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 33 (The Neighbors)

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

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

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

 

Chapter 33

The Neighbors

Once he reached his floor, he decided to not even look at his neighbors’ door – as he was usually doing it. There was a little problem though: this time, the door was cracked open again. His insatiably curiosity made him look. For the first few minutes, he limited his curiosity to taking a peek inside – as much as the opening of the door allowed him. However, there was not much to see…the place where the large man was doing his meditation was empty, but the white tatami he was using was still in the same place, on the ground. The same unknown to him scent hit his nostrils. The smell was so powerful yet delicate, noble and intriguing that made John push the door open even more. Now he had a better view of the whole living room. As the room was almost dark (just partially lit by few candles), John realized that the layout was similar to his apartment. Soon, he figured out that those burning candles were releasing the smells which for now were completely making his mind forget about the dream, forget about his desire to end the adventure and the investigation. But in the same time these unknown scents, unwillingly were luring him to venture into a territory he did not know, into a land he would rather avoid stepping onto, a land made of quick sands ready to swallow you at the first mistake you were making. He wiped the sweat which was flooding his forehead with his sleeve and decided to enter. First few steps were similar to the steps a cat makes when in a hunt for a mouse…cautious, very slow paced, with large timing intervals between them. Judging by the movements he was making, one would say that John was a professional criminal entering a future murder scene. He was slowly advancing towards the center of the room when the dancing shadows on the walls, magnified by their own reflections into the large window, made him stop. A large and strange thing was hanging against the wall. John couldn’t figure out what was it, but the size of it made him tremble with fear. The lights were dancing like ghosts while the scents in the room were making his sense of smell play mind games on him. His whole attention was now focused on the immense dark spot on the wall. His initial guess was that it was a hunting trophy. However, the playful shadows were enticing his mind to think at mystic scenarios; the doubt and the fear were now encompassing his judgement. All of a sudden, a noise came from the bathroom area. He realized that when he entered the apartment, he ignored a light which was curiously stretching underneath the bathroom door. He turned around. There was somebody in the bathroom and judging by the noise coming out of there, the person was taking a shower. His attention was now completely switched towards that direction. There was so much mystery lurking around: an opened door, a hanging creature on the wall and a person taking a shower! All these, made John grasp for air while still standing in the middle of the living room.

Unexpectedly, the bathroom door opened up. A woman wrapped into a magnificently embroidered silk bath robe was now standing into the door frame, playing with her long black hair. In a swift yet delicate motion, she brought her beautiful flowing hair on one of the shoulders, so most of it was now running down her left shoulder and resting over her left chest. The robe was so light that all her forms were revealed. The roundness of her breasts, the tightness of the waist and the slim shape of her thighs were now playing a magnificent spectacle in front of John’s eyes. With delicate and flowing motions, she continued to strike her hair, apparently in an attempt to make it softer, to make it more appealing and sexier to the viewer. She knew exactly how to tickle John’s imagination. It was the mysterious woman he met on the night when he checked in, the same woman he greatly admired in the restaurant at the breakfast. Even now, when she was barely wearing clothing, John couldn’t help but notice that all her gestures and movements were carefully paced, measured and methodically repeated under a set timing and rhythm. John could see the water running into the shower cabin and he figured out that the woman was preparing to get in. Slowly, she turned around, dropped the robe and entered the cabin enticingly leaving the door open. The water started running down her shoulders and soon a white wave of body shampoo foam (which was magnificently contrasting with her tanned skin), made its way onto the shoulders, then encompassed the hips, kissed the buttocks, and finally circled around the thighs and the legs. It looked like a white snake was trying to wrap her shoulders into his coils and then was working his way down her body slowly grabbing her hips with a vice like grip. The smell of that shampoo, hit John’s nostrils immediately: it was the same captivating scent as the one produced by the candles. The scene was breathtaking and it became even more alluring: the woman turned around and her whole femininity splendor was now fully exposed. John felt how his Adam’s apple was sliding up and down until finally got stuck into a position which betrayed a severe emotional distress. He was now contemplating a piece of art, a charming symbiosis between perfect shapes, skin tan and overall proportions. Her big, black, slanted eyes were looking at John with the eyes of a feline which was methodically monitoring her prey through focusing, through an intensive, potent and diligent watch not leaving anything to the chance or to anything else that could alter the result of the hunt. She was stunning, to say the least! And to make things even worse (for John), she started washing her body with slow and calculated circular motions, from the shoulders then down to her artistically sculptured breasts. The white foamy lotion brought by her skilled hands to the breasts was greatly contrasting with her tanned skin and dark brown nipples, thus providing a spectacle which he was not prepared to watch, a spectacle to which he was not ready to participate, an unexpected show about beauty, perfect shapes and unmatched contrasts.

-She is beautiful, isn’t she, John?

John felt how instantly his spine froze, how his face was tingling from the same cold currents sent by his brain (which was trying to signal that without any doubt is under enormous stress), how all the events of the day were fast tracking now in front of his eyes like shadows, like personages of a play with many actors wandering around without knowing whose line is whose.

He turned around and realized that the man standing behind him was the same individual he saw the first time through the cracked door and then into the restaurant together with the woman who was now showering in front of him. This man was massive…not as tall as John, but the broad shoulders and the thickness of the arms and the neck made John believe that the man he was facing was or still is a heavy weight wrestler or a martial arts guru. To make things even worse, he was standing right below the thing John intuitively assumed it was a hunting trophy. The opened door of the bathroom was allowing enough light to illuminate the creature on the wall…it was indeed the head of a formidably massive hart. The span of the horns must’ve been at least six feet from tip to tip. John’s palms were all sweaty. The man of the house and the trophy were now almost aligned making the scene hilarious – if it wouldn’t have been dramatic. It was almost like the gentleman who entered the room was wearing a hat with two massive antlers. John tried to sketch a smile, but he realized that he was the last person in that room to be in a position to do so. John’s interlocutor moved slowly on the side towards the middle of the living room and lit up the remaining of the candles. Soon, that profound and delicate, yet invasive and alluring smell was making John feel like he was welcomed, feel like he was the expected guest of the house for the Saturday night dinner. The room was now lit up at a level at which John could guess the decorations hanging on the walls…and there was plenty of them! He realized that the room was full of paintings and framed photos. One particular painting drew his attention: it was a fighting scene between two armies. However, the light did not have enough intensity so he couldn’t pick all the details. Nevertheless, something was telling him that he saw that painting somewhere. His investigative mind started right away to process this information, but he couldn’t exactly point in time when he saw the painting…his mind even considered the fact that he has never seen it and maybe it is just his imagination playing games on him right now; imagination based on the many stories he has heard since landing in Shanghai, or maybe even based on the dream he had. His brain was trying to absorb and put in order so much information, so many unusual events, all of them leading to…leading to what? He had a job to finish. Unfortunately his task got tangled and hijacked by this unusual story about late Ming Dynasty and this feud (which has been stretching over so many centuries) getting somehow anchored into his assignment and thus making it so much more difficult to take it to the end.

-Sit down, John! The big fellow in front of him showed John the white tatami on the floor. He realized that the man wanted to have a discussion with him. He hesitated. Something was telling him to stay on guard. His host smiled:

-John…if I wanted to kill you, you would’ve been dead by now. Please, sit!

John took his shoes off and entered the tatami; a deep bow of his interlocutor (a sign of respect and thank you), made him understand that he did the right thing when removing the shoes. Both men were now standing on the tatami. A slight sign (a stretched hand pointing to the floor), invited John to have a seat. There were no chairs, so he realized that he has to take the well-known lotus position, which he did. A slight and barely perceptible head tilt from the opposite side, let John know that his efforts are appreciated.

John’s attention switched to a particular area of the wall: it was the one which was close to the large glass wall facing Huangpu River. In spite of the obscure lighting, he realized that a weapons collection was hanging on the wall. It wasn’t hard to figure out that few swords, a shield, few lances, a bow, a quiver of arrows and few other shorter swords and long knives actually represented a whole arsenal which must have belonged to a warrior. “So, this guy is a warrior. What if he is just a collector?”

He wanted to ask his interlocutor if those were real weapons but didn’t get that far, as the man in front of him, with calm and deep tonality in his voice dissipated any doubt from his mind:

-Yes, John. They are real…they are very real and they are very sharp.

Latest few words fell like a hammer over John. He took it as a threat: “they are very sharp”. Cold sweat was now again running down his temples, over the cheeks, only to meet at the chin level and finally drip on the tatami in front of him. He didn’t know what to expect from the big fella and most of all, he started believing that the man sitting in the lotus position could read minds…this was troubling him.

All of a sudden, a melodious voice behind him asked a question which made John tremble with excitement:

-Why are you two sitting into the dark? The very next moment, she turned the lights on at the maximum luminosity the switch allowed her. A spectacle of balanced forms revealed themselves underneath the exquisite short pink silk robe. The long black hair was flowing down her right shoulder covering the right breast. However, the robe was so fine, delicate and transparent that John could once again admire her tanned skin which was contrasting so discretely with the color of the vaporous robe. John was trying to keep a straight face and not show his emotions, but one could sense that the up and down motion of his Adam’s apple was a sign of distress and nervousness.

She turned around and headed for the kitchen. Half way she stopped, turned her head, tilted it with a sensual motion nobody expected and from the tips of her lips, with a waggish smile on her face asked:

-Do you like jasmine tea, John? John didn’t expect this sort of question, so he mumbled a “Yes, I do like jasmine tea” which was neither convincing nor cheering.

-Very well, gentlemen…in few minutes I will bring you some tea. This time she discretely slipped into the kitchen leaving the two men once again alone.

John shook his head, thus signaling that he needs to wipe out the image of the gorgeous woman who just stood in front of him. Right away he realized that the man sitting at the other end of the tatami was carefully watching his expressions and reactions to the environment. This made John get into an even more defensive position, calculating every move he was making. The room was now invaded by good lighting and he couldn’t stop but resting once again his eyes on the great weaponry collection on the wall. This couldn’t have passed unobserved by the big fella who was scrutinizing John’s emotions. He slowly got up, headed towards that section of the wall and stretched his left hand towards John, in a sign meant to say: “please come closer”. John hesitated, but his interlocutor insisted. As he was getting closer to the wall, he realized that he was facing a treasure…three stunning swords were placed in the middle of the “exhibition”. The engravings on their scabbards were exquisite to say the least. The materials used for the decorations were gold, silver and few precious gem stones. The background was black, which was making the precious metals shine even more. It was a spectacle of fine art, great taste, exquisite refinement and unmatched craftsmanship! John guessed that the characters depicted were part of the Chinese Mythology as they did not make any sense to him. However, there was a little detail which his trained eye picked up right away: all three of the scabbards had a fairly large hart head (similar to the real one which was displayed on the wall) executed in gold and silver, while the eyes were represented by two superb bright red sapphires each encapsulated into a silver pocket. He was stunned! Flashbacks from that night when he was driving on that dark road in the middle of nowhere back home, kicked in. The eyes of the creatures sculptured on the scabbards were large and goggled, frightening but captivating in the same time thus reminding him of the majestic hart he almost hit that night, a night he would never forget for the rest of his life. Next, he moved his eyes on the handle…yet another piece of artistry! It was most likely blackened forged steel, but the amount of detailing (also in gold and silver) made John whisper from the bottom of his heart: “incredible!”

Slowly he moved his eye sight on the other two swords which were placed above the “master piece”. They were made probably by the same craftsman, as the detailing on the scabbards was similar. However, it was not made into gold and silver but the mythological scenes were identical. The same hart head was cast into the upper guard of the handle on both sides, but this time, it looked like the antlers were “coming out” of the whole scene and were pointing up. John realized that this particular and unusual design had a functional role: to stop the enemy’s blade from reaching the hand and in the same time to trap it between the openings of the antlers. Curiously, he took a look at both swords…the same design was employed by the master sword maker but the engravings were done into a different material on the same black background. In spite of the fact that these two swords were maintained at the same level of quality as the “master sword”, John’s keen eye picked up an element which many would’ve missed: both had some scratches and scuffs on the scabbards and on the handle in spite of the efforts done to hide them. This pointed him to believe that these two swords went through some hardship during their prime.

-I can see that you set your eyes on my swords, John.

-They are beautiful! His sincere exclamation put a smile on the man’s lips. A deep sense of pride was now flooding his entire face. One would realize that the swords were playing a significant role in his life in spite of the fact that they were obsolete into a modern world.

-They belonged to my ancestors going back few hundred years. He slowly grabbed with both his hands the one in the middle and handed it over to John while slightly bowing. It was a moment of great hesitation from John’s side to accept it, but finally he carefully took it into his hands without removing his eyesight from it and involuntarily bowing as well. This gesture came naturally. The politeness of the large fellow he was facing demanded politeness and John’s keen eye and sharp fifth sense picked up the unwritten rule on the fly.

He was now holding a masterpiece of swordsmanship and a symbol of few centuries of rich Imperial Chinese history. “This sword must’ve belonged to a powerful and rich family! The amount of gold, silver and precious gem stones used for engravings as well as the amount of details describing the nobility symbols was definitely out of reach even for noble families unless they belonged to high aristocracy or royalty”.  John didn’t realize, but the little monologue which just came out of his chest, was not quite completely silent. The man who handed the sword to him must’ve heard it or at least part of it, as his smile became larger and a sense of proudness one could’ve read on his tanned face.

-Yes, John. Both of us (I and my sister) belong to one of the greatest aristocratic families during the Ming Dynasty times. We were a family of warriors and we produced great generals.

At the sound of Ming Dynasty, John startled. Also, he couldn’t help but cover his mouth with a gesture signaling great wonder while pointing towards the kitchen. The large fella, nodded: “Yes John, she is my sister”.

John was baffled…in the last ten seconds, he found out that his neighbors are descendants of a high nobility family and that they are brother and sister. His mind just couldn’t comprehend the legerity the woman was employing when showed up in the room, her libertines gestures and the fact that she didn’t have any problem not covering herself when he looked at her showering. His brain was telling him to watch his back, open his eyes and sharpen his hearing. Next question he asked himself was: “Is Tony part of this clan too? How do they relate to each other? Do they work together when they are draining funds from Glenworth? Are they doing this with other companies too?” On top of all the questions he already had, on top of the fact that he was trying to understand the role of Zhaohui in this story, the role played by Vic and Mr. Wang, now he was all of a sudden facing another set of questions and doubts. One more time, the question that was tormenting him since he stepped into China, popped up again: “Why am I involved into this strange story? I had my life back home. How did I get myself dragged into this intricate and complicated string of events?” He realized that it was futile trying to find answers, given the particular situation he was facing.

The coldness of the scabbard and the handle, made him come to reality and redirect his attention to the beauty he was holding. The weapon felt so light in his hands but under the influence of the value this sword was bearing, John wanted to squeeze it so he won’t drop it. His eyes were now scrutinizing every single element of the exquisite precious engravings. The handle was another great piece of artistry: it also had a black background and every groove (meant to hold in place the fingers of the both hands) was coated in silver, making the contrast stunning. But when he moved his eye sight towards the end of the handle, he realized that another element (he missed when the sword was still hanging on the wall), was making this weapon truly unique: a very large green precious stone was buried into the butt of the handle. John didn’t quite understand the significance of that stone being placed at the bottom of the handle, but he realized that this sword must’ve represented more than just a fighting tool. The multitude of colored shades thrown by the giant green pearl were dancing, were playing and marching in the same time into an array of columns and rows one would think it was a military formation.

This deadly beauty was designed and executed the way a composer writes a symphony: first movement was the black background – like a “pianissimo”, the second movement was the great gold and silver engraving – like a “mezzo-forte”, the third movement was that frightening hart head and its red goggled sapphire eyes – like a “fortissimo”, while the fourth movement was represented by the majestic green stone finishing the symphony on a “mezzo-forte” note. Everything about this piece of art was unique, fascinating, mystic and powerful.

John moved his right hand to the handle area…a strange feeling encompassed him, making his face lighten and his whole body recoil switching from a crisp and tensioned state of mind to a more relaxed and at ease tune.

His curiosity did not stop here. Something inside him was asking for more. He was now holding the sword with his right hand by the handle and the left on the scabbard. Slowly, he started drawing the sword. The squish was quiet and low pitched. As the weapon was coming out of its housing, a magnificent blade, shining like a morning rising sun was presenting itself to the viewers. It was another piece of artistry which made John hold his breath. It was so delicate, yet so deadly judging by the sharpness of its dual cutting edge. An inscription running in the middle of it for about a foot in length was probably a motto of the aristocratic house the two hosts belonged to. Nevertheless, at the joint area with the handle, another engraving of the hart head was signaling the fact that the master did not leave anything at the mercy of chance and everything about this sword had a meaning, had a philosophical significance and followed a ritual known by just a handful of people.

-What do you think, John?

-Stunning, to say the least!

-I thank you for your words. This sword has been in my family for many generations. It has been passed along the lineage line from father to son.

-Why is this one different from the other two?

-This one was not used into the battles. It is a ceremonial sword. The other two are war swords, are weapons which have seen many battles and spilled lots of enemy blood on the ground. John felt like asking: “who the enemies were?” but stopped short from placing this question into the conversation. Something was telling him to be cautious on how much he was getting out of his chest and focus on listening.

– I noticed that the war swords are curved a little towards the tip. Why isn’t the ceremonial curved?

-You have a good eye for detail, John. I would’ve been disappointed if you didn’t ask me this question…after few seconds of silence, the large fellow started explaining that the war swords were more effective if they had a curved tip as this will help with slashing during the close combat. The tip was sharp as it was used for piercing while only one of the edges was sharp, as there was no point to have two sharp edges into a man to man fight on the battle field. John was absorbing all the details while having his eyes still at the “master piece”. Eventually, he handed the sword back to his interlocutor. Moving now his eye sight from the swords, he couldn’t help but notice the lances hung on the wall. Their stick was probably seven feet long with an area at one end showing a certain level of weariness. Clearly it was the “handle”, even if it was not quite a handle. The other end, had a metal piece riveted to the stick, which was double edged and was as sharp as it could get. The metal was mirror polished making the light bounce off of it and thus maintaining a certain level of repulsiveness which made John tremble with fear. He was encompassed by an inexplicable feeling of fear and unease and couldn’t quite understand why the black stick with the sharp metal at the end was more frightening than the sword he held into his hands earlier. Ultimately, it was just a piece of wood with a sharp triangle at one end. His intuition was telling him that there is a lot more to it than what he thought.

-I can see that you are now studying my lances. Is there anything in particular you need to know about this weapon? Before he even finished the sentence, he took one from the wall and handed it over to John. It was a moment of great wonder and admiration from John’s side. The lance felt was so light, that he tried not to squeeze it too hard and break it. Many questions popped up into his head and before knowing it, he started asking, so his interlocutor could hear them.

-This is so light, so fragile and so delicate! Why did I feel like it is repulsive? He tried the sharp edges with his thumb…they were razor sharp! How do you defend against swords with this thing? How does it work?

A large smile flourished on the man’s face. He slowly removed the spear from John’s hand and placed it back on the wall.

-This weapon is the most deadly weapon on the battle field if it finds the right man to handle it. You can easily keep two swords away from you while inflicting deadly wounds into other attackers. It is meant for defense, but if you know its true capabilities, you can turn it into an offensive weapon too. I prefer the lance over the sword.

-I am assuming that you can handle both of them equally well.

-I am the descendant of one of the greatest aristocratic families China ever had…remember? His tone was now firm, commanding, filled with that type of pride which only a great and glorious background can bring to the surface and make some ordinary human being special, noble, or even royal. John was about to ask him: “And who that great aristocratic family was?” when his guest’s sister came out of the kitchen with a small chair (a wooden holder) on which she had a stunning china set. Judging by the clean, crystal like noise made by the cups and the kettle when touching each other and by the fact that his guests belonged to an old aristocratic family, John could only assume that in front of him was laid down a famous tea set made probably from the most expensive porcelain possible. He took a look at the themes on the cups and the kettle…they were stunning to say the least! Everything was painted in a beautiful blue color and the amount of details and the intricacy of the scenes made John grasp for air. The white background was only emphasizing the amount of work the master invested in these cups. The kettle, due to its bigger volume than the cups, was a true representation of what fine taste and true craftsmanship can produce when placed under the skillful hands of a talented ceramicist. The mysterious woman made a sign with both her hands inviting the men to sit. Then she started pouring the tea with calm, calculated and almost like with religious type of movements. Everything was balanced, weighed, studied and rules were followed to the latest detail: the way she was holding the kettle, the perfect imaginary line she followed to fill the cups, the way she presented the cups to the two men, all of these denoted fine knowledge and long training into the hosting science. When she got closer to John to serve him, he couldn’t help but deep inhale the smell of her perfume, a perfume which was now impregnated into her skin and into her hair and was radiating a scent which he was unable to recognize, a scent which was already playing games with his mind. It was powerful yet delicate, it was mysterious yet so tangible! The vaporous pink robe was still reveling the beauty of a tanned skin. A trained eye would immediately realize that she was taking good care of her epidermis as it was shining from the body oils she was using.

After she was done pouring the tea, she deeply bowed the head to the host (her brother) and to John, signaling the fact that she was asking for permission to leave. The large man who was entertaining John up to this moment bowed his head as well, thus reveling his acceptance to her request. John caught the movement on the fly and when the hostess turn her head towards him, he slowly bowed, imitating the gesture of the big fella who was carefully watching every motion his guest was making. A smile came on his face when he saw that John mimicked his ritual and bowed to John in a sign of: “thank you for respecting our traditions”. John replied and from there on, the tension he felt from the first moment he saw his neighbor, just disappeared. He was now encompassed by a strange feeling of acceptance, of neighboring and good faith.

Few minutes passed by; the two men were simply minding their business sipping the wonderful hot liquid from the cups. It looked like they almost forgot about the existence of the other and were in no mood whatsoever to open up a conversation. In spite of the fact that John was looking at his host trying to guess what he was thinking at, his mind was now busy with the image of the woman who just served the tea. “So, both she and her brother belong to the upper aristocratic class and this could have been seen by the exquisite things from the apartment and also by the way they are behaving…it does have something different in it, special, something I am sensing that it does not belong to the ordinary people”

The large fella at the other end, was closely watching John. His eye sight was focused on John’s mimics, on his face, on his shown or hidden emotions thus trying to pierce through an armor which was kept intact quite well until now. It was a chess game between two masters, everyone playing a defensive style in the beginning in an attempt to gather as much information as possible about the opponent’ strategies and tactics. Finally, the host placed the cup on its plate and then the plate on the little wooden stool brought by his sister. John did the same. He realized that the wait is over and the “hostilities” will eventually start.

-So, John…why are you spying on us?

This question fell like a hammer in spite of the fact that John expected a straight forward dialog to start sooner or later. He was prepared for this moment, but the tone used by his host was by no means either friendly or casual anymore. He realized that he cannot stay forever in defense and eventually he had to strike back. But he needed time to recollect his thoughts and put together a fighting strategy. He came up with a trick he learnt long time ago: the introductions…they never fail!

-Before I answer your question, I would like to know your and your sister’s names. You know mine. In my culture, we are making the introductions first, then we talk.
This strategy worked quite well as John could see a wandering sign on his interlocutor’s face. The two men were now locked into a defensive state of mind, as the big fella did not expect this little digression to interfere with his aggressive planning. He looked deep into John’s eyes and said:

-Very well, then. My name is Chang mao dashi and my sister’s name is Jian dashi.

-Thank you, but in spite of the fact that I have been in China for a week only, I know that every Chinese name has a meaning. What do these two names mean? I can also sense the fact that these are probably nick names and you are still not telling me your true name.
The men in front of John cracked a large smile and stretched both hands towards John’s direction:

-I like intelligent people, John…yes, they are nick names and I hope you don’t mind if I didn’t tell you the real family name we are baring. We have our reasons to stay anonymous.

-Very well, I understand. John was happy. He managed to divert the first attacking wave away from him and now the fight was carried into a neutral territory, a land from which he could eventually win or at least draw a tie.

-Chang mao dashi means: Master of the lance while Jian dashi means: Master of the sword.

-I see…you are the lance expert while your sister is the sword master. A slight tilt of the head confirmed John’s statement and a short round of quietness encompassed the room. John realized that he cannot avoid anymore answering his host’s question…

-I am not spying on you. I was just curious. The door was opened and a strange smell came out of the apartment. A smell I cannot define, I do not recognize, but I like very much.

-So, whenever you feel a smell you like, you just enter people’s houses to figure out the origins of it, right? The irony into his voice made John uncomfortable, but he realized that he is no position whatsoever to be coy, so he hit back:

-No, usually I am not busting into people’s houses, but this smell is so enticing that I could not resist it. By the way…what is it? Once again, the large fella found himself drawn into a diversion. This time he was in no mood to answer:

-Why are you spying on me? John realized that he cannot avoid any longer answering the question, but in the same time, those years of training and playing sports told him that he cannot let the slight advantage he gained (through diversion tactics) slip away. It was an advantage he had to maintain and eventually build upon. He replied with a firm and assuring voice:

-Why are you stealing from Glenworth? Chang mao dashi’s eyes became as slim as two razor blades. A long pause followed John’s question…the tension between the two men reached a level which made John feel like it is time to make it or break it. “Now is the moment of truth! He will probably hit back or he will just deny that he is draining funds from us”. To his surprise, his interlocutor’s answer was neither offensive nor apologetic.

-I have to make a living somehow, that’s why we are doing what we are doing. You can call it stealing – this is your problem. We call it: restitution. When the communists took over this country, my forefathers were stripped from all their possessions and many members of our family ended up in prison or labor camps. What you see on these walls are things which we managed to hide from the communists and have been passed on from generation to generation. That ceremonial sword (which you liked the most) is five hundred years old and the other two (the war swords) are at least as old. Now they are in my custody and it is my duty to take care of them and pass them along to the next generation.

-Do I have to understand that you have a son, or a daughter? Once again, a deep silence fell between the two men. Once again, John took the discussion away from the hot subject: his intrusion into Chang mao dashi’s apartment.

-What do you want, John? I believe that you have a proposal for me, if I am not mistaken. John startled again…”This guy can read minds. This is unbelievable!”. He looked at his host and with a firm and balanced voice said:

-I do have a proposal for you, Master of the spear…I need to know what would it take for you to stop draining funds from Glenworth? This question caught the big fella by surprise as he lifted his right eyebrow in a sign of wonder and amazement.

-Hmm…you have a sharp mind, John. I have to admit that I didn’t expect this question from you. This is an interesting proposal…unfortunately I cannot give you an answer right now.

-I didn’t expect an answer on the spot. I understand that you need to think it through. However, can we have an armistice until you come up with your answer?

-And what would that armistice be about?

-You stop draining funds from Glenworth.

-And what would you give in return?

-I will stop investigating.

At this point, Chang mao dashi burst into a big laughter. His massive upper body was shaking like a pine tree into high winds and his eyes were almost closed from the fun he was having. He looked at John and added:

-I like you, John. You know how to play your cards even when you are bluffing, even when you have nothing to offer. I know that you are investigating this “case” – so to speak. I know that you have people following me. However, your efforts are not producing results so far. Why would I give up a real, concrete advantage I have over you? I have a bird in my hand and I can offer it to you. Your bird sits on the fence ten feet away from you…you are actually telling me: “I give you that bird in return, can you see it?”. You have to do better than this.

-Master of the Spear…if this is what you believe, I can say no more. But you could be wrong…terribly wrong. I am much closer than you think in getting to the bottom of this thing. It just looks like the bird sits on the fence ten feet away from me. Actually that fence is inside my house, with no possibility for the bird to fly away. I am actually trying to tell you that it’s just a matter of time before the bird will be in my possession. I let you judge, meditate and then give me the answer.

John was obviously bluffing, but he managed to keep a straight face while the tonality of his voice was conveying the self-confidence of a trained poker player. He closely followed the expressions of his host’s face. Chang mao dashi did not reveal much, but John could actually see that he planted a bug into his mind. He was obviously thinking and weighing his options.

-OK. You have a deal. You will have my answer in seven days from now. John couldn’t believe his ears! The bluff worked out! He has a week to figure out how to dismantle the tick software planted in the office by Li Jie.

-Very well, then. So, during this one week period, no more funds will be withdrawn from Glenworth and I will stop following you.

-We have a deal, John. Now let’s finish our tea…it is getting cold. Out of nowhere, his sister showed up with hot tea and re-filled their cups. This sudden appearance made John understand that she listened to the whole conversation. When Jian dashi kneeled in front of him and filled up his cup, he couldn’t stop deeply inhale the fragrance which was driving him crazy; quickly, she realized that she made an impression on him and lifted her head. The two gorgeous black eyes were now looking straight into John’s. The feeling that he was helpless in front of her, the feeling that he is losing the upper hand he thought he had in this latest endeavor, made John swallow in anger. However, it felt like a huge knot got stuck into his esophagus and gasped for air. Jian dashi smiled, tilted from the waist again and left for the kitchen. Chang mao dashi smiled as well. He lifted the cup with both hands to the eye level, bowed and took a sip. John followed the procedure. For the next few minutes, a total silence laid again into the room. John was weighing his options…at least he got what he wanted: an armistice. However, he realized that the war is far away from being won. This was just a small battle in which he managed to come on top. Soon, he finished the tea, placed the cup back onto the small tea table and tilted his head towards his host signaling that he would like to retire. The large fella bowed back and both men headed for the door.

-I thank you for the tea and for a great conversation, Chang mao dashi.

-Pleasure was all mine, John.

Before stepping into hallway, John turned around and asked:

-How would I know when you have the answer for me?

-Don’t worry John…I know how to find you. We are neighbors after all, remember?

-Right…I almost forgot! Both men laughed and John finally headed for his apartment. Once inside, he leaned against the door and slowly reached the floor in a sitting position. He grabbed his head between his palms, rested the elbows against his knees and started digesting whatever happened across the hall. The encounter with the large fella and his beautiful sister, the amount of information he got, the direct and indirect threats directed at him, took a tall on his energy level. Especially the last statement: “Don’t worry, I know how to find you” made John understand that his efforts of spying on his neighbor are almost futile, made him understand that the Spear Master had a great network of people working for him and the logistics behind his operations is tremendously efficient and elusive. That being said, he stood up, stopped by the bar, poured a glass of red wine and headed to the window. The image of the great river all lit up, made him calm down. The wine was now flowing through his veins and slowly was bringing that piece of mind he needed after such an eventful evening. “Well, tomorrow we will visit the Gardens. At a certain point, I will have to tell this story to Vic and Zhaohui”. He finished the wine, put the empty glass on the office desk and headed for the bedroom.

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 30 (The old books are fascinating)

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

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

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

 

Chapter 30

The old books are fascinating

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

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

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

-May I help you, Sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How much for all these?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-No worry, Sir. Driver will wait.

-Fantastic! It was good doing business to you.

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

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

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

-Let me call a taxi for you, Sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic!

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

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

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

-Of course! Here you go, Sir!

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

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

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

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

-That’s for sure. Bye, now!

-Bye, bye!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 29

The Curse of the General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Two, of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 28

All cats are black at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You are welcome, Mr. Parker!

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

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

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

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

-I wish I knew what he did there.

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

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

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

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

-Great work guys, great work!

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

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

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

-You didn’t tell them?

-No. You go ahead and brief them up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why are you two guys concerned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Any trouble sir?

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

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

-You too officer and thanks again for your help.

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

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

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

-Very good, Sir! You have good night!

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

-What happened, whispered Vic?

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

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

-I don’t know, man! I really don’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic! You can help Yuhuan now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK, John – you go.

-You first. I will cover.

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

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

-So, did you find friend?

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

-May I know which hotel you are staying on?

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

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

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

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

-Yes, that person no good head.

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

-OK sir. Have good night.

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

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

-Good strategy! They were following you.

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

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

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

-Agree. He is clearly on our side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 27

The book of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Knock, knock!

-Hey, Vic! What’s happening, man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yes, he is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long have you been spying on Tony?

-Immediately after J.J. hired him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Let’s pay Mr. Wang a visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you think he has microphones into those booths?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-And your plan is…

-My plan is to get in tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I can only imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Good deal! I will ask her.

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

-Yes. This is the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How are you doing, big guy?

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I will let them know.

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

-I see you then, big guy. Bye.

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

-Will do so. Bye now.

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

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

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