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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 37

Black Swan

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

-Zhaohui asked me to move immediately.

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

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

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

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

-Guess what?

-What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Oh, well…this is what I do, man!

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

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

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

-You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!

-Mister! Mister! Hello! Me, driver…

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

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

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

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

-I don’t wanna’ see you! Go away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yeah, let me talk to him.

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

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

-I can’t believe you are doing this!

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

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

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

-Yes, I think it is a good one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Told you! This guy is a maniac!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You think so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Where? Can’t see him.

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

-Great! Now we have them as our neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Would you mind just follow me, please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-That’s on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-G’day, mates! How you going?

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

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

-Good evening to you too, gentlemen!

-What you mates having for a drink?

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

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

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

-What, yaw ladies too delicate to drink?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Show good, Mister. Show good!

-I believe you. What is your name?

-Yuan Jun. Nice meet you, Mister…

-Parker is my name. John Parker.

-Nice meet you Mr. Parker. Show good!

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

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

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

-By the way…what does Yuan Jun mean?

-Fountain of joy.

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

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

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

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 36 (Investing in books is always a good idea)

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 36

Investing in books is always a good idea

-So, John…what would you like to share with us? Vic’s voice was the voice of a man who was a little puzzled, the voice of a person who was expecting something out of extraordinary, something new and exciting.

John brought the glass in front of his eyes trying somehow to filter his thoughts through the red liquid, trying to balance the way he was going to get out of his chest the story. After taking another sip, he placed the glass on the table and calmly, looking straight into his friends’ said:

-Last night I met my neighbors…

A heavy silence (similar to the one when they all looked at the barges sliding on Huangpu) settled. All three glasses were now resting on the table, signaling the fact that John’s last statement managed to completely capture the attention of his friends. Vic was mesmerized…his face showed a man who was deeply disturbed by the announcement. Zhaohui’s face was expressing astonishment, surprise, wonder and perplexity, but in the same time was betraying a deep and insatiable eager to know more about the event. Jon picked up on the fly that Zhaohui is dying to find out more about the encounter. He grabbed his glass, took another sip and started speaking while looking straight into his friends’ eyes. The story came out naturally. John was totally relaxed and while telling it he felt how his mind and heart were easing, were giving up a heavy load which they were unable to carry anymore. Both his friends were literally absorbing the words which were coming out of his mouth. John tried to keep the inflections on his voice as steady, as flat and emotionless as possible, in order not to influence his interlocutors. When the story got to the point when John described the weaponry his neighbor possessed, Zhaohui startled and her eyes became slimmer and slimmer, indicating that she was now concentrating her all attention only on this matter. She looked at John and with a whispery like tonality in her voice asked him:

-Did you somehow manage to count the numbers of antlers on each side of the two horns?

John hesitated to answer and for few seconds he rubbed his forehead with his right palm. He was trying to bring back the whole endeavor: the moment when he was attracted by the arsenal hanging on the wall, the strange feeling he had when grabbed the cold, yet very expressive handle of the blade and the very artistic touch of the scabbard. The butt of the handle with the beautiful hart head and two red goggled eyes was still imprinted into his memory, but he couldn’t recall himself counting the antlers.

-I really can’t remember and I never did count them. I am sorry, Zhaohui…

-It’s alright John. Judging by what you are saying, your neighbors belong to a high nobility family and they admitted it. If somehow you remember the number of antlers of that stag and if you can compare that smell with anything known to us, maybe I can precisely pin-point who your neighbors are.

-I have to scratch my head really hard…not sure. A short moment of silence followed, a moment when John was trying to remember these little details, while Zhaohui was almost begging him with her eyesight to do an effort and answer the question.

-Wait a minute! Didn’t you say that on the wall he had the head of a majestic stag? I bet you that the number of antlers would be the same on the sword’s handle!

-Good one, Vic! Zhaohui’s voice had an upbeat and excited tonality, signaling a glimpse of anticipation and hope. John’s eyes dilated and a spark one could’ve seen into his eyes…

-Right! The massive stuffed head on the wall! It was so big and frightening and those two eyes trying to tell the story of that hunting event which apparently ceased the existence of that superb beast were so expressive and large!

-Exactly! Now try to remember the number of the antlers, John…her voice was switching now to a soft, begging tonality, to a voice which was eagerly asking for an answer to questions that were burning inside of the heart. Again John started rubbing his forehead but this time he didn’t realize that he was actually loudly speaking, trying to recall the chain of events and hoping that it will somehow tickle his memory.

-I got in; it was dark…few fascicles of light were trying to squeeze themselves underneath the bathroom door and were barely reaching the living room area. Someone was taking a shower…this was the moment when John stopped. He didn’t know if he wanted to tell his friends about the encounter with the beautiful woman living next door. His hesitation was promptly speculated by Zhaohui. Her eyes were asking many questions and John knew that he had to be fully transparent and honest with his friends. The story started flowing and soon all the details of last night’s event spilled over the glass. Vic and Zhaohui were all ears. John felt like taking a break to catch his breath. It was the moment when Zhaohui pulled a question which made John startle:

-So, she is beautiful, isn’t she?

-Yes, she is! She is very beautiful. John’s voice turned soft and tender, still betraying a great level of admiration for the woman he saw naked, for the woman he had got to understand that was a warrior from a very high level aristocratic family – same like her brother – for the lady who served him tea while his eyes were undressing her from the thin like air bathrobe she was wearing. Few long minutes of complete silence followed up. Each of the three actors participating at the scene tried to put their thoughts in order, sensing that the outcome of this discussion will shed some light on the next steps they will have to make. One could hear his heart beating – this is how quiet it got into the room. Everyone was now waiting for someone else to say something. Finally, Zhaohui summoned up her spirits and ask again the question:

-How many antlers did the stag have? Can you remember?

To everyone’s surprise (including his own), John answered without hesitation:

-Seven on each side.

Zhaohui startled! Her face became white like the wall of the living room. Her hands started shaking and the sweat on her forehead was showing a deep distress level. Both Vic and John were mesmerized; they were looking at her with the eyes of two individuals who just saw a ghost. Another round of quietness struck the room; John started to feel very uncomfortable but refrained from saying anything. His eyes were pointing straight at Vic’s fiancée, waiting for her to reveal what she had in mind.

-It’s them…

Her answer made the two men present in the room look at each other…their eyes were exhibiting fear, discomfort, dread and anxiety as Zhaohui’s enigmatic statement completely caught them by surprise. The unknown of the situation laying in front of them was terrifying and their line of thoughts broke down into an array of unasked questions, into a panel of scenarios made up by second guesses and probably unrealistic assumptions.

-Do you remember their names, John?

-They gave me two names which are most likely not their real names. One of them was: Zhiming mao and the other one was Zhiming de jiàn.

-So, she is a master of the sword…

-Apparently. The man told me that he is equally good with both the lance and the sword, but prefers the lance. Few more minutes of silence encompassed the room. It looked like now the ice was broken and at least the three friends were at ease to communicate with each other.

-They are members of the “Seven Orchids Order”

-What does this Order do and how do you know they are members of this Order? Zhaohui was about to answer the question, when John realized that all of a sudden she hesitated and changed her mind by dropping her head while holding it between her palms. Few more moments of heavy silence and uncomfortable quietness made the two men feel like chocking. Suddenly Zhaohui lifted her head, stood and with a calm and firm voice said:

-It is time…she grabbed her glass and headed towards the window again; one would’ve said that the few moments she spent by the large window were meant to take a last look at the night spectacle on the river. But whoever better knew her, would’ve realized that she wanted to say “good bye” to Huangpu, she wanted to apologize for the fact that she won’t be coming back again to watch the barges slide down or up the waters of the river which was feeding the Great Yangtze since the beginning of time.

-You must move! You have to do it! He may kill you if he wants. This time her voice was harsh and authoritarian, a voice that was missing any sort of inflections and was demanding nothing less but obedience.

-I thank you for your concern, Zhaohui…but I will not move. I asked Zhiming mao: “what do you want in return for stopping to drain money from Glenworth?” He said that he will think about. I want to pursue a negotiation path as well, rather than catching him red handed. Slowly and silently, Zhaohui returned to the couch. Placed the glass on the table and looked straight into John’s eyes.

-John…you still don’t understand that we are all caught – actually we are all part – into this curse. The fact that Tony and Zhiming mao are stealing from J.J. is just secondary facts. This curse must end and will end soon. This is why I said: “It’s them”

-Then tell me who are: “them”? I am tired of this story already…I want to solve the mystery and go back to my wife, my kids, my home and my life! John’s voice became loud and the gradual increase into the tonality made both Zhaohui and Vic startle.

-I am sorry guys…I am sorry that I raised my voice. But I want this thing to end as soon as possible. And I am willing, yes, I am willing to negotiate with Zhiming Mao.

-You are willing to negotiate with him even if this comes at the cost of one of our lives? Her question hit John the same way if someone would’ve punched him right between his eyes. He dropped into the closest love seat and mutely asked Zhaohui to finish her story.

-Your neighbors’ real family name is: Chonghuan; they are descendants of this great family, one of the highest aristocratic houses during Ming Dynasty. Their blood line stretches for few centuries before Ming. This family produced many great generals and high officials. They are the founders of “The Order of the Seven Orchids”. Only members of the highest aristocratic families were allowed to join and only based on their bravery onto the battle fields. It was exclusively a military Order; you had to be a soldier by profession in order to join. Many representatives of the high level aristocratic families joined “Seven Orchids”. It was one of the highest honors in state and the Emperor encouraged and supported the Organization. However, after the decapitation of Chonghuan, the Order was dismembered and many members found their end under the sword of the executioner.

-Chonghuan was charged with treason and executed. Why? He defended the country against the Manchu invaders.

-Politics at the Court…politics and scheming from the eunuchs. Chonghuan was a great warrior and a brilliant general. But the eunuchs managed to convince the Emperor that he deliberately let the Manchu army slip away to make it to the walls of Beijing and then crash them, in order to gain even more power and fame.

-Hard to believe that the Emperor fell for this.

-He was surrounded by bad advisers and unfortunately he listened to them.

-So this is how this curse started? This great General cursed the Emperor, cursed him because he knew he was innocent and he did nothing wrong but defend his country. Zhaohui dropped her head again; John remained mute and refrained from saying anything anymore. He knew at this point that this was a gesture of acceptance, an act of being at peace with the past and with the decisions of the past no matter how harsh they were. In John’s mind, the mystery around the Curse started to clear up and he understood that the two opposing sides cannot be other but Zhaohui on one side and Tony and his neighbors on the other side. He got goosebumps. “So, Vic’s fiancée is a royal? She belongs to the lineage of Chongzhen Emperor?” This scenario made him look at her with lots of uncensored respect and astonishment. “She can trace her lineage back to the late days of the Ming! This is unbelievable! What if she came back from the past to close this thing called “cosmological path”, this Curse which is supposed to end after nine generations from its origination?” He shook his head and with a smile on his face he reminded himself: “there is no such thing as time travelling!”

Few minutes of complete quietness fell again on top of them and nobody wanted to say a word anymore. Everyone was chewing on his own thoughts, on his own plan to eventually break the silence and open up a conversation again. John couldn’t stand anymore the situation and stood up. He looked at his friends and with the voice of a commander who is making a decision said:

-OK. We know that they are stealing from J.J. We also know that they are descendants of this great family. What do they want? Other than securing funds for their royal life style, what do they want? John’s voice became high pitched and the frustration in his tonality brought both his friends to the point on which they mutely asked him to keep it down. John apologized and dropped into the love seat. He just wanted to get all his frustration out, as once again he felt like he started spinning his wheels. Zhaohui stood up and with a calm and well balanced voice made John understand that things must be left to happen naturally, without being pushed, without being rushed or forced into the action.

-Your neighbors have the task to close this Curse from their family side. I am tasked to close it from my side. This is the short story. John felt how the goosebumps were slowly sneaking underneath his skin while poking it with a myriad of sharp red hot needles. Both Vic and him looked at Zhaohui frightened and scared in the same time, helpless and interrogative. “So, she will lead the defense. She will probably have to withstand by herself whatever was coming from the other side”

-Can you tell me a little more about the lance you saw on his wall? Can you remember more details? I am particularly interested in the tip, the way the iron tip was shaped…did the iron triangular blade have another two smaller “fins” on it, somehow perpendicular on the main surface? John grabbed his temples signaling that he was trying to remember…

-Is this little detail important?

-It is not a “little detail” John…it is something which defines a certain fighting method, it is a feature not every lance has. Only the most skilled lance fighters have this little “wings” on their lances. They add weight but they can be lethal if the person who is handling the lance knows how to make use of them. Let’s put it this way: instead of two cutting edges, you have four. The two main ones are meant for killing (obviously), while the other two (smaller ones) are meant for wounding the opponent and thus offering a greater advantage during a fight one on one. If you manage to wound and weaken your opponent, it is just a matter of time before you have the chance to kill him.

-I wish I could remember…John started rubbing his temples. Methodically, he reconstructed the whole previous night scene from the moment he got to meet Zhiming mao and the moment he got to hold and admire his weapons. His mind was still set at the exquisite piece of art represented by the ceremonial sword…for few moments he closed his eyes and tried to remember anything unusual on that spear which he believed it was just a secondary type of weapon, a weapon used by poor and unimportant soldiers. It turns out that it was a weapon of choice for many nobles, for many representatives of the highest aristocratic families. “It had that black painted wooden handle, the metal tip and the two edges were very sharp…I could actually sense it. Then it had that red piece of shredded material. What else? Did it have another cutting edge?” Few minutes passed by and John was still holding his temples between his palms…all of a sudden, he raised his head and with the voice of someone with a high degree of certainty in his mind, said:

-Yes, it did have two little wings, closer to the base of the triangular shape of the metal. They were small, but were placed perpendicular to the main cutting edges. I thought they were meant for defending purpose, to stop a sword from making it closer to the man.

-They can be used to stop a sword blow, John…yes, they can be used for this purpose. But it is not what they are meant for. As I said, their main function is to create cuts on opponent’s face if possible. Why face? Because you will lose lots of blood as this particular section of the human body is heavily irrigated with blood and if the blood flows into your eyes, you won’t be able to see, right? Cuts on arms, upper body and legs are also making your opponent weak due to the blood loss. It is a very dangerous weapon into the hands of a trained soldier and it seems to me that your neighbor is one of those skilled great warriors who knows how to handle a lance.

-OK then. It looks like the big fella’ is a master of the lance. Is this so terrible?

Zhaohui looked at John and then with a gesture of a very worried person dropped her head. It was something strange and unusual into that attitude of resignation, something John couldn’t have ever associated with her.  In his mind, she was a strong and balanced individual, she was a master of knowing how to hold her head upright even in the most adverse situations, a person of high confidence and great moral virtues. But now, seeing her so distressed and turbid, a different feeling encompassed him: it was a sense of fatality, a sense of set destines which cannot be changed, a sense of sorrow and grief, of bitterness and dismay.

All of a sudden, she raised her head and looked John straight into his eyes:

-John, I need to see those books you bought yesterday.

Both Vic and John looked at each other the way two individuals would do it after they barely escaped the strike of a thunderbolt. Their face expression showed two men completely caught off guard, incapable of saying anything which could be either legible or audible.

John pointed with his hand towards the office desk and towards the coffee table in the living room where the large Map collection book was resting. Zhaohui picked it up and shortly after, she put it right back…apparently there was nothing in there that could interest her. With a swift movement, she stood up and headed towards the office table close to the window. Her hands were opening one book at the time and feverishly flipping pages in search of something which apparently was of great importance to her. John and Vic were stunned! Vic at least, has never seen her so emotional, so pale and distressed, so impatient and in the same time so afraid of what would her findings uncover. Eventually, she pulled a barely audible yell out of her chest…it looked like she found what she was looking for. Her fingers were now quickly turning page by page and judging by the fact that her face was slowly lightening up, made both John and Vic crack a timid smile. Few minutes passed by and Zhaohui stood up again, this time holding the book.

-I need to borrow this book from you if you don’t mind.

-That’s it? Uff! You scared us! Vic and John burst in laughter to relieve some of the stress that built up in the last few minutes, but both of them knew that situation is still not very rosy and it will take Zhaohui some time to give them an explanation. The two men picked up on each other’s mute signal and kept quiet, refraining to ask Zhaohui what is so special about that book.

-OK, I will be heading home now. You two guys can stay here and look at the pictures made by the detectives.

-OK, I am ordering a cab for you. I’ll see you soon.

-Great! I am heading down. John, please give me a bag. I don’t want strangers’ eyes to see this book. Maybe I am overreacting, but now we all know who your neighbors are and we know that they are spying on you.

-Sure. Here it is, Zhaohui. While handing over the bag to her, John couldn’t help himself but taking a sneak peek at the book’s cover. It was a book on weaponry used during Medieval times of China, specifically during Ming Dynasty, a book which captured his attention when he came back from dinner last night. The hand drawings were so real, that made him spend some time flipping through content. The book was not only an atlas of weaponry, it was also a book on handling those deadly weapons.

At this very thought, he startled! “Don’t tell me that Zhaohui wants this book because she wants to learn some fighting technique!” Then, out of nowhere, he remembered that she insisted quite a lot in finding out from him about that little detail about the construction of Zhiming mao’s lance. He looked at her with the eyes of someone who believed that just unlocked a puzzle; however, something was telling him to be cautious and not draw conclusions based on assumptions. Zhaohui carefully placed the book into the bag and headed for the door.

-You have your key with you, don’t you? It was a question directed at Vic…

-Yes, I do have it. In a couple of hours I will be home too.

-OK. I will see you later.

She opened the door and before heading for the elevator, she turned around, looked John straight into his eyes and with a voice which demanded nothing less but obedience said:

-You must move! You are not safe here anymore. Then quietly she slipped away along the corridor towards the elevators.

 

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

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

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

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

Chapter 35

The dream of an October’s evening

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

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

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

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

-Where do they all go, Teacher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 34

Suzhou Gardens – Humble Administrator’s Garden

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

-Hey, how you doin’, man?

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

-Actually I was still sleeping when you called.

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

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

-OK. We’ll be there in few minutes.

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

-Great! I will see in a few.

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

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

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

-Good morning, guys!

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

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

-Thanks, Vic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Great, then let’s move!

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

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

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

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

-Apparently your fiancée wants to tell you something.

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

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

-I don’t want to be special!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why are you making me promise something like this?

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

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

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

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

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

-Last one, announced Ah Lam.

-Great, it is already getting dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 32

Dinner at Zhaohui and Vic’s

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

-Yes, Vic…I did go and saw Mr. Wang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-When did it start measuring those nine generations?

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

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

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

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

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

-Did Wang tell you all of these?

-Yes he did.

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

-I don’t know…Wang didn’t tell me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I was meant to pick this particular one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yuhuan is processing them as we speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sounds like a plan.

-John, what do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Thanks a lot, Zhaohui! Appreciate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Alright…we will talk tomorrow morning.

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

-You are more than welcome, John.

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

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

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

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

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 31 (Purple Orchid)

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

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

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

 

Chapter 31

The purple Orchid

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

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

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

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

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

-Great, I see you in a few.

-Bye.

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

-Sure, let me speak to him…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hey, what’s up? You OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Like a wolf, man! Like a wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yuhuan is the handsome guy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic! Well done!

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

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

-Vic, I bought today an orchid for Zhaohui…

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

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

-Now you are scaring me, man!

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

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

-You have to tell this story to Zhaohui!

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

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

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

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

-Yes, I did.

-How was it?

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

-What? There is another curse?

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

-You must tell all of these to Zhaohui.

-I will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hey, how about me?

-What did you do?

-I did the grocery shopping!

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

-Ready for some deserts?

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

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

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

-Perfect! In the meantime, let’s wrap everything up from this table and let’s have a conversation. We have plenty of talking to do.

In few minutes everything was nicely wrapped, packaged into containers and placed into the fridge. When the three friends found each other again sitting at the table, a sudden quietness settled in. There were a lot of things to talk about, there were so many unanswered questions and a certain level of uncertainty was floating in the air.

 

 

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.