs a doctor. She lost lots of blood.

The old man looked at the guard and with a still calm voice asked him to get his personal doctor. It took little time before an old man carrying a sort of wooden case showed up and skillfully removed the bandages and started cleaning the wound. He gave the girl a drink and asked her to swallow it. The pain stopped immediately and a sense of relaxation and even a smile showed up on her little face. The older girl was holding her sister (one would assume) in her arms and was trying to console her. The Teacher looked at the two men and with the sharpness of his eyes asked a mute question, a question the two men were hoping that they were never asked. They both put their heads down, in a sign that they do not feel like answering. A long and overwhelming silence followed. One could hear a pin drop if that happened. When the two warriors raised their heads, they saw an old man who looked like he was bent even more from the hips, they saw an old man in tears, an old man who lost the spark from his eyes, who lost his will to live. Without them answering the muted question, the Teacher understood that the little girl defended herself from a sword strike. It was the strike of her father, the Emperor, who rather had her dead than captured by the peasants. Luckily, the two men were in the room. They covered her with their bodies and begged the Emperor not to kill her. The two men were Portuguese merchants who were doing business with the Imperial Court. Their advice were highly regarded by Chongzhen Emperor. He spared the girl’s life and ordered them to take her to a monastery in the South.

By clapping his hands twice, the Teacher gave few short orders. Immediately another doctor showed up accompanied by few women carrying a couple of basins with warm water. The two men took their shirts off and one could actually see the multiple cuts they had on their upper bodies as trademarks of the fight they had just been through.

The skillful hands of the women carefully washed the wounds; it was the time when the doctor took over by carefully sprinkling something which would look like being crushed dried plants. Every single cut was analyzed and immediately treated. After a short wait, his small but proficient hands started closing the wounds with a needle and strings barely visible to the naked eye. One would realize right away that he had done this activity many times before as in a short while the gashes from the cuts were limited to a simple thin line represented by the stitches of the seam. Another powder was sprinkled on top of now closed wounds. With a calm yet demanding voice, the doctor asked them to lie down and rest.

-We do not have time for resting! The older of the two men stood and in few seconds he put the shirt and the tunic back on, checked his sword and the three daggers he was carrying into individual scabbards at the belt and checked the two pistols hanging from the same thick waist leather belt.  Another shorter sword (tucked into the scabbard held on his back by another leather belt) was the last piece of an impressive arsenal he was wearing. The younger fella’s war attire was similar except that he had five daggers at the belt and two shorter swords on his back, swords which at any time were forming an “X” sign, showing this way the fact that they could’ve been easily withdrawn with both hands simultaneously. Both main swords of these men had a wide, curved blade towards the end and one would say that something like this was the trademark of the pirates. Amazingly, into the short time they had to treat their wounds, the women cleaned up their cloths, washed them, dried them up and sewed or patched the multiple sword cuts they were bearing.

-We thank you for your help, but we must leave now! By sun set, they will be back with reinforcements. She comes with us! It is the order of the Emperor. Both girls will be hosted by the same monastery in Canton. For now, we cannot tell you where. If one day you need to find them, you have to look for us. Our ship always docks in Shanghai when we are in China. You have to ask for “Esperanza” – this is her name. More details on how to reach us, you can get from Dewei Wang. He owns a tavern right at the docks. It is called: Black Swan. He is a good friend of ours…You have to hide now. They know who you are and they will kill you. These walls won’t last long. You must hide!

The eyes of the old man were flooded with tears in that moment. He was holding both girls close his chest and was gently stroking their black hair. Without fully knowing what was going on, the older girl understood that the situation was grave and gloomy, that something big happened. Her sister showed up with a severed arm, carried on a horse by one of the two warriors who were as well covered in blood and riddled by wounds. In a moment of sincerity, or maybe a moment of self-preservation, the two girls hugged each other so hard, that it took the old warrior some time to be able to separate them. The horses were ready. One with a keen eye for horses would’ve realized right away that these two exemplars were bred for running over long distances. Their legs were not that slim and tall as those that brought the girls and the warriors to the Garden. Their chest muscles, the back legs, the neck and the middle section area made the two warriors whistle of admiration. They were superb to say the least; their black, well maintained skin, tails and manes were showing that the grooms did not spare any resources to make them shine and shimmer when taken out of the stables.

-It is time! We must go! The voice of the older of the two solders was firm and commanding. Both men were already in the saddles. The old man hugged the girls for the last time. It was a moment when one would compare the three of them with a majestic tree and two of its offshoots. The tears coming out of the old’s man eyes were falling on the heads of the girls, while the girls were accompanying their tutor with sincere child’s tears of emotion as they understood that they have to say good bye.

It was again the older warrior who un-saddled and grabbed the girls by their waist and carried them to the horses. He handed the younger one to his partner and jumped onto the back of his horse while still holding the older girl. The gates opened up and the sailors stormed out of the Garden in the sounds of a frantic galloping and an array of sparks from the horses’ steel shoes hitting the stone paved alley. The old man stretched his hands towards the direction the horses were heading, while the two girls turned around in the saddles and with a last gesture of god bye, screamed from the bottom of their lungs: “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”

Zhaohui startled and with the back of her hand wiped the sweat which was now running all over her forehead and down her temples, only to join around the chin and then drop into her lap. This was for the first time when two sisters showed up into her dreams. Until now, each time she was meditating in the garden, only pleasant dreams came along: a girl playing into the garden, chasing the swans, feeding the fishes, walking around and listening to the Teacher. Now, the dream turned into a nightmare: battle horses, warriors, blood, a brutal departure and an unexpected farewell said to the Teacher. She jumped on her feet and looked towards the direction Vic and John were sitting. She grabbed her temples with her palms, thus trying to slow down the heart rate which was making her vanes pulsate at a high rate. She was still sweating buckets and her eyes became as sharp and thin like a steel blade. One would say it was a cry of helplessness and uncertainty, a cry of unforeseen trouble and challenges. Slowly, she approached the two friends. John turned around and with a voice as frightened as the voice of a grown man can be, exclaimed:

-Jesus…!  Zhaohui, are you OK? Vic’s voice betrayed a deep concern and for good reasons: his fiancée was still under a deep state of distress. Her face was pale, the lips were murmuring something nobody could understand and the eyes had a glimpse of fear in them (which for somebody who knew her), was totally uncharacteristic. John was terrified! The change Zhaohui went through in a matter of probably half an hour, was ineffable…the well-known cold sweat running down his spine made its presence known yet again. A pale Zhaohui, a woman with a vague and undecided look into her eyes was now gazing at them both. It was something John could not bare anymore, so he turned his head to the side and thus avoided the eye contact with her.

-I’m OK, I’m OK…sorry Vic, sorry John! I got a bit carried away by the dream…it is late, let’s go now. In half an hour will be dark.

The ride back to Shanghai was uneventful, which gave John the opportunity to think at the events of his first Sunday in China. As much as he wanted to remember the gorgeous landscape of the Gardens, the multitude of leaves’ colors, the myriad of nuances coming from a perfect blending between water, vegetation, rocks and living things, he simply couldn’t help his memory but going back to Zhaohui’s face when coming out from the Garden. The extent of metamorphosis which took place while she meditated was incredible to say the least. From a calm, balanced, self-mastered individual, she changed into a woman whose eyes were betraying wavering and hesitating gestures. “What was that dream about which made her change so drastically? It is unbelievable how fast and at what sort of content she managed to turn the page! Completely different person! What was the dream about?” This question tormented his thoughts all the way back to Shanghai. While driving back, a heavy and uncomfortable feel of wariness encompassed all three of them. Zhaohui was in the back seat holding her head between her palms. Vic was keeping his eyes completely focused on the road and never felt like saying a word, cracking a joke or even open up a small talk with John. His friend was once again asking himself questions on his role in this endeavor, on Zhaohui’s transformation after meditating, on whether or not is the appropriate time to tell his friends about his neighbors. John felt like the more questions he was asking, instead of getting answers, more questions were popping up. “I am like a gunny pig on the wheel! No matter how many steps I make, the wheel is just spinning, it takes me nowhere. I have to break the shaft and make the wheel roll forward! That’s it! When we get to the hotel, I will tell them last night’s story! Maybe it is related to Zhaohui’s recent state of mind and whatever she went through in the Garden. Everything is related to everything in this country!”

-Guys, let’s go upstairs and have a drink. I need to tell you something. John decided that he should share his last night’s experience with his friends. When passing the lobby area, all three of them involuntarily turned their heads towards the direction where the heavenly smell of the lemon flowers was so profound and yet so discrete and delicate that one couldn’t have passed by without noticing it. Once inside of the apartment, something strange happened: all three of them headed straight for the window and for few minutes nobody said a word. The eyes of the three friends were now completely captured by the great show of the silhouettes sliding down or upstream Huangpu, a show which never ends, a show that’s been continuously running for many centuries, a spectacle of light at night, a theater play which has been and still is quintessential in bringing together the synergies of the Upper and Lower China. It was very quiet in the room and if a pin would drop, one could hear its “ding”. John slowly moved back (trying not to disturb his friends) and headed for the kitchen. Turned on the light, grabbed a bottle of wine and poured the red liquid into the glasses.

-I just assumed that everybody will have wine. Any other preferences?

His question made Vic and Zhaohui startle. They turned around and with a hand sign saying: “it’s OK with us, whatever you have on hand” left the window area and headed back towards the couch. John placed the glasses in front of them, waited for his guests to sit and then took a sit into the closest arm chair. A friendly “cheers” came out of their chests and for few minutes everybody kept quiet, this time simply trying to enjoy the scent of the grape vine flowers which was coming out of the glasses in a bouquet of aromas hard to describe.

 

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Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 34 (Suzhou Gardens – Humble Administrator’s Garden)

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 34

Suzhou Gardens – Humble Administrator’s Garden

 When the cell phone went off, John realized that it was already late and Vic and Zhaohui might’ve already been waited for him in the Lobby.

-Hey, how you doin’, man?

-I am doing fantastic! Ready? It’s a gorgeous day outside.

-Actually I was still sleeping when you called.

-Oh, I am sorry, John! Should we come later and pick you up? Do you still want to go see the Gardens? This time of the year the colors are absolutely splendid.

-Of course I want to go, but I need to get ready. Come on up, don’t wait in the Lobby.

-OK. We’ll be there in few minutes.

-I will unlock the door. Just get in and make yourself at home. You can even make coffee for us if you want.

-Great! I will see in a few.

John headed for the shower in spite of the fact that he was half asleep. Yesterday’s events were still fresh into his mind. As the water was running down onto his body, he started getting into the “ready” mood, the state of mind he was always beginning his days with. As usual, a quick cold water run at the end, made him completely come out of his sleepy mode and gave him that energy boost which was always bringing good and fresh ideas for the day in front of him, which was always guiding him on setting priorities.

He quickly dried himself out, put on a pair of jeans, a thick fleeced V-shaped T-shirt and a pair of sneakers.

In the living room, Vic was making coffee, while Zhaohui was admiring the panoramic view of the Huangpu and downtown Shanghai.

-Good morning, guys!

-Good morning, John! Did you sleep well? Zhaohui’s face was radiant and her almond shaped eyes were radiating such a great level of happiness that made John reconsider his initial thought of telling them of his last night encounter with his neighbors. “I am not going to ruin her happiness! She is obviously so excited that we are going to see the Gardens! I will for sure talk to Vic tomorrow. I have to tell them. Zhiming mao threatened me and it is clear that we are playing into different teams”

-Coffee is ready! Vic was rubbing his hands against each other with a deep feeling of satisfaction imprinted on his face. Your tea is done too, Zhaohui.

-Thanks, Vic!

-Thank you, man! Now, let’s assess the quality of your product!

-Don’t you dare say anything wrong about my coffee making talents!

The room filled up right away with a sincere and healthy laughter, with a great joy and heartfelt friendship.

-Would you two guys mind if I have my tea by the window?

-No, not at all, Zhaohui! That is my favorite spot too. Especially at night…it is so beautiful! I like to watch the barges slipping downstream into the night. Their lights into the night are captivating, in spite of the fact that they are competing against the city’s illumination.

Zhaohui looked straight into John’s eyes. Her sight was so intense and profound, was so daring and bold, that made John almost swallow his Adam’s apple. Her eyes were acting like two laser beams trying to pierce a thick iron shield, trying to penetrate John’s soul and mind all the way to its last hidden spot.

Realizing that she put John into an unusual situation, she apologized immediately.

-I’m sorry John. I didn’t mean to be so intruding.

-That’s alright, Zhaohui. We both love that spot. It is magic, indeed.

-Which spot? What are you two guys talking about?

-Nothing…both Zhaohui and I like the view from that large window.

-Yes, it is a great view, I have to admit. Now let’s have a coffee.

That being said, John and Vic took a seat on the couch and started chit-chatting, bringing to the surface memories of the office life back in America, memories of parties at the local pubs during a football game, or just memories of the good old times when they were much younger. Zhaohui was simply too absorbed in watching the great spectacle Huangpu was offering on a Sunday morning, to even bother listening to what the guys were saying. She took a seat into the nice, comfortable chair and sank her eyes into the waters of the river which was part of so many centuries of hardship during the great Imperial Chinese history.

One hour passed by so fast, that all three of them felt like it was just five minutes ago when Vic and Zhaohui made it to the apartment. Eventually Vic looked at the clock on his cell phone and jumped on his feet:

-It is getting late. If we want to see all the gardens, we have to leave now.

-Great, then let’s move!

Zhaohui turned her chair around and in a heartbeat was on her feet. One could see that she was sad for not being able to watch the spectacle below anymore, but in the same time her face was radiating from the fact that they were heading to Suzhou to visit the Gardens. It was something that she and Vic were doing as often as they had a chance, or when they felt tired and worn out. For Zhaohui, the gardens always represented an immense reservoir of energy, of life, of optimism and drive to move on. She has seen them many times, in different seasons. But every time she was coming back, she felt like she discovered something new, she felt like a small portion of her heart was left there, among the water lilies and lotus flowers.

While locking the door of the apartment, John couldn’t help but throwing a peak at his neighbors’ door. It was shut and no movement or noise was coming out of there.

All the booths which were selling tickets were very busy and huge lineups were formed around the gates. Vic got in line and with a resigned shrug of the shoulders signaled to his friend and fiancée that they have no choice but to wait in line like everybody else or come back next week at an earlier time.

All of a sudden, Zhaohui headed towards one of the volunteers responsible with directing the crowds and managing the orderly entrance into the gardens. It was one of her students. They shook hands and an unstoppable flow of greetings followed from both sides. Zhaohui’s interlocutor was a girl in her teens, who managed to catch John’s attention through her beautiful, large smile. The glasses she was wearing were a little too large for her face, but the overall look showed a girl determined to succeed in her life through hard work and willpower. Shortly after encounter, Zhaohui made a discreet sign to John. Initially, John didn’t know how to react, but realized right away that the girl Vic’s fiancée was chatting with, would be able to get them in without lining up. John hesitated, as his mind and his training, his professional and moral structure would’ve never had agreed to cut off in line and get ahead of somebody. But Zhaohui insistently was pointing towards Vic. John turned around and grabbed Vic by the sleeve.

-Apparently your fiancée wants to tell you something.

Vic turned his head and in few seconds understood exactly what Zhaohui was signaling.

-She found a way in, without us lining up.

-I don’t want to be special!

-Fortunately, it’s not up to you. We have an easier way in and it is perfectly legal and moral. Is this OK with you? John was stunned!

-How is this morally acceptable to get ahead of everybody else who is lining up and is waiting for his or her turn to get in?

-You’ll see. Come and stop asking questions, man! We are already late. The days are shorter this time of the year.

John put his head down (in a sign that he was ashamed of what he was doing) and simply followed Vic towards the direction where Zhaohui was still chatting with the girl she met. He shook hands and once again, he had the chance to admire a beautiful and innocent smile.

-OK. Fantastic arrangement: she will be our guide inside.

-Our guide? You guys had visited these gardens probably a hundred times! Why do you need a guide?

-John, let me tell you something: you have to put this into your mind: in China everything is possible if you know somebody or you know how to use the system. And it doesn’t have to necessary be illegal or immoral. But you must know the system.

-OK, smart guy…then tell me how are you using the system to get us ahead of everybody who is lining up here and still be legal or at least moral?

-I will tell you how: we are here for the first time and we need a guide to explain to us the history of these gardens, how they were built, who built them, and so on. And because we need a guide, we will pay a premium price for the tickets. The Gardens are making some extra cash and we get in faster. Understood?

-You were here before, you know these gardens better than the guide!

-Pardon! Nobody knows that. The system is telling us that if we take a guide and we pay a premium, we can cut off into the line. Simple like that!

John shook his head and dropped his chin again, mutely telling Vic that he is not buying his story and he still believes that they should’ve lined up like everybody else. Vic looked for few seconds at his friend’s face and while grabbing the back of John’s neck with his hand, he looked deeply into his eyes and said:

-John, my friend…please promise me that you will never move to China. John startled and while looking Vic straight into his eyes, asked him:

-Why are you making me promise something like this?

-Because this country will eat you alive, man! Will eat you alive.

-Alright gentlemen, let’s get in. Ah Lam will be our guide. Zhaohui’s voice was crystal clear and was exuberating from such a joy that made John completely give up his qualms of conscience and simply joined in, making Vic take a breath of fresh air and sigh peacefully.

This time of the year, the Gardens were astonishing! The multitude of different colored leafs starting with the green of the conifers, the hot red of the maple trees and then to the specific yellowish of the oaks, made this spectacle of nuances a festival of colors, a festival of joy and admiration towards the power and the beauty of the Mother Nature. John was stunned by the beauty in front of him, but mostly he was dazed by the way the architects managed to blend the nature with the human touch, the way the fish ponds and the waterfalls were speaking to the huge stones brought by the masons to simulate the mountains, the way the outstanding red pagodas were overseeing the landscape eventually ending up by whispering into the ears of the colorful fishes which cautiously were taking cover between the leafs of the royal lotus and water lily flowers.

The guide was doing her job and was explaining the way the architects built the nine Gardens, the way each of them was envisioned, the period in which was built and what was its main significance, meaning, purpose and of course the story which led to building it. John was listening very carefully, like a kid taken into a trip to a place he loved, like a scholar listening to the favorite teacher. In his eyes, the way the architects managed to marry the nature and the man made features of the Gardens, was impressive to say the least.

Two hours passed by when they realized that they had barely seen four out of the nine Gardens. It was already two a ’clock in the afternoon and all four of them increased the pace. Every Garden had something different, something that was making it unique, yet making it an integral part of the whole assembly.

-Last one, announced Ah Lam.

-Great, it is already getting dark.

-Vic, John…if you want you can go ahead and wait for me at the exit. I need to meditate a little by the water fall.

John was shocked! “She needs to meditate!” Vic saw the expression on his friend’s face and quickly came with an answer which removed any sort of wonder from John’s physiognomy.

-She has a favorite spot here, inside of Humble Administrator’s Garden, a place where she likes to meditate in front of a water fountain. It’s OK, Zhaohui…we will wait for you by the pond. We will look at the fishes while resting a bit. We’ve been walking for more than three hours.

-Thank you Vic, I appreciate your understanding. Ah Lam, we thank you very much for your help, it’s been a delight to learn from you things I actually never knew. There is no point for you to wait for us. This is the last Garden and we will be out of here in fifteen minutes probably.

-I thank you for the opportunity. You have a good night now! Ah Lam bent from the middle, in a sign of respect towards her teacher and then towards John and Vic. The two men replied identically and soon, the cute girl they had as a guide disappeared into the dusk, as the wonderful Sunday they spent together was preparing to say goodbye and go to sleep as well.

Vic grabbed his friend’s arm and together headed for the pond. John couldn’t help but turn his head back. The wooden kiosk they were crossing was opened all around; It was ingeniously built with wooden blinds at the windows, which on a rainy day could’ve been closed and thus protect the people inside. Zhaohui was already into a lotus position facing the water fall, and in few seconds became a part of the masonry which was surrounding that particular part of the courtyard. This time John didn’t ask himself: “Why is she picking that particular spot from all the options she had? Why this particular Garden? Why does she have to meditate?” During these few days since he stepped onto Chinese soil, he went through so many strange situations, that one more wouldn’t’ve made a difference anyway. He took a sit beside Vic on one of the wooden benches by the pond and deepen his eyes into the water which was taming with fishes; the abundance of aquatic plants provided a perfect playground and habitat for them, a habitat masterly designed and maintained by Suzhou Gardens.

In no time he felt so relaxed and at ease, so happy and detached from this world that his mind completely forgot about last night’s encounter with the neighbors, about his plan to tell Vic and Zhaohui what happened. The eyes of his imagination started wandering again through places he has never been before, through places which were at first sight strange to him, but felt so alive and familiar, so colorful and sweet-scented. “Why do I have the feeling that I know these gardens, that I know this particular one? This is so strange, but it feels so good! It is almost like I have been here before, that I did spend some time here in this garden and that everything is known to me” John shook his head in a sign that he wanted to come back to reality. Vic was not sitting on the bench anymore. He was on his knees by the pond and was making waves in the water, playing with the fishes. Amazingly, the game he started was happily shared by the numerous Koi fishes in the pond and soon two kids joined him in that wave making endeavor. John looked at his friend and smiled…”he has the heart of a kid”

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 33 (The Neighbors)

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 33

The neighbors

Once he reached his floor, he decided to not even look at his neighbors’ door – as he was usually doing it. There was a little problem though: this time, the door was cracked open again. His insatiably curiosity made him look. For the first few minutes, he limited his curiosity to taking a peek inside – as much as the opening of the door allowed him. However, there was not much to see…the place where the large man was doing his meditation was empty, but the white tatami he was using was still in the same place, on the ground. The same unknown to him scent hit his nostrils. The smell was so powerful yet delicate, noble and intriguing that made John push the door open even more. Now he had a better view of the whole living room. As the room was almost dark (just partially lit by few candles), John realized that the layout was similar to his apartment. Soon, he figured out that those burning candles were releasing the smells which for now were completely making his mind forget about the dream, forget about his desire to end the adventure and the investigation. But in the same time these unknown scents, unwillingly were luring him to venture into a territory he did not know, into a land he would rather avoid stepping onto, a land made of quick sands ready to swallow you at the first mistake you were making. He wiped the sweat which was flooding his forehead with his sleeve and decided to enter. First few steps were similar to the steps a cat makes when in a hunt for a mouse…cautious, very slow paced, with large timing intervals between them. Judging by the movements he was making, one would say that John was a professional criminal entering a future murder scene. He was slowly advancing towards the center of the room when the dancing shadows on the walls, magnified by their own reflections into the large window, made him stop. A large and strange thing was hanging against the wall. John couldn’t figure out what was it, but the size of it made him tremble with fear. The lights were dancing like ghosts while the scents in the room were making his sense of smell play mind games on him. His whole attention was now focused on the immense dark spot on the wall. His initial guess was that it was a hunting trophy. However, the playful shadows were enticing his mind to think at mystic scenarios; the doubt and the fear were now encompassing his judgement. All of a sudden, a noise came from the bathroom area. He realized that when he entered the apartment, he ignored a light which was curiously stretching underneath the bathroom door. He turned around. There was somebody in the bathroom and judging by the noise coming out of there, the person was taking a shower. His attention was now completely switched towards that direction. There was so much mystery lurking around: an opened door, a hanging creature on the wall and a person taking a shower! All these, made John grasp for air while still standing in the middle of the living room.

Unexpectedly, the bathroom door opened up. A woman wrapped into a magnificently embroidered silk bath robe was now standing into the door frame, playing with her long black hair. In a swift yet delicate motion, she brought her beautiful flowing hair on one of the shoulders, so most of it was now running down her left shoulder and resting over her left chest. The robe was so light that all her forms were revealed. The roundness of her breasts, the tightness of the waist and the slim shape of her thighs were now playing a magnificent spectacle in front of John’s eyes. With delicate and flowing motions, she continued to strike her hair, apparently in an attempt to make it softer, to make it more appealing and sexier to the viewer. She knew exactly how to tickle John’s imagination. It was the mysterious woman he met on the night when he checked in, the same woman he greatly admired in the restaurant at the breakfast. Even now, when she was barely wearing clothing, John couldn’t help but notice that all her gestures and movements were carefully paced, measured and methodically repeated under a set timing and rhythm. John could see the water running into the shower cabin and he figured out that the woman was preparing to get in. Slowly, she turned around, dropped the robe and entered the cabin enticingly leaving the door open. The water started running down her shoulders and soon a white wave of body shampoo foam (which was magnificently contrasting with her tanned skin), made its way onto the shoulders, then encompassed the hips, kissed the buttocks, and finally circled around the thighs and the legs. It looked like a white snake was trying to wrap her shoulders into his coils and then was working his way down her body slowly grabbing her hips with a vice like grip. The smell of that shampoo, hit John’s nostrils immediately: it was the same captivating scent as the one produced by the candles. The scene was breathtaking and it became even more alluring: the woman turned around and her whole femininity splendor was now fully exposed. John felt how his Adam’s apple was sliding up and down until finally got stuck into a position which betrayed a severe emotional distress. He was now contemplating a piece of art, a charming symbiosis between perfect shapes, skin tan and overall proportions. Her big, black, slanted eyes were looking at John with the eyes of a feline which is monitoring her prey: methodical, focused, intensive, potent and diligent, not leaving anything to the chance or to anything else that could alter the result of the hunt. She was stunning, to say the least! And to make things even worse (for John), she started washing her body with slow and calculated circular motions, from the shoulders then down to her artistically sculptured breasts. The white foamy lotion brought by her skilled hands to the breasts was greatly contrasting with her tanned skin and dark brown nipples, thus providing a spectacle which he was not prepared to watch, a spectacle to which he was not ready to participate, an unexpected show about beauty, perfect shapes and unmatched contrasts.

-She is beautiful, isn’t she, John?

John felt how instantly his spine froze, how his face was tingling from the same cold currents sent by his brain (which was trying to signal that without any doubt is under enormous stress), how all the events of the day were fast tracking now in front of his eyes like shadows, like personages of a play with many actors wandering around without knowing whose line is whose.

He turned around and realized that the man standing behind him was the same individual he saw the first time through the cracked door and then into the restaurant together with the woman who was now showering in front of him. This man was massive…not as tall as John was, but the broad shoulders and the thickness of the arms and the neck made John believe that the man he was facing was or still is a heavy weight judoka or a wrestler or a martial arts guru. To make things even worse, he was standing right below the thing John intuitively assumed it was a hunting trophy. The opened door of the bathroom was allowing enough light to illuminate the creature on the wall…it was indeed the head of a formidably massive hart. The span of the horns must’ve been at least six feet from tip to tip. John’s palms were all sweaty. The man of the house and the trophy were now almost aligned making the scene hilarious – if it wouldn’t have been dramatic. It was almost like the gentleman who entered the room was wearing a hat with two massive antlers. John tried to sketch a smile, but he realized that he was the last person in that room to be in a position to do so. John’s interlocutor moved slowly on the side towards the middle of the living room and lit up the remaining of the candles. Soon, that profound and delicate, yet invasive and alluring smell was making John feel like he was welcomed, feel like he was the expected guest of the house for the Saturday night dinner. The room was now lit up at a level at which John could guess the decorations hanging on the walls…and there was plenty of them! He realized that the room was full of paintings and framed photos. One particular painting drew his attention: it was a fighting scene between two armies. However, the light did not have enough intensity so he couldn’t pick all the details. Nevertheless, something was telling him that he saw that painting somewhere. His investigative mind started right away to process this information, but he couldn’t exactly point in time when he saw the painting…his mind even considered the fact that he has never seen it and maybe it is just his imagination playing games on him right now; imagination based on the many stories he has heard since landing in Shanghai, or maybe even based on the dream he had. His brain was trying to absorb and put in order so much information, so many unusual events, all of them leading to…leading to what? He had a job to finish. Unfortunately his task got tangled and hijacked by this unusual story about late Ming Dynasty and this feud (which has been stretching over so many centuries) getting somehow anchored into his assignment and thus making it so much more difficult to take it to the end.

-Sit down, John! The big fellow in front of him showed John the white tatami on the floor. He realized that the man wanted to have a discussion with him. He hesitated. Something was telling him to stay on guard. His host smiled:

-John…if I wanted to kill you, you would’ve been dead by now. Please, sit!

John took his shoes off and entered the tatami; a deep bow of his interlocutor (a sign of respect and thank you), made him understand that he did the right thing when removing the shoes. Both of them were now standing on the tatami. A slight sign (a stretched hand pointing to the floor), invited John to have a seat. There were no chairs, so he realized that he has to take the well-known lotus position, which he did. A slight and barely perceptible head tilt from the opposite side, let John know that his efforts are appreciated.

John’s attention switched to a particular area of the wall: it was the one which was close to the large glass wall facing Huangpu River. In spite of the obscure lighting, he realized that a weapons collection was hanging on the wall. It wasn’t hard to figure out that few swords, a shield, few lances, a bow, a quiver of arrows and few other shorter swords and long knives actually represented a whole arsenal which must have belonged to a warrior. “So, this guy is a warrior. What if he is just a collector?”

He wanted to ask his interlocutor if those were real weapons but didn’t get that far, as the man in front of him, with calm and deep tonality in his voice dissipated any doubt from his mind:

-Yes, John. They are real…they are very real and they are very sharp.

Latest few words fell like a hammer over John. He took it as a threat: “they are very sharp”. Cold sweat was now again running down his temples, over the cheeks, only to meet at the chin level and finally drip on the tatami in front of him. He didn’t know what to expect from the big fella and most of all, he started believing that the man sitting in the lotus position could read minds…this was troubling him.

All of a sudden, a melodious voice behind him asked a question which made John tremble with excitement:

-Why are you two sitting into the dark? The very next moment, she turned the lights on at the maximum luminosity the switch allowed her. A spectacle of balanced forms revealed themselves underneath the exquisite short pink silk robe. The long black hair was flowing down her right shoulder covering the right breast. However, the robe was so fine, delicate and transparent that John could once again admire her tanned skin which was contrasting so discretely with the color of the vaporous robe. John was trying to keep a straight face and not show his emotions, but one could sense that the up and down motion of his Adam’s apple was a sign of distress and nervousness.

She turned around and headed for the kitchen. Half way she stopped, turned her head, tilted it with a sensual motion nobody expected and from the tips of her lips, with a waggish smile on her face asked:

-Do you like jasmine tea, John? John didn’t expect this sort of question, so he mumbled a “Yes, I do like jasmine tea” which was neither convincing nor cheering.

-Very well, gentlemen…in few minutes I will bring you some tea. This time she discretely slipped into the kitchen leaving the two men once again alone.

John shook his head, thus signaling that he needs to wipe out the image of the gorgeous woman who just stood in front of him. Right away he realized that the man sitting at the other end of the tatami was carefully watching his expressions and reactions to the environment. This made John get into an even more defensive position, calculating every move he was making. The room was now invaded by good lighting and he couldn’t stop but resting once again his eyes on the great weaponry collection on the wall. This couldn’t have passed unobserved by the big fella who was scrutinizing John’s emotions. He slowly got up, headed towards that section of the wall and stretched his left hand towards John, in a sign meant to say: “please come closer”. John hesitated, but his interlocutor insisted. As he was getting closer to the wall, he realized that he was facing a treasure…three stunning swords were placed in the middle of the “exhibition”. The engravings on their scabbards were exquisite to say the least. The materials used for the decorations were gold, silver and few precious gem stones. The background was black, which was making the precious metals shine even more. It was a spectacle of fine art, great taste, exquisite refinement and unmatched craftsmanship! John guessed that the characters depicted were part of the Chinese Mythology as they did not make any sense to him. However, there was a little detail which his trained eye picked up right away: all three of the scabbards had a fairly large hart head (similar to the real one which was displayed on the wall) executed in gold and silver, while the eyes were represented by two superb bright red sapphires each encapsulated into a silver pocket. He was stunned! Flashbacks from that night when he was driving on that dark road in the middle of nowhere back home, kicked in. The eyes of the creatures sculptured on the scabbards were large and goggled, frightening but captivating in the same time thus reminding him of the majestic hart he almost hit that night, a night he would never forget for the rest of his life. Next, he moved his eyes on the handle…yet another piece of artistry! It was most likely blackened forged steel, but the amount of detailing (also in gold and silver) made John whisper from the bottom of his heart: “incredible!”

Slowly he moved his eye sight on the other two swords which were placed above the “master piece”. They were made probably by the same craftsman, as the detailing on the scabbards was similar. However, it was not made into gold and silver but the mythological scenes were identical. The same hart head was cast into the upper guard of the handle on both sides, but this time, it looked like the antlers were “coming out” of the whole scene and were pointing up. John realized that this particular and unusual design had a functional role: to stop the enemy’s blade from reaching the hand and in the same time to trap it between the openings of the antlers. Curiously, he took a look at both swords…the same design was employed by the master sword maker but the engravings were done into a different material on the same black background. In spite of the fact that these two swords were maintained at the same level of quality as the “master sword”, John’s keen eye picked up an element which many would’ve missed: both had some scratches and scuffs on the scabbards and on the handle in spite of the efforts done to hide them. This pointed him to believe that these two swords went through some hardship during their prime.

-I can see that you set your eyes on my swords, John.

-They are beautiful! His sincere exclamation put a smile on the man’s lips. A deep sense of pride was now flooding his entire face. One would realize that the swords were playing a significant role in his life in spite of the fact that they were obsolete into a modern world.

-They belonged to my ancestors going back few hundred years. He slowly grabbed with both his hands the one in the middle and handed it over to John while slightly bowing. It was a moment of great hesitation from John’s side to accept it, but finally he carefully took it into his hands without removing his eyesight from it and involuntarily bowing as well. This gesture came naturally. The politeness of the large fellow he was facing demanded politeness and John’s keen eye and sharp fifth sense picked up the unwritten rule on the fly.

He was now holding a masterpiece of swordsmanship and a symbol of few centuries of rich Imperial Chinese history. “This sword must’ve belonged to a powerful and rich family! The amount of gold, silver and precious gem stones used for engravings as well as the amount of details describing the nobility symbols was definitely out of reach even for noble families unless they belonged to high aristocracy or royalty”.  John didn’t realize, but the little monologue which just came out of his chest, was not quite completely silent. The man who handed the sword to him must’ve heard it or at least part of it, as his smile became larger and a sense of proudness one could’ve read on his tanned face.

-Yes, John. Both of us (I and my sister) belong to one of the greatest aristocratic families during the Ming Dynasty times. We were a family of warriors and we produced great generals.

At the sound of Ming Dynasty, John startled. Also, he couldn’t help but cover his mouth with a gesture signaling great wonder while pointing towards the kitchen. The large fella, nodded: “Yes John, she is my sister”.

John was baffled…in the last ten seconds, he found out that his neighbors are descendants of a high nobility family and that they are brother and sister. His mind just couldn’t comprehend the legerity the woman was employing when showed up in the room, her libertines gestures and the fact that she didn’t have any problem not covering herself when he looked at her showering. His brain was telling him to watch his back, open his eyes and sharpen his hearing. Next question he asked himself was: “Is Tony part of this clan too? How do they relate to each other? Do they work together when they are draining funds from Glenworth? Are they doing this with other companies too?” On top of all the questions he already had, on top of the fact that he was trying to understand the role of Zhaohui in this story, the role played by Vic and Mr. Wang, now he was all of a sudden facing another set of questions and doubts. One more time, the question that was tormenting him since he stepped into China, popped up again: “Why am I involved into this strange story? I had my life back home. How did I get myself dragged into this intricate and complicated string of events?” He realized that it was futile trying to find answers, given the particular situation he was facing.

The coldness of the scabbard and the handle, made him come to reality and redirect his attention to the beauty he was holding. The weapon felt so light in his hands but under the influence of the value this sword was bearing, John wanted to squeeze it so he won’t drop it. His eyes were now scrutinizing every single element of the exquisite precious engravings. The handle was another great piece of artistry: it also had a black background and every groove (meant to hold in place the fingers of the both hands) was coated in silver, making the contrast stunning. But when he moved his eye sight towards the end of the handle, he realized that another element (he missed when the sword was still hanging on the wall), was making this weapon truly unique: a very large green precious stone was buried into the butt of the handle. John didn’t quite understand the significance of that stone being placed at the bottom of the handle, but he realized that this sword must’ve represented more than just a fighting tool. The multitude of colored shades thrown by the giant green pearl were dancing, were playing and marching in the same time into an array of columns and rows one would think it was a military formation.

This deadly beauty was designed and executed the way a composer writes a symphony: first movement was the black background – like a “pianissimo”, the second movement was the great gold and silver engraving – like a “mezzo-forte”, the third movement was that frightening hart head and its red goggled sapphire eyes – like a “fortissimo”, while the fourth movement was represented by the majestic green stone finishing the symphony on a “mezzo-forte” note. Everything about this piece of art was unique, fascinating, mystic and powerful.

John moved his right hand to the handle area…a strange feeling encompassed him, making his face lighten and his whole body recoil switching from a crisp and tensioned state of mind to a more relaxed and at ease tune.

His curiosity did not stop here. Something inside him was asking for more. He was now holding the sword with his right hand by the handle and the left on the scabbard. Slowly, he started drawing the sword. The squish was quiet and low pitched. As the weapon was coming out of its housing, a magnificent blade, shining like a morning rising sun was presenting itself to the viewers. It was another piece of artistry which made John hold his breath. It was so delicate, yet so deadly judging by the sharpness of its dual cutting edge. An inscription running in the middle of it for about a foot in length was probably a motto of the aristocratic house the two hosts belonged to. Nevertheless, at the joint area with the handle, another engraving of the hart head was signaling the fact that the master did not leave anything at the mercy of chance and everything about this sword had a meaning, had a philosophical significance and followed a ritual known by just a handful of people.

-What do you think, John?

-Stunning, to say the least!

-I thank you for your words. This sword has been in my family for many generations. It has been passed along the lineage line from father to son.

-Why is this one different from the other two?

-This one was not used into the battles. It is a ceremonial sword. The other two are war swords, are weapons which have seen many battles and spilled lots of enemy blood on the ground. John felt like asking: “who the enemies were?” but stopped short from placing this question into the conversation. Something was telling him to be cautious on how much he was getting out of his chest and focus on listening.

– I noticed that the war swords are curved a little towards the tip. Why isn’t the ceremonial curved?

-You have a good eye for detail, John. I would’ve been disappointed if you didn’t ask me this question…after few seconds of silence, the large fellow started explaining that the war swords were more effective if they had a curved tip as this will help with slashing during the close combat. The tip was sharp as it was used for piercing while only one of the edges was sharp, as there was no point to have two sharp edges into a man to man fight on the battle field. John was absorbing all the details while having his eyes still at the “master piece”. Eventually, he handed the sword back to his interlocutor. Moving now his eye sight from the swords, he couldn’t help but notice the lances hung on the wall. Their stick was probably seven feet long with an area at one end showing a certain level of weariness. Clearly it was the “handle”, even if it was not quite a handle. The other end, had a metal piece riveted to the stick, which was double edged and was as sharp as it could get. The metal was mirror polished making the light bounce off of it and thus maintaining a certain level of repulsiveness which made John tremble with fear. He was encompassed by an inexplicable feeling of fear and unease and couldn’t quite understand why the black stick with the sharp metal at the end was more frightening than the sword he held into his hands earlier. Ultimately, it was just a piece of wood with a sharp triangle at one end. His intuition was telling him that there is a lot more to it than what he thought.

-I can see that you are now studying my lances. Is there anything in particular you need to know about this weapon? Before he even finished the sentence, he took one from the wall and handed it over to John. It was a moment of great wonder and admiration from John’s side. The lance felt was so light, that he tried not to squeeze it too hard and break it. Many questions popped up into his head and before knowing it, he started asking, so his interlocutor could hear them.

-This is so light, so fragile and so delicate! Why did I feel like it is repulsive? He tried the sharp edges with his thumb…they were razor sharp! How do you defend against swords with this thing? How does it work?

A large smile flourished on the man’s face. He slowly removed the spear from John’s hand and placed it back on the wall.

-This weapon is the most deadly weapon on the battle field if it finds the right man to handle it. You can easily keep two swords away from you while inflicting deadly wounds into other attackers. It is meant for defense, but if you know its true capabilities, you can turn it into an offensive weapon too. I prefer the lance over the sword.

-I am assuming that you can handle both of them equally well.

-I am the descendant of one of the greatest aristocratic families China ever had…remember? His tone was now firm, commanding, filled with that type of proudness which only a great and glorious background can bring to the surface and make some ordinary human being special, noble, or even royal. John was about to ask him: “And who that great aristocratic family was?” when his guest’s sister came out of the kitchen with a small chair (a wooden holder) on which she had a stunning china set. Judging by the clean, crystal like noise made by the cups and the kettle when touching each other and by the fact that his guests belonged to an old aristocratic family, John could only assume that in front of him was laid down a famous tea set made probably from the most expensive porcelain possible. He took a look at the themes on the cups and the kettle…they were stunning to say the least! Everything was painted in a beautiful blue color and the amount of details and the intricacy of the scenes made John grasp for air. The white background was only emphasizing the amount of work the master invested in these cups. The kettle, due to its bigger volume than the cups, was a true representation of what fine taste and true craftsmanship can produce when placed under the skillful hands of a talented ceramicist. The mysterious woman made a sign with both her hands inviting the men to sit. Then she started pouring the tea with calm, calculated and almost like with religious type of movements. Everything was balanced, weighed, studied and rules were followed to the latest detail: the way she was holding the kettle, the perfect imaginary line she followed to fill the cups, the way she presented the cups to the two men, all of these denoted fine knowledge and long training into the hosting science. When she got closer to John to serve him, he couldn’t help but deep inhale the smell of her perfume, a perfume which was now impregnated into her skin and into her hair and was radiating a scent which he was unable to recognize, a scent which was already playing games with his mind. It was powerful yet delicate, it was mysterious yet so tangible! The vaporous pink robe was still reveling the beauty of a tanned skin. A trained eye would immediately realize that she was taking good care of her epidermis as it was shining from the body oils she was using.

After she was done pouring the tea, she deeply bowed the head to the host (her brother) and to John, signaling the fact that she was asking for permission to leave. The large man who was entertaining John up to this moment bowed his head as well, thus reveling his acceptance to her request. John caught the movement on the fly and when the hostess turn her head towards him, he slowly bowed, imitating the gesture of the big fella who was carefully watching every motion his guest was making. A smile came on his face when he saw that John mimicked his ritual and bowed to John in a sign of: “thank you for respecting our traditions”. John replied and from there on, the tension he felt from the first moment he saw his neighbor, just disappeared. He was now encompassed by a strange feeling of acceptance, of neighboring and good faith.

Few minutes passed by; the two men were simply minding their business sipping the wonderful hot liquid from the cups. It looked like they almost forgot about the existence of the other and were in no mood whatsoever to open up a conversation. In spite of the fact that John was looking at his host trying to guess what he was thinking at, his mind was now busy with the image of the woman who just served the tea. “So, both she and her brother belong to the upper aristocratic class and this could have been seen by the exquisite things from the apartment and also by the way they are behaving…it does have something different in it, special, something I am sensing that it does not belong to the ordinary people”

The large fella at the other end, was closely watching John. His eye sight was focused on John’s mimics, on his face, on his shown or hidden emotions thus trying to pierce through an armor which was kept intact quite well until now. It was a chess game between two masters, everyone playing a defensive style in the beginning in an attempt to gather as much information as possible about the opponent’ strategies and tactics. Finally, the host placed the cup on its plate and then the plate on the little wooden stool brought by his sister. John did the same. He realized that the wait is over and the “hostilities” will eventually start.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 32 (Dinner at Zhaohui and Vic’s)

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 32

Dinner at Zhaohui and Vic’s

-So, John…how was this day for you? You were going to go see Mr. Wang.

-Yes, Vic…I did go and saw Mr. Wang.

-Did you tell him about last night? Did you tell him about the two guys who followed you?

-I did, but it looked like he really didn’t care about this episode. His reaction reminded me of an advice I received from J.J. before I headed for Shanghai…he told me: “always look at the big picture, John…always at the big picture”

-Wow! I never thought at looking at things from this point of view.

-Yes…so I went there and he showed me the book again. However, the highlight of the night was the fact that he showed me a wooden box which had two arms on two different levels. It was almost like two clocks on top of each other. But here it is the kicker: these were not normal clocks, as the display was only divided into nine sections. If I could say it like this: the clock had only nine hours.

-Wow! What device is this? Would you know the meaning of this hybrid clock? Vic’s question was directed towards Zhaohui. She looked at him and at that point John realized that Vic’s fiancé is familiar with the meanings of the “clock” and the story behind it. But there was something else into her eyes…something which John couldn’t really understand or put his fingers on it. It was a sudden sadness, gloominess and melancholy, which transpired almost unnoticeable. But John’s fine eye for reading people’s faces and sentiments caught every single detail of her physiognomy after Vic asked the question.

-I am sure that John knows the meaning of that “clock”. Vic’s eyes moved to John.

-Yes, Mr. Wang told me the story of the box and the meanings of the two “clocks”. John looked at Zhaohui again and his eyes this time were actually asking her for permission to tell the story. A barely imperceptible affirmative sign came from her direction.

-Well…is anyone of you two going to share the novel of this “clock” with me?

-This devise is not a clock per say, as I said. But it does the same job as a regular clock does. The difference is that it measures generations instead of hours.

-What? You must be kidding! It measures generations? Unbelievable!

-Yes, it measures generations. And apparently we are getting close to the end of on cycle of nine generations.

-When did it start measuring those nine generations?

-It started in 1630. It was the year when Chongzhen Emperor executed the supreme military commander of the North-East army: General Yuan Chonghuan.

-And what does the clock have to do with this event?

-The General cursed the Emperor not to rest for nine generations and also to reach a point in which he had to kill his own children.

-He did kill his own children when the peasants took the Palace.

-Not all. Two boys escaped the events and also a daughter who later on became a famous sword fighter and tormented the next Dynasty for years. One more daughter escaped the Emperor’s rage. She was away at the time when the Emperor decided to take the lives of his children.

-Did Wang tell you all of these?

-Yes he did.

-So, it looks like right now we are dealing with the Curse of the General, which is about to end. How will it end?

-I don’t know…Wang didn’t tell me.

-Zhaohui, would you know how will it end? It was a moment of silence before she stood up and with a large smile on her face she asked:

-Ready for some sweets? Her question left both John and mostly Vic speechless. It was clear that she didn’t want to answer her fiancé’s inquiry. It didn’t take too long before she came back with a large plate of sweets. But neither John nor Vic were in a mood for eating anymore. Their faces were showing concern and wariness were showing the fact that they understood the severity of the situation.

-Please, let’s have some dessert. Then we will talk.

John picked from the plate whatever he could reach first and so did Vic. Both of them were eyes and ears, waiting for Zhaohui to speak. It was a long ten minutes, minutes as long as an eternity, as long as waiting the judge’s decision in sentencing a dangerous criminal…

-John, please tell me how many orchids were on that shelf and what were their colors? John startled and looked Vic’s fiancé straight into the eyes; her black, large, beautifully almond shaped eyes returned the favor and in that particular moment were so expressive and were irradiating such a kindness and luminosity that almost made John swallow his Adam’s apple.

-There were seven of them: one was of purple color, one was pink, one was white, one was orange and another one was yellow. Then the other three, were all mixed in color: pink with white, pink with yellow and pink with orange.

Zhaohui dropped her head and same like the other times when she was feeling a little uncomfortable (or she felt like thinking), she started pressing with her pointing fingers two invisible points on her temples. Vic knew right away that this was a sign of deep disturbance and refrained from saying anything. And so did John. Another few long minutes passed by. Nobody was saying anything anymore. The silence was so deep that one could probably hear a pin dropping.

-John, please tell me how did you decide to buy me the purple one?

-I don’t know…honestly. All of them were so beautiful, but at the end I decided for this particular one. I am sorry, Zhaohui…but I do not have an answer. I just felt like you would want the purple one.

-There is a reason why you made this choice, John. It’s a reason you do not understand, but it was meant for you to make this pick.

-I was meant to pick this particular one?

Zhaohui tilted her head forward into a “yes” sign. John felt how a cold sweat was running down his spine. Vic had his temples covered with beads of sweat. His face turned red and a sentiment of fear and uneasiness one could read into his eyes. Both men were waiting for Zhaohui to continue.

-When all seven of them will be sold, the curse will have to end. All those who are in possession of a flower, will participate at the grand finale. This is how they will meet for the final countdown.

-Wait a minute, how would they know how and where to meet?

-They will know. Mr. Wang is the time keeper, he has the clock, and he knows everything. He will be the judge.

Once again, John was mesmerized! “So, Mr. Wang knew everything about my trip here? He probably even knows how this thing will end!” John started re-memorizing his encounters with Mr. Wang…all of them were strange – to say the least. This man intrigued him from the very first sight and especially after the last meeting when Wang advised him to only look at the big picture – same advice he received from J.J. Things were getting complicated into John’s mind and he didn’t like this situation at all. He was trained to simplify, to get rid of the unnecessary details which do not matter to the final outcome.

-So, you believe that soon the other six flowers will be in the hands of the right people who apparently will have to bring the curse to the end and close this cosmological destiny stretched over nine generations?

-Yes John. You got it right! The curse will end sooner than you expect. And you are the one who triggered the final countdown by buying this flower and offering it to me. John felt like the ceiling dropped on top of him.

-Zhaohui…I can only say that I am sorry – I didn’t know…

-John, you have to understand that you are part of the curse, that you are destined to play an important role in bringing it at a closure and that you cannot hide from your destiny. I think one of your forefathers actively participated into the events of 1630 or 1644. You are the ninth generation and this is why you are here on this assignment.

-So you are telling me that J.J. knows about this story and he sent me here on purpose. Is he also part of it?

-He definitely knows more than you do, John; the fact that he sent you here is yet another way of confirming that he is tighten up to the facts through his ancestors. You both are. I do not know what sort of relationships were between your forefathers and J.J.’s, but you both belong to the same cosmological circle of destiny – the Curse of the General.

John dropped his head as Zhaohui’s words fell on him the same way a hammer would fall onto the anvil. “So, it is not just Wang’s imagination, it is not his intricate investigative mind playing games on me. This story, the curse, is for real and I am an intricate part of it, I guess” Few moments of deep silence followed the conversation. Everybody at the table was trying to gather their thoughts and into the quietness which encompassed the room, one could’ve actually heard a pin dropping on the floor.

-Vic, did you tell Zhaohui what Yuhuan found out?

-Not yet…Vic’s fiancée threw a questioning look into his direction waiting for an update. In few words, he narrated the story again, the same story John heard upstairs. It was Zhaohui’s turn to drop the head and another moment of uncomfortable silence settled into the room. For both Vic and John felt like an eternity passed by before Zhaohui raised her head and with a firm, determined and commanding voice said:

-It is time! Tony and your neighbor probably met with the Grad Master of the Seven Orchids Order. The clock is ticking.

John felt like a torrent of cold sweat was running down his spine. This statement corroborated with the discussion he had with Mr. Wang, made him understand that the final countdown was set, that it is now just a matter of time before the actors will have to step on the stage for the grand finale. “What would my role be when the time comes? What do I have to do? How I can help?”

-Do you have pictures of the two men they met?

-Yuhuan is processing them as we speak.

-Great! Tomorrow I would like to take a look at them, maybe I can recognize the personages.

-Don’t we go tomorrow to visit Suzhou Gardens?

-Only if we don’t have the pictures…I would also like to take a look at the books John bought. Maybe I can get a hint on where the final scene will take place. Once again, a deep silence settled into the room. John felt like he was able to listen to his heartbeats. There were so many thoughts circling through his mind right now, there were so many unknowns and questions he wanted to get answers to! Suddenly, Vic broke the silence:

-Let me try to reach Yuhuan or Zihuan…most likely they are still up and didn’t go to sleep yet. He pulled his cell from his pocket and dialed a number. To everybody’s surprise his phone call was picked up right away. It followed a short conversation in Chinese. Upon hanging up, Vic showed the well-known “thumb up”. It looked like he managed to speak to one of the two detectives.

-Tomorrow we can have everything…all the pictures but it will only be in the evening as they are still working on getting everything put together.

-Ok, then. We can take John in the morning to see the Gardens.

-Sounds like a plan.

-John, what do you think?

Vic’s question remained unanswered, as John was still trying to find answers to the many questions which were crossing his mind. Finally, he realized that whatever he was trying to achieve was futile, was a fight similar to Don Quixote’s fight against the wind mills and was an unnecessary effort to solve a puzzle without any sort of leads on hand.

-I am sorry, Vic! I didn’t follow what you just said.

-Tomorrow morning we are heading to Suzhou to visit the gardens and in the afternoon we summon at your place to take a look at the pictures. Zihuan and Yuhuan will bring a stick with all the pictures, compiled in an orderly fashion, based on the time they were taken.

-Sounds like a plan to me. It is already getting late, I should be going now.

-Let’s have a glass of sweet wine first and some sweets, then I will call a taxi for you. John nodded a “yes” and the atmosphere in the room became again relaxed and open, cheerful and joyful. It was like all three of them forgot about the curse, about the grand finale which was apparently rapidly approaching and wanted to release some pressure through a good conversation and a hard laugh. The wine helped, of course! John mentioned the “Leo story”…Vic was laughing so hard, that tears were flowing down his cheeks. He explained Zhaohui who Leo was and she immediately joined into laughter.

-So…Leo took your car for a spin into the hood, huh? Vic threw this question while trying not to choke from laughing.

-Yeah…imagine how mad I was when he thought he could take me for a fool: “Mr. Parker, I am a great financial contributor to my church…” John was trying to imitate as much as he could Leo’s voice. Vic was laughing so hard, that he was now holding both his hands onto the stomach area.

-Stop it, man! Please stop it! John weighed in even more, imitating Leo:

-“Mr. Parker, I had to show some financial power into the hood, if you know what I mean. I couldn’t take my 2003 Escort there”…Vic dropped a knee onto the ground. His face was now completely red and the cheeks covered by tears which were freely flowing from his eyes. The scene was hilarious and provided that so much needed relaxation John wanted in order to break up the seriousness of the overall picture. It was a good way to end up a fantastic dinner and a wonderful evening spent with two great friends.

-I really have to go now…it is eleven o’clock already. You guys must be so tired! All the preparations which you did, must have exhausted you. I had such a wonderful time, the food was absolutely fabulous and your company was again so charming! I am thanking to both of you for a delightful evening!

-It was our pleasure to have you over for dinner, John. Anytime you feel like you need to talk to somebody, please do not hesitate to pay us a visit. Let me call you a taxi. While Vic was dialing, Zhaohui packed some sweets into a container and handed it over to John.

-Just in case you need something for the sweet tooth tonight or tomorrow morning….please take this container with you.

-Thanks a lot, Zhaohui! Appreciate.

-You are welcome John. They go well with your coffee tomorrow morning.

-I am sure they do. What time do you guys figure that you want to drop by and pick me up?

-Not sure. We don’t want you to wake up too early, but the Gardens are large and there will be a lot of walking to do. Also, we will need about an hour to get to Suzhou. I would say that we should be leaving Shanghai by nine or nine thirty.

-Great, nine o’clock it is. I will be down at the Reception area.

-Alright, in five minutes you will have your taxi.

-Fantastic! I already spoke to Zhaohui. You guys will pick me up at nine tomorrow morning.

-Great! Your cab is here. I will walk you to the door.

-Thanks again, Zhaohui! The dinner was absolutely fabulous!

-Don’t mention it, John! Have a good night and we will see you tomorrow!

Vic opened the door and both of them walked out to the main street where the cab was waiting.

-Alright…we will talk tomorrow morning.

-Thanks again for your hospitality and please extend my compliments to your fiancé.

-You are more than welcome, John.

-Have a good night Vic and we will see each other again, tomorrow morning.

It was already eleven thirty in the evening and the traffic was still busy. It made one understand that this city never sleeps, especially on Saturday evenings. On the way back to his hotel, John tried to piece together what he heard that particular day from Wang and Zhaohui. It seemed to him that both stories were heading towards the same ending, towards the same finale: a confrontation between the two parties. “So, it will come down to Tony’s crew (whoever will be part of it) and…who will be on the other side?” While looking through the window at an imaginary point into the darkness, John was making up all sort of scenarios. His gut feeling was telling him that Zhaohui was the principal personage of the group which was supposed to counter Tony Gang. The way she behaved in few situations since he arrived in China and the fact that she somehow backed up Mr. Wang’s story, made him draw the conclusion that Zhaohui was talking to Wang. “If it was otherwise, why would Vic take me to his restaurant? Now I can see the picture: Wang’s ancestor was Emperor’s personal bodyguard. So he is clearly on the side of Tony’s opponents. But who is Zhaohui? And what is Vic’s role? He told me that he learnt Chinese so easily because he believes he has ties into the 1630 events too. So, J.J. sent him here because he is related to the story. Isn’t J.J. somehow the puppet master in all this so, so intricate and complicated tale? If so, what would be my role into bringing it to a closure? I am assuming that I will be on the same side as Zhaohui and Vic. Otherwise they wouldn’t help me with my assignment, right?”

John realized that he was talking to himself, that he was asking and in the same time was answering his own questions. Soon, the cab pulled over in front of the hotel. He paid and headed for the entrance. The lemon trees’ flowers were releasing such a heavenly smell into the Reception area that made John stop, close his eyes and deeply inhale the air into his lungs. Involuntarily, he approached the trees, took a seat on one of the comfortable sofas and let his thoughts float into a maze of smells and aromas he never experienced. While keeping his eyes closed, he tilted his head backwards resting it on the nice, soft material and let his mind wander.

It didn’t take long and his brain ordered a well-deserved nap. In his dream he found himself in the middle of a sword fight against many enemies on the battlefield. He was one of the most trusted captains General Yuan Chonghuan had; during the victory won that day by the walls of Beijing against the Jurchen’s “Eight Banners”, he was hailed as a hero by the great General. He also witnessed how Chonghuan was arrested by the Emperor’s guards immediately after the battle. He tried to defend his General, but was outnumbered and a sword blow split his crest and made a deep cut on his forehead and on the face. The blood was flowing in waves and his face was soon covered by a thick, red liquid, liquid which seemed impossible to be stopped from bursting out of the wound. He covered his face with both his palms, but the blood was squirting between his fingers and was now freely flowing down his chest, reaching the ground into a pool of blood. It was the moment when John woke up and jumped on his feet. He was sweating buckets! The back of his shirt was soaked in cold sweat while his temples were directing the same unbearable salty liquid down the cheeks and around the chin into a spring of perspiration. “That’s it! Enough of this nonsense! I am going to get obsessed with this story! I have to get out of it!”

 

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