Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 43 (Yue Ying)

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 43

Yue Ying

John was mesmerized! The two girls he bumped into on his first day in Shanghai, were now on the stage. The traditional white overcoats (waist long) were contrasting with the black modern stretched skirts. Who would ever thought at such an out of the box idea? A traditional Chinese overcoat and a modern stretch skirt? The overcoats were tighten up with wonderful wide ribbons knotted with skill and taste while the characters out of (probably) Chinese Mythology were filling the background. The colors and the execution of the characters was exquisite to say the least. Yellow stitches were beautifully blending with red ones, while the majestic purple purls were encompassing the whole scenery. John’s fine and trained eye for details immediately picked up a difference between the coats the two girls were wearing. The shorter girl (who did not speak much during their street encounter) had the whole scenery on her coat surrounded by thick magenta purls while the other girl’s coat scenery was surrounded by red thick purls. Immediately he remembered that the magenta/purple color represents royalty while red is the color of the upper class in medieval China.

“Wow…is she trying to tell audience that she is a royal? However, she is so beautiful! She deserves to be a royal. I am so excited to hear what they are going to sing. It looks like it will be traditional Chinese music. Not a bad idea we listened to this numb nut who calls himself a cab driver”. John pulled a large smile and nodded affirmatively to their taxi driver who was all eyes and ears waiting for the show to start. The smile, the genuine happiness on his face was priceless. He truly believed that his driving skills landed him some pretty lucrative business with these two foreigners.

The lights went down and everybody was taking his seat to listen to the show. The noisy neighbors insisted in showing everybody that they are there to make a statement, to have fun and eventually get even drunker than they already were. They were using the silver in front of them to bang it against the table. The noise was loud and John felt like he couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and headed to their table:

-Guys, would you mind keeping it down a notch? We are trying to listen to some music.

-Listen to this mates…pretty boy wants us to keep it down a notch? What’ya all thinking?

A huge laughter burst from the table and the four drunken men started hitting the table with their fists. The tension reached the peak. John took a peek at the band. The only one who didn’t seem to be scared out of the four of them, was Yue Ying. She managed to stay calm and composed but one would’ve realized that she was furious inside. The beautiful white face, the gorgeous cheeks with two hues which were emphasizing an angelic smile, the long dark flowing hair which was cascading on one side only to fall on the left breast and thus leading  the imagination of the interlocutor to earthly things, caught John by surprise. He was just now realizing how beautiful this girl was! Their eye sights met and an out of the Earth smile flourished on Yue Ying’s lips.

John tried to smile back, but he couldn’t. He thought that he swallowed his Adam’s apple. His lips were dry and felt like he urgently needed a glass of water. “Jesus…she is so beautiful!” His attention was again drawn back to the table of the four drunken sailors.

-Swallowed your tongue, pretty boy? So, what are you going to do about this? One of the individuals closest to him was now laughing right into his face while pounding the table even harder with his fists. At this very moment John’s sight was completely blurred – he was furious to say the least. His quick thinking and trained eye for detail realized that the individual was leaning rearward into his chair and thus the two front legs of the chair were not touching the ground anymore. With a kick into one of the rear legs of the chair, he made the man who was laughing at him land on the ground as the chair lost another point of stability. His first intention was to punch the guy into his face, but he realized that the next man sitting to his left, was already on his feet and had his chair lifted up ready to hit John into the head. To John’s advantage, due to the alcohol consumption the man was not very stable on his feet and this gave John the opportunity to step aside. The man completely missed his target and thus greatly leaning forward into a completely unstable stance. John made a fist and with a well-placed hook into the liver area, made the individual moan from pain and put a knee on the ground. This was the moment when the large fellow who was the body-guard of the restaurant stepped in and made a great statement by pounding the table with his huge fist. The silverware was now all on the ground while the glasses broke one after another one after hitting the ground. The two individuals who were still sitting at the table, ducked. The stature of this fellow was impressive to say the least. He grabbed both of them by the collars of their shirts and apparently with no effort whatsoever crushed their faces against the table. It was a moment when everybody realized how powerful this Hercules truly was. Immediately, an individual (who came out of the kitchen) showed up and assessed the situation by getting an update from the body guard.

-Gentlemen, I am asking you to leave my restaurant. At this point, one of the men (who had the pleasure of “biting the table”) was able to speak as Hercules loosened his grip on them:

-It’s OK, Sir. We will not bother you anymore. It’s OK. I will make sure that it will not happen. My friends just wanted more drinks…that’s all.

-You guys are already drunk! And you are asking for more drinks? Are you kidding? John’s voice was loud and had a tonality which was not hiding at all his disgust with the drunken individuals.

-We will keep it down. Just get us another round of double shot whiskey and we will keep quiet. John couldn’t believe his ears when he saw the owner’s eyes shining like a Christmas tree and especially when he heard him saying:

-OK, gentlemen. But you pay first.

-Of course, no problem mate.

-Very well, Sir: four double shots of whiskey. That would be eight hundred fifty RMB.

-No problem! Bring the drinks, mate!

John was stunned. On one hand he couldn’t believe that after all the trouble they went through, the owner was ready to bring them even more drinks…

-I cannot believe this! You want to give them more alcohol? They will not stop! They will create even more trouble! You are making a big mistake, Sir!

John’s voice was again loud, but this time was embracing a tonality which betrayed a sentiment of perplexity rather than anger and disgust.

-Sir, I appreciate your help. And as a thank you for all the trouble you went through, the drinks at your table are on the house.

John was speechless! “This is unbelievable! He is still giving them drinks!” But the very next second, John remembered the price the owner was charging for the drinks: “He is charging eight hundred fifty RMB! That would be roughly thirty dollars for a double shot. Not bad! He is charging American prices and I am sure he will give them a cheap whiskey” A smile came up on John’s face as he assessed the situation: “He will ask his body guard to keep an eye on them so they will not be trouble anymore and in the meantime he is taking a couple of skins off of them? I have to admit that this is kind of brilliant!”

-I thank you for your offer Sir, but we have no problem paying for our consumption.

-I understand, Sir. But this is a thank you from the house and it would be disrespectful if you refused.

John startled! He looked closer at his interlocutor’s face, as he tried to read him. The lights were down, so he couldn’t really guess the features of his face. But behind the glasses, John guessed two sharp and intelligent eyes. John’s natural curiosity kicked in and now he wanted to get to know the man better, to get to see his physiognomy and eventually understand what he was up to…

-Sir, please understand that business is business. They were trouble from the beginning, but on the other hand I have to make a living…I have to make money somehow. To me, this is an opportunity more than it is a trouble. His voice gradually changed and it made John freeze when mentioned about “making money”…he swore in his mind that he heard Mr. Wang’s voice. Now John was frightened. A cold sweat was now running down his spine. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. What was bothering him the most, was the fact that the restaurant owner was always keeping his face into the shadow, into the dark, carefully making sure that John doesn’t see much.

-Very well, Sir! I thank you for your kindness. We accept your offer.

-Once again, Sir…I thank you for your help.

John slightly tilted his head in a sign of respect and headed back to his table where the driver and Vic were still having trouble digesting what had just happened into the last two minutes. The owner gave few orders and two helpers showed up with brooms and cleaned up the mess from the nearby table.

-What was that? And why are you so pale? You look like a corpse! Vic’s voice was genuinely sounding like the voice of someone who is troubled by whatever he is seeing.

-I can swear that I heard Mr. Wang’s voice when the owner spoke to me.

-That guy who came out of the kitchen is the owner?

John nodded in an affirmative way.

-What did he tell you?

-He said that he will fulfill the request of these four drunken guys and give them more alcohol – business is business…

-Wow! This guy must’ve been trained in America! Vis’s laughter was not accompanied by his friend’s laughter, signaling the fact that John was still troubled by the encounter he had with the restaurant owner. The four neighbors seemed to be alright and quit creating trouble, especially after the waiter showed up with their drinks.

-John, I have to admit that you were brilliant! The way you knocked down those two guys was awesome!

-They are drunk, Vic…you could’ve put’em down yourself…all four of them.

-Of course I could’ve…you’ve never seen my jab and my one-two combination followed by my deadly upper cut, man! This time both of them burst into a huge laughter and a good and happy mood settled at the table. The cab driver clapped his hands towards John and simulated two jabs with his fists:

-You, good fight! Bam, bam! Once again, the two friends started laughing. Tears were coming out of Vic’s eyes…

-Mr. Football…you good fight, too! Bam, bam! Vic was holding his abdomen with both his hands, while John was trying hard not to follow him. However, the atmosphere at their table was set for what apparently was supposed to be a good night out.

The stage was ready…the lights came down again and the band was ready to show their talent.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 41 (Ismail)

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 41

Ismail

Once inside, Linda felt the warmth of the place…not necessarily temperature wise, but the warmth released by a well decorated room, by a room full of nice paintings hanged on the brown wooden panels which were entirely covering the walls. “This place is so…so…so different; it is exactly the opposite of Mr. Ferrari’s. It is sober yet warm, it is classy yet very inviting and friendly”; Linda murmured these two sentences while turning around to catch as much details of the place as possible. The fire place had a real log lit up and this was bringing the patrons a nice and warm feeling, a sense of homeliness and belonging, a sense of uncapped curiosity and willingness of exploring new things.

-Iyi gϋnler Bay Glenworth, Iyi gϋnler; what a pleasure! Long time…

-Efendi Ismail, good day to you too. Yes, it has been a while since I stepped into your store. I apologize for not dropping by more often.

-Mr. Glenworth, you are always welcome at my place. I can see that you have a guest.

-Yes, Efendi Ismail…this is Mrs. Parker. She is the wife of one of my top Managers at Glenworth.

-Linda Parker is my name, Efendi Ismail. It is a pleasure to meet you. Linda stretched her hand for the hand shake. Ismail bowed and shook her hand while saying something in Turkish:

-Seninle tanişmak ne gϋzel, Bayan Parker! What a pleasure to meet you!

-The pleasure is all mine, Efendi Ismail! I love your place. I have to admit that is different…different from everything we have here. Actually last time when I stepped into a Turkish coffee shop (which resembles yours), was many years ago…we made it into one of the little towns, down in Anatolia, by the sea. After we dropped our luggage, we started touring the town and we stopped by this little place, right on the seafront. They had a gorgeous patio full of flowers. But inside, it was heaven…so beautifully decorated with all sort of handcrafted things. We were both so impressed. That was also the time when my husband bought a copper ibrik. The next day, the man who sold us the pot, came by our hotel and gave it to my husband. In the meantime, he had written something on the pot. Apparently he was the pot master. We absolutely loved everything we found there: the people, the culture, the little villages and of course the food!

Linda’s story may had been sat really well with the host, as his eyes were all lit up and the face was radiant and illuminated by pride and gratitude. One could see that the man standing in front of J.J. and Linda, was taking great pride in the fact that such a well-read and educated woman was praising his culture and his native lands.

-May Great Allah bless you and your family Mrs. Parker! May I ask what the pot master had written on the pot?

-I think: “For those who love each other now and forever”…I completely forgot, but my husband remembered. As a matter of fact, last week he made coffee in that pot.

-Pardon me if I ask one more question, Mrs. Parker…do you remember the name of that little town?

-Oh…Efendi Ismail…now you got me puzzled…I am not really a person with fantastic knowledge of Geography, but my husband is. When he returns, we will for sure pay you a visit. He can list all the places we visited in the Middle East and Turkey, all the little towns, taverns, little ma and pa stores, all museums and libraries we stepped into.

-It is a great pleasure to hear this, Mrs. Parker! I am looking forward to meet your husband. Now, if I may take you to a booth I am sure you will enjoy what we can offer here, in this little store of ours. Ismail deeply tilted his trunk from the middle section of his body and took the lead in taking his new customers into an area which from the entrance, one wouldn’t have guessed it even existed. As a matter of fact, the coffee shop was gaining space while advancing towards the back. Linda figured out right away that Ismail started small and slowly bought the businesses at the rear end of his shop. Now his coffee shop was stretching for the whole width of the small plaza. He smartly divided the patrons’ area with little live palm trees, creating an oasis atmosphere. As a matter of fact, every booth was surrounded from three places with wooden barrels in which he planted six feet tall palm and fig trees. Nobody knew how he managed to keep these trees this short, but they definitely were giving the patrons the sensation of a fairy tale, a feeling similar to the un matchable “Arabian nights”

The spot Ismail chose for his guests was “tucked” somehow at the far end of the room and one would realize that it was meant to be “awarded” to special people who were visiting his business. It was almost secluded from other booths by being almost encircled with these barrels. The palm and the fig trees were offering a full “protection” from the other patrons’ eyes and the sign “Reserved” strengthened Linda’s opinion that J.J. was a very important guest whenever he decided to sip and enjoy a good Turkish coffee. Her mind started asking questions once again: “How does J.J. know this place? How does he know Ismail? What is the relationship between him and the man who owns this place? Is this just another coincidence, same like her encounters with Peter and Andrew McCarthy? At the end of the day, who is the real J.J.?” All these questions were pouring in, tormenting her imagination and judgement.

Linda realized that all these booths were designed for people to sit in that lotus position, typical to oriental cultures. It was the time when J.J. asked her:

-I hope you don’t mind sitting at this table, do you? It requires a certain flexibility I guess, but I do not think this is a big deal for you. You are an athlete!

His face was all of a sudden lit up with a large and kind smile, a smile which left Linda perplex. She was in a defensive mode since she decided to follow J.J.’s invite, but this last turn of events puzzled her. He was jovial, he was relaxed and he was happy and eager to taste once again from the liquid which was filling the air into the room with aromas which were making ones imagination wonder through the stories of the childhood, stories riddled with white palaces built into the oasis, stories with princes and princes , stories with  betrayals and chivalry.

The room was indeed loaded with scents which were inevitably bringing the patrons at ease, at peace and was making them relax and enjoy their coffee and the sweets which were brought along with the unique Turkish coffee.

Linda realized that the seats were actually very comfortable divans which had the shape of an arc, leaving open just the side where the waiter was bringing the goodies to the table. She also noticed the beautiful pillows wrapped into silk covers, covers decorated into the most lively and inviting colors, from red and purple to yellow and light greens and blues. She couldn’t help but grabbing a pillow and run her palm on top of it. Yes, it was a high quality silk. On the floor, she realized that a thick Turkish woolen rug was making your bare feet rest so well, had you decided not to do that lotus sitting. Removing the shoes was a must and the waiter brought right away the traditional terliks, a Turkish version of warm and comfortable slippers. The rugs were complementing the sofa and the pillows and a good eye would’ve realized that these were exceptional handmade woolen carpets, thick and warm, beautiful and colorful. Everything at this table was contrasting with the sober walls, covered with dark wooden panels. But the combination was exquisite in taste, refinement and elegancy. Linda was completely captured by the environment and for a moment she even forgot that she set her mind up to watch J.J.’s moves. When the magic moment passed, she shook her head and inaudibly murmured to herself: “What a crafty guy! He brought me here to make me feel at ease and eventually make me open up on some things he is interested into. That’s it! No more magic moments, no more exploration of the environment! I have to be all eyes and ears” She didn’t even realize that J.J. was ordering from a Menu. Ismail was taking notes and soon he disappeared. Now she was sitting on the nice sofa, having a pillow tucked behind the back into the lower back area. To her surprise, J.J. (in spite of his age) didn’t have any problem sitting into the same position. A few moments of quietness took over and both of them were looking at each other trying to guess what his interlocutor has on his/her mind. Finally, J.J. decided to break the silence:

-So, how do you like this place?

-It is spectacular, I have to admit it…everything is done with such refinement and attention to details! The combination couch, pillows, rug is stunning!

-Indeed! This place has its uniqueness, its charm, its mysterious look and Oriental touch.

Another round of silence encompassed the table. This time, Linda decided to get out of her shell and start the attack.

-So, J.J. – how did you make it to this particular Church? You live on the other side of the town, if I am not mistaken…

He looked at her trying to understand if this was just a simple curiosity, or there was a hidden agenda tucked behind the question? At that moment, Linda’s face exhibited the most innocent look one could put on. She managed to show a typical feminine curiosity, which tricked J.J. and made him speak freely, without guessing that he was spied on.

-I do live on the other side of the town, but I know lots of people in this area through my wife’s siblings. As a matter of fact, two of her brothers live nearby. They are farmers and we spent many Thanks Giving Sundays at their houses. I’ve been knowing this Church for many years as we used to come here for the Mass on those particular Sundays. I know many people from the community. Here in the country, you really get that old, almost holistic spirit of the man living at peace with the land he works and with the crops he is harvesting, living at peace with the nature and the living things out there, living closer to the good Lord, closer than we do in the city. These simple people, know how to talk to the land, how to talk to their crops, how to live peacefully side by side with the wild life. I have so much respect for them!

Linda was stunned! She never expected something like this from J.J., a man of exquisite taste and refinement, a man who spent lots of money on fine clothes and cars, on furniture and memberships at exclusive Golf Country Clubs. She decided to get back into the shell and prepare for defense at any costs. “He is so crafty! He knows that I am all eyes and ears trying to get something out of him. By now he probably knows by heart what John is up to and what his next steps are. Why did he approach me, though? How come he showed up at this Church exactly when I showed up? It was the first time when I stepped into this Church and he was there! Is he watching my moves? What if he is travelling from the past to fulfil that nonsense curse? Is he part of it? No way! You cannot travel in time!”

Same as John did when he asked himself this question, Linda cracked a smile and then a barely audible laughter followed in a sign that she is not buying this theory.

J.J. picked up on this little emotional relief and with a large smile on his face asked:

-Why are you laughing? It must be something nice. Please tell me why you are laughing so I can pick up the pace. I can always use a good laughter.

Linda realized that she has to back up and quickly come up with something credible and innocent, with something which will divert the pressure J.J. was already putting on her, with something that will lead eventually her interlocutor into a dead end.

-Have you noticed the quality of these rugs?

J.J. was stunned and didn’t know how to react, but the chance he had to exhibit his knowledge on furniture, home decorations, quality rugs and Turkish culture prevailed.

On the other hand, Linda felt how the noose was slowly loosening up and J.J. fell into the trap she laid down for him. This little challenge set J.J. up for a long speech on the way the rugs are still manually made in some parts of the world and what was stunning, he knew exactly even how the people (the peasants or farmers) in those countries were making them. He explained to Linda how the wool strings are carefully made out of a big bundle, how they are then made into the shape of a ball and lately pulled through the wooden pieces of an equipment which was obviously handled manually by a human.

-How do you know all of these things? Linda’s question was genuine. In the same time she realized that J.J. forgot about her laughter. “Things are getting back to the right path! Keep your eyes open, Linda!” It was a self-assuring, a self-defense mode she was now calling upon.

-Well, Linda…first of all I read a lot. I absolutely love Geography, History, Archeology and Architecture. Secondly, I did travel quite a bit. It’s been now few years (especially after Jen’s passing) since I stopped travelling. But I had probably seen most of the countries in this world.

-Wow! That’s impressive, J.J.!

-Thanks Linda! You and John did travel in your youth as well, didn’t you?

-Yes we did. Not as much as we would’ve loved to, but we can say that we are well traveled.

-You see Linda…travelling gives you that freedom which probably the explorers felt hundreds of years ago while they were sailing sometimes to a destination, but many times towards an unknown land or maybe to an unknown destiny. When the wind rages into the sails of the ship, when the masts are bending under the relentless pounding of the wind gusts, when the bow of the ship dives into the sea only to raise higher riding on the wave, when the salty air penetrates every single pore of your body, when the speed of the ship (which splits the waves the way a sharp knife splits a piece of tender meat) makes you forget that you are still at the mercy of the sea…that is the moment of maximum freedom, Linda. J.J. stopped to catch his breath. His eyes were throwing bolts of fire, his whole face turned into the face of a man who was in the middle of a fight, of a man who was living in that moment the story he was telling, a man who probably did not even belong to this world. Linda got scared. J.J.’s metamorphosis made her get into an extreme defensive mode.

-I am sorry about my little monologue. I hope you didn’t mind it.

-Not at all, J.J.; it was actually quite impressive! The way you described that boat sailing through the waves, it almost made me envision one of those explorers’ adventures into uncharted waters. Very well done!

-I thank you, but this is nothing. It apparently comes naturally when talking about ships and navigation. Don’t know why…

Linda looked at him and felt how a cold sweat was slowly moving down her spine. “Who is he? I’ve been knowing him for so many years, but I have never seen him like this. I have never seen him so excited, so passionate, so revved up and open! He was calm and calculated, never letting emotions take over. Now he is a totally different man from what I used to know”

-Your coffee has arrived!

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 40 [(Sunday Church (II)]

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 40

Sunday Church (II)

The tears eventually froze (as the air was crisp), making her face feel like it was pierced by thousands of little needles. The pace at which she was running was fast! She wanted somehow to put some distance between her and the place where strange things happened. However, once she reached the top of the hill, she stopped and for few minutes she kept her eyes on the beautiful white church with a foundation made out of river stones and brick walls. The cross on the top of the main nave, was now shining into the sun in all its splendor and its white color was displaying an array of spears which were pointing back to the sun, probably in an attempt of reciprocity, of thankfulness for the life he was generating, for the joy he was sending down to the people. Instinctively she waived…it was a good bye sign? If yes, to whom? Her father’s image came back and she realized that he was still there for her, trying to guide her steps to make the right decisions, trying to comfort her when she needed his help.

Linda turned around and started running again. What happened at the Church was still pounding her mind. “Where did Peter disappear?” When she entered the house, she took her sneakers off and dropped on the couch. She was now holding her head between her palms and was trying to go again through every single detail of her morning run. The image of Peter and her father were haunting her already…”Dad showed up as Peter McCarthy!” This very thought made her shiver and soon she was sitting on the couch into a fetus position, with her forehead resting on her knees while the palms were joined together holding the ankles. Into this strange position she actually fell asleep. It was a power nap which made her walk again through the morning church events. Her father again showed up into her dream and advised her: “You have to pray Linda…you have to pray. God will help you get over all the hurdles the life is throwing at you. You cannot lose hope and faith. You must pray, Linda!”

She woke up and made a quick decision: “I am heading to the church”

This time it took her just few minutes to shower. Once she managed to dry her hair, she tightened it into a large knot. Quickly opened up the dresser and picked up from her wardrobe a black suit and a white shirt; then grabbed a nice large black hat which was still leaving a portion of the knot exposed and put a pair of elegant grey leather shoes on. A dark grey woolen overcoat and a pair of black thin leather gloves were finishing a sober, yet exclusively elegant attire. She stepped out of the house and shortly her car was heading to the direction where she jogged earlier.

The church was packed. When she opened the door, the warmth from inside, the gathering, the happy and relaxed faces of the people waiting for the Mass to start, the smell of burnt candles and the beautifully painted windows embraced her in a way which was saying: “welcome back”. She stopped for few seconds, deeply inhaled and closed her eyes. Memories which she believed were well shelved started pouring out. Same like the early morning, the times when she and her father were working together preparing the church for the Mass were surfacing. People whispering and chit-chatting prior to the Mass was so familiar to her! A smile showed up on her beautiful face making her open the eyes and take a close look at the gathering. While she was screening the crowd, her sight dropped on a person she thought she would recognize. A yell (which she quickly muffled with her hand) came out of her chest. She could bet that she saw the face of her father in front of the Altar. He was smiling at her with that kind, understanding, angelic smile which only a good man, a man touched by the Holy Spirit could produce. There was so much kindness into that smile but in the same time one could sense a little drop of sadness and serenity. She shook her head…it was the priest she was looking at, the man who was running the Sunday service. He was a man in his fifties, with a grizzled hair, a man with a large and kind smile on his face, a man who looked like he loved what he was doing as his smile was complimenting every gesture he was making, every gesture being calculated and full of compassion and understanding. Linda found a seat in the last row, slightly tilted her head towards the family seating beside her and from that moment she was all eyes and ears. “How come I never knew about this little church? It is so close to the house!”

She was listening to the service with the same curiosity and hunger as she did in the past. She was doing it to understand the words of wisdom coming out of the priest’s mouth as she did many years ago when her father was holding the Sunday Mass. To her delight and in the same time to her wonder, the eagerness to absorb the teachings of the Holy Bible has not changed over the years. Linda smiled again and slowly but surely she started remembering all those prayers spoken with a loud voice by the congregation, as she remembered the faces of the people lightened for the moment by the Holy Spirit while praising Good Lord for His Greatness or asking for His forgiveness. The time passed by so fast and she was so absorbed by the service that she didn’t realize the service was over. She stood up and headed for the door, while leaving a donation for the church. Once out of the church, the crisp early afternoon air encompassed her body in spite of the fact that the sun was generously trying to hug and keep her warm. She immediately put on her nice dark grey woolen coat and started walking towards her car.

Suddenly, the tall stature of a man (who was speaking to few other people), caught her attention. She could only see him from behind, but something was telling her that she knew him from somewhere. Linda realized right away that this individual had a taste for quality cloths as his overcoat (made out of the finest wool) and the vintage fedora on his head were bringing a distinguished look which eventually was further refined by the superb black leather shoes and exquisite brand name suit. The white hair showing up between the fedora and the woolen scarf was greatly contrasting with the black overcoat, thus giving the individual an unmatchable gentleman’s allure.

Linda was ready to walk by and head to her car, when all of a sudden the man turned around and looked straight into her eyes. In spite of the cold temperature, she felt how little drops of sweat were making their way on the forehead and slowly coming down on the chicks only to wrap around the chin and fall on the ground. She felt her cheeks on fire and didn’t know exactly why…could’ve been due to the sweat which was freezing on its way to the ground, or could’ve just been a normal reaction to the sight of the man. He apologized to his audience by lifting his black fedora and then headed straight towards Linda. A large smile was imprinted on his face when he finally stopped four feet away from her. Again, he lifted his hat and with the voice of a tenor greeted the beautiful woman standing in front of him:

-Good afternoon, Linda! I have not seen you in a while. How are you?

She felt like she was about to swallow her Adam’s apple. After the discussion she had with her husband, the site of this man was making her feel angry, outraged, appalled and frighten. However, she managed to stay calm and with an immense dose of will power put a smile on her face and returned the greetings as naturally as she could:

-Good afternoon Mr. Glenworth! I am doing wonderful. How about yourself?

-Linda, please…you know very well that between friends there is no “Mister”. Please call me J.J.

-Al right, then. How are you J.J.? Yes, it is true. Last time we saw each other was at a Christmas Party if I am not mistaken. And that was probably three or four years ago…

-You are absolutely right, Linda! It was four years ago. After my wife passed away, I quit showing up at the parties. It is still an open wound.

-I am sorry to hear that, J.J.; I liked Jen so much! She was a true lady…I miss her. I only got good advises from her.

-I thank you for your words, Linda…yes, she truly was a special lady.

At this point, the conversation halted for few seconds, but these seconds felt like eternity for Linda. They were both looking into each other’s eyes, trying somehow to guess their interlocutor’s next move. Neither J.J. nor Linda was taking charge of the conversation…she had all her attention summoned into a tensed (yet well disguised) state of mind, while the physical strength was now residing into a tall, and balanced posture, demanding from her interlocutor a great deal of respect. It was J.J. who finally broke the silence and saved an already embarrassing situation:

-Is it too much if I asked you to join me for a cup a coffee? There is a place just four miles North from here where they serve a really nice Turkish coffee.

Linda startled. A week ago she discovered in the kitchen that copper pot bought by John during their trip to Turkey, pot which brought back memories from their honey-moon which they spent in the Holy Land and Turkey. She clearly remembered now the inscription scratched on the outer surface of the pot by the pot Master: “For those who love each other now and forever”. She became emotional again, but this time she forced herself not to show any kind of softness, any kind of weak spot where J.J. could’ve eventually hit. Initially, she wanted to refuse straight forward, but a second thought made room into her mind: “What if I accept? Maybe I can find out something, maybe J.J. spills the beans somehow and I get to know something that could eventually help John” She made a decision on the spot:

-I would love that, J.J.; it is not too late for a cup of coffee.

-Fantastic, Linda! You will love this little place. It is run by a Turkish family; this is the best coffee you can have in town!

-OK. You lead. I will follow you.

-Great! It is just four miles from here. We will be there in five minutes. J.J. respectfully tilted his head again, removed the hat with a gentle and well-studied gesture and then headed for his car. Linda couldn’t help but remember the Leo story and the fact that maybe one day, Leo will take this gorgeous classic collectible for a spin. She felt like laughing once again when she replayed the whole Theater episode: the fact that John had his beloved muscle car taken for a spin and who knows…maybe J.J. will pay one day tribute to that street smart guy, called Leo. She giggled and headed straight for the car. She couldn’t help but notice that J.J.’s crowd paid a certain level of respect when she passed by. She didn’t know how to react but the instinct prevailed and stopped for a couple of seconds, graciously tilting her head. Once in the car, she started asking herself questions which she was more than eager to find answers to: “Is J.J. having followers? Did he start his own Church, religion, and cult? This church is no different than my dad’s. Then why did people look kind of obedient towards him? Maybe I am wrong and I am over-reacting…still, he is clearly a leader of this community” She was now driving on the freeway while blindly following J.J.’s car and as per their discussion, it only took few minutes to make into a small plaza by the freeway. J.J. pulled his car in front of a store that had a great picture painted on a banner above the door: a person bringing on a plate few cups of coffee; the steam coming out of the cups was so well depicted, that a customer would immediately ask for one of those inviting, hot drinks. The background was kind of dark, but this is probably what the owner envisioned in his attempt to market his business: “we have the real coffee here” On top of this, the man carrying the cups was wearing the traditional Turkish fez garnished with the well-known tassels.

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 un-matchable 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 mimicking 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 7-8 (A night at the Theaters – it’s a long way to reach home/A night at the Theaters – Andrew O’Leary)

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 7

A night at the Theaters – It’s a long way to reach home

 John made first the right turn at the traffic light and headed for the ramp to the freeway. He slowed down and pulled over while looking into the rear view mirror; just wanted to make sure that Linda is behind him. While waiting, his right foot tried the acceleration pedal few times, making his car’s engine pick up the lion’s roar in a Serengeti summer morning.

“OK. She is making the right turn. Let’s go!” and he switched the gears heading for the freeway. “What am I going to say? I have no idea what the damn movie was about…so, it was this woman who supposedly was the killer. Was there a murder? I have not seen anything: shooting, stabbing, etc. How did she kill, though? What if she is not the murderer? Linda is going to catch me in no time. What if she was just the mentor, the mind behind the scene?” His mind was wandering without any sort of horizon trying to come up with an answer to a question that was already stepping on his nerves. At that late hour of the night there were not too many cars on the road so the freeway was unveiling in front of him with the opportunity to drive in a relaxed mood.

Soon, the movie story faded out and the unusual day he had been through came alive again this time bringing up just bits and pieces of the morning meeting, the lunch, the private meeting he had with J.J., the commitment he made to go to China and do everything in his power to straighten up the Operations there. Being lost in his thoughts, he didn’t realize he missed the exit. “Damn! I should’ve exit the freeway ten minutes ago!” He instantly looked at the gas gauge indicator. “Great, now this is exactly what I was missing!” He was on red. For some reason he had not seen the red warning light being on, so he didn’t want to take any chance by pushing the envelope. He decided to refuel first. The first exit was another mile away so he pulled into the right lane getting ready to hit the ramp. This was an unknown area to him. After taking the ramp, he stopped at the first street running across and looked left and right trying to see if there was a gas station nearby. It was completely dark, no street light whatsoever being present in the intersection. “OK. Do I make a left or a right? If I make a left, at least I cross the freeway…more chances to find a gas station, I guess”. He made the left turn and headed into the dark on a road that was completely unknown to him. His all senses were hyped up and a maximum level of general alert settled within his brain. It didn’t take him too long to realize that the road was taking him into the country area. “No chance to find close by a place to fill up! Gotta’ turn around!” He pulled over, made a three point turn and headed back. Now he was really worried. “What if I run out of gas here, in the middle of nowhere?” The head lights were hitting the pine trees on the side of the road making their silhouettes dance like the smoke coming out of lit up candles in a drafty room. Subconsciously, he stepped on the gas pedal trying to get faster to the freeway at least. Every minute that was passing by was as long as eternity. He panicked! Didn’t actually remember how long he drove the opposite way from the freeway overpass. “I think it was a bold spot on the right side of the road…” He started scrutinizing that particular side of the road when all of a sudden he stepped on the brakes as hard as he could. The tires squealed from all their guts (while he was still changing gears leaving two deep burnt rubber marks on the asphalt) until his mighty Sports car came to a halt.

A cold sweat flooded his spine. The veins of his temples were pulsing at the same rate as his heart, feeling like they were ready to explode. The creature in front of his car was looking straight at him. The headlights were amplifying the shadows of the pine trees transforming them into grotesque elongated forms which in combination with the immense, red, goggled eyes of the creature made John scream. He screamed of fear, he screamed of emotion, he screamed of something he has never experienced before. A creature standing in the front of his car in the middle of the night on a country road while he was running out of gasoline! He felt his shirt soaked wet.

Out of nowhere, he had the presence of mind (or just a reflex to make the background go darker) to turn the high beam down. The tree silhouettes disappeared and he was just left with the creature that made him go through one of the scariest experiences of his life. He realized that in front of his car was standing a magnificent hart who was still ruminating on an earlier meal. They were looking at each other like two strangers who just happened to bump into each other on an empty street. John was still terrified by this experience; the hart was just minding his business trying to finish up his meal, while probably wondering: “what the hell is this guy doing here, in the middle of nowhere at this time of the night?”

John took a long sigh of relief, laying back into his seat and trying to wipe out this new experience by unbuckling, relaxing into the seat and looking at the sky through the opened up side window. The sky was clear, was full of stars…”wait a moment: I haven’t seen so many stars since we went camping with the kids in Wyoming”. Memories came back and John now remembered the times when they used to go camping every summer somewhere in the Northern side of US. But since the kids hit 11th grade, they stopped doing it. “God, I miss those days!”

He flipped the high beam on and honked the horn few times. With a final nonchalant and astounding look, the stag decided to move outside the driving area. John switched the gears and headed for the freeway. He couldn’t resist but looking into the rear view mirror towards the direction of the hart. He was following him with his sight….”Are you kidding? Why is he still staring at me? Why doesn’t he just go back into the bushes and mind his own herd?”

This last sequence of events started imprinting on John’s memory and he completely forgot that he was on the red with the gas gauge. The fear of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, the fear of unknown, the encounter with the male deer that made him sweat buckets, all of these experiences made him realize that he is so vulnerable in this moment that he panicked again and stepped on the gas pedal. The bold spot he remembered came up and he knew that he was close to the freeway exit, so he took a long sigh of relief once again.

The ramp came up and he sped up Southbound feverishly looking for a gas station. He drove for few miles but not a single sign (which would’ve given him peace of mind), showed up on the side of the freeway. He started getting worried.

The engine began sputtering. The same already known cold sweat was running again down his spine. “This is it. I am in the middle of nowhere without gas left in the tank. I don’t even know how far I am from the exit. This is great! Damn it!” He screamed the last word as loud as he could when all of a sudden, a tow truck passed him. He honked the horn and started flashing the lights.

The truck pulled over and so did John. “God, thank you! This is the end of all my troubles” said John while getting out of the car.

The truck driver approached and asked with a cautious voice:

-Hello Sir, can I help you somehow?”

-I am out of gasoline, Sir; could you please help me out?

-Certainly. Do you have a deal with us?

-Not sure, said John while keeping his right hand above his eyes, trying to block the bright flashing lights of the truck in front of him in order to identify the name of the Company.

-No, unfortunately I don’t have a deal with your Company.

-In this case it will be $50 per half a gallon.

-Sure. Not a problem, said John pulling his wallet out of his pocket. He forgot that he gave all his cash to Leo and all he had left, was roughly three dollars as a change from the twenty dollar bill Linda gave him to buy popcorn and drinks at the movies.

-Sir, it’s been a long story and I do not want to bug you with all the details. Long story short: I only have about three dollars cash on me…but I will get some money from the first ATM out of my VISA and give it to you.

-I’m afraid it’s not enough, Sir…have a good night!

John felt like the ground was running away from him. He caught the truck driver by the arm: “Sir, I will give you the money”…his gesture was taken as a threat by the truck driver. A well struck punch hit John right between the eyes and he lost his balance. While falling, he hit his head against the hood and fell on the ground. He managed to pull himself up in a seating position leaning with his back against the front of his car. This moment he truly understood the meaning of the saying: “I am seeing stars”. The tow truck hit the freeway and disappeared into the night. John realized that he was also bleeding from his left nostril. He remembered that Linda gave him her handkerchief so he started searching for it in his pockets. Nothing! “I must’ve given it back to her. Damn it! What else can go wrong?” He got up, opened up the door of the car and grabbed the overcoat. His plan was to call Linda. Reached inside of left pocket and pulled the cell phone. Went back in front of the car so he could see what he was doing, as he had the emergency lights on. Initially he thought he turned it off, but soon realized that his battery was dead. “This is another thing that could’ve gone wrong and it did, damn it!” There was so much frustration in his voice that the last swear came out of his mouth at the maximum level of decibels his lungs were capable of producing. “And I don’t have the charging wires with me. I could’ve charged it in the car. OK. Now what? Whatever the plan is, I am not leaving the car on the side of the road, that’s for sure”.  He dropped again into a sitting position, tilted his head backwards and raised his left arm in an attempt to stop the bleeding from his nostril. He remembered though that he had some tissue in his overcoat. Searched one of the pockets and pulled a pocket size pack of Kleenex. He opened it up and tried to clean up his mouth and the nose, then jammed some tissue into the nostril. “At least this business is been taken care of”. Few minutes passed by and the image of the buck he was so close of hitting, came back to his mind. The two big red eyes looking straight at him, made John shiver and he wrapped himself as well as he could into his nice warm wool overcoat. “Is there a connection between everything that’s been happening to me from beginning of the day all the way until now?” He was not a superstitious man. He learnt from his father that in life you have to work hard, with dedication and professionalism in whatever you choose to do and you will be rewarded. He did not believe in good fortune, he did not believe in that stroke of luck that could change your life in a heart bit. But after all he has gone through this day he started wondering if he should at least consider the term “bad luck”.

All of a sudden, a Police car passed by but on the opposite direction, going North. He jumped to his feet and started running waving his hands up in the air in a desperate attempt to make himself noticeable buy the Police Officer. The cop cruiser disappeared into the night as fast as it appeared raising John’s frustration even more. He went back to his car and sat on the hood trying to think on what his options were. “I will sleep into the car. That’s it. I am not leaving my car here, in the middle of nowhere”. It was getting colder and colder outside. He had to get in. The moment he was preparing to get inside of his car, two head lights out there, few miles away from him, projected two laser like fascicles on the clear night sky. His heart started racing. “This is it! It must be somebody who can help me”. He stepped into the right driving lane ready to start signaling for help. The two beams of light were getting closer and closer and John yelled of joy when he realized that it was a Police Car approaching. He started waving and making lots of noise, while standing in the middle of the right most lane of the Freeway’s Southbound. To his great satisfaction, the cruiser slowed down and stopped fifteen-twenty feet behind his car. He started walking towards the stopped vehicle when all of a sudden he heard a voice through the speaker:

-Please stop, Sir! Turn around and head back to your car!

Chapter 8

A night at the Theaters – Andrew O’Leary

 It took about ten minutes for the cop to come over…an eternity in John’s mind.

-Good evening, Sir!

-Good evening, Officer!

-What happened, Sir? Why is there blood all over your face?

John realized that he still has the tissue sticking out from his nostril. In few words he explained the Police Officer what happened.

-Do you want me to call an Ambulance? Are you OK?

-Sir, I just need half a gallon of gasoline so I can make it to the first gas station, that’s all I need.

-Are you sure you can drive?

-Absolutely! I’m perfectly fine.

-OK, Sir. I may be able to help you out with that. The cop departed and he pulled a canister full of gas from his trunk.

-Here you go Sir, I will give you half a gallon (roughly) – this will take you for sure to the next gas station. Unfortunately I do not have too much left in the canister.

I still have to see your Driver’s License, car ownership and Insurance, please.

-Thank you so much, Sir! Of course, just a moment…for some reason John was afraid to open up his wallet and look for the stuff the Officer asked. “What if I don’t have them? What if I left them home? How do I justify to the Officer the fact that I am in the middle of the road with no cash, no gas in the tank and beaten up? Impossible! I always have them with me.” Still, after all the events he went through since the beginning of the day, he was now afraid to open up the wallet. A state of uncertainty, a state of hesitation, a state of fear grabbed him by the throat, making the once mighty Quarter Back and now the well-known Manager at one of the most prestigious Financial Institutions, shiver like a leaf in the fall wind.

-Everything OK, Sir? Officer’s voice became cautious and John realized that the cop had already taken a defensive position preparing himself for whatever could’ve come from the other side.

-Yes, Sir! Sorry. John opened up his wallet with a shaky hand and the first thing he saw was the Driver’s License. A sigh of relief came out of his chest. He pulled it out and handed it over to the Officer while searching for the Insurance and ownership slips.          The Policeman was an impressive fellow: tall, big, with a huge line of shoulders and a neck so wide, that would make one think his head was sitting right on the shoulders. John couldn’t stop but admire the massiveness of this man. He was the size of a Defensive Tackle! The officer pulled a small flashlight out of his chest pocket and after few seconds of screening through the information, asked John with a quite friendly voice if his name was John Parker and if he was born in 1958.

-Yes, Sir! That’s correct. I am John Parker and I was born on March 21st 1958.

-Aha…so is it safe to assume that you are the famous Quarter Back who won the Championship game back in ’81 for the city team?

-It is very safe to assume that, Sir! A huge sigh of relief came out of his lungs. He knew right away that he could connect with the officer on a personal level, as Football became the ice breaker between them.

-It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Andrew O’Leary and I played as Defensive Tackle for the “Raging Bucks”.

-You…you…you tackled me! John realized that his voice was angry and the blood was boiling into his veins while his heart was pumping the red fluid at a rate which would’ve made a cardiologist worry.

-Yes and I am so sorry that I ended your career right there.

-You just did your job, said John with a sigh of resignation, a sigh of disbelieve that he was actually standing in front of the man who in a fraction of a second made all his dreams of becoming a professional NFL player shatter in small pieces.

-Again, I am sorry and I wish we can go back in time and do something about that last play.

-It was a good game, Andrew! You don’t mind if I call you Andrew, do you?

-Not at all John, not at all. It was a very good game. I still have sometimes bad dreams about that last throw of yours.

-I was a bit lucky. Your Tight End slipped. The field was all soaked.

– It was a very good throw, John. It was a very good throw.

-How did you make it back to town, Andrew? I see you are a cop in the city.

-After the College I tried to stay in touch with the game. I played in Europe few months (in Germany), came back, but never got drafted, never made it to the top. So, I decided to pursue a career in the Forces. I went back to school, few positions opened up in the city after I graduated and here I am. Got married here, got a house and three kids. How about you, John?

-I married my sweetheart while still in College, I got two kids – both in College now – I started working at Glenworth Financials and I am a Manager of an Investing Department over there.

-I’m glad for you, man! You did well for yourself.

-Thank you! So did you, Andrew!

-Thank you! Listen, I got to go…I hear they are paging me through the station…

-Andrew, here is my card. Give me a call sometime. Maybe we go Downtown and have a cold one, for the good old time’s sake. I will bring Big K.J. too.

-He is in town too? Can’t wait to see his face! That bastard twisted my fingers, almost broke them!

– Ha, ha, ha! That’s my K.J.! He was supposed to protect me. He was doing his job! Yeah, he is in town and he owns a car Dealership. Actually he has more than one. He did really well for himself.

-Good deal! Good to see you again, John!

-Good to see you too, Andrew! Take care.

-You too.

They shook hands: firmly, manly, like two warriors who fought each other and both made it alive through the battle and now understand that peace and friendship is the only way to move forward.

Andrew turned around and headed back to his car, started the cruiser and while passing John’s car made the “Salute” sign, then disappeared into the dark.

John found himself alone once again in the middle of the freeway. He cautiously walked back to the car and turned on the ignition; the mighty engine started humming. It was a good welcome back, a welcome back said by a starved pure blood stallion who had once again the chance to race.

John turned the light on and looked into the mirror: his left eye started swelling. “This is great!” yelled John as hard as he could! He switched into the second gear and stepped on the gas pedal. The tires squealed again leaving two rubber burnt marks on the asphalt while the front end of the car “danced” for a couple of seconds before taking the freeway by the storm.

This last turn of events made him wonder if there is a connection between the encounter with the buck on that deserted road and the fact that he got to meet the guy who ended his career and actually helped him out. Everything was becoming so confusing, so complicated so different from what he was used to be dealing with. The highway and the trees on the side were zooming by his side while he was still trying to keep track of all the events that overwhelmed him since the beginning of the day. Out of all, the two goggled red eyes of the buck made most of the impression on him.

The Exits passed one by one and John didn’t realize that he was getting exactly into the same trouble, into the same situation he just managed to get out of. Slowly but surely, the needle was dropping again dangerously close to the red mark. He was just too absorbed by his thoughts to pay attention to the gauge. The morning events were left behind into his mind while the latest ones – since he left Linda into the Theater’s parking lot – kept coming back and haunt him. “Why did I have to miss the Exit? Why did I have to get out at that particular Exit? Why did I have to almost run over that buck? Why a buck? Why did I have to get punched into the face? How come the man who helped me out is the guy who ended up my career…playing for the Bucks? Why, why, why?”

So many questions were popping up into his head, so many questions he couldn’t find answers to! This was making him nervous, was making him squeeze the steering wheel between his hands as hard as he could and step on the acceleration pedal at a level that made his car look like a phantom gliding alongside of the freeway except for the fact that the noise gave it away as being a muscle car. It was making him wanting to get home as soon as possible and have this day finished for good.

Yellow light came up flashing again warning him that soon he is going to run out of gas. “This is great, damn it!” A shout of frustration came out of his strong lungs, a shout made by a man who was about to repeat the same huge mistake twice in a span of less than two hours, a shout of fear that he was going to go again through the ordeal he had so luckily walked out of it.

The whole strategy changed in a split of a second. He became alert, his mind started working finding a solution to the situation, yet the only solution would’ve been an Exit and a gas station.

All of a sudden, he saw an Exit sign. His heart started pumping blood at a faster rate than usual, his temple veins were swelling and his brain was telling him: “don’t take any chances”. He was not very far away from his Exit to head home, but now, after all what happened during this night, he decided to pull over and fill up. It only took another few minutes until he took the Exit ramp of the freeway, while finally made it into a gas station. John came out of the car and got ready to start pumping gas when he saw an image that he least expected to see: the tow truck that stopped by on the freeway and implicitly the driver who refused to help him out! Eighty percent of his blood came up to his head making his temple veins pulsing like bagpipes played by the best Scotts ever to play this instrument. “This is the guy who punched me into the face!” His fighting back instinct kicked in. “I’m not letting this thing go away this easily!”

He was not even pumping gas, he was scrutinizing and he was waiting for the right time to make his move.  “He thinks he can get away with that so easily! Think twice, tow boy!”

John realized that his man was inside of the gas station paying for his gas bill. He walked straight to the door with a clear plan to confront the man who punched him into the nose. After all, he was still wearing the tissue that was sticking out of his left nostril.

Cautiously he walked into the store trying to catch every single move the man could make. Everything seemed completely dead inside of the store. Nobody you could talk to, nobody you could see at the least! “This is creepy; what the hell is going on here?”

– Hey! Anybody home? For some reason, he felt like the echo captured by his alerted ears was part of the whole scenario that was playing a role on him since he left the Theaters. Chills started getting down his spine once again.

-Yes, can I help you? This was the tender, who for some reason was doing some work under the counter and John couldn’t see.

John was really in a pickle now. He wanted to meet the man who punched him, but he also wanted to buy some gas. Yet…he couldn’t see the tow truck guy!

– Can I have twenty dollar worth of gas on pump number one please? Can I pay by credit card?

– Certainly Sir! The tender swiped John’s card and asked John to put in his password. He took his card, walked out of the gas station, pumped the gas into his car and waited for his “enemy” to show up. John was more than ever determined to confront him.

The tow truck driver finally showed up and before reaching his truck, John opened up the door of his car and stood right there, in front of the man who punched him into the face.

– How you doin’ buddy? Why did you punch me?

The surprise was total, was unforeseen, completely out of the blue! However, the driver regrouped very fast making two fists while getting into a defensive position and simultaneously replying ironically:

– What’s up pretty boy? Ready for another beating?

Most of John’s blood rushed straight to the head. His vision was blurred already from the situation, from the guy’s comment and most of all from the fact that he had now the chance to get his revenge.

The tow truck driver and John were standing waiting for each other to make a move. Both of them made some fists and were in a stand by position.

All of a sudden, John’s many years of football kicked in and he managed (with a quick and complete surprising motion) to tackle the man standing in front of him. They both went to the ground.

John grabbed the man’s arm in a locking position. K.J. taught him many dirty tricks on how to quickly twist fingers, lock arms in painful positions and bring your opponent to his knees.

The man he was fighting did exactly what he was expecting: went down and while John kept twisting his arm, he was screaming from pain. Soon he realized that the truck driver was hitting the ground repeatedly with the other hand in a sign of submission. John slowly released the pressure of his dead lock allowing the man to breathe less heavily, to breathe normally in a sign that the pain was slowly going away.

John didn’t want to fully release the grip so for few moments they both just laid down on the ground like two predators fighting each other for a better chunk of the pray but for the moment they just didn’t want to make the decisive move, they didn’t want to get hurt, they just wanted to preserve the energy for the final battle.

John left his head leaning backwards and saw the gas station cashier on the phone. “He’s calling the cops, damn it! He is calling the cops!” In this very moment he realized that he made a mistake getting into this scuffle, actually provoking this little fight. “Another judgment error! What the hell is wrong with me?”

Within few seconds, the siren of a cop car and the squealing of tires making a sharp turn into the gas station told both of the fighters that was time to break. John fully released the grip. The truck driver turned on one side and started massaging the arm that was held by John into that tight dead lock grip. John took a sitting position, right there on the pavement bracing his bent knees with his arms while waiting for the next thing to happen –whatever that would’ve been. He knew he made a mistake, but on the other hand he was happy that he managed to pay back for the earlier punch in the face. His nice suit was all ruined. The recent ground fight put two big holes into his pants, showing now the knees. The coat was all bloodied from the nose bleeding he had earlier and the right elbow area was ripped apart – as a result of the later ground fight. “Let’s see what the cop has got to say. Whatever it’s going to be, I am only partially at fault”

It only took Andrew few seconds to assess the situation: he saw John’s car, he saw the tow truck and the two of them on the ground. His many years of experience in the Forces made him take a quick decision and figure out right away what happened. He didn’t want to get out of the car before having a good laugh for himself: “So, John didn’t lose his fighting spirit after all! Ha, ha, ha! He went after the guy who punched him. Good job, John! Good job!” He finally got out of the car while trying to keep a straight face.

-All right, gentlemen! Let’s see what’s going on here.

John virtually froze. He recognized Andrew’s voice; turned around while still having one knee and a hand on the ground. Andrew couldn’t help but notice John’s resting position, position so known to both of them from all those years of grinding and training and playing and more grinding and training. It was the resting position they were all waiting for, the resting position that was giving them the chance to grasp an extra quantity of oxygen, the resting position when they were listening to the coach’s advises, when they were listening to the coach’s tactics that were laid in front of them. A smile startled on the left corner of his bottom lip. “He is just missing the helmet, said Andrew to himself while trying to stop chuckling”.

-So, what happened? Would you two gentlemen stand and talk to me, please? His voice became commanding and authoritarian, a voice that made both fighters realize that the Policeman wouldn’t accept an alternative to his request.

They both stood and came closer.

– So, why are we fighting tonight? His question hit a wall of silence. Neither of the two wanted to take the charge first and start speaking.

-OK then. If nobody wants to talk, I will have to cuff you two guys up and take you to the Station. Are you sure this is what you want?

The very next second, the truck driver started blaming John for the mess:

– I got out of the gas station. He waited for me, provoked me and tackled me to the…

– You bastard! You punched me…

– Gentlemen! One at the time! One at the time! I am only saying this once! Andrew’s tone turned up quite few decibels and became like a thunder into the storm. Sir, go ahead – and he pointed to the truck driver – while making the “quiet” sign into John’s direction.

– As I said, I was coming out of the gas station. He waited for me, provoked me and then tackled me to the ground trying to break my arm.

Andrew couldn’t stop cracking a barely imperceptible smile on the corner of his mouth. “So, Johnny boy learnt to break arms…I bet you that he learnt this from that bastard called K.J.”

– What’s your story, Sir? Andrew pointed towards John’s direction.

John realized that he could not say anything about their earlier encounter and, Andrew was the only good thing that happened to him for most of the day.

– What he is missing to say, Sir is that earlier when I asked for help while being out of gas and stranded on the freeway, he punched me…

– He touched me on my arm and…

– Sir! Sir! I am asking you to stop speaking! Now! Andrew’s face turned red. He was not wearing the Policeman’s hat, making the color of his face come into a great contrast with his blonde short cut hair, once long, curly and flowing down onto his shoulders.

There was a moment of total silence.

– Go ahead, Sir – please continue.

– As I said…I ran out of gas, he asked for 50 bucks for half a gallon of gas. I only had few dollars cash on me. I told him that I would give him the money at the nearest gas station once I reach an ATM. He didn’t want to accept and turned away to leave. I was afraid that I will again be left there stranded. I just touched his arm trying to make him change his mind. That’s the time when he punched me into the face.

– This is how you got blood all over your face?

– Yes, Sir!

– But this is no reason to wait for him and break his arm.

– I just asked him: “Why did he punch me”? He replied: “Ready for another beating”?

– Why did you skip the first part of the story, Sir? Andrew turned again to the tow truck driver while keeping the same commanding voice.

– I have no idea what he is talking about. He is lying.

– Really? So he just waited for you to come out of the gas station and fight you, right? The truck driver realized that his lie was lame and even a child could dismantle it. He rambled for few seconds in a way that nobody could understand him. Andrew raised his right hand in a sign that he has to stop.

– Sir, you only told me half of the story. Why would I believe anymore what you are telling me? Here it is what we will do: we forget about this incident and everybody goes home – including myself…I am already past my working hours, I am tired and quite unhappy right now. Is this a deal, gentlemen?

– Yes, Sir! John realized that Andrew was offering both of them an easy way out of a situation that could’ve turned ugly.

There was no answer from the other side though. Andrew turned again at the tow truck driver and asked again the question, this time slower and putting a lot of weight on every single word that was coming out of his mouth:

– Do we have a deal, Sir? The last word was so strongly emphasized, that made John startle. “If this idiot does not take the deal we both go to jail, damn it!” He realized that he was hopeless, that his fate was once again into somebody else’s hands. Once again, a cold sweat was running down his spine making him shiver…shivering of fear more than shivering of cold.

Finally, the “yes” sign came from the direction of the driver. John released a barely audible sigh of relief, a sigh Andrew didn’t miss. Another barely perceptible smile changed Andrew’s lips line showing that he was eager to go home too.

– I need to hear it from you, Sir! Do we have a deal?

– Yes, we do.

– OK, then. I consider this matter closed. You can go, Sir! I still need to speak to you, Sir – said Andrew while looking at John.

Hesitantly, the man turned around, walked back to his truck and abruptly left the gas station in a sign that he was not very happy with the decision that has been made and he agreed upon.

– So, you got him, huh? Andrew burst into a laughter which made his six foot six frame and two hundred sixty five pound body shake like a leaf in the wind.

John’s face completely lightened up and instantly joined Andrew into the same uncontrollable, unstoppable display of joy and amusement.

– I just did an arm lock on him – after tackling him to the ground – said John while wiping his tears from laughing so hard.

– You did an arm lock on him, huh? I bet you that you learnt this from that bastard guy called K.J.!

– Indeed! You know your stuff, Andrew…you sure know your stuff.

– I like to believe that, John. I like to believe that, said Andrew with a smile that couldn’t hide a great deal of satisfaction. By the way: your wife called 911…

– What? This question was asked with a trembling voice while grabbing his temples again with his palms. All this mess he has been through for two hours now, made him completely lose track of the time. He looked at his wrist watch. It was almost 2.30 am. “God, she must be worried sick!”

– Yeah, she did make that call and luckily I was still around when the dispatch alerted us. I told them that I saw you earlier and everything was under control. They called your wife back for sure. This is the procedure.

– Thanks God! How did you make it here and why you?

– I was ready to head back to the Station when we got the alert: “a fight broke up into a gas station…” When they released the location of the incident, I was not far away. I picked up the assignment. Quite frankly, I expected to put away a real fight, not just an arm lock procedure. Ha, ha, ha! Andrew’s massive body started again shaking from all the joints and the same big, healthy laughter made his face being flooded with joy. John simply joined in once again and they both had another round of unstoppable hilarity. The two men felt once again that specific camaraderie (developed during all those years of playing sports) unite them, that comradeship that fuels split second decisions on the field and turns a situation apparently without hope into a brilliant victory.

– It was good seeing you again, John.

– It was so good seeing you too, Andrew…and thanks once more!

– Hey, don’t mention it man! Now go back to your wife.

– Yeah. I will have a bit of explaining to do. Andrew burst into another huge laughter . The two men shook hands, looked into each other eyes for few seconds and then headed for the cars.