Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 30 (The old books are fascinating)

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

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

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

 

Chapter 30

The old books are fascinating

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

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

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

-May I help you, Sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How much for all these?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-No worry, Sir. Driver will wait.

-Fantastic! It was good doing business to you.

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

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

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

-Let me call a taxi for you, Sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic!

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

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

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

-Of course! Here you go, Sir!

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

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

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

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

-That’s for sure. Bye, now!

-Bye, bye!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 29

The Curse of the General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Two, of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-No, you were not rude. But you were inpatient. This no good. You must be strong. If you calm and calculated, you strong. This is the power of the mind! Power of the heart is only good for the battlefields. But the fight starts well before it starts on the battlefield. If you win that mind battle, it’s easy to win the battlefield confrontation. You understand what I tell you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 28

All cats are black at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You are welcome, Mr. Parker!

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

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

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

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

-I wish I knew what he did there.

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

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

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

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

-Great work guys, great work!

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

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

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

-You didn’t tell them?

-No. You go ahead and brief them up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why are you two guys concerned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Any trouble sir?

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

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

-You too officer and thanks again for your help.

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

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

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

-Very good, Sir! You have good night!

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

-What happened, whispered Vic?

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

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

-I don’t know, man! I really don’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic! You can help Yuhuan now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK, John – you go.

-You first. I will cover.

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

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

-So, did you find friend?

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

-May I know which hotel you are staying on?

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

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

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

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

-Yes, that person no good head.

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

-OK sir. Have good night.

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

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

-Good strategy! They were following you.

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

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

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

-Agree. He is clearly on our side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 27

The book of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Knock, knock!

-Hey, Vic! What’s happening, man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yes, he is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long have you been spying on Tony?

-Immediately after J.J. hired him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Let’s pay Mr. Wang a visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you think he has microphones into those booths?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-And your plan is…

-My plan is to get in tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I can only imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Good deal! I will ask her.

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

-Yes. This is the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How are you doing, big guy?

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I will let them know.

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

-I see you then, big guy. Bye.

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

-Will do so. Bye now.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 22

Mr. Wang

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

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

-Good morning, John!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hey, this is my line!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-This looks great!

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

-Fantastic! I am as hungry as a wolf!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long you be in Shanghai Mr. John?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How was I supposed to know?

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

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

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

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

-Where is Wang?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I leave. Have good day gentlemen.

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

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

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

-Gentlemen, you have meeting. It is late.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 5-6 (Lunch at Happy Irish/A night at the Theaters)

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 5

Lunch at Happy Irish

He barely heard the knock on the frame of his door. J.J. and Scott were standing just inside of his Office waiting for him to turn around.

– Hey guys, how can I help you?

– How about you join us for lunch, said J.J.?

– I can do that. Who’s picking up the bill?

– Don’t you worry about this little problem! Big boss is here with us, said Scott laughing.

– Hey, speak for yourself, came out of J.J.’s mouth and his big chest trembled of laughter. He grabbed both John and Scott by the shoulders and headed out of John’s Office.

At the Ground Floor, John went to the Reception and asked for the car keys.

-There are no car keys in your name Mr. Parker…maybe the Valet is still looking for a parking spot.

-Do you mean, Leo never showed up?

-No, Sir. Sorry.

-This is unbelievable! I have no idea where my car is!

-What are you talking about, John? Scott’s voice was showing a substantial amount of wariness.

– I left my car to be parked by Leo this morning…

– Who is Leo?

– A trusted Valet, said John scratching his head.

– Then how come you don’t have a car, John?

– Well, I guess he is still looking for a parking space.

– OK guys, I can drive or we can just go across the street at the Hotel’s bar and have lunch. They have a good Menu selection. Actually everything is top notch quality.

– Sure, let’s go for it! I’m in, said John and Scott approved through a slight head tilt.

– Still, where is my car, asked John with a whisper that sounded more like of a concern than a question while following J.J. and Scott towards the Exit.

Happy Irish was a strategically placed Bar and Grille Restaurant at the Ground Floor of the Hotel right across the Glenworth Investments Building. J.J. loved this place and he was familiar with everything the Menu at this place was offering. He had lunch and dined at this place so many times that he even knew the waiters by names.

The moment he stepped into the Restaurant, the waiter took him, Scott and John to a more private area which was J.J.’s favorite place to have lunch or dine especially when he had business to discuss.

The waiter brought three Menus. J.J. handed his back to him, as he already knew what to order.

– Can I make a suggestion? Baby back ribs these guys are making here are probably the best in town.

– Yes, they are awesome. The approval came from Scott who was also dining quite often at Happy Irish.

-Then I’ll have a rack of ribs as well, said John and handed his Menu back to the waiter.

– Any drinks to start up with, gentlemen?

– We’ll have three beers on the tap. Please make them sixteen ouncers each – Irish beer OK with you guys? This call came from J.J. and John looked at his boss a bit surprised. He knew John John as a very rational man and the alcoholic beverage order at lunchtime came as a surprise to him.

J.J. looked John into the eyes and guessed right away his unasked question.

– We are about to make a very important business decision. We are not going to make it drinking water or ice tea, are we?

– Excuse me Sir, it’s going to take about twenty five minutes. We slowly cook the ribs to get the best out of them. Would you care for some appetizers?

– Why not? What do you think guys? You are hungry enough? We have business to discuss anyways, so we have time on our hands anyways to eat both the appetizers and the main course. JJ questioningly looked first to John and then to Scott and after getting a nodding approval from both of them told the waiter:

– We are all in! I didn’t have breakfast anyways; I am hungry like a wolf. I am taking the liberty to order the appetizers as well and because we are in an Irish Pub Gentlemen, I am going to order a typical Irish opening: we will have three pieces of wild Atlantic smoked salmon and three pieces of garlic toast, we will have three pieces of Irish cheddar cheese red potato bites, three pieces of stuffed tomatoes with cheddar cheese and baked potatoes topped with freshly chopped parsley and three pieces of Irish sausage rolls.

– You know the Menu better than I do Mr. Glenworth said Jimmy, the waiter who was waiting at the table.

– I have been dining here more often than dining at home…unfortunately.

– I will be bringing your appetizers in ten minutes, Gentlemen.

– Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.

– Now, let’s get down to business. Scott, I have already had a chat with John and I think he understands what we are asking him to do in China, or at least this was my impression that he got the idea of what he will be up against once he makes it to Shanghai.

We are at a crucial time during Company’s history when we have to make a decision we’ve never made before. We never faced a situation like this, when we potentially have to pull out of a market. And what’s bothering me the most, is the fact that I don’t know the full story, I don’t even know if it is the right decision to pull out. Common sense, experience, my guts and feelings are telling me to stay, but the numbers don’t lie. What the hell is happening? We’ve both been there Scott. We couldn’t put our fingers on the wound. We need a fresh pair of eyes to look at this. And his deep blue eyes fell on John again.

John’s Adam’s apple started moving up and down again in a sign of deep emotional discomfort. He felt again being put under the spot, this time in front of Scott and he didn’t like the situation at all.

– If you two guys couldn’t find anything, how am I supposed to find something by myself? I don’t know anybody there, I don’t know the culture, the people, the city, people mentality…how am I supposed to come up with an answer?

– As I said during our meeting in my Office John, I don’t expect you to come with an answer. I want a lead from you, just enough to throw some light over this damn thing. I refuse to think the numbers are real and Scott thinks the same. When you go there, don’t even look too much at the numbers. You may want to familiarize yourself just enough to have an idea how trading is done. But this should be it. You have the nose of a greyhound in reading people and smelling traps. This is where I need you! This is why I need you there! Something is fishy in that Office. And neither I nor Scott could’ve wrapped our hands around it.

– Your drinks, Sir!

– Oh, the beers! Thank you! Let’s have a cold one! For the success of this little endeavor of us! Cheers Gentlemen!

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

– I hope you like it, John.

– I do. Whenever I dine here, I have one of this or a Guinness.

– Ooh…stout type of a beer drinker!

– I like the amber type as well. But whenever I eat at an Irish or an English Pub I like to stick with the tradition and have a stout one.

– Good thinking!

– Gentlemen, let’s start putting a plan together. John, obviously we still need you to buy into going to China. I don’t think I have to reiterate to you how important this task is to the company and this is why I have picked you to go there and try to get to the bottom of this thing. Sorry, just trying to find a lead which will take us to find a way out of this mess.

– John, once you are there you will have to spend some time just to observe the people, just to observe the relationships in the Office, the dynamics of the business and the people who are showing up in that Office day in and day out. Then you may want to dig into the files and understand how they do transactions in that part of the world. Apparently it is something we cannot understand. Scott’s advice pretty much complimented what J.J. has been saying for a while now.

– Scott perfectly summarized what you should do, John. With your flair and training, I am sure you will come up with something and by Thanks Giving you will be back home.

– This is just a supposition. This is not necessary what’s going to be happening there. How do I know I won’t be stuck there all the way to the New Year’s Eve?

– John, you can always come back home on Thanks Giving, Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve! Let’s say you spend fifty thousand dollars on plane tickets. So what? It doesn’t mean too much to this company! The problem we have on our hands is way too important to worry about some expenses we are incurring with your travelling. Goodness sake, John! We need to fix a multi million dollar issue that’s draining money out of us like an open gash. Who cares that you have to fly back and forth three or four times? You can do it whenever you want and you can take your wife with you if you want. Do you understand?

– Yes, Sir. I get the idea. I am not sure I will be able to help though.

– I need you to try, John. That’s all.

– John, look at me please, said Scott and for the first time he looked John straight into his eyes. Scott was an intelligent individual who worked his way up into his position (from being a simple broker) through hard work and endless hours spent close to the Account Managers, absorbing every bit of information he could, learning the business the hard way, on the floor and learning it at school as well by taking numerous business courses. Few years ago he also finished his MBA which made him even more valuable into J.J.’s eyes.

– John, you are a very intelligent and creative individual. You have (as J.J. said) a nose for traps. You feel unsecured in this endeavor because is an unfamiliar situation, you’ve never been to China, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the people, the culture and so on. But all of these are irrelevant. Let me try to find a football analogy where you are like a fish in the water. You have your team, they know what they do, they speak the language you speak, you give the orders and the plan is executed. Your team is your pocket, right? John nodded.

Great! You go to China. You find yourself down because all of a sudden your pocket does not work, collapses, let’s you down. What do you do? How do you throw the ball to the receivers? You cannot rely on your Running Back because you have no pocket. What do you do? You still have to win the game. You have your legs! If you have no pocket, you have to use your legs and try to get the first down, right? This is what you have to do there, John. Of course, instead of using your legs, you have to use your eyes, your feel for people; you have to ask questions, you have to gain people’s trust. Vic will be a great help for you. He worked for me before. He is fluent in Mandarin, he knows the culture and their mentality and he knows lots of that Office politics. We will have to assign him to work with you for the duration of your stay there. I think this will be a right way to handle things. What do you think, J.J.?

– You nailed it, Scott! Couldn’t have said it better myself! I don’t have a problem with Vic getting a different job assignment and work closely with John as he will need all the help he could get.

– Your appetizers, Gentlemen! Enjoy! The waiter showed up carrying the appetizers on a small cart. Then, skillfully placed the plates in such a way that everyone at the table could easily reach for the food.

– Fantastic, said J.J. and started rubbing his big palms in a sign of deep relief. He was obviously starving. Dig in, Gentlemen!

– They look fabulous. You surely know what to order J.J., said Scott.

– No kidding, replied John John laughing from his entire big shoulders frame. I told you that I spent more time dining here than dining at home.

– These appetizers truly look fantastic, approved John with an expert eye. He loved good food as much as he loved good quality cloths and shoes and the way the food was presented on the plates, was making your mouth watering only by looking at it.

For the next few minutes everybody kept quiet being busy eating the food brought to the table.

-This smoked Atlantic salmon is out of this world said JJ with a burst of sincerity which showed his expertise in the art of food as well.

– Excellent, exclaimed Scott nodding.

– Never had this dish here before, but it’s absolutely superb. I tried the stuffed tomatoes too. They are very good.

– Everything is top quality at this place. Let’s have another sip. Cheers!

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

For another ten minutes or so, nobody said a word anymore. Everybody was just completely concentrated on the delicious food in front of him.

– So, I am glad you guys like the food and I am glad I brought you at the right place to enjoy a good and tasty lunch.

– Excellent choice J.J., said Scott.

– Can’t go wrong with this place, admitted John.

– Good to hear this. Now, before they bring the main course I would like to sketch up a plan for John’s itinerary (in case he accepts the task). J.J. looked John again into his eyes and John knew right away that he cannot back away anymore. John John was the type of man you just couldn’t say “no” to. Not because he demanded it due to a tyrannical type of behavior, not at all. But you knew that everything he was doing was rational and into the interest of the company and whenever you had a personal matter you would’ve always found understanding and help from him.

– I am in, J.J. Tonight I will break the news to my wife. I am sure she will understand.

– Fantastic! I knew we could rely on you!

– Thanks, John said Scott and strongly, manly shook his hand smiling as a big sigh of relief. Remember: just go there observe the Office dynamics. This is the key!

– Let’s sketch up a plan, said J.J. and pulled a pen out of his inside pocket. Does anybody have a piece of paper?

Scott pulled a bent 8.5 x 11 from his pocket, a piece of paper he made few notes on one side.

-You can use the other side, J.J.

– Great! So, when do you think you can leave John? Today is October the second. Do you need another week or so to do some preparations, to get accustomed to the idea, to get your wife ready for this little change?

– Yeah, a week would be good enough.

– So we are saying that if you left on Monday October the 12th it would be OK by you?

– Sure. That would be a decent departing date.

– OK. We will start putting our plan together with this date. I will talk to Anja and get her to book the plane tickets and the Hotel room. You have your company’s Visa Card for your meals and entertainment. You know the drill. You have to submit the expenses bimonthly, so Accounting can pay the bills in time. What is your Visa limit?

– I believe is five thousand…not sure. I have to check.

– That’s OK. I will talk to Accounting and increase your spending limit to ten thousand. You may need to unexpectedly book a flight to Beijing, Hong Kong or elsewhere. You need room to maneuver. Also, as I said: you can bring Linda over if you want. John, once again: this thing is way too important to get hung up in some expenses you are incurring while being there. Please try to understand. OK?

– Yes, Sir!

– Fantastic! What else we need to worry about? J.J. was already taking notes on everything he was supposed to do and as usual he was very meticulous in doing so.

– I need to have a chat with Vic. This is very important, said Scott.

– Yes, of course. And J.J. wrote the task down on the “To do list”.

– I will talk to Vic Monday and ask him not to make it public throughout China Office. We need to make it as discreet as possible.

– Yes, but eventually Mr. Gang will have to be into the loop. Doesn’t Vic report to him?

– Yes, he does. But Tony Gang reports to me, said J.J. and the tone of his voice all of a sudden turned from calm and carefully measured one to a high volume and authoritarian one.

John couldn’t help but notice the change into J.J.’s voice when he mentioned Gang’s name. “Why all of a sudden this change? Does he know something but he just can’t wrap his hands around it as he said? Do I have to keep my eyes on Wong? Is this a lead? Should I ask J.J.? No, I don’t think I should do this, but it is good to know that he suspects something is fishy with this guy”. John’s face brightened up as a sign that he has something where to start from.

– Question, said John lifting an index finger.

– Fire away John! This is what I want to hear from you.

– Would I have access to sensitive files in that Office? When I say sensitive files, I mean profession related files of all the people in the office – not personal files – including top level Managers?

– Excellent point! Yes you will have access to absolute all the files to the highest security level in that Office. Let me make a note that I have to talk to the IT guys in this matter. J.J. wrote down another point on his list.

-Your ribs, Gentlemen!

– Here we, go! Now, no matter what you guys are saying we have to stop our little meeting. Look at those ribs! We will resume after! I meant, after we take care of these beauties!

– I am sure they are at least as tasty as they look, said John.

– You never had ribs here, asked Scott? They are amazing. They are falling off of the bones and melting into your mouth like butter.

– And the way they slowly smoke, marinate and cook them give these rib racks the flavor you cannot find anywhere else in the town. It looks like we are out of beer. We need another round to go with the ribs.

– Jimmy, bring another round please!

– Yes, Sir. Please give me two minutes.

– So, what do you think John?

– They are amazing! So tender and juicy!

– Told you! Best in town!

Once again, all three of them became fully occupied with the delicious food in front of them and nobody mentioned anything anymore business related.

– Your beers, Gentlemen!

– Alright, just in time for another one! This will go really well with whatever we are working on it, right now. Cheers!

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

A great pleasure could be read on their faces and one could understand that the combination of good food, good beer and a good conversation made these three men have a good time.

– God, this was a good meal exclaimed J.J. at the end of the meal while having another sip of beer out of the glass he was holding comfortably in his right hand.

– I am so full, said Scott. This was a good lunch indeed.

– Fantastic meal, really good and so delicious, exclaimed John while picking up the napkin from his lap and putting it on the table on the right of his plate.

– I am glad you guys liked it. Let’s ask Jimmy to pick up the plates and make room on the table so we can continue with the plan. He waived at the waiter.

– I think we are done here. You can bring the check, please.

– Very well, Sir. How was everything?

– As usual: fantastic!

– How would you pay, Sir? Separate bills?

– No, everything on one bill. I will pick up the check. Here it is my Visa.

– Thank you, Sir. I will take care of the bill and I will clean up in a minute. Would you care for some deserts?

– Not for me, thank you. Guys?

– I am good. Thank you.

– I am good too. Thank you.

– I will be back with your receipt, Sir.

-Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are very welcome, Sir.

– Now, let’s go on with our plan. Anything else we need to write down? Anything else we need to take care of in preparation for John’s assignment?

– He needs Visa for China, exclaimed Scott!

– That’s right! You do have a valid Passport John, don’t you?

– Yes, I do.

– Great, one more thing I have to take care of on Monday. Please bring your Passport with you. We will get your Visa on emergency basis from the Chinese Consulate. It will take two days.

– Scott, you said that Vic worked for you. I can’t remember him.

– He was that big overweight fellow who used to sit at the desk right in front of my office.

– Aha! Now I remember him. So, what made him take off for China and for good?

J.J. looked at Scott and Scott looked at J.J.; for few seconds a deep silence settled in and John felt extremely uncomfortable that he popped up the question.

– I will answer your question when is going to be just the two of us in my office, said J.J.

– I apologize for asking it, I didn’t know it was that sensitive of an issue.

– You did the right thing, John. You are doing your homework. You don’t want to go there unprepared. Gathering as much information as possible on Vic shows that you are already putting a plan together, said Scott. He will help you. I will talk to him and J.J. will talk to him as well. He knows everybody in that Office. He knows who is friend with whom, he knows the clients, he knows how the business is done, he may have some inside information and he is fluent in Mandarin.

– Thank you. I’ll make sure I will make friends with Vic first and foremost. Who is Tony Gang? How long he’s been with the company? What are his credentials? How did we hire him?

– This question is on me, said John John raising his right pointing finger in a sort of: “I clearly got this one”. He is…

– Excuse me Mr. Glenworth, your check…

– Thank you, Jimmy. Let me sign it. And J.J. did quickly the math rounding up very generously the amount leaving a fat tip for the waiter.

– Thank you very much Mr. Glenworth. Anything else?

– No, thank you. That’s about it. I think we are done ordering here. Anything else you want to order, guys?

– I’m good, thanks said Scott.

-Me too, came instantly from John.

– Alright then. Thanks again, Jimmy.

– Have a good day, gentlemen.

– Where were we? Oh…Tony Gang is an experienced professional who’s been around for a long time. He started in Hong Kong at Nashita & Namura Investments (a very large Real Estate Japanese company). Then he worked for Hong Kong East Asia Trading (a company specialized in commodity trading). Before he got hired by us, he moved into Financial Sector where he worked for Singapore Financials Incorporated. So, you are looking at a man with experience in Trading, Real Estate and Financing. He is a graduate of Hong Kong University – Faculty of Economics and Finance – and as I mentioned a little earlier, he’s got a ton of experience in all these fields. He is good! J.J.’s eyes were throwing thunderbolts and both John and Scott realized that if Tony was there, he would’ve probably been chocked by J.J.’s massive hands.

– Also, he is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, English and he can communicate at a decent level in – pay attention please – Malay and Tamil.

– Malay and Tamil?

– Yes. These are two of the four official languages of Singapore. So, keeping in mind that he can speak Mandarin and English, in Singapore he is like a fish in the water. Not to mention that he can also speak a little Japanese – probably he learnt it when he worked for Nashita & Namura.

– Impressive, said John.

– Indeed. So: China, Hong Kong and Singapore are his natural habitats. He is there like a shark swimming around a coral reef. Actually keeping in mind that Malay is the official language of Indonesia and Malaysia, he can cover a good portion of South East Asia.

– By the way: don’t expect him to show you all the tricks he is using in that office. Again, it is just a gut feeling of both of us, said Scott.

– Is he with us from the beginning? Did he actually start up that office in Shanghai?

– That’s correct, said John John.

– So, he hired everybody there, right?

– Yes. Both J.J. and Scott looked at one another and again a deep silence surrounded the table while John mutely asked himself if he made a mistake asking this question.

– This is another good point you are bringing up, said Scott breaking up the already uncomfortable silence.

– Let me make another note on my “To do list”. I will talk to HR and get a background check on all the Upper Management people in that Office. Where did they work before, who hired them, how much they are making, how fast they were promoted. By Tuesday morning they should be able to provide this sort of information to me.

– Does he have a trusted person or persons in the Office?

– Not that I’m aware about, mentioned Scott looking at J.J. for help.

– Neither do I. I guess this is going to be on you John when you are there, but it’s a good point. If something stinks in that Office, he has to have people helping him. It’s impossible to do everything alone. Anything else you can think at, John?

– Not that I can think at. I will chew on everything we discussed over the weekend. There is a lot of information I have to digest.

– Good deal! We are getting somewhere now! It is good to have you with us John, exclaimed J.J. with all the sincerity and power his two big lungs could create. His eyes were so expressive and powerful and the facial expression was so intense that John finally understood it is game time.

“I am part of the game. It’s show time! There is no place for losers!” And all of his football training came back as memories, memories of all the gruesome training in the snow at -10, with all the weight lifting, with all the conditioning and on field strength drills. Bring it on!”

– I think we are done here. Shall we go, gentlemen?

– Sure. I think we are done here and Scott reached for his neck cloth he kept with him all the way throughout the lunch.

– OK then, how about we head back for the office?

– Alright. Let’s go. Hopefully my car showed up in the meantime, said John.

– By the way, John. Again, why don’t you have a car?

– Long story, J.J. Long story.

– Aha.

While John John and Scott were picking up their overcoats from the Pub’s wardrobe, John was waiting for them outside. It was quite chilly outside and he buttoned up all the way on his suit. All of a sudden he saw Leo showing up from the opposite side of the street where he came in the morning, driving his car with the top down and the rap station played at probably the maximum amount of decibels the car could produce. That very moment he could not feel the cold anymore and felt the blood running through his jugular veins at a level any cardiologist would’ve been concerned. He put his left hand on his left jugular and started pressing on it trying in a way to calm down. Then, he virtually jumped in front of the car when Leo tried to make the left turn and pull the car into the Parking lot of the Office building.

– Ooo! Crap! Mr. Parker!

– Why are you only bringing my car now?

– I..I..I…there was lots of people Mr. Parker. Lots of people trying to park, you know what I mean?

– You had at least four hours to pull the car into the Parking Lot! Where have you been with my car? John grabbed Leo by his tie and started shaking him back and forth. Where have you been with my car?

– Mr. Parker, Mr. Parker, I can explain!

That particular moment J.J. and Scott came out of the Pub. John John pointed towards John exclaiming:

– Isn’t that John trying to choke the guy who is driving that red car?

– I think that’s John’s car.

– Then why is a strange person driving his car?

– Probably that’s why he is choking him. Shall we help?

– Of course. It’s John. And both of them ran to the car.

– Mr. Parker, Mr. Parker, I can explain…

– Then do it! Why are you bringing my car to the Parking Lot just now?

– Mr. Parker, I can explain. And Leo took a long breath. Mr. Parker…I am a great contributor to the Church in my neighborhood and lately I made a great financial contribution. I couldn’t’ve shown up there in my 2003 ran-down clunker. I had to show some financial power, you know what I mean?

– I know what you mean! You are full of crap! You expect me to buy this story of yours?

– John, is there a problem? Both J.J. and Scott arrived at the spot where John stopped Leo.

– I am just trying to claim my car back Mr. Glenworth.

– Why did you give it up in the first place?

– Long story.  I got stuck on the other side of the street in the morning when driving in. Towing company was trying to tow a car parked on the street and the traffic was jammed up all the way to the main street.

– So, we have a choice? We have a choice of somebody parking the car for us when the traffic is jammed up? I didn’t know.

– My name is Leo, Mr. Glenworth and this is what I do. I get people out of trouble.

Leo obviously heard of Glenworth Financials from Vic and having a face to face with John John Glenworth was almost like striking a gold mine in his head. His smile was now showing both those rows of perfectly white teeth in all their splendor. He was one of those street smart individuals who were capable to spot a chance for a big tip on the dime.

– So, you wait around here and see if people get stuck?

– No Mr. Glenworth, I work for the Hotel just across your building as a valet.

– So, we do have a choice. When we come in and the street is blocked we just give you the keys of the car and you park it for us whenever the street clears up, right?

– Yes, Mr. Glenworth. This is what I do.

– Can you park cars anytime of the day, asked Scott? My name is Scott Hollowitz and I am the Vice President of Glenworth Financials.

– Nice to meet you, Mr. Hollowitz; Leo’s face opened up like a water lily. “President and Vice President of Glenworth Financials may need my help?” I work in the mornings and I am always on this side of the street, in front of the Hotel. Sometimes I am here in the afternoon – only by request. I will take care of business, if you know what I mean, said Leo.

– Good to know Leo, said Scott shaking his hand. Do you have a cell phone number?

– Of course, Mr. Hollowitz. Leo pulled a pen out of his pocket, wrote his number on a piece of paper and handed it over to Scott.

– I want you to share that phone number with me, said John John.

– Are you guys kidding? He just took my car for a spin for three hours or so and you feel like you want to give him business? John’s voice was trembling with anger and he only left Leo’s tie go when J.J.’s big hand grabbed his left shoulder and the boss whispered into his ear:

– You always have to look at the big picture, John; always at the big picture. You were in trouble this morning. He took care of business, right? So what if he took your car for a spin around the block? You have to look at the big picture John, only at the big picture. Understand?

– Yes Sir. I understand.

– Leo, please leave the keys with the guys at the Reception, said John.

– Of course, Mr. Parker. I am sorry about this misunderstanding, but God comes in first…Leo’s impeccable white teeth were lighting up again the scene like a Christmas tree on a Christmas Eve. You will have your car in the garage in ten minutes.

John made a fist and felt like punching him – “God comes in first! He really believes I’m an idiot!” but he refrained from creating another scene; people were already honking the horns behind Leo, so all three Glenworth Executives crossed the street while Leo was waiting to make a left turn into the Building’s Parking Lot.

John entered J.J.’s Office and took a seat at the same table they had the meeting when asked to go to China.  This time John John closed the door. “It must be serious” said John to himself and tried to make himself more comfortable in the chair.

– Listen, John; I want first of all to thank you for accepting this assignment. It means a lot to me, to the company and I hope something good will come out of this endeavor. I have faith in you and I do believe that you are the most suitable person for this job. Now, I have to tell you a thing or two about Vic, as he will be your main contact there, the main contact you can rely on, the only one you can trust when comes down to Office politics and translating from Chinese to English. I hired him when he was a beginner, a guy who was just looking for work in this field. I saw potential in him and he did not disappoint me. He was growing professionally at such a fast speed, that I was even considering promoting him to the Account Manager position. He was closing deals like somebody who’d been with the Company for a long time and money making opportunities were coming to him naturally, like a Wall Street pro. However, I did not know that he had a big gambling problem as well as I did not know he had a drinking problem too. I was told that the second one followed the first, shortly after he lost a significant amount at the tracks.

– Sorry for interrupting, J.J.

– Sure, go ahead John.

– So, he started gambling and drinking while he was with us?

– Don’t make that assumption. We will never know what he brought on board when he joined us. He could’ve had these habits prior to joining us.

– Once again, he was that medium-tall, overweight guy sitting in that cubicle right across Scott’s Office?

– Exactly.

– Why did Scott want to get rid of him?

– How did you figure out that Scott wanted to get rid of him?

– Just a hint I got from our conversation at Happy Irish.

– Good catch! Yes, I guess this is the right call. Vic became a threat to Scott. Unfortunately (for Vic) he had these two habits which made him less attractive to me as the suitable person for Account Manager. He was gambling every weekend at the tracks, he was getting drunk on regular basis and was hiring hookers for his parties. I don’t want to interfere with everyone’s private life, but I do expect a certain level of decency from the higher level Managers regardless if it is a private or a professional life.

– Sorry, I didn’t know about all these…details. I am a bit embarrassed that I asked.

– Don’t be, John. Don’t be. You have to know people you will be dealing with and you are doing the right thing by asking as many questions as you think is necessary. After all, he will be your right hand, your guide overseas.

– How do I know that he is willing to help? What if he does not want to help?

– He will help! I can tell this to you for sure.

– Do you know something I shouldn’t know?

– You will see for yourself when you get there. He is a changed man from what I hear, said J.J. with an enigmatic smile on his face, a smile he was always using when he wanted to lead the interlocutor into a known direction, upfront. John understood that the meeting is over and stood up pushing the chair underneath the table with one hand.

– I guess we’ll talk Monday.

– Have a good weekend John and please send my compliments to Linda and your mother, Judy.

Chapter 6

A night at the Theaters

Every time when it was “a night at the Theaters”, Linda was deliberately arriving one hour early. In summer time she loved to sit at the nearby patio and order ice cream while reading from a favorite book. That particular time of the year the patio was covered with pots full of flowers and the multitude of colors and smells surrounding the patrons was making the wait always worthwhile.  This time was too cold outside (and the patio was closed anyways), so she went in and ordered a tea and a couple of cookies. Opened up the purse and pulled Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and started reading her favorite paragraphs. She knew by heart exactly at which page each of them could be found.  Every time she was reading these fragments of excellent literature, was always finding a different way to filter and interpret the information. It was almost like she developed a mind game, trying to come up with a different meaning to the message the author was passing to the reader. She was in an excellent mood. The sight of the deer herd, the relative quiet day at school and the prospect of another fun night out with John made Linda relax and enjoy the reading more than ever.

She did not even realize when one hour just passed by. The aroma of the herbal tea and delicious cookies coupled with a wonderful chance to read again classical literature made her completely forget that the rendezvous point was supposed to be in front of the Theaters by a billboard.  She was ready to pack up. Checked her wrist watch again, when felt two arms completely hugging her from behind and John’s voice whispering into her right ear:

– Your date is here.

– How do you know that you are the date, giggled Linda as an answer, strongly emphasizing the word “you”?

– Just a wild guess. Shall I retire?

– Up to you, but you are about to lose a fun night out, not to mention everything that is going to happen after…

– Aha, this “after” alone made me change my mind.

– Make sure you don’t spoil this evening or it will be no “after” said Linda still whispering into John’s ear while grabbing him by the tie and kissing him.

– It’s a good start anyways, softly exclaimed John and opened up the door for Linda on their way out.  He was planning to tell her about China deal during the movie night evening, but reconsidered. He took this decision on the spot, he just did not want to ruin a Friday night otherwise promisingly perfect.

– Which movie are we seeing?

– I don’t care, said John. You go ahead and pick. In the meantime I’ll buy the popcorn; without hesitation, he headed straight for the vendor.  Pulled the wallet out of his pocket and realized that in that morning moment of desperation he gave Leo all the money he had in his pocket. “Unbelievable! I gave that bastard everything I had…and for what?” Then he remembered J.J.’s advice: “Look at the big picture, John”. He cracked a smile and walked back to the ticket line where Linda was lining up to buy tickets.

– What happened? Where is the popcorn?

John scratched his head with his index finger above his right ear:

– I don’t have any cash on me.

– You don’t have cash on you? You always have at least three-four twenties on you! What happened?

– Long story. I’ll tell you when we get in.

– Here you go. And Linda pulled a twenty out of the wallet she was holding in her left hand.

– Thanks. I’ll be back in a minute.

They met again in front of the Entrance. It was quite busy, so they had to line up.

– So, what are we watching?

– “Mystery on street Duval”

– Any good?

– Recommended by Sarah.

– Hoy!

– What? She has pretty good tastes when comes down to literature, movies, music…

– Music? She only recommends Music of the ‘70s. Nothing wrong with that. But there are other types of music you sometimes feel like listening to. I hope this is not one of those movies where your head is spinning after you watched it. I had a pretty stressful day at the Office. I want to watch something easy to follow. I don’t want to think too much right now.

– Then let’s change the tickets and go for something different.

– That’s OK. We are almost in. You wanted to see this one anyways, so we are sticking with the initial plan.

Once they found their seats, they opened up the popcorn bucket and started working on it.

– So, tell me the story…how did you end up with no cash in your pocket? I am very curious to find out how you became penny less.

-Well, probably I should start with the beginning…

– Good idea!

– Late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Glenworth calls a totally unexpected meeting for this morning at 9.00 am. You know that he never calls these high level, high scale meetings so early in the morning.

– No I don’t. You never told me.

– OK. You know now…so, to me was really odd. Last night I tried to process this bit of information and eventually find logic behind it. The Company is doing alright, people are happy, why all of a sudden we are pressing the panic button? I was worried. This morning while watching the news, I figured out right away that something is fishy with the Company.

– Now you are really scaring me!

– Relax. I had my coffee and headed for the Office earlier than I usually do.

– You kissed me before you went out, said Linda grabbing his left arm while resting her head on John’ left shoulder.

– Yes I did, gorgeous!

A very satisfying giggling came out of her chest while whispering into his ear:

– Do you have any idea how lucky you are going to get when we get home?

– Can we go now and skip the movie, said John whispering back into her right ear?

– No! I want to see the movie. Please go on…you left and then what?

– OK. I am driving on the freeway towards Downtown…I was easily doing 85…

– Are you out of your mind? You can get your License suspended!

– Relax. I know all the radar traps; I know where the cops are hiding. I knew what I was doing. Normally I wouldn’t be doing it, but I had to get into some files.

– You could’ve done it from home. You have access to your Company’s Network.

– Yes, but the files I needed access to are only accessible from the Office and only by High Level Managers. J.J. is the only one who has access from anywhere.

So, I am closing in to reaching Downtown. Traffic was perfect. I was right in leaving early so I could avoid the morning rush, when all of a sudden I see brake lights. I realized there was an accident in front of me, so I moved into the right lane and exit at one of the streets that eventually would take you Downtown. I thought I was lucky and eventually I would still make it in early. I think I caught every single red light possible! I swear! Finally I get to the street where you make a right onto it to get to the Office Building, you know it.

– Of course I know it…what happened? What happened? Linda’s voice was trembling nervously.

– I make the right turn, guess what? The street was jammed packed and everybody was standing still. A tow truck was trying to tow a car and was creating a mess all the way down the street and up the street as well. “You gotta’ be kidding me!” I said. I was about a hundred fifty yards away from the Building and the traffic completely came to a halt. I had eighteen minutes left to the meeting….I got out of the car and looked around when all of a sudden I see Leo.

– Who?

– Leo. He is a Valet who is parking cars at the Hotel across the street.

– How do you know him?

-Remember the time when my car was in the garage and Vic gave me a lift to work?

– Vic? And Linda put her both index fingers at the temple area trying to remember who Vic was.

– You met him at a Christmas Party about six – seven years ago. He was the big guy who was sweating a lot and had a fair amount of drinks that made him wanted to dance on the table…remember?

– Aha…ha, ha, ha! I remember now. Oh yes, now I remember. He invited me twice to dance with him. I refused as politely as I could.

– He did what?

– Relax. He was so drunk that I don’t even think the next day he remembered what he did.

– Anyways, that day when Vic gave me that ride Downtown we ran into almost an identical situation. We were about to be late for an early meeting when we got stuck exactly in the same spot. Then Vic got out of the car and saw Leo. He gave him some money and Leo got the keys and parked the car for us. We walked to the building and made it just in time for the meeting. Later on, Vic picked up the keys from the Reception downstairs.

– That’s quite smart and resourceful, exclaimed Linda.

– Yes it is. Wait to see what happened.

– Can’t wait to hear, said Linda pinching his left arm in a sign of restless feminine curiosity.

– So, I give Leo all the money I had…

– You gave him sixty, eighty dollars? Are you nuts?

– Actually it was a lot more than that, I think.

– You are out of your mind! A twenty would’ve been more than enough…

– I know, but you have no idea how stressed out I was that I wouldn’t have made it into the Office to review the files! I was so happy I found a way out of that situation that I really didn’t give a damn on how much money I had in my wallet.

So, I made it into the Office and I had a chance to look at those files I was after. Nothing special! I couldn’t find anything that would trigger an idea on what the meeting was about. We have the meeting and things are not looking good, as I expected. We are losing money in China…

– I thought everybody goes to China to make money, exclaimed Linda completely astonished.

– Yeah, this is the idea. In this case is the other way around. After the meeting John John and Scott took me out for lunch. Downstairs, I wanted to claim my car keys. Guess what? No keys at the desk!

– Are you kidding? So, you don’t have a car anymore?

– Wait, it’s getting even more interesting…we go have lunch and I am thinking in my head: “Leo had at least four hours to bring the car back. What the hell had happened?” We had a really long lunch, we discussed business. I am the first one to get out of the Pub while J.J. and Scott were picking up their coats; I didn’t take my coat with me as the Pub was just across the street. So, while waiting for them to show up I look up the street and I see my car, with the top down and Leo playing a Rap station with the volume knob probably turned at the maximum.

– Ha, ha, ha! Leo showed up with your car after four hours! He must’ve had so much fun, said Linda while trying to keep her laugh at a decent level so it wouldn’t bother the other people around them. Everybody was waiting anyways for the movie to start up, so people were just chit-chatting and eating their popcorn to kill the time. Nobody paid attention to the fact that Linda was laughing out loud at John’s morning misery.

-He must’ve had sooo much fun! God, this is beyond funny! Did you ask him why is he returning your car after such a long time? What did he have to say for himself?

– Listen to this: “Mr. Parker, I am a great financial contributor to the Church in my neighborhood and I couldn’t just show up in my 2003 Ford Escort. I had to show some financial power”.

-Stop it! Please stop it, said Linda while crying from laughing. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and wiped out the tears which were now flowing on her face and dripping all over the shirt. “Great financial contributor to the Church”…God, this is probably the best line I’ve heard in a long time.

-Yeap! God knows where he’s been with my car! I was this close (and John brought his thumb and index finger really close to each other) to choke him. John made the sign which showed Linda how serious he was. However, J.J. told me to look at the big picture: Leo helped me in a desperate situation and this is all that matters. Probably this is the right way to look at things.

– Pretty smart and wise way of looking at life, actually.

– Indeed. And guess what? Both J.J. and Scott asked Leo to give them his cell phone number!

– What?

– Yeah! Now that bastard is going to have even more business. Can you imagine him parking Mr. Glenworth’s car? Now, that is financial power to show in your neighborhood!

– Ha, ha, ha! Not to mention Scott’s car, said Linda raising the stakes.

– Right! Anyway, this is my morning story and wanted to share it with you.

– Thank you! It was absolutely fabulous! God, I haven’t laughed this hard in such a long time!

The lights went down and John gently pulled Linda’s head towards him, softly kissing her on the lips.

– Hey, you have to wait ‘til we get home said Linda whispering into his ear.

– Can we skip this thing and go now?

– No! Common, be a good boy and watch the movie with me.

– OK. Let’s see what your good friend recommended this time. But I have the feeling that’s going to be another bore.

– We’ll see. Now be quiet. Can I have some popcorn, please?

– Sure, said John handing over the bucket. I really have a bad feeling about this thing, John mumbled for himself while trying to sit as comfortable as possible into the seat.

The preview went by him without even knowing what was about. His eyes were glued to the big screen but his mind was all over the places: the meeting, the car incident, the lunch, the post lunch meeting into J.J.’s Office, the assignment and the prospect of going overseas into an endeavor that was making him so uncomfortable, the uncertainty of him resolving the case, the fear of failure…oh yes! The fear of failure! This was a feeling that was already terrifying him. He was used to win, he was always confident that his training, his skills, his fearless and relentless ability of pounding on opposing defense will make him eventually win on the football field. The same abilities, coupled by intensive training into the financial field, experience and a keen eye for closing deals made him an indispensable asset at Glenworth. But all of this was getting done in a familiar environment. It was done “playing home”. Now he will have to play away, on the opponent’s field, into a hostile environment (or at least this is what he took from the conversation he had with J.J. and Scott). A cold sweat ran along his spine and all of a sudden he panicked. “What if I fail? What if I come back empty handed? J.J. will be disappointed in me…No!” This last “no” was actually yelled so loudly and made him stood straight up all of a sudden, that everybody into the theater turned the head at him.

– What happened, John? Linda asked the question with a trembling voice, holding her right hand at her mouth while pulling John’s sleeve and trying to look into his eyes.

– Nothing, nothing! I’m sorry…I….just wanted to…

– Do you think she is the murderer? How do you know? Oh my God! Maybe you are right! She is painted way too innocent from the very beginning…

– Yeah…I think that’s the lead.

– OK, be quiet now. My God! You are all sweaty, what happened? She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and started wiping the cold sweat that was dripping along his temples. John, you are worrying me!

– I’m OK, don’t worry. Watch the movie.

– You are still worrying me!

– I am OK, I’m OK. Let’s watch the movie. The drama unveiling in front of us is making me react unusual.

– OK. I am glad at least you are watching the movie. I am so happy we are doing this again.

– Me too.

Linda dug into the big bucket of popcorn again and slipped into her comfortable seat while resting her right knee against the empty seat in front of her and started watching again the movie with a feverish curiosity to catch up on last two missing minutes.

John realized that he has eventually to watch some of the movie in order to carry a conversation with his wife afterwards. He looked at the next two minutes and then fell back into his meditation on his new assignment. This time his line of thoughts was a lot more calculated and methodical. His mind started rewinding the lunch scenes and slowly but surely the advises he got from J.J. and Scott were coming up as an influx of well-organized information funneled through a filter that was supposed to let go only positive thinking, like a good coach’s motivational speech before a game played into a hostile territory. His brain switched from a fear dominated attitude, to a highly charged positive energy one, to a state of mind he was used to. His beautiful blue eyes caught a glimpse of brightness that sparkled into the dark like stars. His confidence came back and from that moment he put away all the negative thoughts that let him down and dragged him into such unknown environment. The lure of a new battle tickled his vanity and all the early fears were now history. His lungs filled up with air and the chest was moving back and forth from pounding heart beats, from the multitude of mixed feelings he went through during this unusual day. But now, at the end of it, he believed he was heading to the right direction. He committed to J.J. to straighten up the business in China and he would definitely do it! The fighting spirit caught up with him again without realizing that probably this is what he was actually missing during his comfortable, yet challenging years at Glenworth. Maybe this is what he needed: another challenge, to take him away from the daily routine, from the daily success, from the daily “know how” that made him such a valuable individual with the Organization. A large smile of self-confidence now flourished on his face.

-Do you think she really is the murderer, Linda whispered again into his ear?

-For sure, said John while asking himself what the consequences would be for not even having an idea what the movie was about. “This is going to turn out pretty bad”, murmured John trying to catch some of the action. “Too late, buddy! Too late! You are toast!”

The lights came back up and the people stood up chatting. Linda looked deep into John’s eyes mutely asking his opinion. He was virtually frozen and the only escape route he could find was to embrace her and whisper into her left ear: “we’ll talk at home”. Then he grabbed her by her left shoulder and made her turn around and head for the EXIT.

Once they got to the Wardrobe and picked up their overcoats, it was just a matter of few minutes until they got to their cars.

– Do I race you back?

– You are kidding, right? You drive a Sports car and I…

– You have a powerful SUV!

– You know what? If you feel like your adrenaline is running all over you, go ahead. But I am not going to speed up…

– I was just joking, said John while grabbing Linda by the hips and pulling her towards him in a sign that the “fight” was not going to happen.

– Yeah, I know – it was a “joke”…said Linda making the quotation signs in the air. As competitive as you are, you really wanted to race me back home!

– Let’s put an end to this! It was a joke and this is it!

– OK. Let’s head back home.

– Let’s get back home and…

– We’ll see, said Linda while cracking a smile from the corner of her bottom lip.

They both got into their cars and left the parking lot in a hurry.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 3-4 (The Meeting/John John Glenworth)

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 3

The Meeting

Ten minutes to nine. John John was never late for a meeting, not even a single minute. John grabbed his laptop and headed to the Boardroom. Usually he liked to talk to people before the start of each meeting, break the ice and get a feel for everybody else’s mood.

After the “good morning” and few greeting exchanges he set his laptop up and pulled on the screen again the file he just looked at when stepped into the Office. Nothing spectacular, nothing out of ordinary, yet his gut feeling was telling him that something was going on.

He screened the room again trying to read on people’s faces if his worries were shared by others. Not a sign! “Maybe I am overreacting…” and looked again at the financial statements in that particular file.

– Good morning everybody! And as usual, John John looked at the people in the room trying to see if anyone was missing. “Where is Rick, where is Tom?”

– They called in sick, came the answer right away from Scott. He was the Vice President, Glenworth’s right hand. John John was spending a significant amount of the day with him lately. Both Rick and Tom were reporting directly to Scott.

– Too many rounds last night, asked John John? Everybody else in the room burst in laughing, a laugh which sounded more like a kind of relief: “He is in a good mood!”

– OK. Let’s get going: the reason I called this meeting is that we do not have good news from our China Branch. He hooked up his laptop to the projector and pulled a file on the screen showing a Chart on Investment History for the last seven years. Surprising, for the first two years we are showing positive numbers and then we continuously dropped into the red zone. I cannot explain this trend. Usually, you are losing in the beginning and then you pick up the pace as you are getting more and more familiar with the respective market. I do understand the financial meltdown of the ‘08 and ’09 which did affect us too, but there is no reason whatsoever to keep losing money in the next three-four years. Now let me bring up the overview of the investments we made, per year and then sorted out per commodity only over a seven year period. The reason why I want to do this is for you to get a feel for the most resilient commodities during this seven year time span and eventually keep them in the back of your mind when you make an investment. You may say that investing in China is different than investing in North America or Europe or Australia. Agree. But there is no harm in taking a global look at a certain commodity before proposing an investment.

J.J. was slowly getting into his favorite part of doing a presentation: building up the momentum to the point when he was coming up with facts, hard numbers and details and always at the end with conclusions.

-Let’s get into details, ladies and gentlemen, and John was from that point onward only eyes and ears. The way J.J. was conducting a meeting was a piece of art. The tone of his voice was mostly deep and low pitched but was changing its tonality according to the importance of the paragraph, according to the message he wanted to send to the audience and most of all, according to what he wanted to achieve.

John studied him for years and he knew by heart what sort of gestures his boss was going to use with every inflection of the voice with every look he was taking at the people in the room.

As usual, at the end of the meeting the conclusions were presented based on hard numbers and of course, the invitation to comment and express own opinions on the presentation was a part of the Company culture which J.J. was anxiously waiting for. His blue eyes, of immaculate incandescent light were looking for any sign of feedback from the audience.

– I really don’t understand why investing in China is different than investing in Texas or Australia? Investing is investing. There are market rules and regulations in place, you do your homework according to company’s philosophy and place the investment, said John. He felt like somebody had to take the initiative and break down the wall of ice created at the end of J.J.’s presentation when nobody wanted to step up to the plate and ask questions. It seemed like nobody did any sort of preparation for this meeting and everybody had the mind occupied with the game only.

– What you are saying John, it is partially true. Yes, investing has its golden rules which are applicable to any sort of investment you make. But, an important part of the whole cycle of investing is: knowing the culture of the country you are placing your money into. It could eventually trigger market fluctuations on a specific commodity. For example: car insurance, or life insurance. Why would these two commodities take such deep dive when economy is doing well?

– Something is not right…it is not normal. That graph…goes against the trend. John stood up and walked to the pull down screen where J.J. still had a slide up. He pointed (with the pen he was holding) towards a specific segment of the graph where the slope was abruptly changing.

– That is exactly the area of the Investments myself and Scott have been looking at and scratching our heads for a long time, said J.J. with a large smile while the light that was coming out of his eyes was so intense that one would think he wanted to hypnotize the people around him. I believe we are done here and if nobody else has questions, we should adjourn. Thank you everybody for your time. We will have to probably meet again in three weeks.

John was ready to leave to room alongside everybody else, when J.J. put his big palm on his left shoulder and said:

– I need to speak to you, John. In my office, please.

– Yes Sir!

– Not now. In an hour, please.

– Yes Sir! I will be in your office in one hour.

– Thank you, son.

– You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.

J.J. took a seat at the table and made a very discreet sign to Scott to do the same. When everybody else was out of the room, he pulled the presentation again, specifically at that particular slide that generated some interest during the meeting and started a conversation with his Foreign Investments Manager and Vice President.

John, was managing Mid-West and South-West US Investment Accounts and had seventeen Brokers reporting to him. He was reporting to J.J. directly same as all Managers in charge of the US Accounts. However, Scott was holding the Vice President title, so he was (unofficially, but accepted by everybody) above all other Managers by one step.

– J.J. wants to talk to you in his Office…Oooo! Are we looking here at a brand new big Manager? Are we looking at another Vice President? Vicky’s voice was more persuasive than ever and the smile on her face larger and sweeter than John’s ever seen.

– I am a Manager!

– Yes, but you never know what can come out of a private meeting with J.J. said Joan, a forty five year old Broker reporting to John as well as Vicky. Maybe he will make you the Manager over the whole US Accounts…

– Why not? He is smart, he knows what he is doing, he’s got the experience and he’s good looking said Vicky raising the stakes.

– Common’ guys, you are talking non sense. He is not going to make me any sort of more Manager than I already am, said John with the adequate quotation marks when saying the word “more”.

– Or maybe he will be the VP of the Company, said Jay Lee – a Broker from the Atlantic Group.

– Guys! Guys! Please! It is probably a discussion he wants to have on some of the latest investments we made in our newest market in Texas, nothing more.

– Oh yeah, newest market in Texas! He really needs to have a top secret meeting to discuss some Texas style of marketing – Eeeehaaaa – and Vicky graciously simulated a cowboy hat salute while partially sitting on John’s desk. Her short skirt was showing two beautifully shaped legs which attracted John’s attention at a point at which he didn’t know how to take his eyes off of them anymore. She was beautiful and she was pushing the envelope at a level any man could hardly resist anymore. The long blonde curly hair flowing down her shoulders, the narrow hips and the long wonderful legs would drive any man crazy. However, John was always finding her unattractive – for a reason he couldn’t explain. But Vicky was the ultimate predator. She felt the hesitation into John’s eyes. “It is time to go for the kill”. And her wonderful olive shaped eyes looked deep into John’s. John felt like his legs were trembling; his left hand was searching for his chair while his right hand was trying to keep Vicky away.

– Guys, you are making me uncomfortable already! It’s enough. Please, I need to do some preparation before the meeting, said John and with his left hand he showed people in his office the door.

– We understand, John. Please do tell us how the meeting went, said Vicky while slightly bending forward from the hips, enough to expose her largely shaped cleavage showing the two beautifully shaped breasts barely kept together by a pink bra making John almost swallow his Adam’s apple.

One by one, the people in his office evacuated the room and he found himself standing and looking at the door with an empty face, not knowing what to do next, not knowing what to expect next. Finally, John burst into a yell of frustration while setting his palms around his temples in an imaginary effort to get her off of his mind: “She is so pushy, I cannot stand her!”

He grabbed again the file he prepared for the meeting while pulling the chair and started digging again into numbers and data which “nobody seemed to have a grasp on” – this is what his mind was set to, before J.J. knocked at his door.

He didn’t hear the knock. He had his back turned to the entrance, completely focused on reading from the file with the face at the window.

J.J. was standing one foot inside of John’s Office waiting for John’s acceptance to be let in. However, John was so absorbed into his lecture, that J.J. realized he had to knock again into the door’s frame if he wanted to be heard. This is what he was about to do, when all of a sudden his eyes fell on some personal framed pictures John had on a piece of furniture in his office: kids graduating from High School, him getting married to Linda (with J.J. and John’s parents into the attendance) and a big black and white picture of John John and John’s father (Timothy) in Korea. Both of them in the Infantry uniforms, with the rifles pointing up while the expression carved on their teenager faces was showing a complete indifference to the fact that they could’ve  had not even made it to the next day. “The ignorance and the genuine bravery of the youth” sighed JJ without knowing that his sigh will be so loud that will make John turn around and jump from his chair:

– Mr. Glenworth! I am so sorry! I didn’t hear you…..please, come in!

– That’s quite alright John! I am sorry for disturbing. I was just trying…to see if you are ready for the meeting. And his sight fell again on the photo where he and Tim thought they could move the mountains only by looking at them. John followed his eye sight and understood right away JJ.’s emotional state of mind.

– Whenever you want me to come to your office, Mr. Glenworth…I am ready.

– Please start calling me by my first name, said J.J. while grabbing John’s left shoulder with his huge right palm and looking right into John’s eyes. Give me fifteen minutes, please; and J.J. disappeared as elusive as he did when walked into John’s office.

The fifteen minutes J.J. asked for, passed by quite fast. All this time, John couldn’t take his eyes off of the picture showing his dad and J.J. in those dirty Infantry uniforms, with their faces almost completely covered in mud. Their blue eyes were throwing bolts of fire trying to convince the photographer that the battle isn’t over. He looked at this photo hundreds of times before, but never was he as emotional over it as he was now. Probably the way J.J. was looking at the picture, the way J.J. was looking into his eyes when grabbed his shoulder, the way he slipped out of his office without making any noise, made John believe that this picture holds a magic power and needs to be beheld as it was sacred. He picked up the file he prepared earlier and headed for J.J.’s Office.

Chapter 4

John John Glenworth

J.J.’s Office was classy to say the least. From the entrance door made out of solid oak wood to the desk made out of hand carved mahogany and from the library (covering the whole wall on the left and made from oak wood as well) to the smaller meeting table and the coffee table, all beautifully assorted to the thick Persian carpet on the floor. The multitude of the light reds on the carpet so wonderfully distributed, made the furniture blend in gradually starting from the door and finishing with J.J.’s working desk.

Opposite the door, a big glass wall was showing the busy downtown and a view over the river always astonishing no matter which the season of the year was. This time of the year, the red color of the trees along the river were giving the sight a particular majestic appearance which was inviting people from the Office Buildings to take short walks during their lunch breaks. It was also a usual jogging route for the condo owners in Down Town area.

A large book stand with few shelves was placed behind his chair, to the right. It was the place where John John placed several framed personal photos, mostly family related. He and his wife Jen, he and his son George right before the accident, a photo of the whole family at John John Jr.’s College graduation and few more that couldn’t be clearly seen just by standing in front of his desk.

After the passing of his wife Jen, he had to go through yet another tragedy: the passing of his second oldest son – George – killed on a racing track. George loved racing cars and his dream was to make it all the way to the top and become a NASCAR driver. George’s death left enormous scars on J.J.’s behavior. He became quieter; he used to laugh so hard, his whole massive body was shaking up like a leaf in the wind. Now, he was just smiling quietly. His blue eyes were still as expressive and deep as ever, which in contrast with the thick white hair were always sending a message of self-confidence and were implying respect to and from the interlocutor.

Whoever didn’t know him, had the tendency to be frightened by his imposing stature or by the sharpness of his sight and the way he was looking straight into one’s eyes. But deep inside, he had the heart of a child. Alongside his career at Glenworth Financials he helped numerous young professionals become top advisers into a tough merciless market. Few of them even ended up owning their own companies. He was a master at molding young energetic rough unpolished gems (willing to learn) into diamonds of Financial Markets’ gurus.

John was one of those young talented guys turned by J.J. into a well-known leader at Glenworth Financials and well respected throughout the industry. His potential was immediately seen by John John: native intelligence, adaptability to new circumstances and ability to find a way out of the situations considered lost by others. After just few years at Glenworth, John was promoted into middle Management and had a team of three Brokers reporting to him. Now, after almost twenty years he became the Manager of the most important Accounts – asset wise – of the Company.

When John reached his boss’s office, he stopped at the door and tidied up again: straightened the tie and some invisible wrinkles on his coat and tried to guess by looking into a nearby window if his hair is still properly brushed.

The door was opened as usual. He softly knocked on the doors frame, as J.J. was facing the big glass wall – probably admiring the river side of the Downtown – and the amazing multitude of colors this early fall has brought over the city. From the door, John could only see the top of his head and the white thick white hair showing above his elegant executive leather chair. He knocked again, this time harder. Nothing. At this point he decided to do the trick which would probably never fail in any sort of situation similar to the one he was into: slightly coughed.

Immediately John John turned his chair around and a large smile flooded his face.

– Come in, come in, have a seat! J.J. showed John to the meeting table while shaking his hand. Do you want to have a seat on the couch? The coffee table was in front of a superb leather light colored couch, making this way the room “bigger” by neutralizing some of the sober yet elegant dark colors of the book stands, chairs and working table.

– It’s quite alright J.J. I am perfectly comfortable at this table. Thank you. And John pulled a chair waiting for J.J. to sit first.

– Let’s talk now, man to man said J.J. pulling the chair and inviting again his guest to sit.

I have known you for such a long time John; John John stopped for few seconds in an effort to remember the exact number of years he’s known John. How old are you now?

– I will be fifty one in March next year.

– It’s been fifty one years since I know you! It was like yesterday when I and Jen came over to your parents’ house to say hi to you! Fifty one years! As time goes by! In the mean time you grew into the man you are today and I only wish Tim was still with us to see what good job he has done. How is Judy?

– She’s alright. She does lots of volunteer work at the Church and whenever she has time left, she does the same at the Senior Center nearby. She tries to stay busy, which is good.

– I am glad to hear that. I haven’t seen her since…since the passing of your father. Please say hi to her for me.

– I will Mr. Glenworth; and I thank you for this in her name.

– How is Linda? How are the kids? I believe Stephen is in his last year at the College, if I am not mistaken? And Sophie has two or three more years to go, right?

– Linda is very busy with the school. She is the Principal now of the school – not sure if you knew.

– No! I didn’t know! I am so happy for her. Please congratulate her on my behalf. She is a very smart lady and so goal driven! I knew she would make it to the top in her career.

– I will say hi to her on your behalf and also tell her that you said “congrats”. Beside school, she is trying to keep her father’s legacy alive. She is investing lots of time at the Church after hours. I help her whenever I can.

– Oh, I remember now! Reverend Wilson was her father! What a man! I remember now! Please tell her to come over and see me. I am sure I can help her iron out some financial hurdles she is most likely facing.

– Thank you again J.J., but I am not sure she would take it. You know her. She is not just going to accept a generous check from you in order to spend it – even if it is for a noble cause.

– Nonsense! We’ll find a way to do this. I know lots of people in the financial business and we can put together a charity event. Just ask her to give me a call, please.

– Probably this way is going to work, said John. Actually this is the only way is going to work and a little discreet laughter came out of his throat.

John John smiled and asked again:

– You didn’t finish…how about the kids?

– Oh, Stephen is indeed into his last year…can’t wait to go to his graduation. And he is a quarterback too, said John and his chest was filled with so much pride that his eyes were already betraying him, in spite of the fact that he tried to stay as humble as possible in front of J.J.

– Fantastic! How about Sophie?

– She has two more years to go to the graduation. She is taking Political Studies hoping she could one day get into Politics.

-Aaa…Politics! Never liked it. But it is a necessary evil. You have a wonderful family John and I am so happy for you!

-Thank you Mr. Glenworth.

-John John is my name – especially when it’s just the two of us.

-Thank you J.J.

-Better. Now let’s get down to business.

Pushing a button on the remote control, a screen came out of a library opening. He connected then his laptop to the screen and pulled the presentation again on the screen.

– I looked at these slides a hundred times. Still can’t understand what’s going on, why are we losing money when we should be making it? This is why I called you here in my Office, John. I don’t expect you to find an answer just by looking at the numbers or digging into the files. Something else is going on, something I just can’t get my fingers around it…I am at the verge of giving up and this notion – you know very well – is not part of my vocabulary. Still…I just cannot understand what’s going on.

– Do you want me to start over, from scratch, from square one and dissect this thing into the smallest bits and pieces possible?

– No. I don’t want you to do that. It will be a loss of time. If I and Scott couldn’t come up with anything, neither you will. I want you to do something else…and J.J. took a long break. His eyes looked first somewhere at a specific point on the large window then he looked John straight into his eyes. John’s Adam’s apple started going up and down. A cold sweat was running down his spine when J.J. took his right hand between his two huge palms and said something he never expected:

– I want you to go to China and sort this matter out.

If somebody would’ve thrown a pin on the ground, the ding made by the fallen pin would’ve been heard all the way to the front desk. John’s face was petrified. He thought he did not hear right.

– You want… you want… you want me to go to China? This is what I am hearing?

-Yes. This is what I want, John. With all my heart, I have no choice…I don’t think there is anybody else in this Organization who can get to the bottom of this damn thing. You are smart, you are experienced, you have exceptional people skills abilities and you have something else, something nobody in this company has: a feel for traps. You are combining the training of an Office Executive with the nose for danger of a street guy you developed during those football years of yours. You are the perfect fit for this job. This is why I and Scott came up with this decision.

– So, whose idea this was: yours or Scott’s?

– It doesn’t matter. The job must be done. And it will be done! We cannot afford pulling out of China! His voice went from a normal low pitch calm voice to an authoritarian voice, the voice of a CEO who wanted a job to be done regardless of the hurdles laid down in front of his path.

– How can I help? I have never been there. I don’t know the culture, I don’t know people’s mentality, I can’t speak the language, I don’t know how they do business. You said it during your presentation that it is important to understand how people think – when investing abroad – so we can be on the same page and eliminate the cultural aspects…

– These things you just mentioned are important indeed and I am glad at least one person listened to my presentation! Ha, ha, ha! A big laugh came out of his big chest and his eyes were already watering from laughing. After a short pause, he took his hanky out of his suit pocket and wiped out his eyes.

– In the beginning you should focus on reading people, trying to see what sort of relationships have developed between them in the Office, who is running the show. Tony Gang is the China Branch Manager. He will be your contact person there at the highest level. Also, Vic (you remember Vic from Atlantic Division) will help you out with getting around there and translating. He’s been there for few years now and I hear that he is fluent in Mandarin, if you know what I mean…and J.J. made a giggling sound which made John scratch his head. He also knows lots of politics in that Office and you should heavily rely on him.

-I need some time to think about, Sir.

-Yes, for sure. I hope by Monday you have agreed.

-Today is Friday!

-You have the weekend to make up your mind. I am asking this as a favor from you, a favor with respect to all these years we’ve been together in this business! I have no one to send there, John! Please, help me out! And his eyes were slowly mellowing down from a thunder bolt throwing machine like, to a more like desperate type of a look, a look he has never seen on J.J.’s face before. He felt his shirt soaked wet into a cold sweat down his spine and started trembling while his right leg was nervously shaking up and down.

-I didn’t think it was that desperate, Sir. I didn’t think…

-Yes, it is. I didn’t want to show the real numbers in that meeting. We lost 70 million in the last five years. I buried the numbers so people wouldn’t see them. That graph was a bogus graph. This is the real one: and J.J. pulled another slide, John hasn’t seen during the meeting. The deep was severely more abrupt and John’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets.

-God! This is bad!

-Yes, it is. We are left with two alternatives: we either shut down that Operation or we fix it. And this is where I want you John, to step in and help.

-But I have no experience in overseas investments, I don’t know the culture (as you said), I don’t know the people, I can’t even understand what they are saying…how am I supposed to fix this mess?

-I don’t expect you to fix the mess, John. I want you to lead me to the right track! That’s all I need. I need you to lead me to the right track! I will take care of business from there on. I spent endless nights thinking what to do, thinking if I have to pull the plug or not. I do believe that we should be there, but something is not right! I cannot keep sinking company’s money into a bottomless pit. This is why I need you to go there and try to figure out what the hell is happening with that Organization.

-Let me talk to my wife, J.J. I’m sure she would understand. She loves you. You are a mentor to both of us. You have my answer, I hope you understand.

-Thank you John. Please send my respects to Linda. I can’t wait to see her again.

J.J.’s eyes were watering again and in order for John not to see this, he stood and went to his desk facing the window. He was the kind of man never let his emotions come out in front of his employees and even John was so closed to him, he did not want to see him getting weak – or this is what J.J. considered that state of emotion to be.

He kept looking through the window while he had his hands joined at the back giving a clear sign that the meeting was over.

John figured out that it was time for him to leave and quietly slipped out of the Office. He walked to his Office and sat on his chair facing the same side of the building as J.J.: the river side view of the Downtown. It was absolutely spectacular at this time of the day and his head was spinning already…”What am I going to do in China? How can I help? I know absolutely nothing about doing business there, I know nobody. How am I supposed to come up with a solution?” All these questions started haunting him and a strange feel of uncertainty wrapped him in spite of the fact that he was trying to stay calm and not panic. For the first time in his life he was panicking. He grew up being taught by his father Tim to keep a cool head regardless of the situation. He had his endless football training sessions where he learnt to stay cool into the pocket and not panic, to rely on his big offensive linesmen to protect him from the hits, to rely on his teammates to give him those two seconds he needed to make the throw. In the Office he had a team of professionals who knew how to make a trade, who knew how to make a call when it was about a good investment opportunity who knew how to alert him when things went south.

This time, he figured out he would be all alone in uncharted waters, in a world where the rules are different, in a world where he could not even speak the language, in a world where he could not rely on anybody but himself. He panicked! “I have no pocket! How am I supposed to win a game like this?”

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 1-2 (John/Linda)

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 1

John

Since kids have left for College, they developed a habit of sleeping with the door of the Master Bedroom open. It was just another way of keeping in touch with the “world down stairs”.

The smell of the freshly brewed coffee made him crack a smile in spite of the fact that he was still half asleep. The alarm clock was set to go off fifteen minutes prior to the coffee maker starting brewing and the pleasure of laying in the bed and stealing another quarter of an hour from yet another hectic day to come, was bringing him an immense pleasure.

Finally, he decided to get out of the bed; turned and rolled over, closer to Linda. John lifted his head, looked at her for few seconds and then hugged and kissed her on the side of her neck. In spite of the fact that she was still sleeping, he could see that his kiss brought an immense pleasure on her beautiful face and a purring like sound made him think at naughty things. He bit his bottom lip and slowly rolled out of the bed trying not to wake her up.

Started walking with his eyes half closed towards the bathroom. Turning the light on in the bathroom made him close his eyes for a moment. Took his T-shirt off and looked into the mirror. “Still got it, still got it buddy!” came instantly out of his mouth and his face was flooded with an expression of satisfaction.

His flat stomach was still showing the six pack which during his football years brought him the famous nickname everybody in the team was envying: “the Spartan”. It was the nickname in the locker room given each year by the team mates to the player with the best sculptured abs. A great sense of pride brightened his face and the memories poured in: the great game for the Championship won in the last seven seconds by his throw, the party after the game and inevitably, the injury which ended a very promising career. Dropped his head for two seconds, then looked again in the mirror and chuckled: “You would’ve made it to the NFL! You sure would’ve made it!”

The morning routine settled in very quickly: teeth brushing, showering and shaving, everything done with very precise motions and in a set time frame; three minutes for teeth brushing, five minutes for the shower, four for shaving. Hair combing came after and was still taking some time in spite of the fact that he lost some hair around his temples. Actually, the grey shades in his hair gave him a mature look, the look of a man who is in control, a man who is an established professional capable of providing a comfortable living for his family.

“Coffee time! It is now coffee time” and took the stairs down to the kitchen while putting on a nice silk robe around him and rubbing his hands against each other in a sense of great expectations – like a kid in a candy store. The smell of the fine coffee he just poured into his cup, made him close his eyes and take a deep breath – like he wanted to make sure he absorbed all that wonderful essence of the Caribbean blend he was buying from the gourmet coffee shop across his Downtown Office. First sip was short, with his eyes closed, trying not to lose anything of the great bold and robust aroma of the liquid in his cup. “So good, so good”, exclaimed John in such an enthusiastic way that made one truly understand John was indeed a specialist in gourmet coffees!  He put the cup on the kitchen table and headed towards the entrance. Opened up the door, wrapped the robe around his waist and picked up the Newspaper. Looked at the sky and mumbled: “it will be a cold winter; hopefully we won’t have too much snow”. On his way back, took a quick look at the Sports Section: “They lost!” A glimpse of sadness – like a lonely cloud on a clear winter morning sky – settled on his bottom lip. “Why did I miss the game? How come I got so out of touch with the Sport I love so much that I completely forgot about the game? Aha…the Meeting!”

After the unexpected call for a large scale Meeting (which directly came from John John yesterday afternoon), he started digging into his files. Due to the fact that Scott did not provide any Meeting Agenda, he was nervous. This never happened before. “What if I have to present something? No. He didn’t provide any discussion topics. What if…?” That “if” started torturing him and completely forgot that he was supposed to be with everybody else from the Office at the usual Sports Bar to watch the game together. Even forgot that while the guys were leaving, he asked Vicky to order wings for him when she asked him if he was coming? “Of course I do! Today is the big game! I wouldn’t miss it for the world. What sort of question is this?”

“Just asking, John. Just asking” said Vicky and left while looking over the shoulder smiling persuasively. He smiled back, opened a large binder containing notes he took from the past two years’ meetings and started reading. Didn’t even realize when it got dark outside. He raised his head only when John John softly knocked on the frame of his opened Office door and asked: “You didn’t go with the guys to watch the game?”

Pulled a chair and had another sip while turning the TV on.

“Temperatures are in the low forties and we expect them to stay like this for the whole week…it will be a cold winter, folks”. “Yeah, thanks for the late breaking news!” and switched the channel.

“Financial markets took a dive today folks, at the news that Chinese economy will only grow at a rate of 5.7%, much lower than most of the Analysts predicted. On the other hand, the Bank of China announced unprecedented reforms to the lending policies trying this way to stimulate an economy which everybody in the world fears will start sputtering and come to a stall after years of robust growth”.

He became eyes and ears at the news and immediately opened the Financial Section of the Newspaper on the table. “Glenworth Financials” lost three dollars and forty three cents per share between three and four o’clock yesterday. This was totally unexpected especially after the steady growth recorded over the past five years, growth mainly due to the opening of the Shanghai Office and exposure to the immense Chinese market.

“This doesn’t make sense. It is an emotional sell. People are selling based on the news…Hmm, maybe it’s time to buy few shares” and a large conspiring smile showed up on the left corner of his mouth. “Maybe it’s time to buy” and John took another sip out of the cup.

He finished then the coffee with short and calculated sips while devouring the Financial Section in front of him. It didn’t take too long before he got a clear picture of what the Markets will do in the next weeks. Then he stood up and headed towards the Living room when all of a sudden everything became clear to him: “This is why John John is calling the Meeting! Of course this is the reason!” came out with a sigh of relief. “It has to be!” John John knew about the announcement and wasted no time in calling this emergency meeting. He has been working close to J.J. since he joined “Glenworth Financials” and his reaction felt simply normal. He got to know John John very well and not being ahead of the game was something he hated the most. “I’m sure that he already has a plan sketched up”.

Moments later he was upstairs, opened up the closet and took a quick look at the large wardrobe at his disposal. The shirts were all aligned by color. He picked a light silk cappuccino one which beautifully matched the beige suit with thin, vertical, light gray stripes he set his eyes on. The leather light brown shoes and a tie which wonderfully matched the shirt and the suite completed his choice for the day. Took all of them into the bedroom, making sure he didn’t make too much noise. Linda was still sleeping and judging by the look on her face, he figured out that she was having pleasant dreams. He started dressing and this morning less than ever, he spent very little time looking at the details like: “perfect knot” or “perfect pants crease”. He was dressing with feverish and precipitated moves as opposing calm and calculated ones as usual. He was eager to get to the Office as soon as possible so he could get access to the Network and dissect the financial statements Glenworth publicized two days ago. “Done! Let’s go!”

– Morning handsome, came from her direction. Quickly turned around and looked at her. Bent a knee then hugged and kissed her.

−Morning beautiful, he whispered into her ear. This made her wrap her arms around his neck and smile again.

−I have to go. Please let go. Her arms were strongly holding him close to her chest. “I really have to go, now. Common, be a good girl and let me leave” said John again with a soft and calm voice trying to break loose from the hug.

−I see you tonight at the Theater?

−Of course you’ll see me. Have a good day now. I’ll call you after lunch.

−OK. You may go now, she said closing her eyes while hugging the big pillow she was sleeping on.

He rushed downstairs with the shoes in his hands. The rule was simple and clear: “no shoes inside of the house”. He put them on in the hallway and was ready to storm out of the house when he realized he left the TV on. “That’s OK” was his first instinct as he knew Linda would watch the news as well while having her tea. But the discipline cultivated during his College Football career and during the years at Glenworth made him take his shoes off and head for the kitchen. “No electric device should be kept on while being away from the house”.

Grabbed the remote control and the moment he was ready to push power button, Sports news came up: “And now let’s watch some highlights from last night game and especially the last seconds’ drama when our boys came so close of winning”. Memories popped up into his head as he was watching the last throw of the Quarterback to the Receiver and the close miss. “It was less than an inch, less than an inch. This is really bad luck, bad luck folks!” A sigh of disappointment came out of his chest and turned the TV off. On his way back to the entrance, he stopped by the door of the room he was using as his home office. Flipped the switch and took a long look at the big poster showing him making the throw with seven seconds left for the championship. It was him, on that torrential rain, completely covered by mud, making that last throw while being tackled by two Defensive Linemen. And it was the same play which ended his career. He never fully recovered from that torn ACL and even if the broken ribs healed well, once in a while he was feeling some pain in the area, especially during intense physical effort. “I guess I was lucky, I made the throw. I did make that throw!” came out of his chest while chuckling and flipping the switch back off.

He put the shoes on, grabbed the over coat from the coat hanger, the suite case and then headed straight for the garage. Opened the door of his red muscle car, threw the suitcase and the coat on the front seat and stormed out of the drive way without waiting for the car to warm up. Usually he wouldn’t do it, but now there was a totally different ball game on the line. He had to get into the Office as soon as possible. The Meeting was called for 9.00 am. “Hopefully the traffic is not too bad”. Once he got on the freeway, stepped on the gas pedal shifting into the highest gear. The 500 HP engine neighed like a pure blood Arabian horse taken out of the stable for the morning run and the tires squalled on the fresh asphalt trying to keep up with all the mightiness of the eight cylinder engine. “Hopefully there are no cops around” and moved into the most left lane. He was closing in to reach Downtown when all of a sudden he started seeing red brake lights from the cars ahead of him. “Damn it! It must be an accident ahead”. He swiftly moved towards the most right lane to be positioned for an exit on one of the City Streets towards Downtown. Within next half a mile he got a clear picture of what was going on ahead of him: one lane opened only – accident. Luckily he was close to the next exit and without any hesitation took a side street towards Downtown. “Not too bad, not too bad! At least I am moving.” Took him another eighteen minutes to reach the street his Office Building was on and truly started believing in Murphy’s laws: he caught every single red light possible. After making the right turn on the street where his Office Building was on, the traffic came onto a complete halt. “You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!” He opened up the door (as nothing was moving) to see what was going on. He had less than a hundred and fifty yards to the front of the building. “Are you kidding me? These jack asses are towing a car now, during the rush hour so the traffic can get from bad to the worst possible!” His carotids were pulsing from anger. “Think John, think!” came out of his mouth looking around and holding his point fingers at the temples. Suddenly he saw Leo on the other side of the road, walking up and down on the side walk in front of the Hotel rubbing his hands against each other in an attempt to stay warm. Leo was one of the Valets who were parking cars at the Hotel across the street. He met him few years ago when car pooled with Vic while his car got fixed. It was exactly the same situation but at that time Vic had the answer: got Leo to park the car while both of them walked to the Office. Obviously Vic did it before, otherwise how would’ve he known Leo?

– Leo! Leo! Leooooo, yelled John as hard as he could. However, the people were honking the horns trying to achieve something impossible: moving. Leo couldn’t hear him. He started waving at him while still yelling: “Leo! Leo!” Finally, Leo saw him and before heading towards his direction had a short hesitation. He didn’t recognize John. However, Leo was one of those street smarts who have their noses trained in smelling a nice tip. Just by looking at John’s nice red muscle car, he intuitively knew his day was about to start on a high note. He was a city guy and it was a giving knowing how to complement your regular income with cash coming from wherever else.

– Leo, I’m John – we met a while ago. I’m Vic’s friend. Remember me?

– Heeey, of course I remember you! How are you Mr. Parker? How is Vic? I haven’t seen him in years!

– He is in China. Long story…

– Ahaaaa. He is in China. Lucky guy! He probably got himself a nice Chinese chick, boom, boom, boom…

– He is there for a work assignment.

– Oooh….I understand. Work assignment, said Leo while winking and a large smile exposed his impeccable white teeth which in contrast with his dark skin were shining like diamonds in the rough.

– Listen, Leo. I need your help. I have a Meeting in exactly thirty eight minutes and I still have preparations to make. I need…

– Of course I can park the car for you, Mr. Parker!

– Thank you so much, Leo! You have no idea how much you are helping me!

– Don’t worry Mr. Parker. I will leave the car keys with the guys downstairs at the Information Center and a note with the parking spot number.

– Leo, you are a treasure! John pulled the wallet out of his pocket and took all the cash out of it and gave it to Leo.

– No, Mr. Parker! You don’t have to do this! But Leo’s fingers were already counting the fresh bills in his hand.

-I insist, Leo. I still owe you. You are helping me big time, said John while running towards the Building.

Leo jumped into the car, took his Valet coat off and set the radio to his favorite Rap Station at a volume any another person would’ve instantly gone deaf. “Yeah baby, yeah baby, yeah baby! Hundred twenty dollars! It’s gonna’ be a good day, good day, good day! Yeah baby… yeah baby… yeah baby”.  He opened up the roof (in spite of the crisp fall morning) continuing to rap hoping that the traffic will still be jammed for a while.

John stormed into the Building. The elevator was not coming quick enough! He checked his wristwatch: “come on, come on!” and started pushing button 27 numerous times. Glenworth Financials was renting the whole 27th Level of the Building. His Office was short distance, down the hall from J.J.’s office. Mr. Glenworth was already in. All the lights in his office were turned on, which made John understand that his boss showed up for work very early in the morning.

“He is reviewing his presentation. He did not provide any sort of Agenda!  I hope this meeting is his show only.”

He passed J.J.’s Office and took a look inside while passing by. He had his laptop set on the table behind his working desk and was typing.

John wanted to stop and say good morning, but realized his boss was too absorbed by his work and a disruption wouldn’t have made him a very happy person. So, he just headed for his office trying not to make any sort of noise that would’ve disturbed his boss from his work. Turned on his laptop and logged into network. He was particularly interested into the Financial Statements related to Glenworth’s investments in China. “Bingo!” said John with a great relief of satisfaction on his face while looking at his watch: “I still have twenty five minutes on my hand”. He started digging in.

Chapter 2

Linda

The alarm clock went off ten minutes before 8.00 am. Linda reached for the snooze button and turned on the other side trying to steal another ten minutes of the morning sleep.

Her first class for the day was scheduled for 10.00 am, so she didn’t feel any pressure to hurry in waking up. Shortly after the second alarm sound, she got up and headed towards the bathroom. She was always brushing the teeth before taking the shower which she did as a morning routine once again. Then dropped her pajama and got into the shower. In spite of giving birth to two children and closing in to be forty nine, her body was still showing forms which a twenty year old girl would’ve been jealous on. All those years spent as a cheer leader, all the gymnastics hours taken during her youth are paying now off. This is actually how she met John. During the Big Game, he got out of the pocket and made a run for the first down. Got pushed out of bounce and couldn’t stop running into her. Luckily he got the presence of mind of dropping the ball and taking her into his arms. She remembered being carried for few yards without touching the turf. When their little tango came at a halt, she finally felt the ground under her feet and it was only that time when she had the power to look him up into the eyes: he was John Parker! Every girl in the school had his name in the daily vocabulary or at least a poster with him on the dorm’s wall.

From that moment on, everything was a fairy-tale story: the “I am sorry” which came out of his lips while looking her straight into the eyes, the party after the game when she was desperately looking for him, the unexpected phone call which came the second day, the visit at the Hospital where she saw him in a cast from the waist up to the arm pits, the start of their relationship, the wedding, kids, kids going to College…

All these memories were popping up while looking into the mirror when carefully drying her long, beautiful hair and a big smile was flooding her face.

She grabbed a robe, and headed for the kitchen. Turned the TV on and started making her morning tea. Weather Channel, Financial Markets, Sports…nothing interested.

Poured the tea into a cup and started browsing through the newspaper John brought in. It was still opened at the Financial Section. She saw the mark made by John with a black marker: it was the quotation on the Market of Glenworth Investments. “The news is not too good, I guess” said to herself seeing the negative sign in front of the dollar figure. Then she moved to “Arts & Life”. This was her piece of cake: new art at the Galleries, movies, new plays at the Opera House.

“The shooting which took place last night in front of the Lagoon Paradise, left two young men: sixteen and eighteen years old dead and three others in their twenties seriously wounded. The area is sealed up by the Police and the investigation behind the shooting has begun. It is strongly believed though, that it was gang related” came up and all of a sudden her all attention was captured by the TV.

“This is just great! Yet another shooting! Somebody has got to do something about this otherwise the whole city will turn into a war zone”.

As a teacher and as the Principal of a reputable High School in town, she was regularly participating at the City School Board meetings and was very familiar with the gang related issues in the schools. She was spending a great deal out of her free time in working with children coming from underprivileged families helping them catching up with the learning but mostly offering guidance on day to day life. She was doing it with great pleasure as she grew up with the mindset that you always have to give something back to the society and help people less fortunate than you.

Her father was a minister of the church in the little town she grew up and he spent his whole life spreading the word of Gospel, comforting and helping people in need, and most of all: going into the poor communities and talking to parents, teenagers and even to the kids. Reverend Wilson was a true missionary dedicating a good part of his life to the welfare of the kids coming from broken up families, homeless, or teens joining gangs. He was particularly working with kids dragged into the gangs. It was his believe that they are just missing the guidance and the warmth environment of a stable family, of an environment where they can feel they have a future, an environment where they feel “important”.

He almost lost his life when he got caught into a cross fire shooting between two gangs. He was having one of his regular discussions about God and life of Jesus with few kids close to a community Basketball court. A bullet hit him in the neck and he was very lucky that no major artery was touched. From that moment on, he truly believed that God chose him to take his will to the poor and unfortunate. He spent the rest of his life trying to build a Parish into that community, a community riddled by violence, unemployment, broken up families and gang fighting. He did not live to see the Church opening up. He lost a battle only good Lord could’ve won it. Until the last moments he thanked God for the life and the family he had, for the chance to be His humble servant on Earth and the good deeds he did serving Him.

For the last two weeks of his life, Linda was with him, all the way to the end and she still remembers him whispering while looking up at the ceiling: “Lord, thank you for not taking my minds away from me”. Then his beautiful blue eyes froze and Reverend Wilson went to meet Him.

This last phrase followed her for long time after his passing.

He was her life model and in spite of the fact that she was not going to the church as often as she used to, her dad’s teachings survived into her sub consciousness and his legacy turned into a mission.

The great Easter Sunday morning when the Parish was opened and people flocked in, made her feel such a great sense of pride especially that in spite of all adversities and lack of financial support, she managed to take her father’s project to the end! And only the fact that her father was not there to see his dream come true stopped her from fully enjoying the ceremony.

Reverend Jackson officiated the Mass. He was one of the teenagers her father saved from the gang environment. He followed the path of faith laid in front of him by Reverend Wilson and eventually became the Pastor of the Parish. He relentlessly continued the work of Linda’s father, trying to keep his legacy alive.

In all the charitable projects she had in the community, Linda worked very close with him. The fact that he grew up there and people knew him was of a tremendous help to her. The seeds planted by her dad are now producing crops.

“And with the help of good Lord, hopefully we will get to harvest the crops, Amen!” said Linda and took the stairs up to the first floor. “It’s time to get ready! It is another day”.    She began dressing and for a reason she couldn’t explain, memories of her first teaching class (at the High School she was still teaching), settled in. The nervousness, the anxiety, the sense of pride, the fear of failure, all came up and in spite that all of these feelings were pure history she felt a knot in her throat. She looked into the mirror and realized that small drops of sweat were coming down on her face. “What’s going on? Why is this happening?” Wiped the sweat with the sleeve of the robe and sat on the edge of the bed to gather her thoughts while still looking into the mirror. She had a worry looking face. “Why is this happening? Why?” Memories of her father losing the battle with that cruel illness came to her mind again. She covered her face and held the head into her palms for a second. “It has to be just an anxiety attack! It will go by soon and everything will be just fine” said again to herself and tried to get all these negative thoughts out of her mind by deeply breathing while gently massaging her lower abdomen.

“It’s gone! See? It was just a short anxiety attack! I knew it!”

Immediately jumped on her feet and feverishly started looking for the suit she wore during her first teaching class at the High School she was still teaching. It was buried among other suits she was not wearing anymore at the end of the walk in closet.

She took it to the bedroom, while the suit was still on the hanger and held it in front of her while looking into the mirror again. Then she did a little pirouette, turned around and looked from the profile. She really liked what she saw and a smile blossomed on her face. Her abdomen was still flat, the skin smooth like velvet and the few little wrinkles around her eyes were only adding charm to the whole bouquet of femininity she was radiating in that moment. She softly bit her lower lip, the same way she did when John grabbed her from the side line and made her float for few seconds during the Championship game. He made a run for the first down and couldn’t stop in time, so he involuntary ran into the cheer leaders group where he grabbed Linda. He realized that a collision wouldn’t have ended up too well for her, so he picked her up and made few more steps carrying his future wife into his arms. That little lip biting in tandem with her angelic smile made John forget that he had to get back on the field. He was brought to reality by “Big K.J.” who yelled at him while grabbing both his shoulders with his huge palms: “Common, man! We are losing! What the Hell is wrong with you?”

She burst into a big healthy laugh, a laugh which came at a moment she needed it the most. It was like a vane releasing the steam out of a boiling vessel.

Two years later, K.J. was one of John’s “Best men”. Eventually he became a successful businessman who tremendously helped her during the struggling years she went through trying to make her father’s dream come true.

Immediately decided to try the suit out: “Still fits!” yelled with such a pleasure that her whole face was flooded by a large smile which eventually turned into a discreet laugh of satisfaction. “Still fits!”

The decision to wear the suit came without any sort of hesitation, in spite of the fact that was out of fashion. Probably all those memories which made her go through an emotional roller coaster few minutes ago made her immune to any thoughts related to what could people say. And the fact that in the evening she will have a nice movie watching night out with John, pushed her even more towards getting dressed into that particular attire. Maybe her sub consciousness just wanted to trigger memories from the times of her first date with John, from the times when they were just grabbing a bucket of popcorn and walked into a Theater to watch a movie, from the times when there were not too many responsibilities on their shoulders…times she knew will never come back.

A short sigh came out of her chest and started dressing. It did not take very long. Took the stairs down to the kitchen and had a last look at the News Channel: “….it is going to be a cold week, folks! Dress accordingly” the advice came from the Weather man.

“Great! It is exactly what we want, a cold October. Probably at Thanks Giving we’ll have two feet of snow!” and turned the TV off.

While walking towards the hallway, she wanted to shut John’s Office door close. For whatever reason she flipped the switch up and the big poster showing John making the last seconds throw for the Championship win appeared in front of her. For a second she was stunned, looking completely lost at the poster. Same knot came back into her throat and felt like choking. She looked at that poster hundreds of times before. This time was something special about it, something she could not explain. Finally, a great sense of pride settled in and again, that little smile and lip biting made her chuckle and turn the light off while closing the door.

Grabbed her overcoat from the hanger and the suitcase; set the alarm on and headed for the garage while in her mind already made a decision to take the SUV and leave home the small convertible she was also driving during summer time. Probably the weather forecast she listened at for few seconds, made her set into a self-protection mode when decided to take the big car to work. Tuned the radio to her favorite station and stepped on the gas pedal. “It is a new day! Good Lord, please watch over us!”

She picked the usually route: a street which eventually was turning into one of those little two lane roads through the country side.

This time of the year, the scenery was absolutely fabulous. The color of the leaves was astonishing: hundreds of different shades of red, yellow and orange combined into a unique pallet of nuances was offering a tremendously restful view. The spectacle of colors surrounding the car from all over the places made her adjust the volume knob to minimum. She just felt like wanting to absorb every single detail of the view, every single quiver of those heavenly colored leafs.

All of a sudden something caught her eye: on one side of the road deep into the farm land, on a little hill, a deer herd was quietly and carefully resting and ruminating on a recent meal.

Linda pulled over, took a little binocular out of the glove compartment and zoomed into their direction. Their ears were pointing up and rotating trying to catch every noise that would have signaled danger. It was like a hypnoses session: everything around her became surreal, mystic and untouchable and yet so close to her senses. The binocular brought the animals she was admiring so close, that she felt like stretching her hand and fondle them.

She watched them for few minutes, completely lost, forgetting that she had a class in less than forty minutes.

Finally, reality settled in and Linda hit the road again with a sigh of sorrow that she was leaving her “friends” behind. “Maybe tomorrow they will be back and I would be able to see them again”.