Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 37 (Black Swan)

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 37

Black Swan

John returned to the living room holding his head down. Vic’s fiancée request put a doubt into his head and the opportunity of negotiations with his neighbors was slowly fading out. He didn’t want to hear this, he was all in for negotiations, for a peaceful end to this story. Vic realized that he was in a certain amount of distress and mutely asked him what was going on.

-Zhaohui asked me to move immediately.

-This ain’t good. But she must’ve had a valid reason if she asked you to do it.

-I believe so, too. Another round of silence encompassed the room. Both men were now holding their heads down, trying to think at what the better way is out of this situation. Vic was first to react and change the tone in the room from a deep, gloomy and negative atmosphere into a friendlier and more optimistic one.

-Let me call Zihuan….Vic grabbed his cell and soon he was on the call with his primary detective.

John didn’t lose the chance to head for the window and admire again the unmatchable spectacle of barges sliding down onto Huangpu. It was a show he just couldn’t take out of his mind, a show which was acting on him like a drug on an addict, like a pill which brings instant happiness and relaxation.

-Guess what?

-What?

-Pictures are not ready. There are so many that they couldn’t finish arranging them in a chronological way. We will have to wait until tomorrow.

-This is not good…we are wasting an evening.

-That’s OK. Let’s go out take a short walk. Are you tired from the walk into the Gardens?

-No, I am not. Let’s go! I wouldn’t mind taking a stroll on one of the bridges above the river…something is telling me that we will witness a great view, something is telling me that I can take a look at Huangpu and its lights from a proximity which would make me “touch” the barges sliding down stream in their eternal attempt to reach the mouth of the Great Yangtze and then dock at the Shanghai Harbor. John grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.

Vic was mesmerized! The last sentence which came out of John’s chest, made his eyes as large as an owl’s eyes, while pulling a real and sincere yell of admiration:

-Wow! Now you spoke like a poet! That was magnificent, man! Wow!

-Oh, well…this is what I do, man!

A great and loud laughter came out of their chests and in no time they were at the elevator and then downstairs at the Reception.

The city was still buzzing from the night life and was lit up like a Christmas tree during winter celebrations. They took a side walk and inevitably ended up on one of the bridges above the river. John’s heart was pounding inside his chest as he never looked at the waters below him so closely. It was such a great feeling! Maybe for others, the look at the dark waters, the height from which you were looking down, the intriguing and lurking message sent by the barges’ lights would’ve sent a different message, but for John, there was a message of calmness and relaxation, a message of normality and familiarity, a sign that he belonged somehow to this environment of commerce and sailing, of trade and perhaps war; but ultimately…it was sending a message of infinite freedom. John closed his eyes, largely opened his arms and deeply inhaled the odor of the waters patiently waiting for the moment when they will join the waters of the Great River and then merge into the immensity of the China Sea. To his surprise, the odor had a salty taste. It made him understand that the wind was blowing upstream and was bringing into the city the scent of the sea, the scent of the mixed sweet and salty waters of the Yangtze Delta.

John opened up his eyes and a great sense of easiness encompassed him. The spectacle he has been admiring from his hotel room and from the office was truly magnificent, now that he was standing right on top of the river. They were ready to move on, when all of a sudden a car passed by honking the horn and then stopping ten yards further down the street in a horrible tire squeaking noise. Their hearts stopped from beating! The car literally (few yards) passed by them, making both John and Vic become one with the protective fence of the bridge. There were already beads of sweat running down their temples. First thoughts were that Tony or his neighbors want to get rid of John and hired a driver to run him over. But then they realized that the car was a cab and the driver was probably just trying to pick up a piece of business. John’s heart started beating at an almost normal pace; however, when he saw the driver getting down and heading his direction, his eyes caught on fire and at that point were throwing bolts of anger. He was fuming from rage and fury.

-You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!

-Mister! Mister! Hello! Me, driver…

-I know you, of course! Of course I know you, you maniac!

-Mister! Mister! Go show! Take you show!

-What? I think I am going to take you by the neck and throw you into the river! This is what’s going to happen, you maniac! You think I am still going to ever get into a car with you?

John was screaming as he just found a way to release all the frustration he accumulated while heading to Vic’s place from the flower store. Yes, amazingly the same driver who took him last night from the hotel to the flower shop and then to Vic’s, stopped by and offered his services again. It was more than whatever John could take…

-I don’t wanna’ see you! Go away!

-Mister! Mister! Take you show! Good show!

-Didn’t you hear me? I will never get into that car of yours as long as you are driving! Isn’t this clear? How else do you want me to say this to you? Which part exactly you don’t understand? The one with driving, or the one when if you don’t immediately go away, I will dump you into the river?

John was not only screaming, he was now gesturing and imitating the sudden turns and the hard breaking situations from the previous night. His hands were simulating holding a steering wheel while his right foot was trying to replicate a breaking situation. Whoever was watching this little show, was rapidly drawing the conclusion that John was a mad man who just happened to have a spectator watching his show.

Vic was laughing so hard that he dropped onto one knee. Tears were coming out of his eyes while his whole body was shaking in an uncontrollable motion.

-Why are you laughing, man? This is the maniac who last night took me at your place! I think I am going to choke him!

-This is something to die for, man! To die for! You should’ve seen your face! Sorry man…I just couldn’t stop from laughing. You were all red while your face and the arms were gimmicking such strange motions! You put up quite a good spectacle.

-And this maniac wants to take us to some show, right? John’s voice was already high pitched and the tonality was still showing a great deal of frustration.

-Yeah, let me talk to him.

-You’re kiddin’, right? You want to go to a show taking this maniac’s cab, right? Is this what I am actually hearing, or all of a sudden I lost my English comprehension?

-Hey, you never know what he has in mind…it could be a good show which I would never say “no” to.

-I can’t believe you are doing this!

-Relax, man…let me see what this show is about. Vic headed towards the taxi driver which as a result of John’s gestures retreated towards his car. The conversation between Vic and the taxi driver took a couple of minutes; in this time frame John realized that he has to calm down that he has to bring his spirit back up to the level which allows him to have a clear mind in order to make the right decisions. J.J.’s words popped up again into his mind: “only look at the big picture, John; only at the big picture” He felt how his face and the whole body relaxed, thus giving him another chance to take a look at the river underneath.

-We are heading for the show. Let’s get in.

-You gotta’ be joking! We are heading to a show now?

-Yes, I think it is a good one.

-What sort of show, man? And where about?

-It is a traditional music show. The driver told me that the band is made up of four girls and they are performing in a Club not far from here. He also told me that their style of singing is based on traditional Chinese music but then it turns towards pop-rock style. So basically is a blend between the two.

-This is crazy! These are two completely different styles of music! How can they go together? John burst into a large laughter while his arms were simulating a gesture of distrust and amusement.

-Well, this is why we will go there. Let’s see what this music style is about. The cab driver is very enthusiastic about this show.

-Don’t mention! I still feel like chocking him!

It was Vic’s turn to burst into laughter. Nevertheless, John took the back seat while Vic chose the passenger front seat, in an attempt to keep an eye on the driver and his behavior. It didn’t work out…the cab owner stepped on the accelerator so hard, that made Vic feel like he dove into the seat.

-Here we go again! I told you that this guy is mental!

Vic burst again into a huge laughter while telling John to relax and enjoy the ride.

John didn’t want to argue with Vic anymore and so he put on the seat belt and prepared himself for the worst.

It wasn’t long before the cab pulled in front of Club, situated somehow on one of those little side streets of downtown Shanghai. Of course, the driver felt again like he wanted to show off his driving skills and slammed on the breaks so hard, that made Vic almost hit the windshield with his head. This time it was too much even for Vic…his conversation with the driver was quite heated up, which made John burst into laughter this time.

-Told you! This guy is a maniac!

The argument between Vic and the driver carried on, so John realized that it is much more productive for him to get out of the car and start assessing the surroundings. He started methodically look at the building from both the point of view of a man who’s never been in that place and wanted to know his surroundings and from the point of view of someone who was bracing for unusual situations. For some reason he felt at unease, he felt like he was about to step into something strange, into something he did not understand or comprehend, into something surrounded by mysticism and unknown.

“Black Swan” was the name written in English only, which made John raise an eye brow. He couldn’t help but admire the picture of the bird depicted by the name of the club, shown on the frontispieces and majestically represented with its two wings fully stretched. The place was not even close to be called a real Club and this was not due to the location being non-central or at least at one of the main streets. No. It was due to the fact that one would’ve expected a certain level of western like atmosphere. When you say: “Club” one would think at a noisy band playing pop or rock music, one would think at someone playing the guitar or the drums…the small stage was pretty much fully taken by four chairs and some strange instruments John did not recognize. One of them however, stirred his interest: it had the shape of a pear and looked like a mandolin. When he asked Vic what was the name of that strange looking instrument, the answer came quickly: “Pipa”

John raised his left eye browse, signaling that he was not happy with the answer. Vic raised his shoulders and answered John’s muted question: “it’s all I know about those instruments”

John started screening more carefully for the other instruments…one of them was the shape of a flute, while the other two had the silhouettes of a violin and a double bass. His curiosity and the ear for music were now enticed by the unusual shape of those four instruments which somehow reminded him modern “tools” used by the pop or rock bands.

Then he looked at Vic. His friend wasn’t paying much attention to the details John did, but was somehow focused on scrutinizing the crowd inside the Club. John followed his friend’s sight and inevitably identified four individuals sitting at one of the tables in the front. They were making lots of noise and one would guess that they were already drunk. John assessed immediately the situation: four large drunk males, all westerners, all speaking with a strange English accent waiting for the show to start. They were pounding already on their table with their fists demanding for the band to show up on the stage.

-This could be trouble…Vic was interrogatively looking at John, mutely asking: “Shall we go? I don’t like it”

-No, I want to stay. Initially it was his tremendous curiosity in learning more about the sounds those instruments were making, curiosity which was asking him to stay. But now, it was something else…it was a rage he was feeling towards those individuals who were behaving in such a manner which back home would’ve found them being tossed out of the Club by now. His blood was boiling and he was all tensed and ready to confront them. There was still something which was holding him back. His eye sight was periodically checking the back stage place where the artists supposedly were entering for the show. Not a move was coming from that direction.

-These guys are sailors. I believe they are Aussies. I heard this accent before…when I was doing…you know…

-You think so?

-Positive. When they dock, those are the first places they visit. Chinese gambling. They bet on anything you can imagine. Of course they lose their shirts in a matter of hours…

-It looks to me that these guys have been here before.

-I had that feeling to. Let me ask the cab driver.

-You are telling me that this maniac is joining us for the show?

-Relax. I like him. He told me that he learnt some things on a special driving class he was taking and he wanted to show them to us.

Both John and Vic burst into a long, loud and healthy laughter. Tears were coming from John’s eyes.

-Man, I am so happy I have you as a friend in this weird and completely strange environment! I owe you a six pack, whenever you are up to the task.

-Roger that! Don’t forget what you just said!

Another round of laughter came out of their chests. The mood was set for the two friends to have a great evening.

-Hang on…your cab driver is waving at us.

-Where? Can’t see him.

-To the left…to the left of the table where those four drunken scumbags are sitting.

-Great! Now we have them as our neighbors.

-Never mind. Those are premium seats. Let’s go take them. He must’ve bribed the waiter a fortune. I saw a “Reserved” sign on the table.

-How can you remove a “Reserved” sign? What if the people who booked it showed up?

Vic abruptly stopped then turned a hundred eighty degrees around and looked John straight into his eyes:

-As I mentioned to you at the Gardens…please, please, please, don’t move to China.

-What did I say, man? I just believe that it is not fair for us to take the table of someone who reserved it. That’s all.

It was the time when Vic hit his forehead with his palm and started nervously shaking his head…

-Would you mind just follow me, please!

-OK, OK…but this doesn’t mean that I agree with the strategy.

-John, why don’t you understand that you are not in America anymore? Why don’t you understand that things at this level (Vic put his palm half way to the ground trying to mimic a normal life situation), are unfolding at a different pace, and have a completely different meaning comparing to back home? For instance, what we are seeing now, it’s normal. The people who made the reservation didn’t show up, so we took their seats! Clear?

-OK, OK…I am not arguing with you anymore, but this is not right.

Vic hit his head once again with his palm, making a noise which was noticed by the cab driver as they were approaching the table. The man jumped from his seat and greeted the two friends with a deep bow and respectfully invited them to have a seat.

-Is he trying to tell us something? He is behaving like a host.

-Let me ask…it was a short conversation between Vic and the cab driver. At the end it got quite heated up, which made John raise once again his eye browse…

-OK, he is telling me that this is his treat because he likes us.

-No way, man! What do you mean his treat?

-He pays for seats and obviously he picked up the bribe he gave to the waiter.

-No way…what if we want to do some drinks?

-That’s on us.

-OK. Then this becomes more doable…what a strange night!

-Welcome to Shanghai, man! Vic burst again into laughter and grabbed John by the shoulder: we will have fun. I know it.

-I hope so. Twenty four hours ago, I was threatened with death…

-We’ll get out of this, John…don’t worry.

-How can you be so sure? How can you be so positive?

-Because Zhaohui has a plan. And this is all I care about. She always finds a way…always. She has a sense of avoiding danger and navigate through the choppy waters like nobody else on this planet.

-Alright then. I trust you…actually let me rephrase it: I trust Zhaohui.

Both friends burst again into a huge laughter, which this time brought the attention of the four persons sitting next to them.

-G’day, mates! How you going?

Both Vic and John were perplexed. They didn’t expect their neighbors to approach them. It was either the beginning of a normal, friendly and peaceful event, or it was just the calm before the storm.

John tilted his head forward thus simulating a greeting and then with a voice of a man who was in command, replied:

-Good evening to you too, gentlemen!

-What you mates having for a drink?

-We are here just for the show. We are not drinking.

A huge laughter was heard from the neighbors’ table. John’s face turned red from what he considered a very insulting type of behavior. Vic looked at him and with a very discrete sign told John to calm down.

Another man from the neighbor’s group weighed in even more, just to add to the insult:

-What, yaw ladies too delicate to drink?

It was the moment when John was already at the edge of his chair being ready to spring into action…Vic grabbed his wrist and managed to stop him, while the cab driver was still trying to comprehend what was going on. Fear was written on his face and one would’ve realized that he was frightened, that he was trying to find a solution. He stood up and headed straight for the side door, where the waiters supposedly were coming out with their food and drinks. It seemed that he was at home, that he knows everybody in that place.

Immediately he came out accompanied by someone who looked like to be the owner. They both approached the table of the four disturbers and in an English which seemed to be quite OK for a non-English speaking person, politely asked the men to behave so the show could get on going.

The reaction from the drunken individuals was as John and Vic expected and feared. They all stood up and started noisily mocking the man and his English. It was too much for John to take. He sprung from his chair and headed straight for the troubling table. Vic followed and soon, a stand up of small proportions was facing the actors of this unusual scene.

-So, yaw all want to get a beating, yaw?

-We just want to watch the show, that’s all. So, we are asking you to take a seat and stop disturbing.

-Really, yaw pretty boy? And if we don’t take a seat what yaw going to do?

John was trembling. He felt so close of launching a jab into man’s jaw, but the next second something unusual and strange happened…through the same door where the owner came out, a massive, truly impressive individual came out. This man was literally the size of the door. He was dressed into a black suit, white shirt and a black tie. The sun glasses he was wearing were hiding his slender eyes, but the face physiognomy was betraying an Asian individual. He slowly walked at the table and placed himself between John and the turbulent individual. John was amazed by the size of this person, in spite of the fact that during his Football career he played alongside many big individuals.

The appearance of this Goliath brought a sudden quietness at the two tables, his stature implying nothing less but respect and admiration. The four troubling men found themselves into the situation where they had to sit as they were also impressed by the size of the man wearing a black suit.

Once every sign of disturbance was removed, the body guard stepped aside and leaned against the wall. It was a detail which was noticed by both tables. A two minutes of silence made everybody from the restaurant think that if one would’ve dropped a pin, the echo would’ve been heard.

The cab driver rubbed his hands thus expressing a high degree of happiness.

-Show good, Mister. Show good!

-I believe you. What is your name?

-Yuan Jun. Nice meet you, Mister…

-Parker is my name. John Parker.

-Nice meet you Mr. Parker. Show good!

-Again, I do believe it will be a good show. Nice to meet you too, Yuan Jun.

The happiness on man’s face was something which made John smile. “Well, as they are saying: happiness resides in small things. Let’s see what the show is about”

John’s insatiable curiosity made him whisper a question into Vic’s ear:

-By the way…what does Yuan Jun mean?

-Fountain of joy.

-It makes lots of sense…looks like he is pretty happy we are here.

-Yeah…it seems like he is quite joyful. Let’s watch the show now.

The lights came down and on the stage four girls showed up; they bowed and then each one took her place into the band. It was the moment when John felt like he swallowed his Adam’s apple…his whole body was captured by emotions running from reverence and wonder to sincere admiration.

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.

 

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 30 (The old books are fascinating)

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 30

The old books are fascinating

The weather was absolutely gorgeous: sunny and warm while a slight breeze of moisture brought by a mild wind from the East reminded him that the Great River was not far away. Mr. Wang’s last words made him lose some of the confidence he built up before he came to China, made him think again and again if all he was doing was not just a futile exercise, an attempt to go against forces he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure how to deal with, against some synergies that were above his comprehension and his talents. For the first time he felt helpless, he felt like he needed somebody to guide his steps, to show him the right way and the path to follow, for the first time he felt like he was losing the control of the situation. He didn’t realize that he departed a good distance from downtown. He walked for few miles while trying to clear up his mind. The area where he found himself all of a sudden was nothing like the tumultuous and sophisticated downtown. He looked around and all he could see were small Ma and Pa shops, selling everything from: fruits and vegetables to live caged chickens, from souvenirs and pieces of luggage to electronics and sneakers, from shirts and pants to fake brands of purses and colognes. It was something he has never seen before…the vibrant mercantile life of the area where everybody was selling something and the customers were bargaining for every penny in an attempt to strike a deal. In spite of all the negative thoughts he had in his mind after walking out of Wang’s shop, this new episode made him crack a large smile. For a moment, he stopped and looked around…he wanted to absorb this new experience in spite of the fact that he had no idea where he was. Pulled the cellular out of his pocket and started taking snap shots of the street, the stores and the vibrant life of an area he only saw in the movies before. While focusing his phone camera on the nicely colored signs of the stores, something (which immediately captured his whole attention) popped up: it was an antiques store which had the English sign written by hand right below: “Old books”

He startled and without any sort of hesitation rushed into that direction. The store was dark as it was facing the North side of the street. The usual scent of used books and papyrus-es, the dust collected on the book covers, the relative darkness into the room and the thick air filled with the smell of an old, poorly ventilated and poorly maintained room almost made John believe that this was a warehouse. Nobody came to greet him, in spite of the fact that the door chimes were producing a rather loud and quite pleasant noise. A bell was also available on the counter. John pushed the little button and waited for somebody to show up. In the meantime, he decided to take a look at the books on the shelves behind him. They were really old, as the edges of the covers were all worn out and a high degree of usage was shown on the pages John was patiently flipping.

He didn’t realize, but for half an hour he was completely captivated by the books he was looking at. Most of them were old atlases full of nicely colored maps and pictures. In spite of the fact that all the writing was in Chinese, he realized that some of the maps were military maps as formations of soldiers dressed in different uniforms were facing each-others. The colors were fading, but still had some of that initial vivacity and life the artist’s talent expressed through color mixing.

-May I help you, Sir?

John startled as he didn’t expect anybody to be around. The voice of the person was also familiar. He turned and looked at the individual who all of a sudden showed up from nowhere. John was facing a tall and skinny man with two lively and investigative eyes behind some thick lenses. The smiley face and the smart looks of the interlocutor in front of him, made John understand that he was dealing with a highly intelligent and possibly highly educated human being, as the business he was into, did require a certain expertise and a certain level of high level culture knowledge.

-Yes, I apologize first of all for entering and browsing through your books.

-No worries. You can have a look again. Are you looking for something in particular?

John didn’t know how to answer. Initial instinct was to tell the man that he was only looking for some old books, but then he realized that maybe this is the best place to get his hands on the books and atlases he needed to get accustomed to the period he was interested in. His natural instinct was telling him to ask and require what he wanted, but he remembered what Vic told him: “you have to be more patient and move at the same speed everybody else is moving. You cannot rush time and cannot fight traditions here, in China”

Consequently, he became vaguer with his requests, in spite of the fact that he really wanted to go through the whole library and buy everything he thought it may lead him to the bottom of his assignment.

-I am just browsing now through whatever you have in store. I wouldn’t mind if you would tell me something about Medieval China History.

-The Medieval Chinese History is vast and complicated and it is a little different from European. But I can get you for sure something related to Ming Dynasty if you don’t mind.

John startled! “How did he know this is exactly the period I am interested in? Did he talk somehow to Wang? This is so weird!”

-Sure, let’s see what you can show me on this particular period of time. John tried to temper himself and simulate that he is not in any rush or need for help. But the intelligent, investigative eyes behind the glasses picked up the fact that John was holding back his emotions and put up his poker face. A large smile flourished on the man’s face. John realized that he wasn’t able to trick the book seller. At this point, any simulation became futile and John understood that he had to make a choice between playing the game and actually ask for what he really needed.

-What about the last days of the Ming? Do you also have some military maps on this period?

– I have exactly what you need, Sir…but everything is in Chinese. I do not have anything translated.

-That’s quite alright. I will find somebody to translate it into English. Do you have anything related to the life of the General Yuan Chonghuan?

This time the man standing in front of him startled and looked John straight into his eyes. Apparently, it was an unexpected request as the skinny, tall man was fixing John with his eyes sight in a way that would make anybody uncomfortable. John understood that he pinched a sensitive nerve, but with the nonchalance specific to the best spies managed to put up again a poker face, the face of a novice looking for help, directions and guidance. The book seller coughed loudly in an attempt to easy up the atmosphere. He took his glasses off and with a lively motion, wiped them. John’s request made his behavior change, from a calculated and cold attitude to a precipitated and almost out of control behavior. “It is time to draw the line into the sand and figure out if he wants to help”

-I would also like to know if you have anything related to the last day of the Chongzhen Emperor before he committed suicide.

Once again, the man standing in front of him startled and for the second time that day, insistently starred at John. It was clear that a battle was taking place into his head, a battle on: helping or not helping the westerner.

John managed again to keep a straight face, a face of a person who is asking for some books purely from curiosity, not out of a well-orchestrated plan.

Without saying any word, the book seller disappeared again into the back room leaving John standing and scratching his head wondering if this last move of the man wasn’t something completely rude and out of the line. He turned around and opened up again the atlas he was holding – an atlas which was apparently depicting through wonderful colored characters a battle field of the past. One could clearly see the Cavalry on the flanks, the Infantry in square formations in the middle while the Artillery was centrally placed in the front. All the little details shown: the large number of solders so skillfully presented (in spite of the fact that they were shown at a reduced scale), the horses, the auxiliary personnel in the back and the Commander and his guard regiment on a hill, requested a high level of talent and understanding of the military tactics from the artist. By now, John was completely captivated by the fine piece of art he was holding and didn’t realize that the book seller came back and was waiting for him to turn around. A slight cough of the man, made him aware that he returned. John was stunned! The book seller came back with a stack of books! At this point, John was wondering if he really needed all of them, or the businessman in front of him is just trying to make a sale and hit a small jackpot. Also, how is he going to carry all of these? For now, he decided to just play safe.

-Wow! You brought quite a lot of books, Sir!

-You wanted to know about Ming Dynasty and the last days of the Emperor…you find that in these books. Unfortunately you have to find someone to translate. John didn’t know how much he should rely on Zhaohui…the quantity of information in all the books in front of him was immense and there was no way she would be able to translate it all. He was now baffled…to buy or not to buy the stack of probably good information from the man in front of him? While thinking, he realized that he had to buy time, so he pulled a little trick out of his sleeve:

-How much for all these?

-Two thousand RMB…John did a quick math and realized that the price asked for the books was ranging around two hundred eighty five dollars. “Not that bad, keeping in mind that I am getting nine books which apparently are antique. I am sure that they are not originals from that period, but at least I have something I can chew on, something which can get me started in understanding this particular period”

-Very well, Sir! We have a deal! But I only have five hundred RMB on me. I can give you the rest in US Dollars, if this is OK with you.

-US Dollars always good, Sir…a large smile flourished on his face which made John realize that there are good chances he may be gypped. However, even if he learnt something – anything – from these books, anything which could lead him towards the right direction and get to Gang, it meant that it was a good investment. John did a quick math on fifteen hundred RMB divided by the exchange rate and figured out that he has to throw another two hundred twenty dollars from his pocket. He pulled the nice leather wallet from his jeans and handed the money to the book vendor. The face of the man in front of him brightened again at the sight of fresh fifty dollar bills. Apparently it was a good day for him.

-Now, how do I carry all these books to the hotel?

-Don’t worry, Sir. I call taxi. You good customer. I will pay.

-Thank you, but I have to stop by a liquor store so I can buy some drinks.

-No worry, Sir. Driver will wait.

-Fantastic! It was good doing business to you.

-Likewise, Sir! Good doing business with you too.

-Listen…did we meet before? Your voice sounds familiar to me.

-I don’t believe we met, Sir. The short hesitation into his voice (prior to this statement), made John believe that this individual was actually the man standing in the shadow of the side door when for the first time he was taken into Mr. Wang’s office. He took another mental snap shot of the man and stretched his hand out to shake hands. The hand he was shaking was the hand of an intellectual, the hand of a person used to read and write, not of a laborer or any other person doing physical work.

-Let me call a taxi for you, Sir.

-Thank you! One more question though…this book, which I grabbed when I entered…I can see that is a military atlas and it has some military maps in it.

-Yes, Sir. You guessed right. It is a battle field.

-Who is fighting whom? A long pause kicked in and John started wondering if he said something wrong. Everything was so weird in this place, from the very moment he entered the store: the atmosphere, the dust collected everywhere, the guy from the back appearing out of nowhere and the quick deal he made. “Did I step on his toes again? What is wrong with this guy?”

-This is a collection of military maps – copies of course – of the General Wu Sangui. The map you are looking at, is the battle field of the Shanhai Pass (one of the major passes into the Great Wall of China). The forces of Wu Sangui and Li Zicheng before the final battle are shown.

-Wasn’t Li Zicheng the commander of the peasant army which took Beijing?

-Yes he was. General Wu Sangui defeated his armies twice, but the third time he was defeated.

-OK, I would like to buy this one too. How much?

-I am giving it to you as a bonus, Sir. You spent a significant amount of money in my store. You are a good customer.

-Thank you very much. Again, it is a pleasure doing business with you.

-Pleasure is all mine, Sir. Your taxi is waiting for you.

-Wait a minute, I have to stop by a liquor store…

-Driver knows, Sir. He will take you to the closest store near your hotel and wait for you.

-Fantastic!

-If you tell me which Hotel you stay at, I will talk to driver so he can plan his trip. This last statement brought into John’s mind the question Tony Gang asked him when he landed. “Is this guy hand in hand with Tony?” The dilemma grabbed his mind again and his brain started creating scenarios after scenarios on who is working for whom and who would be on his side, rather than on Gang’s side. However, he realized that if he continues like this, he will eventually get paranoiac from anything and will not move forward at all. “This is ridiculous! I am not going to let these mixed sentiments and states of mind capture my focus! I am done! I will only act based on what my guts and my first instincts are telling me!”

-Yes, Sir! This is the Hotel I stay at; John realized that he did not have the jacket. He was always carrying a pen into the chest pocket.

-Do you have a pen I can borrow from you?

-Of course! Here you go, Sir!

John wrote the Hotel on a small piece of scrap paper and handed it over to the merchant.

-Very well, Sir! Let me talk to the driver. Here it is a bag, let’s put the books into it. Careful, it is heavy. Only when grabbing the large bag, John realized how heavy those books were! Each one was a piece of art – one could say – and the thick carton or papyrus covers (most of them covered as well by leather) were making the final product weigh an extra pound or so.

-Ok, thanks again for your help and have a good day!

-You too, Sir. Please let me know what other books you need and I will find them for you.

-That’s for sure. Bye, now!

-Bye, bye!

The cab driver was already instructed on what to do, where to stop and where to take his passenger. John couldn’t wait to start browsing through the books as his curiosity reached high levels and the adrenaline was flowing through his veins. After just five or ten minutes, the driver pulled in front of a liquor store, showing his customer with his index finger that this is the place to which he was told to take him. John got off the car and quickly entered the store. He wanted to get done with shopping for drinks as fast as possible; it was already three o’clock and his desire to browse through the books was so high, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t read Mandarin. However, the books were all richly illustrated which was making his good visual memory feel like a fish in the water. To his surprise, the store was packed with good quality stuff. From European, South American, California, Australia and South African wines, to fine cognacs, scotches and whiskies. He thought that he would just get in and out. But now he had choices on his hand…and the choices were multiple and almost all of them of high quality. After browsing through the store for fifteen minutes, he realized that he had to make a choice! “Common man, think! For sure we will have sea food. So, let’s look for a nice white wine that’s not too dry. Then we will have probably some pork and we will have to switch to red. At the end, for sure we will have some sweets so I will have to get a sweet white as well”

In five minutes, he made up his mind: he bought two bottles of a semi dry, one bottle of sweet white and another bottle of a nice red he discovered into a corner of the main shelf. “Now, what sort of hard liquor are we going to have in the beginning?” After hesitating for few minutes, John decided to buy a nice cognac for Vic and a single malt for them to enjoy at the table. He was very happy…in relatively short time, he managed to get the shopping done. The cab driver stepped on the gas pedal and shortly they found themselves in front of the hotel. John pulled a ten dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the driver. Apparently this gesture made an impression on the driver, as he carried all John’s stuff to the lobby. The bus boy took over and placed the bag with the books and the one with the alcohol on the trolley and immediately headed for the elevator. John spent another two or three minutes at the Reception asking for mail in his name and for messages. Nothing so far. So he headed for the elevator himself. Once he reached his apartment, he didn’t even consider changing his cloths and getting into a more relaxing attire. He was eager to open up those books he just bought and browse through them, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t read. There were so many great pictures in those pages! One book was of a particular interest to him: the one he was holding in his hands before the book seller showed up…the great picture showing the two armies facing each other and the short story told by the book store owner about the battles fought by General Wu Sangui against the peasant armies of Li Zicheng, started fascinating him. Right away he realized the drama through which the General had to go through. He opened up the Shanhai Pass to the Manchus at the time when he had no other choice. He made a tough choice when decided to side with the Manchus rather than with the peasants of Li Zicheng. And this was the choice that followed and haunted him to the grave. John didn’t realize, that the sun actually set and it was getting late. It was already five thirty! He jumped from the chair and in two minutes he was in the bathroom. It only took him few minutes to shave, take a shower and come out. Without hesitation, he put a pair of dress pants on, some nice casual leather shoes, a lose shirt and a nice vest which thus completed a casual, relaxed, yet well balanced and quite sophisticated attire. He called the Reception to get a cab for him. While leaving his apartment, he just couldn’t help but stopping by his neighbors door. There was no sound whatsoever coming from inside. John was even wondering if they are still occupying the apartment as he hasn’t seen or heard them in a while.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 29 (The Curse of the General)

An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.

Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.

Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.

 

Chapter 29

The Curse of the General

The sun was already up when he opened up his eyes. It was yet another beautiful day in the city and the thought that he was going to have a nice dinner with Vic and his fiancée at their place, away from people, away from people’s interrogative or just simply curious eyes, made him smile and purr like a spoiled male cat. He realized that Zhaohui will open up the well locked box of knowledge, information and legends from the late Ming Dynasty times and many things will eventually come together.

On this positive note, he hit the bathroom and quickly took a shower, brushed his teeth and dried his hair. He put on the same blue jeans he wore the night before, grabbed a pair of casual shoes, a sporty looking shirt and a light cotton V-shaped pullover and headed for the door. The restaurant was still serving breakfast. It was nine thirty and he figured out that a ten thirty show up at Wang’s place would be reasonable and will give him time to speak to the owner. The breakfast was frugal and quick, as he wanted to wander a little through downtown before heading to meet Mr. Wang.

The vibrant life of the city was transpiring through all its pores, through the myriad of the people walking on the sidewalks, the number of cars on the street and the busy street vendors who were unable to keep up with the demand.

Once out of the hotel, he simply wanted to enjoy that beautiful October morning by taking a walk through downtown. It was Saturday, but this city looked like it didn’t want to give up its status of the city which never sleeps, of a city which never surrenders its status of the most vibrant and lively city of the Republic. John blended soon through the crowd and took the same route as he took last night when he and his team broke into Mr. Wang’s restaurant.

The businesses were already opened waiting for their clients to step in; the countless taxis were serving a market of customers which was always on the move, showing how diverse and flexible the city life was. From offices and restaurants personnel, to street vendors and tourists, it seemed like everybody was moving around by cab. One thing John couldn’t understand was: why everybody was honking his horn? The streets were so jam packed that there was no way one car would get ahead of another one through acoustic signaling.

John walked for a little while, trying to absorb the vibe of the down town and its intricate ways of connecting people with people and businesses to businesses. He soon realized that it was time to go see Wang, as he initially planned. Crossed the street and headed for the restaurant. It was open and the customers were already starting to pour in. John stood for few seconds in front of the door trying to grab Mr. Wang’s attention somehow. The door to the kitchen was let open allowing him to direct both the kitchen activity and the restaurant section nearby.

Once he was spotted by the owner, he headed for the private cubicles, same as the ones where he took him and Vic last time.

John took a seat and waited for Mr. Wang to join him at the table. Within five minutes, the man who seemed like he was on his side showed up. He was wearing an apron, which would tell one that he doesn’t mind getting his hands into preparing the food himself, into helping with the auxiliary activities or even waiting at the tables. He was a true businessman who understood the fact that sometimes you have to lead by example. He slowly sat right in front of John and looked him straight into his eyes. It was more than obvious that he was waiting for John to start talking. Between the two men there was a thin layer of ice, but both of them knew that this little barrier would disappear in few moments. John didn’t know exactly how to start the discussion: telling right away the story, asking him directly if he was on his side or simply by “camouflaging” the story by another story. He decided to go with the first option…

-Mr. Wang, last night we broke into your office. The door was open and we thank you for this. His interlocutor slightly tilted his head into an affirmative sign which made John remember the conversation he had with Vic regarding the possibility that Wang managed to read their thought through a hidden listening device installed somewhere at the table. John decided to continue. In few sentences he explained what happened and included the last part when he was followed by the “mentally sick person” and the “policeman”. He expected to see some reaction on Wang’s face. However, no muscle moved on the face of his listener. This made John nervous, as he didn’t know anymore what to expect from the man in front of him. After listening the story, Wang stood up and discretely made a sign of: “follow me”. They crossed the whole room and inevitably headed for the kitchen and then through the corridor towards the office which by now was well known to John. Again and again, the same sensations captured his senses: the need to look for the girl upstairs (only hoping that this time she would show her face), the sense of claustrophobia due to the complete darkness (which was slowly grabbing his shoulders) and the mystical overall atmosphere of the place “beyond the kitchen”. Once inside the office, John remained by the door not knowing how to proceed. The light was still very pale and the obscureness of the room made him break the first sweat again. Little drops of the liquid (which symbolizes sometimes fear) were running down his temples. In this office, one would never knew what happened from one moment to another one. John couldn’t help but throwing a look at the side door where that mysterious person entered the office first time and almost gave him and Vic a heart attack. This time, Wang opened up the drawer of his desk first of all and pulled something one would say it looked like a kid’s toy but actually it was a compass. The owner of the restaurant made a sign which John took as an invite to join him. He slowly approached the desk and almost instantaneously his sight fell on the “toy” in front of him. It was greatly decorated with lively colors and one couldn’t help but admire the intricate details of the personages depicted on it.

Overall, it looked like a wooden box with a mechanism sticking out of it, while the face of the box (underneath the mechanism) was painted with mysterious characters of the Chinese Mythology or even Chinese History. John’s attention was fully captured by the devise in front of him. It seemed like a clock: it had two metal hands which looked like they were made out of brass or bronze. John figured out right away that this devise is very old, as the two clock hands were of a green color – the normal chemical reaction process of the copper from the brass or bronze in contact with the oxygen from the atmosphere. He realized that these two mechanical parts of the devise were massive, and the box itself was bulky too in order to support that weight on the top. His investigative mind started asking questions over questions: “How does this clock work? Is this a normal type of mechanical clock which needs somebody to use a key and wind up the mechanism? Is this Mr. Wang’s responsibility? What does this clock, or compass, or whatever this devise is, measure?” John’s curiosity reached a level which made him barely keep the emotions for himself and stopped short from asking Mr. Wang to answer all these doubts he was having. He understood that he must be patient, especially now when he figured out that the man in front of him was on his side. Rushing things won’t help the cause, it will only annihilate any chance he saw in getting Wang to talk and provide more details.

It was the moment when his interlocutor pulled a huge key out of the same drawer and placed it on the table. John understood that there is a mechanism inside and that the key will turn some gears which will make the two massive arms turn as well. Before inserting the key into an opening and performing the ritual, Mr. Wang pulled a rug from his drawer and carefully cleaned up the device, the top portion and the arms; then he performed the task of turning that huge key into a mechanism which nobody knew how it looked like and how it functions. The purpose of this box was only known by Wang and at that moment John was dying to know more about this time measuring device; or maybe its meaning was to measure the time left before the destines are coming together, before the mystical and cosmological cycles are filling out their set purpose and predestination. Again, he barely stopped from popping the question which was burning inside his chest; looked at Wang and realized that he was at that particular moment part of a ritual, part of an old custom which was asking for all his attention and knowledge. Mr. Wang was indeed part of that strange custom with all his being, with all his soul and mind as he carefully brought his hands above the box in a sign of protection, in a sign of paying respect or simply as part of the ritual. John congratulated himself for refraining in asking the questions which were tormenting himself from the moment he saw the box. The man in front of him almost went into a transcendental state, completely ignoring his guest. John could see that Wang’s eyes were closed while his two palms were still creating a globe-like, a dome-like shape above the box. Into John’s mind, it was something at least strange, but this was not the moment to judge anything as he badly wanted answers to the multitude of questions he had in mind. Few good minutes passed by and John started to feel uncomfortable, but under no circumstances whatsoever he wanted to disturb Wang.

-So, Mr. Parker…why did you want to see me?

John startled and looked at his interlocutor the way one looks at a ghost. “He doesn’t really know what happened last night? Is he still trying me for some reason? This man is so unpredictable and strange!”

-Well, Mr. Wang…last night we broke into your restaurant and into your office.

-I know that. What else do you need from me, Mr. Parker? John didn’t know how to approach this difficult individual anymore. He realized that he needs all the patience in the world in order to make him talk, open up, help.

-Mr. Wang, I am going to give you now the full story…John explained to the man in front of him what happened last night, the events they went through including the fact that he was followed. It was the time when the owner of the restaurant “uncovered” the box on top of each he created an imaginary dome and made a discreet sign, a sign of: “come over to see something”. John moved closer to the desk, but the sign was actually for him to go around the desk and join the intriguing man on the same side of the desk as he was. Wang pulled a flashlight from another drawer and light up the box at an extent at which John could admire it in all its splendor. It was a work of art first of all! The walls were made off of cherry tree, the natural reddish color of the wood giving the final product a splendid and aristocratic look. The top was sanded in such a way that a painter was able to paint some personages, personages which for an untrained eye could mean nothing more than some grotesque mythological figures interacting with each other for some reasons only a select group of people would know. However, the painting was in a perfect shape which made John understand that it was protected with a layer of some kind of wax or natural resin meant to maintain the freshness of the work. The arms of the “clock” were massive indeed! One could easy see that somebody was trying to keep them clean from the chemical reaction between copper and the atmosphere. The top portion was quite shinny showing the normal yellow color of the brass. This was the portion which John assumed that Mr. Wang was maintaining, as the sides and the bottom were impossible to reach with a sand paper without going through the risky business of scratching the paint underneath. However, the combination yellow-green of the arms was quite lively and it matched somehow the multitude of reds, yellows, greens and blues used by the painter to decorate the top of the box. John couldn’t help but pull a sigh of admiration from his chest. The intricate details of the paint, the red protruded eyes of those creatures (symbolizing perhaps a fighting situation), the interaction between them and the dramatism of the scene in the top right corner, made John cover his mouth with his hand. It was a sign of deep respect for the exquisite piece of art which was unveiling its beauty in front of him. He waited for Mr. Wang to say something, feeling like he should merely breathe, otherwise the delicate jewel would disappear. Few moments of silence encompassed the room again. Wang was in a state of mind which one could see that was tearing him apart – he wanted to relief the heavy burden he was bearing: the hidden meaning of that box. The hesitation seen on his face, made John believe that the secret Wang was about to expose was so dramatic and meaningful that after unveiling it, he would simply vanish as his purpose on the Earth was fulfilled and accomplished.

-What you think this box represent, Mr. Parker? John startled, as the question was unexpected and was asked into a moment when he was trying to weigh his options in making the man in front of him speak.

-I think it is a clock, Mr. Wang. A large waggish and tricksy smile blossomed on Wang’s face while pointing with his hand at the box in an attempt to tell John: “please have a better look”. John focused his whole attention at the piece of art in front of him. In few seconds, his perspicacity and quick quarter-back thinking found the answer: it was not a clock, as the disk was only divided into nine sections. Basically it was a “clock” with nine “hours” only. Each “hour” was labeled with a Chinese character painted with a different color.

-It is not a clock as it is only divided into nine sections. I do not know the meaning of those nine intervals.

-Right. It is not a traditional clock, but it still measures time. Wang’s face caught a mysterious look which made John understand that he was ready to relief the secret he was so reluctant to let go. “If he does tell me the meaning of this device…why does he do it? Why now? Why didn’t he do it earlier?” These questions were still puzzling John, but for now he was all eyes and ears, as he knew something big was coming.

-As you said, John…this is not a clock. But still measure time. Time not conventional as we know, but time to complete circle. John understood right away that both Wang and the box are an important part of the cosmological cycle in which he was thrown as well – or in which he was part from the very beginning.

-This “clock” measures generations. John felt like he was getting goose bumps. “Generations! We are talking now about generations! This curse – or whatever this cycle it is – is measured in generations. To what point? When does it end?” And only to make matters more intriguing, Mr. Wang started answering all these questions John just asked himself, making him strongly believe that the man standing in front of him, could actually read one’s brain, could anticipate questions and influence minds.

-Let’s start with beginning, John. How many arms do you see?

-Two, of course!

-Great. I told you that one measures generations. What do you think the other one measures?

-No idea, Mr. Wang…but I can see that the arm above is almost closing its cycle. If we were to compare it to a normal clock, it would probably be: 11.59; it has one more minute to go before completing its twelve hour cycle, I would say.

-Very good observation, Mr. Parker! And what would that “minute” be over nine generations?

-Well…a generation is usually considered to be forty years…judging by the distance between signs…I would say it is about ten years…

-Very well done, Mr. Parker! You smart! Yes, it is nine years left for the cycle to close and this last nine year period will come to a close soon…sooner than you would think.

-Is there anything I can do? How am I related to this cycle, to this circle of cosmological meaning, to this endeavor I cannot understand? His voice took a high pitching tone releasing a sign of distress and nervousness, a tone he just couldn’t control or at least hide. The mystery surrounding this office and the reluctance of this man to expose more information it was already driving his abilities to control himself at a point where he just felt like he wanted out of this story immediately. And same like before, Wang smiled and looked at him the way a parent looks at a naughty child who wants everything at once.

-Well, Mr. Parker…I believe you Americans have a say: “you can run, but you cannot hide”. This last statement made John’s temper reach its ultimate level of self-control and tolerance, it made his blood boil with anger and frustration. He wanted to walk away immediately; but another look at the box, pinned him down, made him give up the burst of uncontrolled energy which just surfaced. He closed his eyes, took few long breaths and slowly calmed down. Once and for all, he understood that Mr. Wang was a key player into this story and there was a reason why he was releasing information by bits and pieces. John opened up his eyes and inevitably took another look at the “story” depicted into the top right corner. A man hanging at the end of a rope, while another one was kneeled and had his forehead on the ground. The dramatism of the scene, made him focus his whole attention on the picture…the eyes of the hanged man were depicted in red color, eyes which were throwing thunderbolt like lights. The artist magnificently captured the dramatic end of a person who apparently committed suicide for a reason John couldn’t understand. Once again, Wang picked on John’s emotions and with the same calm and controlled voice asked:

-What else do you see when you look at the box, Mr. Parker? John’s eyes were still focused on the scene which captured his mind in the first place, but his distributive attention picked up on his interlocutor question immediately. He looked once again at the box and realized that the second arm of the “clock” was close to the position of the first one. The second one, was placed underneath and was just few degrees behind the main one, also closing in to reach the final destination.

-The arm below is closing in and it is not much behind the top arm.

-Exactly! Wang took another long break before he decided to look John straight into his eyes and release the information John was dying to know.

-The second arm is measuring another circle and cosmological meaning…John felt like he wanted to sit down, as the last statement took away his knees.

-What? Now we are talking about another curse? We are talking about another cycle which has to come to a complete end? No, no, no! I am tired already of circles, cosmological cycles and celestial meanings! I don’t want to hear of another thing like this anymore! I want the first one to get to the finish line and I want to head back home to my normal life!

-Of course you will head back home to your normal life, Mr. Parker. But if you go home now, you will have no peace for the rest of your life until the first circle closes its ends. Are you sure you want to do this? At this point, Wang’s voice caught a slight threatening tonality which didn’t go unnoticed on John’s side.

It was the signal that he was stuck with this assignment until the end. But the introduction of the second one, was something totally unexpected, was something that he felt like he couldn’t take anymore. Since he landed, he was introduced into a world of mysticism, into a world of ancient legends which (for some reason) were due to come to a celestial closing now when he made it to China. Frustration reached levels he never expected and his eyes were almost demanding answers. Mr. Wang slowly covered the box with a cotton rug and placed it into the drawer again. John took this latest move as a signal that the conversation was over. Immediately he realized that he made a mistake by being too rough and blunt with his statements. The need to apologize surfaced right away.

-Mr. Wang, I am sorry for offending you. Please accept my sincere apologies. The intriguing man in front of him startled and with the same slow and calculated movements took the box out of the drawer, unveiled it and looked John straight into his eyes:

-Mr. Parker…you must control feelings! You cannot succeed if you aggressive. Patience is greatest virtue. Please remember this.

-I apologize again, Mr. Wang. I was rude and I am sorry.

-No, you were not rude. But you were un-patient. This no good. You must be strong. If you calm and calculated, you strong. This is power of mind! Power of heart only good for battlefield. But fight starts before battlefield. If you win that battle, is easy to win battlefield battle. You understand what I tell you?

-Yes, Mr. Wang and I thank you for this.

-No, no thank you. You good man. But you need to learn Chinese way. Now let me tell you the box story…top arm is one story; bottom arm is the second story. Wang took a long break and for few minutes one would say that he was doing breathing exercises. He was actually controlling his emotions through a series of inhaling and exhaling routines which seemed to be strange at first, but ultimately accepted by John as being good preparatory exercises before releasing the knowledge he was so much expected!

-Chongzhen Emperor – last emperor of Ming Dynasty – made a big mistake: fourteen years before the fall of Beijing walls to the peasants of Li Zicheng, he ordered the execution of General Yuan Chonghuan – supreme military Commander of the North-East forces. This decision was a devastated blow to the moral of the troops. Yuan Chonghuan fought many, many years at the Northern border to keep Manchus from invading China. He was loyal and brave and dedicated his life to serving the Emperor. However, the Court intrigues prevailed and he was executed…it was the beginning of the end for the Ming Dynasty.

Before the execution, Chonghuan cursed the Emperor with his last words. He cursed Chongzhen Emperor to never rest for nine generations to come and cursed him to reach a day when he will have to kill his own children. When Beijing walls fell to the peasants, Empress Xiaojie Lie committed suicide while the Emperor killed his concubines. One of his daughters had her arm cut by the sword when trying to defend herself. She escaped the scene with the help of two foreigners, Portuguese sailors, and traders of goods with the Imperial Court. It is believed that this man took her to a Buddhist Monastery where the monks healed her wound. There, she mastered the old Chinese fighting arts. The Buddhist monks loved her for her fighting spirit, for her tenacity and courage in spite of the fact that she only had one arm. They also loved her as they knew she was the daughter of Chongzhen Emperor – extremely appreciated by them for all the rights he granted them. It is also believed that after years of learning the way of sword and spear, after learning the way of self-control and the way of bare hands fighting, she moved from village to village, from town to town and fought the soldiers and the officials of the new Manchu Dynasty: Qing. She helped the poor and the helpless and became the “Empress of the people”. The men of the newly crowned Manchu Emperor, Shunzhi, looked for her all over the country. But she had the help of the people and escaped every time. For twenty years the soldiers of the Manchu Emperor couldn’t catch her. Twenty seven years after she was taken to the monastery, an official she trusted, betrayed and ratted her to the military commander of the Guangzhou City. One thousand soldiers were sent to capture her. She killed many of them, but finally she was defeated and sentenced to die by decapitation. It is also believed that one of the sailors (who saved her from the Palace during the fall of Beijing to the peasants and was doing at the time some trading in the South), bribed the military commander with a huge amount of silver and took her away on his ship, sailing to the South. Some legends are saying that they became lovers, turned pirates and tormented Imperial Navy all over the Southern China Sea, destroying the ships, taking huge ransoms for caught officials and giving the money away to the poor, the helpless and Buddhist Monasteries. Her name was: Changping.

The Emperor also had three sons, who all escaped that night of terror.

Cilang and Gijiong were the sons of the Empress Xiaojie Lie who committed suicide. It is believed that they headed South to escape the rage of Li Zicheng’s peasants. The legend says that both of them joined the resistance movement in the South and were important figures of the newly Taiwanese Kingdom: Kingdom of Tungning. It is also believed that during the lost battle off Penghu (when 300 Imperial ships commanded by Admiral Shi Lang attacked Tungning), their ship sank and they were both taken prisoners. But the ships carrying them North were attacked by pirates. These were the pirate ships of the former Portuguese trader and Changping. The two brothers were recognized immediately by their sister. Together, for another seventeen years they fought many battles into the Southern China Sea, Gulf of Thailand and as far as Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, producing great damage to the Imperial Navy and the commercial ships of the newly Qing Emperor: Kangxi. Changping and her two brothers grew bolder and bolder. They now commanded many pirate ships, choking the trade of the Qing. This situation became unacceptable to the Emperor and he set a huge amount of money as a reward for anybody who would help the Imperial Navy to get to them. One of the most trusted lieutenants they had, ratted the brothers out and many ships were summoned to catch them. Cilang and Gijiong were caught off of coast of Vietnam and after a furious and bloody battle they had their ships sunk. During the fight, they both got killed. The losses in men and ships to the Imperial military convoy were significant.

Changping revenged her brothers when she intercepted the Imperial Navy vessels heading back up North and sunk them all. Emperor Kangxi was outraged! The Portuguese trader caught word of this through his many contacts at the Imperial Court (contacts he was still bribing with silver and gold) and decided to hide for a while into the safety of the Philippines Islands. Changping wanted to fight. Against his advice, she took ten ships and sailed North. She fell into the trap set by Imperial Commander. Many sailors were killed by the pirates of Changping. She got badly hurt and was taken prisoner. Because she did not want to be humiliated through execution, she managed to jump off the ship that was carrying her. In spite of the fact that all the ships of the convoy were looking for her, nobody could find her body.

It is believed that she still managed to swim and hide under a floating wooden section of one of the ships destroyed into the battle. The folklore is saying that she made it to the shore where she was found by the fishermen of a small fishing village. They took care of her for many weeks. When hearing that she escaped, her lover wandered for years through the waters of South China Sea, from village to village to find her. In his heart he knew that she made it safely to the shore. It was their destiny that brought them together, it was their destiny to be together for the rest of their lives. It is believed that they never found each other and their souls are still looking to be re-united. This legend has been carried on for centuries now by the villagers of the small fishing villages all along the coastal line of South China Sea and as far as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Mr. Wang took a long break, as if he was exhausted by the effort of telling the story. But John knew that he was just trying to recollect and get over the emotions by which he was encompassed. There was so much information received, that John couldn’t say a word anymore. He was overwhelmed and more confused than ever. “How are all of these events reflecting into my role in this story? Why am I still a part of it? How are my predecessors’ ties related to the events?” This adventure started to become a nightmare, as John simply couldn’t tie anything from what Wang was telling him, to whatever he knew about his predecessors. The man in front of him realized that John was in a sort of difficulty and with a friendly and calm voice said:

-You have to take it easy, John. There are many things you do not understand, but when the time comes, all the pieces will fall into the place, the puzzle will relieve its secrets and you will understand that you are indeed part of the story, you are one of the main players either if you like it not.

This last statement fell above him like a hammer! All the information he tried to gather, all his efforts, all his plans are futile as he was also the subject of a predestined scenario, of a godly (or somebody greater – the Universe perhaps) plan to bring all the subjects together and settle the scores and the dispute so the circle of cosmological destiny will come to a close. The disappointment on his face didn’t go unnoticed by the smart man in front of him. It was once again a confirmation that Mr. Wang had a superpower of reading one’s mind:

-John…you have to let things happen. You cannot influence the power of the curse and its way to reach the finale. We are all just small players into the great and tumultuous mix of energies, personages and destinies the great Universe is planning on us.

John dropped his head and for few minutes he was unable to say a word anymore. He came in to express his concern in the fact that he was followed last night by two individuals dressed up into a policeman and a lunatic; to his great disappointment, the man in front of him looked like he was not bothered at all by this event, looked like he had other things to care of, things a lot greater than the small incident believed to be of huge importance by John. Slowly but surely, John started understanding that all the little things he is doing: following Tony and his neighbors through the two detectives he hired and trying to break down Li Jie’s sophisticated software (or technique) in draining company’s funds, were just small steps of relatively little importance into the overall synergy of the Cosmic destiny of the players involved into the curse.

“But what is the finale of the story? How will it end? Who the players are? He said that the Emperor was cursed to kill his children and never rest for nine generations to come. He did kill one of his daughters and tried to kill another one as well. Changping escaped and became the pivotal personage of a great legend. Two of the three sons fought alongside her and the Portuguese trader and eventually were killed. How will the broken chain links come together?” John wanted to ask all these questions, but Mr. Wang was almost into a transcendental state of mind. He was looking at the door, but his mind was obviously somewhere else. Maybe he was just tired from the long story he just finished telling. But John knew that the man in front of him was looking for answers as well as he didn’t know either how this circle of knitted destinies will close at the end.

-So, John…I believe you have lots of questions to ask. John startled as it looked like once again, his interlocutor read his mind. There were too many questions he wanted to ask, but in the same time he didn’t want to annoy the interlocutor with the ones which didn’t have relevance (in his mind) to the finale of the story. He summoned up his strength and with a soft tonality into his voice asked the questions that were bothering him since he started learning about the curse:

-How will this curse end? What is the finale? Who will the players be at the end, when supposedly all the parties are joining in and settle the scores? What is the meaning of this finale? Will the curse end and the Emperor will finally get his rest?

John held his breath as he only wanted to ask about the finale and his role into the whole story. However, he has been holding inside his chest all these questions for a week and the quantity of new information he has been absorbing was so great, that he just couldn’t keep them any longer locked. He had to get them out! Now he was holding his breath waiting for Mr. Wang’s answers. Few minutes passed by and the mysterious man whose behavior was at least intriguing to John, didn’t speak. It looked like he either was trying to weigh his answers or he was considering declining the request. To John, it felt like a century!

-Well, Mr. Parker…you have a great way of asking questions. The way you do it, demands answers, which is not that bad…but you must be careful: most of the time, the lack of patience turns against people who do not understand that you cannot rush things, you cannot force the Universe to move at the speed you want. We are all subjects of the great synergies which are embracing us from the moment we are born. We are all part of the same Universe, but our destinies are different only because they are placed into a different cosmological circle, different trajectory. Sometimes these circles of destiny are intersecting each other and that is when strange people walk into our lives. These people could become permanent presence into our lives, or could be just temporary visitors. My question to you is: which circle do you think you belong to, Mr. Parker? To the one from back home, or to the new one which you just stepped in, the one which just intersected to the one you belonged until now? This is my answer to you, John. You will find your answers when you figure out the answer to my question.

Wang’s answer angered John! “What does he mean: which circle do I belong to? Is he crazy? Doesn’t he already know that this assignment is temporary only and I will be heading back home immediately after I am done with this curse, destiny, circle of cosmological meaning, or whatever the heck this is supposed to be, immediately after I figure out where J.J.’s money is leaking to? I am done with him! I am fed up with all these secret messages and hidden significances, with all these legends and traditions and unsettled scores between personages I didn’t even know they existed before landing here”

John was fuming from distress and Wang observed it. With a smile on his face, the mysterious man addressed his interlocutor with another question:

-What do you think is your meaning on this Earth, John?

John’s jaw dropped. He never expected a question like this. Actually he never asked himself these sort of questions. To him, the life was straight forward: he was happily married to Linda, he had two beautiful kids presently in College, he had a job he liked and he also had his little hobbies which were keeping him active and upbeat. What else? He and his family were healthy and happy and this was everything that mattered to him.

In few words he replied to Mr. Wang with the thoughts which crossed his mind few seconds ago. For few moments, the two men looked into each other’s eyes and a deep silence settled in. It was clear that Wang had a totally different view on life as he avoided to open up a discussion anymore. He carefully packed the box, covering it with that material which looked like silk and had a golden dragon embroided on it, then placed it back into the drawer.

-I am sorry, I have to go. I have many customers. Thank you for visiting me.

John realized that Mr. Wang was disappointed with his answer. But this is how he felt at that moment, this was his honest answer to a question as complicated and philosophical as possible. He dropped his head again, released a sigh of disappointment as well and headed for the door. He felt like he was losing an ally in that moment, but he did not turn around. He opened up the door and wanted to head outside into the hallway. The darkness made him wait for his host, who was following closely. After locking the door, the restaurant owner took the lead; he was holding the large flashlight in his hand. When passing by the kitchen area, he stopped for few seconds and with the eyes of a hunting hawk scrutinized the activity: the auxiliary personnel was preparing the raw material expected by the chefs, the cooks were busy, the waiters could barely keep up with the orders, the large pot of his famous Wonton soup was lazily boiling on a separate stove enticing one’s nostril’s senses at the point of: “I must have it” while the multitude of Woks on the adjacent stoves were releasing the great flavors of the Sichuan, Shanxi or Jiangsu Cuisine.

-Mr. Parker, please have a seat and have lunch.

John looked at his wrist watch and realized that it was already one o’clock. He had just five hours left until he was supposed to have dinner at Vic’s. But he didn’t want to refuse the offer either – it would’ve been insulting and this was the last thing he wanted to do, especially now when he felt a little strain in his relationship with the man who apparently was holding so many secrets and knew so many things related to that particular era, an era of special interest to him.

-Sure and I thank you for your offer, Mr. Wang but tonight I am invited for dinner and I cannot show up there saying: “I cannot eat”. I will have a bowl of your famous Wonton soup though. You cannot go wrong with that! Both men burst into a large and sincere laughter. John was invited to sit into the same booth he and his friend sat before, while the restaurant owner headed for the kitchen and personally took care of John’s order.

During those eight minutes in which he was waiting for his soup, John grabbed his head with his palms and while looking at a certain spot on the table cloth, started processing the tremendous amount of new information he received. All his detective like type of work is futile? How is he going to figure out to where J.J.’s money is funneled? According to Wang, all the right pieces of the puzzle will fall in place when the time is right. “Apparently, I am one of those pieces and my place in the story is well determined. The question is: who is saying that I must be part of it and why? Who am I to be one of these Lego pieces which at a certain point in time (soon as I just heard) will come together and close this circle of Cosmological destines and synergies? Who is Wang and who is the great personage from the book? He said that the warrior was Emperor’s bodyguard. The resemblance to Wang is stunning! Is the fierce warrior from the picture a predecessor of Mr. Wang? When I asked him where the bodyguard was when the Palace was taken by the peasants, he invited us out of the room. Then the great story about Changping and Portuguese trader! How is this lovely legend related to the Emperor’s destiny? General Yuan Chonghuan cursed the Emperor to reach a day when he would have to kill his children, which he did. Changping escaped and became the head of the resistance against Qing Dynasty. The Emperor committed suicide prior to Changping becoming the fierce warrior who opposed Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty for so many years…

How about the second story, a story of which finale is measured by the other clock arm of the box I have just seen? Is there supposed to be a second curse, a second circle of destinies which is intersecting with the first one at a certain point? I have to read about this period, otherwise things just don’t add up!”

-Here it is your soup, John. I hope you will enjoy it.

-Thank you Mr. Wang. John wanted to ask the man in front of him more about the second arm of that clock, about a second circle of cosmological destinies, a second curse or spell…but stopped short, as he didn’t know how Wang will react. Based on the disappointment seen on Wang’s face (when John couldn’t answer the straight forward question Wang asked: “What do you think is your meaning on this Earth, John?”), he avoided stirring up again his host’s discontent. He refrained himself to pleasantries: “this soup of yours is to die for” and “I hope you will have a wonderful weekend, Mr. Wang”

-You too, Mr. Parker, I hope you will enjoy dinner at your friend’s and I also hope you will have a wonderful Sunday too. It will be nice and sunny and the temperature will be 23-24 Centigrade. Beautiful weather for a walk in a garden somewhere. Do you know that Suzhou has some wonderful gardens you can visit? I recommend Humble Administrator’s Garden. I go there quite often. It’s relaxing.

-Thank you for the tip! For sure I will visit it.

-Very well, enjoy your soup now. Wang turned around and made few steps, then simulating that he forgot something at the table, came back and with a soft but firm voice while looking straight into John’s eyes, said:

-You cannot escape your destiny, John. No matter what you do, you are part of the Curse of the General.

This statement fell again like a hammer on John. His Adam’s apple was sliding up and down in a sign of deep distress. It was something he didn’t want to hear, he hoped from the bottom of his heart that will never be true, that will never have to take its course and drag him into it.

Wang was already gone when John finally lifted his head. He felt the need to walk, the need to take a breath of fresh air, so he immediately stood and walked to the exit. The sidewalks were packed with people. John didn’t even pay attention to which direction he was heading. He just wanted to walk and clear up his mind.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 22 (Mr. Wang)

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 22

Mr. Wang

John set the alarm for 6.30 am. He wanted to get a head start for the day and be in the Office as early as possible, in spite of the fact that Vic was hinting that they should go later.

When the alarm went off, he felt like the whole ceiling fell upon him. Those six and a half hours of sleep, were not nearly enough for him. The previous day was long and was filled with surprises making him go through emotions he didn’t want, emotions he didn’t need to start his new endeavor with. He hit the snooze button and turned on the other side with a deep satisfaction that he had the choice not to wake up and go for another short nap. Eventually, he was awaken by his cell phone. Still half asleep, he reached to the night stand and searched for the cell. Vic was calling. Immediately he knew he overslept.

-Good morning, John!

-Hey, Vic! Morning! John’s voice was similar to a sound made by a grossly out of key musical instrument.

A huge laughter one could’ve heard on the other side of the line. It was Vic, who understood immediately that John was going through the jet legging phase and he needed more time to rest.

-Looks like someone still needs a bit more time to spend into the bed. John, why don’t we do this: I let you sleep another three hours and I come over to pick you up and take you out for lunch. What do you think?

-Sure, let’s do it. I feel like I need another 24 hours of sleep.

-Ha ha ha! OK, I either call you from the Lobby, or I will ask the Receptionist to take me up to your apartment. See ya, buddy! Vic hung up and John went back to sleep with an immense contentment that he had another two or three hours of sleep on his hand.

The sun’s rays were now hitting John’s window and before John opened up his eyes he let the bright light and the rays flood and play games on his face, feeling that this new dawn deserved a little pampering. When he finally opened up his eyes, the bedroom was immersed into the natural light of the sun, emphasizing the modern layout of the room. John headed for the bathroom and decided to take advantage of the great amnesties provided by the hotel, so he took a deep into the bathtub. He then set the TV on news. The Chinese version of his favorite news channel was broadcasting in English. Nothing to catch his attention but a graph on the Financials section which was showing a market trend different from what he saw back home. This was on an ascendant trend all the way to the end of the year as opposing the one he saw yesterday which was showing a descending trend. He raised his left eye browse in a sign which was showing that he was not convinced that what he is seeing is right. He started paying more and more attention to what it was shown on the screen. To his distress, another channel which was based in Hong Kong showed the same trend which made John nervous this time. “How are these guys doing their number crunching? How are they coming up with graphs which are completely different from ours?” He shook his head, got out of the bathtub and entered the shower. In few seconds he rinsed himself, got out of the shower, put the robe on and headed straight for the living room. He turned on the TV into this room as well, while drying his hair. The view was spectacular. The business district was already looking like a swarm and John figured out that it must be around lunch time. The TV was showing 11.20 am so he headed straight for the dresser where last night he placed his suit, the shirt and the shoes he was planning to wear today. A “ding/dong” sound came from the entrance and John realized that it was Vic. He took a look through the peep hole and confirmed: Vic was standing in front of the door, accompanied by the receptionist. John opened up and vigorously shook his hand. Vic thanked the girl for accompanying him up and closed the door behind him.

-I have visited this room twice before, but I have never seen it in the middle of the day, never seen it bathing into the full day light. It is awesome! And the view is simply breath taking.

-Yes, Vic! You did a good job. Both men laughed.

-Vic, I still have to dress. Please make yourself at home. I don’t even know what is in the fridge. If you want a shot of a Cognac now, before lunch, just go ahead and help yourself. I had a drink last night when I got into my room. It is a very good quality Cognac.

-No John, thanks for offering. Not much interested into spirits. John stopped into the door’s frame while still looking at Vic. Actually he realized yesterday at the dinner table that he refrained from ordering another beer. First thought into John’s mind was: “he doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his fiancé”, but now, he had the proof: Vic gave up drinking, or he was very cautious while having a drink. John quickly understood that Zhaohui was a big part of this change and felt like he was lucky that Vic was now completely off the hook when was coming down to drinking. “Now I can completely rely on him” murmured John to himself while stepping into the bedroom to dress up for the first day into the Shanghai Office.

Vic opened up the fridge and then the kitchen cabinets. Little bags of cashews and Brazil nuts were available, as well as candies and other typical Chinese pastries. He grabbed a bag of cashews, made himself comfortable into one of the sofas and started watching TV. John finished dressing into a record timing.

-Looking good, Mister…looking good! Vic pulled an admiring laughter and stood up ready to head out. John was wearing a nice, light green with thin bluish color vertical stripes suit and black shoes. His shirt was light blue and the tie a light green also with very fine grey stripes. His nice black lightly grizzled hair was complementing the suit revealing at the end a man of a great attire taste and dominating posture. Both men headed out towards the elevators. One could’ve said that they were both in a very good mood as their faces were radiant and jovial. But a finer human behavior observer would’ve immediately realized that behind these nice smiles, there was a deep sense of inquietude, a sense of uneasiness, of worry and anxiety. For John was the “D day”. He found himself engaged into this new endeavor completely new to him, into this attempt to do a detective’s work, to investigate a situation which was probably the field of expertise for a FBI financial expert. Last night, while contemplating the great view of the Huangpu River he asked himself this very question: “Why isn’t J.J. talking to FBI? Looks like this thing has been lingering around for some time now. Why isn’t Glenworth asking for professional help?” But every time John was calling upon this dilemma, he was the one who provided an answer: “He is too proud to ask for help”. On this particular morning while showering, John’s mind produced another hypothesis: “What if he doesn’t want to get to the bottom of this? What if he is deliberately draining funds and place them into a safe heaven, a tax free place? He spent lots of money on his horse farm in Montana and on the breeding program he has on the go. He wants to have a Kentucky winner, this is one of his dreams. What if he is trying to make now up for all the investments he made into the farm?” This was a long shot and John put it into an imaginary vault in his brain. He didn’t want to believe that this could be even remotely possible, as J.J. was like a father for him. He had such a great respect for his boss and a scenario like the one he imagined, would’ve been devastating for him.

For Vic, it was also something new, something he really didn’t want to be part of, something which was putting him into a situation to make waves in the Office. He didn’t want that. He just wanted to go on with his new life, get married to Zhaohui and enjoy a good life in Shanghai. That is why, his forehead was showing shadows of discomfort which he was trying to hide through showing a happy, jovial and cheerful face. But Scott instructed him into the smallest details on what to do and how to help John with his work. There were many late night conference calls with J.J. and Scott and the gravity of the situation was numerous times stressed out and emphasized by the two top Executives of the Company. Now, he had to step out of his comfort zone, to join John in doing probably some field work and detective type of investigation. “This doesn’t look too good. Let’s see what John can come up with. I will play by the ear”.

Before reaching the elevators, John stopped few feet from his neighbors’ door, positioning his body as close as possible to the angle from which he spied on them. The door was closed but John turned his head and looked the opposite way. It was a clear view of the other’s apartment’s door. “Hmmm…did they want to keep an eye on those guys? Why was the man sitting with his back at the door?” John shook his head in a sign of: “can’t answer this” while a barely visible cloud of restlessness traveled across his forehead.

Vic carefully watched latest John’s moves and with an intrigued, puzzled voice asked him what he is doing.

-I will tell you a story when we get to the Restaurant. Right now, I cannot say it. I am as hungry as a wolf.

-Hey, this is my line!

Both of them burst into a big and noisy laughter while the doors of the elevator were closing. The restaurant was not too far from the hotel. It took the taxi driver five minutes but only because it was already lunch time and people were pouring into the streets in search of a place to eat. This particular one which Vic picked, was the type of restaurant where you get served fast, you have a limited variety of dishes you can choose from, but whatever one orders is of good quality and decent price. As expected, the waiter showed up pretty fast and Vic took the liberty of ordering by himself after asking John if this was ok with him.

-Now, let’s hear what you wanted to tell me. I am dying to find out! Vic rubbed his palms against each other in a sign that his curiosity level reached proximity. He couldn’t quite understand how John managed to get into something “exciting” in just one day.

John paused for a little and looked straight into Vic’s eyes. In his mind, it was his last chance to figure out where his colleague stood, if he could trust him, if he could grant him his whole trust. For few seconds, the two men looked into each other’s eyes…finally, John decided to open up. It was a sign that he decided to fully trust Vic and move forward. He started the story from the moment he tried to fix the bulb light. The wall picture made it into his tale, the scare he went through when a woman who was always standing into the dark suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the opened door and the male who was doing a sort of Yoga on the floor and finally the appearance of the woman who scared him, this time accompanied by another woman.

-Wow! You really got yourself into big trouble Mister! Vic tried to keep a straight face. John realized the irony and jokingly punched his interlocutor into the shoulder.

-You can laugh as hard as you can, but last night I thought that my heart stopped for few seconds. That terrifying mythological scene on the wall, the flickering light and the mysterious woman who showed up out of nowhere and just wouldn’t show her face made me break a good sweat.

-I believe you. I would’ve probably peed into my pants. They both broke into an immense laughter at which time the waiter showed up with their Shanghai Wonton soup. It looked delicious and John couldn’t wait to taste it.

-It doesn’t look at all the way it does back home.

-Of course it doesn’t. No Chinese food in China looks alike to what we have back in America. Those are customized for the American market. Even so, this Shanghai Wonton Soup you can only find it around Shanghai area. If you ask for Shanghai Wonton soup in Canton, you will not get what you are getting here. Not too many people know how to make it and the recipe is passed from generation to generation from father to son. Some people think they know the secret. Don’t trust them. This is one of the few places that makes it for many, many years. The owner proudly is telling anyone (who wants to listen to him) the story of their family business. They started first in the old Shanghai area, by the docks. That was the time when they made a little fortune by selling this soup to the dock laborers. Mr. Wang is the owner and if you want I can introduce you to him.

-You know the owner of a place that sells one of the most famous Chinese soups in the whole Shanghai?

-I know lots of people, John…lots. I know how to get around in this little town. With one hand, Vic grabbed John by the left shoulder and looked straight into his eyes. For John, the last ounce of doubt disappeared. He knew that he could trust Vic from now on. However, he still was a little uncomfortable with the fact that Vic was sharing everything with his fiancée. The Office stuff should stay at the office in his mind. However, he remembered that he just did the same back home when he told Linda everything including the funds drainage and the fact that J.J. was suspecting Tony Gang. He kept quiet, refraining from asking Vic a question which probably would’ve put a dent into their relationship. And right now, he badly needed Vic’s help. John looked at him and with a straight forward manly voice he thanked Vic. He was sincere and Vic realized that right away. It was like he picked up a sixth sense since he moved to China. John was more and more surprised by the “new” Vic: the all new look, the sharpness of his thinking, the lively, dynamic and energetic way he was moving, all these made John understand that he will be a great help in getting his task done. One phrase though, worried him a bit: “I know lots of people, John…lots”. What sort of people? Good or bad? John realized that there is no point in splitting the hair, so he quit making up scenarios based on suppositions. “I will find a way to ask him more about Zhaohui.” The main course showed up and John had the nice surprise to see one of his favorite Chinese dishes showing up: Kung Pao chicken. “Wait a minute…how did he know that this is one of my favorite Chinese dishes? He ordered in Chinese…” But before even finishing asking himself the question, Vic came up with the answer:

-I figured that you like Kung Pao chicken. It is on the top of the Americans’ preferences when they come to China. However, it is a bit different from back home. I asked them to go easy on red chilly papers. I remember myself eating this dish for the first time. My mouth was on fire. I couldn’t eat more than half of what they brought. I was crying like a kid and the people around me were laughing their pants off. Vic started laughing and eventually a sigh came out of his chest putting an end to his amusement…it was a sort of: “those were the days” sigh. His face brightened up completely as one would’ve rightly guessed that Vic was re-living the days when he first came to Shanghai.                                 “I have to ask him more about his life in China. These seven years turned him into a totally different person. He dropped half of his body weight, by now he is probably few years alcohol free (well, he is having a beer there and there as I understood), he is about to get married and he has plans for the future. Why didn’t Scott tell me about Vic’s metamorphosis? All along I thought I would find that fat Office guy who was partying like nobody else, who had alcohol issues and was also gambling. Honestly, I don’t even know how he managed to keep his job back home. Or maybe that’s why J.J. and Scott sent him here, to clean himself up” There were still so many questions John wanted to ask, but he realized that he must be patient. He realized that Vic changed not only physically, but also on the way he was thinking, on the way he was conducting himself: more cautious, more balanced, more laid back. For John, this sort of pace was completely new and unexpected. He wanted things to move fast, as if he was stepping on the gas pedal of his muscle car, like back home in America. But to his disappointment, he was more and more convinced that this was not possible. He realized that he walked into a completely different environment, a different culture, into another way of doing business.

-This looks great!

-Yes it does, John. And I assure you that its taste is at least at the par with the way it looks.

-Fantastic! I am as hungry as a wolf!

-Hey, stop using my line! I want to patent it so I can make some money off of it!

The mood at the table couldn’t have been more favorable to a great lunch and a great discussion among old colleagues, among two men who in spite of the fact that they were never good friends, found a common ground to understand that they are on the same side of the fence and need to complement one another, need to work together and get the job done. At this point, John wanted to ask Vic about his opinion on the assignment, but again…something stopped him. He didn’t realize why he stopped short from asking the question, but his gut feel, his consciousness or just a hidden instinct told him not to do it. He already realized that he has to change, as life here (in spite of the fact that this was China’s most vibrant city), follows ancient traditions which are mostly praising patience.

-Oh, Mr. Wang! Mr. Wang, how are you? I have not seen you in a long time. I hope everything is alright.

-Mr. Vic! Mr. Vic! I am well. Thank you. Very busy, very busy, Mr. Vic. Restaurant give headache.

-Nothing wrong with being busy. Is good for business.

-Yes, but too much business not good, said the man in front of them while pulling a high pitched laughter out of his chest. Mr. Wang was a short to medium built man, in his mid-sixties almost bold (just a thin tuft of hair was left on his head, which he was letting grow so he could turn it few times to cover as much as possible of the top of his head). He had a decent size belly on which he was resting his fatty hands by always having his fingers crossed, assuring this way that the hands won’t slip. His fingers were complimenting the hands and looked like little sausages. Mr. Wang was always wearing a white shirt and a tie. At the first sight, John understood right away that Mr. Wang gained significant weight lately as the buttons of the shirt he was wearing were so tensed that one would believe they are ready to pop up. His face was white and probably from the extra weight he was carrying, was always sweaty. A handkerchief he was holding between the left thumb and left index finger was often used to clear the sweaty forehead, the neck and the hands. His pants were held by a pair of suspenders, which same like the shirt’s buttons, showed as being under a high level of tensile stress.

-Mr. Wang, let me introduce to you my friend John. John, this is Mr. Wang. John stood up and with a smile on his face and a respectful voice greeted his new interlocutor: “Nice to meet you Mr. Wang”.

-Nice to meet you Mr. John. My pleasure.  Mr. Wang (probably due to the fact that he was a short man), had a habit of lifting his body in a way in which the heels were not touching the ground anymore, giving thus the interlocutor the feel that he was taller. However, the up and down motion of his body was creating a pretty hilarious scenario, as the top of his head was obviously following the same direction as the body and sometimes the tuft was turning into a long thin strand of hair falling all over his face.

-How long you be in Shanghai Mr. John?

-Mr. Wang…I hope to stay as little as possible. Instinctively, John looked at Vic. This time he slowly and barely perceptively raised his left eye browse in a sign which John should’ve read: “Don’t raise your hopes so high, buddy”

John saw Vic’s reaction and understood that he was not against him, that he could count on him, but the time frame set by John to get the job done was unrealistic. John’s face brightened up. “That’s OK, I will show Vic that we can do things at a faster pace, like back home”.

-Mr. John, I see that you finish meal. You are Mr. Vic friend. I like show you my family roots, if you don’t mind.

-Mr. Wang, we have to go, maybe another time…Vic’s reaction was unexpected and John was quite surprised.

-Mr. John, no much time. Just five minutes.

-OK Mr. Wang, but we need to make it short as we have to head for the Office.

-Of course, of course! Wang took the lead and headed for his Office followed by John and Vic. John turned around and with a muffled voice asked Vic:

-What was that? Why did you react so adversely?

-You’ll see. He will begin the story of his family starting all the way from Ming Dynasty. John almost burst in laughter. He stopped and Vic bumped into him. “We are screwed, man! You should’ve never accepted. He is preying on people to tell them the story of his ancestors.

-How was I supposed to know?

-Next time, just say that I make the schedule and you must follow my lead.

-Good deal. This is what we will be doing from now on. Let’s learn some History now…Vic looked at the ceiling and grabbed his head with both hands. The very idea that he had now to listen (yet again) at Wang’s speech was driving him insane. Most likely he heard the story many times before, as his face was now showing real anger. But he decided not to make an act out of it and followed Wang and John. From the Restaurant, the back door was the “secret” passage towards Mr. Wang quarters. But first, they passed the kitchen area: it was packed with chefs, cooks, auxiliary personnel, while the waiters were waiting at a window to pick up their orders. Wang stopped for few seconds and with the eye of someone who knows the business inside out, made a quick assessment: cooks, helpers, auxiliary personnel, were all at their work stations and the waiters were busy as bees. A large smile flourished on his face, as he personally trained most of them. It was one’s pride after a job well done. The corridor was dark as most of the bulb lights were not functioning. One bulb light was flickering and John again tried to fix it while passing by.

-Don’t bother Mr. John. I call electrician. No bulb light fault. Electric problem.

John couldn’t help but relate this situation to the one from the hotel. “Hmmm. This is becoming a nuisance. Flicking bulb lights, dark hallways, and enigmatic women showing up from the darkness” When John’s eyes got again accustomed with the obscure light of the corridor, he realized that Wang was not standing in front of him anymore. He turned around and looked at Vic:

-Where is Wang?

-He went upstairs while you were playing with that bulb light. John looked at his left and realized that some wooden stairs were connecting the ground floor to the upper level. Mr. Wang was apparently rich, as he could afford to pay the rent for this two level building. The stairs were as dark as the hallway; this whole scenario almost made John sweat and a sense of mystics and pre-destiny grabbed his shoulders. Wang showed up at the top of the stairs and while walking down, apologized to John about his detour. The stairs were badly squeaking, telling one that the building was really old and nobody ever bothered replacing them. Actually at a closer look, one could see the edges of the steps worn out in the middle as a sign of heavy usage during its many years of existence. John couldn’t help but realize that behind the owner’s office door, the silhouette of a woman was trying to stay as much as possible into the shadow but in the same time was throwing curious looks downstairs in an attempt to see the faces of the people and to feed her curiosity. Instinctively, John made a couple of steps side wise until he hit the wall. He wanted too to see the face of the woman hiding behind the door. Wang’s sharp look saw the move and stopped three steps short from completely making it all the way down. A barely perceptible turn of the head towards the direction of his office and John understood that Wang realized that the person upstairs was scrutinizing the activity down on the hallway. A three second silence followed up and both Wang and John were looking at each other not knowing how to get out of the freakish situation. Vic realized the dilemma and stepped in:

-Gentlemen, it is late and we have to go. Mr. Wang, can we do this another time?

-Oh, no, no, no! I know you never bring Mr. John back! It will take five minutes. I assure you. That’s being said, he headed again towards the end of the hallway where his office was. The hallway was even darker now and John asked himself how this was possible? How is it possible to keep a large portion of an access way almost completely in the dark? What if there was a medical emergency or if the fire fighters had to get in? Wang flipped the switch on in his office and a light as pale as the face of a cadaver lit up the room exposing something which resembled more like with a storage place than an office. Cardboard boxes were stacked on top of each other (ceiling height) in two corners of the room. John could only guess that the desk was made out of solid mahogany wood as the poor lighting wouldn’t allow him to make an educated decision. However, the myriads of carvings on the legs and on the sides of the top (representing mythological figures) looked like the work of a master wood sculptor, a master who probably spent many months to finish this work of art. The chair was also a master piece of fine art furniture making. The back was all leather wrapped while the frame was all carved wood which together with the office table showed the fact that Wang was not opposing luxury and respected fine quality products. Behind the chair, there was a wooden library (also made out of solid wood), full of albums, books, maps and what actually looked like papyrus manuscripts. In one corner of the library, there was a majestic globe, which by the worn out colors was probably really old. John was stunned! The confused light sent by a lamp hung on the wall was making the old books and the yellow maps look like they were moving, look like they were performing a ritualistic dance, look like they were ready to jump of the shelves and start telling stories forever forgotten, stories of mythological creatures and brave warriors fighting for truth and humanity. John had the feeling that he stepped into an old antique store where the owner was actually a reincarnated legendary figure living another life, in a perpetual search for the truth or for revenge. The dust gathered on the books and all over the furniture was now airborne as Wang reached his desk, pulled a key he was wearing around his neck and opened up a desk drawer. From there, he grabbed another key (which looked like one of those heavy cast iron keys made to lock old prison doors) and to John’s great astonishment he turned around and carefully introduced it into a hidden lock that was somehow part of one of the shelves. Neither John nor Vic could actually see the place of the lock, as Wang made sure he was standing between the two visitors and the lock. The atmosphere inside the office was now at least strange and creepy as a narrow portion of the library completely turned around (obviously set in motion by a hidden mechanism). The squeaking sound and the surprise motion, gave both Vic and John creeps. Both men felt a cold sweat running down their spines.

-How come he never showed me this? Vic’s voice was trembling from emotions he thought he never had to deal with. But the surroundings in that little room made him alert and curiously started scrutinizing every element of the office. John was at least as emotional as Vic. The whole scenery looked like it was designed for filming a scary movie. The dust floating into the pale rays of the poor lighting, the squeaky piece of furniture, the boxes in the corners (which were giving one the feeling that the ceiling needed to be held in place), the overall sense of mystery and the fact that Wang was still turned with his back at them looking for something, made John slowly swallow, thus showing a great deal of discomfort. To make things worse, the bulb light faltered and for a second the room was in a complete darkness. Both John and Vic felt a torrent of cold sweat running down their spines while drops of the same cold sweat were dripping from their foreheads and temples and landing on their faces. Both tried to wipe the sweat off as it was now getting into the eyes. A back up light kicked in. It was as bad as the main source of lighting, maybe even worse. At the same time Wang was turning towards them holding a large, thick, heavy book in his hand, another door (perfectly hidden into the right wall of the room) was opening and a tall and skinny silhouette showed up into the office. The surprising appearance and most of all the timing, combined with Wang showing his face and holding a large book, provided the ingredients for one to freak out. A barely perceptible yell came out of John’s chest. Vic was at least as surprised and involuntarily grabbed John’s arm. Wang’s face was looking freakishly deformed by the bad lighting and by the optical games the same light was playing when throwing its rays on the old, yellow manuscripts. It was a scene – one would say – cut from a Zaju play, a scene where demons metamorphosed in humans came to the earth to torment and torture people.

-No worry. Power off. Be back soon. The “phantom” who walked through the side door had a moderate, quite pleasant voice, a little high pitched one would say. He was skinny and tall. His clothes looked too large for that particular body frame. Due to the fact that the room was almost dark, John couldn’t see his face. He was hoping that Wang would introduce this newcomer to him and Vic. It didn’t happen and the mystery around this man was escalating into John’s mind. The woman upstairs who didn’t want to be seen, this man who looked like he deliberately wouldn’t leave the cone of the darkness where he was still standing, Wang’s reluctance to introduce the man standing by the left wall made John raise a big  question mark about this place and their owners. “Why do I bother with these questions? How would these characters relate to what I want? Most likely won’t relate at all. Why am I losing my time and try to understand these family ties which probably are as complicated as a Greek puzzle” He didn’t have an answer, but something was pulling him back into the game.

-So, Mr. John, let me show you…I know light not good, but you see my family. John was already wondering how long he is going to be kept in that room while Vic told Wang that they do not have much time on hand and have to leave.

-Mr. Vic…it is pleasure to see you. Why rush? You do not have meeting. This not take long. Both Vic and John startled…how did he know they didn’t have a meeting to go to? The two men looked at each other and from the first sight agreed to take a close look at what Mr. Wang wanted to show them.

-This is my great grand grandfather. He come Shanghai from Shaanxi Province. It was a picture which now was of a yellow-light brownish color and showed a group of happy and smiley dock workers sitting on a big pile of sacks. Mr. Wang pointed at one of the workers. In spite of the fact that the light was of such poor quality, John managed somehow to find a certain resemblance between the man standing in front of him and the one in the picture. He took the picture and held it in the light, trying to get all the details possible this piece of souvenir cold hold. He immediately realized that there was some writing on the back and turned it over. It was in Chinese but the date was written in Arabic numbers: 12-03-1879. John gave the picture back to Wang and carefully listened to his interlocutor speech. Wang walked John through the next generations (his grandfather then his father) inevitably reaching his childhood and youth. The pictures were carefully kept into an album and every page was numbered and protected by a plastic film. Wang proudly showed pictures with him and his two children: a son and a daughter. At that moment John asked himself if the woman upstairs wasn’t somehow his interlocutor’s daughter and the man still standing in the dark his son. He was really intrigued that Wang wasn’t introducing the man who managed to scare the hell out of him and Vic through his surprising appearance. The mystery was growing and John felt like he was slowly sucked into a story he didn’t want to be part of, into a labyrinth of intrigues and betrayals, into a maze of unpaid dues and outstanding revenges. The feeling that he was gradually becoming part of Wang’s life story was strange but at the same time it was captivating, it almost became addictive and dependent of more information, of more knowledge of family’s background. John’s sight was now set on the large book Wang brought from the library. It drew John’s attention as Wang was keeping a hand on it. “Is there anything which he is keeping from showing, from sharing with anybody else? Why did he take it out of the hidden portion of the library other than letting us know that he wants to make us aware of some stuff he believed it would be of some interest to us?” It didn’t take too long before Wang opened up the old, yellowish heavy book while looking John straight into his eyes. John’s question was now answered and he felt again how his Adam’s apple was running again up and down signaling a deep distress and unforeseen troubles. Wang’s gesture meant more than simply opening that book…it meant that he was putting his trust into his new interlocutor, it meant that he decided to share with John a part of his past, a past which was a big question mark for John. The book started relieving its mystery as Wang was flipping the pages. Hand drawn figures of legendary Chines figures were passing by one’s sight in an attempt to make one either frighten or blend in and be part of the story. Ferocious warriors fighting enemies or devilish creatures were presented in those pages, princes and courtesans showing the luscious life at the Emperor’s court, armies facing each other while waiting for the signal to charge in, dragons rumbling through villages killing everybody in their path only to be speared by the “good” warriors, the warriors of the people, the warriors of the good deeds. As Wang was slowly flipping through the pages, John had the impression that a cartoon was played in front of him. He was totally captivated by the figures, by the drawings, by the characters without realizing that his interlocutor was actually saying a story. He eventually realized that he completely missed Wang’s speech. He got goose bumps and tried to follow now whatever was coming out of Wang’s lips. It was like he was listening to a History lesson from a dedicated and talented teacher. He eventually caught up with his interlocutor at the time when he mentioned the sad story of the Ming Dynasty. In spite of the poor lighting, John couldn’t help but noticing that one of those legendary figures shown to him by Wang resembled him to the last detail. It was warrior, dressed up into his war gear, meditating into a Lotus type of position. John grabbed his interlocutor’s hand and stopped him from flipping the page. Instantly, Wang turned his head towards John and looked him straight into his eyes. The two men found each other in a dead locked scenario, neither one dropping the chin in a sign of: “OK, I give up; you win”. Vic realized that the situation could become tensioned and stepped in:

-OK, OK, let’s not lose focus here. Mr. Wang, looks like John would like to take a better look at that particular picture. Is this a problem with you?

-Oh, no, no, no…sorry. It is OK. John released Wang’s wrist, tilted his head in a sign of gratitude for allowing him to take a better look at the picture and bent from the core section of his body towards the hand drawn portrait. He then pulled his cell phone off of his pocket and lit up the standing. A light, barely audible shout came out of John’s chest: the resemblance between Wang and the personage in the picture was astounding! The only difference was that the man from the book did not wear glasses and his head was completely shaved. Other than that, the two men looked stunningly alike! The configuration of the cheeks, the foreheads, the eyes, the chins, everything was one hundred percent a match. John’s native curiosity didn’t leave him alone and with a voice which tried to put Wang at ease, asked him:

-What is the name of this warrior, Mr. Wang? It was a question which apparently the man standing by John’s side did not want to answer and a short hesitation created another impasse into their conversation.

-It is Yonggan Zhongcheng said Wang with a soft but firm voice, a voice which showed such a deep respect for the personage drawn on that old piece of paper, that anything else would’ve been completely unacceptable.

-Thank you Mr. Wang! I am sorry, but I am not familiar with China’s history; would you mind telling me more about this warrior? Again, Wang didn’t immediately answer the question and a long, uncomfortable pause followed. Vic looked at John and by nodding his head side wise, he told John: “didn’t I tell you not to get involved into this?”

-Very well, Mr. John. I tell you story of great warrior Yonggan Zhongcheng…at that moment, a slight coughing came from the direction of the side door; both John and Vic turned their heads into that direction, acknowledging the fact that the man who entered the room was still standing there, in the frame of the door, wrapped in darkness. John took that cough as a sign of warning, a sign of: “why are you telling them these things?” and so did Vic. Both of them looked at each other while Wang startled and from the half bent position he used to show the pictures to John, lifted up the upper portion of his body into a vertical and defying position, almost conflictual with the personage standing into the dark.

-OK. I leave. Have good day gentlemen.

-Good day to you too, Sir! John wanted to add: “whoever you are” just to make a point that both Wang and the mysterious person who was just leaving were rude by not making the introductions. But something stopped him. He started to understand that the customs from back home not necessarily apply here and the life has a different pace and things which back in America were called “common sense” may not be seen in that regard. The door closed behind the mystery person and Wang started his story. It was a story of court intrigues and betrayals, of nobility struggling to cling to the power and preserve their privileges in an attempt to oust the eunuchs who controlled the political games at the Emperor’s court and economic life of the country, it was a story about the moral values of the warrior soldiers and their utmost and supreme pledge to serve their masters to death. Neither John nor Vic understood too much of the story, as neither one was familiar with Chinese History, leave alone particularly the Ming Dynasty history. Based on Wang’s story, the warrior in the picture was the head of the personal guard of the Chongzhen Emperor, the last Emperor of this Dynasty. John’s great capacity to synthesize tried to put together the pieces of information that were coming from Wang’s mouth and in spite of a certain language barrier, he managed to locate in time the moment of the story he was listening to. It was the moment when Beijing fell to the rebels and the thirty three year old Emperor committed suicide. The story completely captivated John’s attention and he already started creating a visual image of the characters who took part of those terrible events. “Is there a connection between those times and Wang? Is his lineage going so deep into the History? He is basically trying to tell us that the warrior from the picture is one of his ancestors”

-Mr. Wang, you are telling us that the soldier in that picture was the Head of the Personal Guard of the last Ming Emperor. When the city fell to the rebels, where was he? Apparently the Emperor committed suicide. Wasn’t Yonggan Zhongcheng around? What happened to him?

Wang raised his upper body again and looking straight into John’s eyes, invited both of his interlocutors to leave.

-Gentlemen, you have meeting. It is late.

John’s heart stopped from beating. Vic startled, his face started changing colors and a shade of wariness encompassed his whole tall frame. John realized that he touched a sensitive spot as Wang did not want to continue his story.

-I am very sorry for asking so many questions, Mr. Wang. We are actually about to leave. You have a good day and thank you for sharing your family memories with us. It was a pleasure listening to you. Vic thanked him in Chinese. It was the moment when John observed a barely perceptible smile on their interlocutor’s face. Probably the fact that he thanked him very nicely for his time, or probably because Vic tanked him in Chinese, made an impression on the moody person in front of them. However, John was now extremely interested to find out the whole story. His insatiable thirst for knowledge and immense curiosity, took this task as a challenge.

On their way out, both John and Vic couldn’t help but notice that the man standing by the wall waited until Wang put the book and the atlas back into the library, locked the swinging portion and the drawer of the desk and only then disappeared like a phantom: without making the slightest noise, without saying a word, almost without being noticed.

The corridor was completely dark as the power wasn’t restored yet, which made the atmosphere even creepier than initially was. In spite of this, Wang managed to find the way, it was like he had the eyes of a bat and he could see into the dark. John and Vic bumped into each other few times as instinctively they tried to stay as close to each other as possible. First ray of light came from the kitchen when they passed by; the kitchen had its own generator, telling one that Wang didn’t want to have anything to do with the frequent power outages and the customers had to be kept happy at any cost. Once inside the restaurant, the natural light which was flooding in, felt like a blessing for both John and Vic. They had to cover their eyes for a couple of minutes to get accustomed to the new environment, as they spent their last half an hour or so into Wang’s “catacombs”. Vic headed for the cashier to pay for the meal. Wang stopped him with a very authoritarian gesture: “This is on the house. I thank you gentlemen for visiting my restaurant”. Both John and Vic thanked the host for his generosity, shook hands and headed outside. There was so much information they absorbed in that place, that none of them felt like wanted to talk.