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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 37

Black Swan

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

-Zhaohui asked me to move immediately.

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

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

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

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

-Guess what?

-What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Oh, well…this is what I do, man!

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

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

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

-You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!

-Mister! Mister! Hello! Me, driver…

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

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

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

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

-I don’t wanna’ see you! Go away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yeah, let me talk to him.

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

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

-I can’t believe you are doing this!

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

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

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

-Yes, I think it is a good one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Told you! This guy is a maniac!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You think so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Where? Can’t see him.

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

-Great! Now we have them as our neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Would you mind just follow me, please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-That’s on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-G’day, mates! How you going?

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

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

-Good evening to you too, gentlemen!

-What you mates having for a drink?

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

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

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

-What, yaw ladies too delicate to drink?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Show good, Mister. Show good!

-I believe you. What is your name?

-Yuan Jun. Nice meet you, Mister…

-Parker is my name. John Parker.

-Nice meet you Mr. Parker. Show good!

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

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

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

-By the way…what does Yuan Jun mean?

-Fountain of joy.

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

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

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

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 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. John 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 gotten 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:

-Nine 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: Chang mao dashi and the other one was Jiàn dashi.

-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 “Nine Orchids Order”, however these are not their real names.

-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 Chang mao dashi: “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 Chang mao dashi 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 Chang mao dashi.

-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 are descendants of the great General Yuan Chonghuan, the head of a family of warriors, statesmen and also writers. The General himself was a talented writer and the most capable General the Ming Dynasty ever had. This was indeed one of the greatest families, 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 Nine 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 “Nine Orchids”. It was one of the highest honors in the empire 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 or went into hiding. Yuan Chonghuan had a son: Yuan Chengzi who disappeared after the decapitation of his father.

-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 and Manchus. 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 Palace 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 Chang mao dashi 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 Chang mao dashi’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 smoothing 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. 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. We have 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 unsaddled 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 fresh 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 good 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 story 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 nine of them: one was of purple color, one was pink, one was white, one was orange, then one was of red color; there was also a yellow, a green, a blue and one more: a yellow mixed with pink and 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 nine 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 eight 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 forefather 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 Nine Orchid 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 eyes sight fell on a little shelf which was placed behind the counter…nine stunning orchids in nine 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 red like the maple tree leafs on a nice fall afternoon, one was orange and the next to the orange one there were siting one green like the the grass into the early spring and one dark blue – which one would say it is the rarest orchid color you can find; however, a Chinese story teller would say: “this blue orchid symbolizes spirituality and contemplation”. The last two of the nine orchid batch were a very interesting combination of yellow and yellow with pink and orange. John was stunned! He just couldn’t take his eyes off of the flowers which were sitting on the shelf! They were so beautiful, unique, delicate yet 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 he was dipping into reached the 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 on 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 Nine 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 nine 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 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.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 9-10 (A night at the Theaters – Sweet home/Weekend in the suburbs – a Saturday to remember)

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 9

A night at the Theaters – Sweet home

 John got in, adjusted his rear view mirror and started his muscle car. The engine roared again, the fuel gauge went all the way up to full level, the check lights onto the dash board turned on announcing him that the brain of the beast is systematically doing what it is supposed to be doing. When all the check lights went off, John shifted into the second gear and left the gas station in the sound of squealing tires while waving with his left hand to Andrew.

Andrew smiled then waived back and said to himself: “in a hundred yards, he is going to do 20 over the speed limit. He, he, he…Johnny boy, be careful! I can’t bail you out indefinitely!”

John’s only thought was to get back home as soon as possible. Speed limit posted on the side of the freeway was none of his concerns anymore. One by one, the exits started being familiar and a feel of comfort embraced him making his reflexes and the whole body relax from all the tension accumulated during this so unusual night.

Soon he pulled into his driveway and didn’t even bother taking the car into the garage. Got out of it and walked straight to the front door. Linda opened the door as soon as she saw the head lights lighting up the drive way. She had been anxiously waiting for John to arrive and she was so eager to find out what happened!

She tightened up the robe around her waist as the night got really crisp. The look on her face was saying everything: everything she had been through since she got home, all the attempts she made in trying to reach John, the phone call she made to 911, the conversations she had with the Operators, the time she went through waiting for an answer…all those horrific scenarios she had in mind while waiting to hear back from either Police or John himself.

When the phone call from the Police came, her heart stopped for few seconds. She couldn’t breathe anymore. Her heart was pumping blood at a level that was making her chest going up and down and the lungs grasping for air. The good news made her drop on the couch while trying to thank for the call to the dispatcher. She hung up and dropped the head into her cupped hands resting the elbows on the knees. Soon Linda started crying softly, from all her heart. This day was ending as badly as it started in spite of all the fun she had at the Theaters.

– Where you’ve been? I was worried sick about you! What happened? Please tell me that everything is all right. They told me that you ran out of gas…she was asking all these questions hugging him while trying to pull John inside the house.

Once he got in, Linda realized that John’s clothes were all ripped and his face was full of clotted blood. A shout of fear and anxiousness came out of her chest making John understand what she’d been through.

– It’s OK honey. It’s OK!

– What do you mean: “it’s OK”? Your clothes are all ripped, you are full of blood, and your face is all covered in dust and blood. What happened, John?

– Long story. Long story.

– Then you better start telling me the story for Goodness sake!

– Can I just take a shower and slip into something more comfortable?

– I’m sorry. I just wanted to find out as soon as possible what happened. I will help you out. Get into the Bathroom. I have to clean up your face first of all.

John took his coat off. The elbow area was ripped off through the shirt all the way to the skin. The pants at the knee had the same fate. In one word, his nice Office attire was a ruin. He took then the shoes off which were all scuffed from the ground fight he had with the tow truck driver. The pants came off and he was left in his boxers and socks. Threw the socks off and headed upstairs for the bathroom. His elbows and knees were all scratched from the incident.

– Get into the bathtub. I’ll make a tea for you.

John didn’t hear her. His mind was wandering from event to event, from scene to scene, from morning rush hour and Leo event to the fight with the truck driver. But most of all, the image of the hart – staring at him with those two huge red eyes – just couldn’t come off his mind!

He filled the bathtub with hot water and got in. A sharp pain felt at all the wounded areas made him realize that maybe the water was a little too hot. But overall, the warmth he was filling was so comfortable, so relaxing, so “welcome home” that he preferred to take the pain without any hesitation.

– Let’s see what the damage is, said Linda entering the bathroom with a cup of tea in her hand. She grabbed a soft hand towel and dipped it into the water, then gently started wiping John’s face. A fairly deep cut starting from the base of his nose towards the left cheek bone was all clogged with blood, while traces of blood mixed with dust made his face look like the face of a coal miner just finishing his shift.

Linda put the towel away and from the cabinet built into the wall pulled a small first aid wooden box. Grabbed a readily available sterilized kit and with a soft and caring voice made John mellow down and subdue completely:

– Now I have to clean the cut, it will hurt.

– I’ve gone through worse, said John with a large smile.

With very precise and skillful motions, Linda removed the crust of blood formed on the top of the cut, then with another kit started cleaning the wound.

John closed his eyes and while gritting his teeth from pain asked himself again: “why did all of these happen today?”

– Done, said Linda. Let me slap a band aid on top of the cut. Keep it on while you are taking your bath. If it falls, put on another one after you are ready taking your bath. I’ll go downstairs and prepare something…a quick bite. Hungry?

– Thanks honey. Yes, please make a grilled sandwich.

– OK. Let me throw same bath salts in. It will help you relax.

While Linda was heading downstairs, John deepen even more into the hot water, leaving just his head above and trying to enjoy every single bit of the pleasure the combination between the hot water and the scented bath salts were giving him.

After a good half an hour of soaking, he decided to get out. He was hungry! Got out of the bath tub, wiped the water with a nice soft cotton towel, replaced the band aid, put the bath robe on and opened up the door to head downstairs. Before getting out of the bathroom, took a look into the mirror: his left eye was swelling up.

“This is great! How am I going to show up at the Office like this? Bastard! You filthy coward! You sucker punched me, you son of the bitch!”

He slowly walked down stairs. Before heading for the kitchen, John stopped in the Living room by the place where he kept his fine drinks. Set his eyes on a nice bottle of Cognac that has been opened. Grabbed a glass, poured the fine liquid in and while performing circular motions with the glass, took deep sniffs of the select drink trying to absorb every single bit of the cognac’s wonderful aroma. Finally took a sip. It felt like a drop of heavenly made liquid. Then took one more and another one until the glass went empty. It felt so good, so relaxing, so comforting!

The smell of toast and grilled chicken that was coming from the kitchen sharpened up his senses and the nostrils were already dilated by the effort to catch every bit of the enticing aromas produced by the dinner which Linda was preparing. He put the glass down and hurried for the kitchen. As he expected, she was preparing an already marinated chicken breast he saw in the morning in the fridge. The meat was cut in thinner slices and the grill just did the rest of the job.

John grabbed a jar of pickles from the fridge and a pack of sliced cheese, pulled a chair and made a sandwich for himself with the freshly toasted bread. Took a bite and closed his eyes. “This is Heaven!”

Linda pulled a chair by the dinner table too. She was looking straight into his eyes, waiting for John to finish his sandwich and eventually start telling the story of that strange night.

– You don’t eat?

Linda silently shook her head side wise signaling that she was not hungry. John was half way done with the sandwich. Stood up, opened the fridge and grabbed a beer. Poured it into a glass, took a sip then put the glass on the table in front of him while cupping it with his both hands.

– Where do you want me to start?

– I suggest you start with the beginning, said Linda in an attempt to crack a little joke. However, the tonality of her voice betrayed a deep sense of worry, of uneasiness and why not, a typical feminine curiosity.

– Well…after we split up at the Theater, I got on the freeway. The events of the morning at the Office made me miss the exit…made me miss exit after exit, actually. I found myself way up North in an area I have never been before – or at least I couldn’t remember being there. On top of this, I was running out of gas. I got out at an exit hoping that I could find a gas station. I drove few miles assuming that I could run into one of those small country gas stations. It was a mistake. I turned around and headed back when…John stopped for a moment. The image of the majestic hart (which defied him by simply crossing the road without even rushing to get to the other side of the road) and the image of those hallucinating big, red, frightening eyes looking straight into his eyes came back and made him pause the story. He wiped out an imaginary sweat that was dripping off of his forehead and looked at Linda. His eyes were showing fear, freight, hesitation which couldn’t have gone unnoticed by Linda.

– God, John! What happened? Now you are really scarring me! Please talk to me! Her hands took John’s left hand and started rubbing it in an effort to get him focused to her request.

John looked at her, but his sight was protruding through her aiming at nowhere. His beautiful blue eyes were looking at her, however she understood that his mind was somewhere else.

Linda stood up, took a kitchen towel, deepened it into cold water and with a swift motion grabbed John from the back and covered his eyes. The effect of the cold water was immediate.

– What are you doing?

– I am trying to bring you to the real world, this is what I am doing!

– Where was I?

– You were heading back to the freeway after you realized that there is no chance of finding a gas station…

– Oh, ok…John took another brake. Linda was looking straight into his eyes.

– John, please! Let it go!

– His eyes petrified me! So bold, so impressive, so intense! I sweated bullets, swear to God!

– Whose eyes, for Goodness sake? Talk to me, John!

– I was about to hit a huge hart on my way back. I stepped on the brakes as hard as I could. He wouldn’t even move! I stopped probably five feet away from him. He was so big! And he was looking straight into my eyes. Is this a sign?

– What sign? John, you are delusional! You have to go to bed! You have to go to bed, now!

– I didn’t tell you the rest of the story…

– John, you are already scarring me. I am not sure I want to hear the rest of the story.

– Yes you do. Just listen…John’s face lighten up. It took him few minutes to narrate the tow truck story when he got punched into the face, the unexpected help he got from an old rival (Andrew) and the fight into the gas station.

Linda was covering her mouth with her palms continuously shaking her head. Initially she sympathized with him when he was punched by the aggressive trucker, then her eyes sparkled when she heard the story of John meeting Andrew. However, at the end, the bottom lip dropped in a sign of disappointment hearing the gas station story.

– So, you just figured out that you have to take revenge and punish the guy!

– Hey, he punched me into the face! I didn’t want to get into a fight!

– Regardless! You are a professional, you are a different caliber man. You just don’t go fight people left and right! Look at your face! How are you going to show up in the Office on Monday morning? What are you, a street fighter?

John realized that there is no point in arguing with her. So, he took his beer and headed for the living room. “It’s no point in fighting them, but it feels so good in breaking their arms. Ha, ha, ha”

This last comment he made for himself made him relax and eventually lay on the couch grabbing the remote control and trying to catch a Sports Channel.

– This is it? I was worried sick about you and you just take off and pretend that nothing happened while flipping for one of your Sports Channels?

– What do you want me to tell you, Linda? I got punched into the face, I reacted, and you tell me that I shouldn’t have acted like this. Now what?

– It’s not about this incident, John. It’s about the fact that this is not you! I did not expect something like this to come out of you. You are a balanced, calculated man. What you did it’s the work of a teenager looking for revenge because his buddy stole his girlfriend – to say the least! What made you change so severely in the last few hours? When I left you at the Theaters you looked like a normal man. All of a sudden, you turn into this street fighter and you come back home all bloodied and with your cloths all ripped off! What happened to John I know?

– You are over reacting…nothing happened to old John.

– Are you sure? Linda’s voice picked up an interrogative and questioning tonality, a timbre she mastered during so many years of teaching.

John looked at her and murmured with a low voice:

-His eyes were so big and red and he was looking straight into mine…

A cold sweat went down along Linda’s spine. She grabbed John’s hand and forced him to stand up.

-You are going to bed, you are going to bed right now!”

When they reached the bedroom, John took off his bathrobe and slipped under the thick quilt. Linda straightened up his pillow into a comfortable position – the way she knew John would like it.

– I need you to take a sleeping pill. I will bring it to you. She headed for the bathroom. Thirty seconds later, Linda showed up with a pill in her hand and a glass of water. John patiently bent from the waist, swallowed the pill and dropped his head back on the pillow. Linda turned off the light and graciously slipped out of the room taking the stairs towards the living room. She started flipping the channels until she found a movie she had seen before. Didn’t really have much patience at that moment to look at a new movie, didn’t really have the desire to even try to find something that would require a high intellectual activity. She was worried on what was going on with her husband. “Commercials! Let me go check on him.” She took the stairs back up to the bedroom and opened up the door carefully. John was deeply sleeping. She took her pillow, closed the door and headed for the living room couch. A thick blanket was always present on the couch, so she slipped under it with the remote in her hand while a big sigh of relief came out of her chest: “Tomorrow morning he’s going to be alright”.

Positioned her head comfortably on the pillow and started watching the movie. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. Hmm! Let’s see if I can judge it with the same pair of eyes.”

Slowly, the events of the day caught up with her and she fell asleep dreaming at the deer herd she saw in the morning. All of them were in the motion, running, with their ears pointing up and she was running with them, bare foot, into a circle of madness joy, into a circle of sisterhood like gathering, into a circle of unknown, mystic initiation.

Chapter 10

Weekend in the suburbs – a Saturday to remember

 When the first rays of the sun flooded her face, Linda turned around in a sign that she did not want to be bothered on a Saturday morning even if it was already late in the morning. She wanted to sleep as much as she wanted, so she pulled the blanket all the way above her head in an attempt to block any light intrusion from reaching her eyes. There was no way she even remotely considered getting out of the bed to close the shades or at least pull the curtains.

A sigh of relief and complacency came out of her chest. However, she couldn’t fall asleep again. The events of the previous day and especially the night, the worries regarding John’s well being made her get up, put the sleepers on and headed upstairs to the Master Bedroom.

John was still sleeping. The eye was not that bad – she expected a more sever swelling – but the upper portion of the chick almost became one piece with the arcade on the side. At the sight of her husband, a barely perceptible shout of concern came out of Linda’s chest. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand in a sign that she does not want to disturb John’s sleep with any sort of noises anymore.

Slowly closed the door and took the stairs down to the Living room.

“I think I am going to make a coffee” and Linda walked to the kitchen already inhaling an imaginary exceptional taste of the coffee she was about to grind. Usually she was having a tea in the morning, but this time she had a naughty idea: “I am going to steal some beans from John’s stack and make myself a nice coffee”. She never tried that fantastic blend which was supposed to tickle your senses and make your imagination wander through the unexplored places of those mountain sites where the exquisite coffee beans were harvested from.

She giggled like a teenager who found a way to hide from his parents the fact that after they were gone for the weekend, he would throw a big party for his friends.

She pulled the coffee bag from the cabinet, grabbed the grinder, filled it up and pushed the button. The kitchen filled up right away with aromas one would say were: “forest scents into a coffee grinder’. The smell of those crushed beans was exquisite. Both the Living room and the kitchen were now the prisoners of an aroma which immediately brought back memories: their honey moon in the Islands, their morning wake up on these scents (in spite of the fact that they still wanted to sleep) – as the whole street was invaded by irresistible flavors none could resist. “Why did I quit drinking coffee?” She just raised her shoulders in a sign of “who cares?” and took the coffee maker out of the cabinets. All of a sudden she remembered that during weekends, John was making his coffee into a Turkish coffee pot. “Aha! It must be a trick with this way of making your coffee!” All these years, she never questioned him, why he is making his coffee this way. Now, her natural feminine curiosity kicked in. She always thought that the morning liquid which gives you a kick and keeps you going for the rest of the day, is brewed into the coffee maker.

Linda tightened the robe around her waist and started digging through the kitchen ware down into the cabinets. She couldn’t find anything. She remembered that John was always keeping a small flash light at the entrance. Walked to the front door, grabbed it and started looking for the magic pot.

“Bingo” said Linda shortly after spotting an unusual object she couldn’t remember buying herself.

She pulled it out and when it was brought to the light, the object stunned her! “I saw this pot before…how come is so different now?” Actually she pulled out of the cabinets (without knowing) a masterpiece of the hand making coffee pots. The object was stunning: the handmade hammered copper coffee pot was presenting itself into such a bright and favorable light and color that made Linda completely freeze, holding the object tight without being able to say a word. The hammer hits of the master pot maker could be seen on every single spot of the pot. They looked like fish scales, all being the same size, all being displayed in uniform layers giving the impression that they interlock each other and thus creating the illusion of a knight’s armor.  The bright polished red colors of the recipient, the “silver like” inside, the sharpness of the shades thrown back by the mirror polished surface of the skin, made her whisper: “It is magic; how do they call it? Oh my God! I used to know it! I knew it! I had every morning coffee made out of this thing called…what do they call it in that city we bought it from”?

More memories invaded her memory…an imaginary sight of them travelling to: Turkey, Armenia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

It was a trip her father, Reverend Wilson, asked her to take on his behalf. She clearly remembered her father saying: “Linda, please go and say a prayer at the Church of Trinity in Bethlehem and make a donation on our behalf. While there, you will have a chance to learn a bit about the world of Levant. You read a lot, but you can very well compliment your studies with travelling. That is the area where civilization started and Judea was the place where our Lord was born, where he lived and where he died for us”

A tear dropped down her cheek. “Great! Now I am getting emotional over a pot!”

It was actually not “over a pot”. It was over so many memories of her youth and early adult life spent together with John, it was over so many happy times she spent with her father in the Parish caring for poor and needy, helping abandoned kids, trying to guide her life based on the Christian morals and teachings, trying to understand the teachings of the Apostles and absorb the wisdom of the Bible.  Involuntarily she started rubbing the coffee pot between her palms when she felt something her fingers could barely perceive. “What is this?”

She looked closer and she realized that there were some very small markings on the pot…her curiosity kicked in again and looked closer; those were some inscriptions into the thick layer of copper made by the master who produced the pot. Now she completely forgot about making coffee! She brought the flash light and looked at those markings: it was clearly a writing she could not understand. Linda grabbed her temples between her palms and tried to recall how that writing ended up on their pot. She simply couldn’t remember. “John must know for sure. He knows everything”.

She turned the TV on and set it to the weather Channel.

“Great! It will be sunny but cold. I will take that anytime! We will take a walk through the Heritage Park and then through the wild life Fox Park and it will be such a nice Saturday!”

She filled the pot three quarters of the way with water and was ready to get things going by dumping the ground coffee into the pot, when a firm hand grabbed her right wrist and whispered into her ear: “you are not supposed to use an electric grinder if you want to make a real coffee!”

This was a complete surprise. Linda elevated her hands letting John grab her hips and squish her breasts in an insatiable lust of love making…

-Hey, are you ok? How is your wound?

-You really want to ruin this, huh?

-Did you see yourself in the mirror?

-Why? I’m a good looking guy! And John’s chest started vibrating from his typical natural, healthy, undisguised laughter.

-Well, think again. Go take a look into a mirror. How come you woke up?

-Coffee thing…

-I didn’t even make it…

-Yes, but you took the beans out of the bag and ground them! Can’t resist that!

-Right! Now do me a favor, please: go to the bathroom and take a look at your face. Linda’s voice was no longer vibrant and clear and articulate. John realized that something was not right and immediately headed for the downstairs bathroom. Flipped the switch and a cry of anger filled his lungs.

-I can’t believe that bastard hit me this hard, yelled John from the bottom of his lungs!

-This is your concern now, asked Linda while looking at John, into the same mirror? She followed him into the bathroom after hearing John’s scream of disgust. You have to take it easy now and get some rest; eventually put some ice on that eye. We have the weekend in front of us and if we do the right thing, by Monday morning the swelling could substantially retire.

-Man, if I run into that bastard again I am going to break his neck!

-Yeah, sure! Now let’s try to get an ice patch over the eye. Linda returned to the kitchen and opened up the freezer. A gel pack was always there. She took it out and with short and precise motions tightened the Velcro strap behind John’s head in a way that would cover the swelled portion of the face.

Linda looked at her husband and in spite of the fact that she wanted to keep a straight face, burst into a huge, healthy laugh that was making her whole chest tremble of happiness.

-Great! Now I’m your Mickey Mouse, your Goofy, your: “laughing at” thing, your: “look at yourself Mister”…

-No, you are not! How did you get all of these crazy ideas?

-Your laughter said it all!

-Are you listening to yourself? I laughed because you do look weird with that eye patch over your eye…that’s all!

John returned to the bathroom and flipped the switch again. The sight of him with the gel pack covering his eye made him burst into laughter. Turned the switch off and returned to the kitchen.

-I do look like a pirate! I have to admit…

Linda simply burst again into a big laughter that was now free of any sort of inhibitions, free of any sort of fear that she would hurt John by simply laughing at his situation.

Her robe cordon came lose, her chest was trembling of emotions, her bare feet were inviting the sight of the curious eye to scroll up and guess the wonderful forms of a body some of the teenagers were dying to have. The breasts came free from the soft touch of the silk robe and her Goddess like type of body was almost fully exposed.

John’s senses were all stretched at the limits and with a short and calculated move, dropped his robe, grabbed his wife by the hips and pinned her into the wall of the kitchen that was still free of kitchen furniture. Linda’s legs locked around John’s hips and her back was now against the empty wall of their kitchen.

He started kissing her neck, her shoulders, her breasts, her nipples…Linda tried to resist, but finally gave in and eventually kissed John back. It was a moment of lustiness, a moment of: “I want you” from both sides.

Slowly, John pursued the opportunity and the next twenty minute frame was probably the wildest love making scene they have ever done together. The panting, the screaming, the continuous search for a better penetrating position made John bring Linda’s legs up his trunk into a locking position so the pleasure would be mutual. Everything was now coming down to John’s stamina, to his ability to sustain a repetitive penetrating motion in a demanding position, as Linda completely gave into submission.

It had gotten so wild and loud into the kitchen that John felt like maintaining a high level of male dominance during the act was crucial, was part of showing himself first of all that he’s still got it. Under the effort, his whole muscle system was stretched to the maximum showing his well-toned arms, chest muscles and veins pumped up at a level that would make any man at any age be jealous.

His mind was completely absorbed by the sexual activity, by the immense satisfaction of trying again something they haven’t done recently.

Linda’s arms were tightly locked around his neck feeling like she would never want to let go. His lips were systematically kissing her neck then dropping to the chest and grabbing the nipples in a motion that was making Linda scream from lust and pleasure.

The high effort level sustained by John made his whole upper body look like a drenched rain forest tree trunk, thus turning both of them into two slippery entities tighten up into a long embrace only to be swiftly broken up from time to time by the countless kisses.

Linda’s hands were completely tightened around John’s neck, holding with all the power she could put into that hug. John could barely breathe…

-You gotta’ let go, whispered John into her ear…you are choking me!

Linda’s mind was not there anymore. The pleasure of the sexual encounter, the emotional connection to her husband (which made her recall the College years), the emotional roller-coaster of the last twenty-four hours made her hang tight on that grip around John’s neck.

Eventually, John dropped on his knees under the weight he was holding and under the intense effort he had been under for the last twenty minutes.

Linda found herself on the floor, with her legs still tighten up around John’s trunk, only this time with her husband all the way on top of her, panting and still whispering into her ear: “You gotta’ let go!”

It was that very moment she realized that she was choking John. Immediately Linda un-tightened her arms and John took a much needed fresh breath of air.

-Sorry. I didn’t realize I was hurting you, whispered Linda into John’s ear! Her voice was soft, smooth, carrying, loaded with the emotions of an unexpected sex act she has just gone through, with the feeling that old times were brought back, times when they were making love all over their dorms and in whatever position they felt like doing it.

Eventually, the intercourse reached its climax with both Linda and John screaming from the pleasure of long and intense orgasms.

Linda still had the silk robe on her, open in the front, while John was completely naked. John rolled over and found himself on the floor, with the hair all messed up, almost leveled to the skull, all soaked in sweat.

For a minute, they held hands while looking at the kitchen ceiling, trying to catch a breath and recover.

-It’s cold on the floor! We need to get up, said Linda kissing him on the lips.

-Yeah! It is cold, said John and with a calm and calculated motion helped his wife get on her feet. He grabbed her breasts once again and kissed her with passion, with love, with tenderness.

Linda tightened up her robe and slowly, slipped away from John’s embrace, like a serpent trying to hide into the bushes from an imminent attacker. She headed straight for the bathroom they had beside John’s Office. On her way, she turned her head back and asked with an extremely persuasive voice, a voice that had a tonality no one could resist:

-Are you going to make that famous coffee of yours when I’m back?

-That remains to be seen, said John showing his head through the opening of the kitchen that was showing into the Living room.

-I see. There is some hand writing on that coffee pot…you may want to squeeze your brains and remember what that means.

-I can tell you right now.

-No. Please surprise me while we are having it. And Linda disappeared into the Bathroom while John tightened up his robe and started making coffee.

He dumped the coffee grounded by his wife with the electric grinder, picked up the hand grinder, and started turning the solid brass handle of the hand grinder. Soon, the famous Island crushed coffee beans filled up the whole Living Room with a scent that nobody could resist without taking a deep breath, a scent of the morning dew, a scent of freshly bloomed mountain flowers, a scent of the mist from the water falls splitting the luxurious vegetation of the jungle, a scent of the rich black soil mixed up with the tropical rain drops, a scent that would drive your senses to the ultimate test of endurance.

“All right, now let’s look for the pot, said John” and immediately opened up the cabinet. He knew the place of the coffee pot with his eyes closed. To his surprise, it was not there. “Hmmm! It is strange! It’s not in its place. And what is this flash light doing on the counter?” The very next second he saw the famous pot on the counter and realized that Linda looked for the pot herself and used the flashlight to find it. A smile came up on his lips and grabbed the recipient with his both hands. The cold feeling of the copper and the feel of the scratched hand writing of the pot maker made him crack a smile. It brought back the memories of the trip they took to Turkey, Armenia and then to Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. “Those were good times…really good”, said John to himself; he filled up almost three quarters of the pot with water, and turned on the stove. He carefully measured two spoonful of coffee and dumped them into the pot; then added another half and constantly stirring waited for the water to boil. All those wonderful scents came up again and when the water level started rising, he turned the heat down, took the pot on the side and let it set. Once set, he put another half a spoon of coffee in, turned the heat back up and stirred again into the pot to keep the coffee from spilling on the stove. “It’s ready”, said John with a great satisfaction on his face. That was a sign that a well-made coffee, a coffee to die for was expecting its customers. He covered the pot with a small ceramic plate he grabbed from the cabinet. The scent of the perfectly made coffee was only coming out now through the little peak the master maker made into the pot in order to aid with pouring the liquid. Now he patiently waited for Linda to come out of the shower. Linda showed up shortly. She changed the robe (now she was wearing a fleecy one); she was bare foot and her long beautiful blonde hair was now tighten up into a knot.

-You didn’t wash your hair?

-No. I am planning to take a walk. I will wash it afterwards. God, it smells heavenly in this kitchen!

-Because I made coffee, honey!

-I know. I can’t wait to have it, said Linda rubbing her hands against each other in a way only a kid in a candy store would do it. There was so much joy on her face, so much expectation of perfection knowing that her husband could only reach perfection when making coffee.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 7-8 (A night at the Theaters – it’s a long way to reach home/A night at the Theaters – Andrew O’Leary)

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

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truck driver approached and asked with a cautious voice:

-Hello Sir, can I help you somehow?”

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

-Certainly. Do you have a deal with us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

A night at the Theaters – Andrew O’Leary

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

-Good evening, Sir!

-Good evening, Officer!

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

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

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

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

-Are you sure you can drive?

-Absolutely! I’m perfectly fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Thank you! So did you, Andrew!

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both stood and came closer.

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

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

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

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

– You bastard! You punched me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

– He touched me on my arm and…

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

There was a moment of total silence.

– Go ahead, Sir – please continue.

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

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

– Yes, Sir!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yes, we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– It was good seeing you again, John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

Lunch at Happy Irish

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

– Hey guys, how can I help you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you mean, Leo never showed up?

-No, Sir. Sorry.

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

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

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

– Who is Leo?

– A trusted Valet, said John scratching his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Any drinks to start up with, gentlemen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.

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

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

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

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

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

– Your drinks, Sir!

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

– I hope you like it, John.

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

– Ooh…stout type of a beer drinker!

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

– Good thinking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Excellent, exclaimed Scott nodding.

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

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

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

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

– Excellent choice J.J., said Scott.

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

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

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

– Fantastic! I knew we could rely on you!

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

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

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

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

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

– Yeah, a week would be good enough.

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

– Sure. That would be a decent departing date.

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

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

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

– Yes, Sir!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Question, said John lifting an index finger.

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

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

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

-Your ribs, Gentlemen!

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

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

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

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

– Jimmy, bring another round please!

– Yes, Sir. Please give me two minutes.

– So, what do you think John?

– They are amazing! So tender and juicy!

– Told you! Best in town!

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

– Your beers, Gentlemen!

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Very well, Sir. How was everything?

– As usual: fantastic!

– How would you pay, Sir? Separate bills?

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

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

– Not for me, thank you. Guys?

– I am good. Thank you.

– I am good too. Thank you.

– I will be back with your receipt, Sir.

-Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are very welcome, Sir.

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

– He needs Visa for China, exclaimed Scott!

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

– Yes, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Excuse me Mr. Glenworth, your check…

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

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

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

– I’m good, thanks said Scott.

-Me too, came instantly from John.

– Alright then. Thanks again, Jimmy.

– Have a good day, gentlemen.

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

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

– Malay and Tamil?

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

– Impressive, said John.

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

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

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

– That’s correct, said John John.

– So, he hired everybody there, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Long story, J.J. Long story.

– Aha.

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

– Ooo! Crap! Mr. Parker!

– Why are you only bringing my car now?

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

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

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

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

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

– I think that’s John’s car.

– Then why is a strange person driving his car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yes Sir. I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

– Sorry for interrupting, J.J.

– Sure, go ahead John.

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

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

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

– Exactly.

– Why did Scott want to get rid of him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Do you know something I shouldn’t know?

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

– I guess we’ll talk Monday.

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

Chapter 6

A night at the Theaters

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

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

– Your date is here.

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

– Just a wild guess. Shall I retire?

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

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

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

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

– Which movie are we seeing?

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

– What happened? Where is the popcorn?

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

– I don’t have any cash on me.

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

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

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

– Thanks. I’ll be back in a minute.

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

– So, what are we watching?

– “Mystery on street Duval”

– Any good?

– Recommended by Sarah.

– Hoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Well, probably I should start with the beginning…

– Good idea!

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

– No I don’t. You never told me.

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

– Now you are really scaring me!

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

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

– Yes I did, gorgeous!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Who?

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

– How do you know him?

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

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

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

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

– He did what?

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

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

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

– Yes it is. Wait to see what happened.

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

– So, I give Leo all the money I had…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Can we skip this thing and go now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yeah…I think that’s the lead.

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

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

– You are still worrying me!

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

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

– Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Do I race you back?

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

– You have a powerful SUV!

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

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

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

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

– OK. Let’s head back home.

– Let’s get back home and…

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

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