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 obscureness 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 aggressive. Patience is 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 un-patient. This no good. You must be strong. If you calm and calculated, you strong. This is power of mind! Power of heart only good for battlefield. But fight starts before battlefield. If you win that battle, is easy to win battlefield battle. 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 this man 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 wandered for years through the waters of South China Sea, from village to village to find her. In his heart he knew that she made it safely to the shore. It was their destiny that brought them together, it was their destiny to be together for the rest of their lives. It is believed that they never found each other and their souls are still looking to be re-united. This legend has been carried on for centuries now by the villagers of the small fishing villages all along the coastal line of South China Sea and as far as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 28

All cats are black at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You are welcome, Mr. Parker!

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

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

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

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

-I wish I knew what he did there.

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

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

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

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

-Great work guys, great work!

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

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

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

-You didn’t tell them?

-No. You go ahead and brief them up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why are you two guys concerned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Any trouble sir?

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

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

-You too officer and thanks again for your help.

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

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

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

-Very good, Sir! You have good night!

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

-What happened, whispered Vic?

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

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

-I don’t know, man! I really don’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic! You can help Yuhuan now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK, John – you go.

-You first. I will cover.

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

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

-So, did you find friend?

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

-May I know which hotel you are staying on?

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

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

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

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

-Yes, that person no good head.

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

-OK sir. Have good night.

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

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

-Good strategy! They were following you.

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

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

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

-Agree. He is clearly on our side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 27

The book of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Knock, knock!

-Hey, Vic! What’s happening, man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yes, he is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long have you been spying on Tony?

-Immediately after J.J. hired him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Let’s pay Mr. Wang a visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you think he has microphones into those booths?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-And your plan is…

-My plan is to get in tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I can only imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Good deal! I will ask her.

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

-Yes. This is the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How are you doing, big guy?

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I will let them know.

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

-I see you then, big guy. Bye.

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

-Will do so. Bye now.

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

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

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

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 21 (Strange 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 21

Strange neighbors

John waited for them to get into the taxi, waived and when the car was out of his eye sight, turned around and headed for his room. The Lobby was almost empty. Some people were still lingering around sitting into the luxurious leather chairs or on the sofas talking business or just chilling before heading for the rooms and calling it a day. The nice and relaxing classical music played into the speakers, the huge tropical plants and trees which were dominating certain areas and the low lights skillfully hidden between the branches and around the trunk (simulating an African dusk), was giving that Lobby a particular beauty, serenity, stillness. Before heading for the elevators, John couldn’t help but stop and admire the scenery…it was beautiful and relaxing. On the opposite side from where he was standing, the orange lights between the immense branches of a palm tree were giving the viewer the feel that he was looking at a sun waiting patiently to go down on a nice Safari evening. There was so much tranquility in this place that John almost forgot he had to go upstairs and rest, as tomorrow will be the “D day”. He shook his head few times in a sign that he needs to wake up, in a sign that he must shake off this enchanted scenery and turn back to reality. Vigorously he headed for the elevators. Once inside, he scanned his card and patiently waited for the elevator to reach Penthouse level. The hallway was simulating to a point the Lobby. Same lights (but more discreet and at a lower intensity) were placed on the walls, on the furniture and even at the floor level, hidden between flower pots. Overall, the diffuse lighting, the shades, the numerous colors encompassing the hallway, the nice plants and the pictures on the walls, were creating a mystic type of scenery, an abstruse environment which almost gave John chills. One of the lamps on the opposite wall with the elevator was flickering, thus throwing multiple shades and nuances of obscure lighting. John just couldn’t pass by and ignore this, as his mind set was always connected to perfection. He looked behind the thick yellow glass cover and confirmed that the bulb light was faulting indeed. Getting closer, he realized that that particular light was meant to emphasize the paint below it. It was hard from the first sight to fully understand the meaning of the scene into that painting. The intermittent light thrown by the bulb light was highlighting some fighting scenery, completely unknown to John. His natural curiosity wanted to know more, wanted to take a better look at the picture. He started playing with the bulb light by untightening it and back tightening it. It worked! The bulb light just needed a small adjustment. He turned his sight from the troubling bulb light and now he looked at the picture from a totally different perspective. A Chinese warrior fully dressed into his war gear was fighting a creature which looked frightening, terrifying and fearsome. It looked like one of those dreadful dragons which were proudly presented by the Chinese community back home during their annual New Year’s parade. John realized now that this was a real painting, not a print on canvas exhibit. The light was placed in a way which was emphasizing warrior’s face, his spear and the dragon’s flame throwing mouth. The intensity of the scene captured John’s attention while a slight tremble grabbed his shoulders as the bulb light started faulting again. This time John didn’t feel like trying to fix the problem again, as he realized it is a matter of replacing the bulb light. He turned around trying to head for the apartment. His heart stopped! Few feet in front of him, a person was standing and watching his efforts to fix the light trouble. The face was into a cone of darkness and just from time to time he could actually see some details of the physiognomy, as the lighting kept flickering. It was a female with a long ponytail flowing over the left shoulder almost all the way to the waist. She was also quite tall, probably of the same height as Zhaohui.

-It does it all the time!

John felt like he swallowed his Adam’s apple. A deep sensation of thirst, discomfort and fear captured his senses. The ambient mystic light and scenery, the picture showing mythological frightful characters and the woman who appeared out of nowhere, brought a cold sweat down his spine and all over his forehead.

-I…I…tried to fix it. He was trembling from emotions and in spite of the fact that he tried to hide the discomfort into which he found himself, the tonality and the timber of his voice were weak, soft and unclear.

-No worry. I call manager. The woman was still standing into that dark side of the hallway, almost like trying to avoid an eye to eye contact, trying to prolong the mystery and the uncertainty of the situation.

-Thank you. Have a good night! John moved away and headed towards his apartment. The woman made a step side wise again, so her face was still covered by the darkness and the shades of the hallway.

-You have good night too, Sir! It was the voice of a self-assured person: powerful and dominating, demanding and up to a point frightful.  However, the well balanced tonicity and a high level of musicality, made her voice quite pleasant in spite of the firmness of the words coming out of her mouth.

John headed towards his apartment. It was the time he realized that his apartment was sharing the huge floor with another two apartments. They were placed approximately at a hundred twenty degrees from each other, with the elevators being placed between the other two units. While looking for his card-key into his wallet, he sensed some sort of music coming from the apartment which was almost facing his. He realized that this is the place where the woman he’s just seen in front of the elevators came from. His unabated curiosity kicked in once again. The “ding” sound of the elevator told him that the person with whom he had a small chat in front of the elevators was ready to go down to wherever she was heading to. He approached the door and to his great surprise, the door was slightly open. His brain told him to leave and don’t bother looking. But his heart and his insatiable thirst for knowledge told him to stop and look. He approached the door and through the opening he could see a man sitting into a lotus position in the middle of the living room. The furniture was moved to provide space probably. He was looking at the window and had his back turned to the door. A strange smell of aromas was coming out, a smell John was not familiar with. During his football carrier and after that (to this day) he was regularly going to get massages, so he was accustomed with the Chinese herbs and plants used by those massage places. But this one was something totally different. In spite of the fact that the lights were low into the apartment, John saw two large vases – one on each man’s side – from which a thin layer of smoke was coming out. He couldn’t distinguish the color of the smoke, but the smell was strange and powerful while in the same time was warm and welcoming; it was almost like a combination of good-bad, a combination which gets your head spinning not wanting you to let go. The man sitting on a tatami on the floor, looked like a large male (judging by the large frame of his shoulders) and was dressed into a white kimono. It appeared to John that his skin was dark, but he couldn’t quite say for sure, as the lights in the room were playing games on him. His curiosity was reaching new heights: why did the woman leave the door open? Why the man sits right into the line of sight through the opening? What is that unusual but quite pleasant smell? He realized that there is no way he would find answers, so he decided to turn around and head for his room. But in that very moment, the man picked a strange object which was resting beside him: it seemed to be a long spear, but soon John realized that it was an unusually long smoking pipe as the man in the room started smoking and releasing thin clouds of smoke. Things were coming together and John understood that the person was probably using prohibited substances. A smile showed up on his lips, turned around and headed for his apartment. A “ding” just came from the elevators and John rushed inside his apartment. He knew that the woman he left at the elevators was now coming back to the apartment. He wanted to head straight to the bar and pour himself a drink, but again, his inextinguishable curiosity made him look through the peep hole. He was right: the woman was coming back, but she was not alone…this time she was accompanied by another woman. Again, John couldn’t see her face as the other woman was now acting as a shield. Was this done accidentally or was it done on purpose so he couldn’t see her face? More questions popped up into John’s head and his desire to meet his neighbors became a reality. He couldn’t say why, but it was almost like an invisible magnet was drawing his attention towards that suite. Finally, the door closed and John headed for the living room. Flipped the lights open and opened up the bar. There was a great selection of drinks available. He opened up a bottle of Cognac, poured some into a glass and moved a chair by the window. The view was spectacular! The business district was all lit-up, the roads were busy while the pedestrians were still walking on the sidewalks. But Huangpu was literally astonishing! The lights on the barges which were taking their cargo downstream and the wonderful shades of the moon reflecting on the river’s waters, made the view special. John took a sip from the drink in front of him and let his head drop backwards, trying to digest everything that happened during the day: all the people he met and now, at the end of the day, more questions raised into his head by his neighbors. “Are they doing something illegally there? What’s up with the girl she brought with her”? He raised his head and looking straight at one of the barges on the river, he loudly asked himself: “Are Vic and Zhaohui on my side? Why did Vic brief his fiancée up about the assignment? Do I have to worry about her too?” All these questions were now part of a panel of uncertainties which were wandering throughout John’s head. “Judging by the way Vic and his fiancée behaved at the dinner table, I think I overreacted” More and more, as the recent memories were flashing back, John realized that he shouldn’t worry about these two persons. A warm feeling stretched through his body and a barely sketched smile made his lower lip drop a bit showing a sign of happiness and easiness from a cold and tensioned state of mind. “No, they are definitely on my side! But I still have to figure out that Vic’s face, when I told him that I want to head back home as soon as possible. Maybe he was trying to tell me something…I don’t know. I am really not into the mood now of doing an investigation on Vic’s gesture. There is enough time for this” He finished up his drink and headed for the Bathroom to get ready for sleep. But in the meantime, he took a detour and went to the door again. Took a look again through the peep hole. The hallway was deserted. He slowly opened up the door…no any sort of noise was coming from the other apartment and the door was closed. He decided to call it a day and headed for the bathroom. When flicked the light open, he realized that his huge glass wall which was separating the bedroom from the bathroom, was now providing a great scenery of the river. There was no time for any more viewing. He put his pajamas on, brushed his teeth and headed for the bed. It was mid night and tomorrow was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 18-19-20 (Pudong/Vic/Zhaohui)

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 18

Pudong

The airport was strangely empty at this time of the night. Only few international flights were still in the cue. The fact that was October and the winter travelling had not yet started, also played a role in a low travel rate.

The flight for Shanghai was accepting passengers for checking in. During the one hour trip from home to the airport, the conversation between the two spouses was strictly casual, not related to the trip: it mostly covered the kids and the school, the house and the winter that was already knocking at the door. One would say that they knew it is a short term separation and kept the discussion out of job related things. But a finer observer would’ve sensed a relative uncomfortable tension in the air. John was thinking at his assignment and the hurdles in front of him while Linda realized that in all these years since they’ve been together, they were not separated more than a couple of weeks. Nervousness and dark thoughts encircled her brain and for a moment felt like she need a fresh breath of air. It was the moment when she opened up the window to get some oxygen. At John’s:

-What’s the matter? Are you sick? Linda nodded few times in a sign that everything is OK and he shouldn’t worry.

-It’s time for you to check in.

-Yeah, I think it is. A long goodbye kiss followed and a tear came out of one of Linda’s eyes.

-Oh, common! I am not leaving anymore…

-Are you nuts? Just go and check in.

-I can see that you are not alright, hon!

-Don’t be silly. I always get emotional when you leave. Right? Every time I say good bye to you, I get that tear in my left eye.

– I hope it’s just this and you are not hiding anything from me.

-No, I am not hiding anything. Just go and check in.

They both stepped into the Business Class check in line. There was nobody ahead of them.

-May I see your Passport, Sir?

-It was supposed to be fast couriered to the Airline. It was a sudden change of plans and we only had 12 hours to get the Visa.

-I see. Let me check. Name, please?

-Parker. John Parker.

-Thank you Mr. Parker. Just a moment.

-Sure, no problem.

-I hope that they didn’t mess up and you don’t have to cancel your flight.

-I hope so too…even, it wouldn’t hurt for me to hang around one more day and get into that Jacuzzi tub with you again.

-Stop it! Linda slapped John over the arm in a sign which almost admitted that she wouldn’t mind either if her husband would spend another 24 hours at home.

-Yes, I found it Mr. Parker. How many pieces of luggage you are checking in?

-One, this big guy right here.

Checking in procedures went smoothly and after receiving the Boarding Pass, they both headed for the Gate. Same short line for Business Class. Before entering the checking point, John kissed his wife again and headed straight for the Security check. It went alright again and through the opened doors he was able to still see his wife. Waived at her and then headed for the Gate.

Business Class with this Airline was absolutely fabulous. Every traveler had his own cubicle like space which was keeping the individual separated from other passengers. The seats were turning into beds as well, giving one the chance to sleep and get well rested at the destination. Nice features, exclaimed John while checking the functionality of his seat, of his TV and all other little things associated with travelling Business. He pulled a stack of papers he printed out, planning to read during such a long flight.

When everybody was set, the flight attendant showed up and handed over nice comfortable slippers. John put them on, took his seat and started reading a particular package he was interested in; a package which contained information on major partners Glenworth had in Asia. He had a selection done by country, so he started obviously with China. It took some time before John realized that he was airborne and this was due to the fact that the attendant asked him if he wanted a drink.

He startled, and realized that he completely missed the takeoff procedures and the takeoff itself.

-Yes. May I have an orange juice please?

-Certainly. Do you want ice or just like that, straight up?

-No ice please.

-Sure Mr. Parker; in about thirty minutes we will be serving dinner. What would you like for the main course? We have chicken Florentine, we have beef Tortellini, or we can give you a sushi plate.

-Sushi plate would be perfect. Thank you.

-Great! Please let me know if you need anything else.

-For sure. Thanks again.

John started digging again through the stack of papers in front of him and carefully made notes on the page. He tried to learn their names by heart, so it would be easier to dig into details. He particularly looked at the numbers of employees these companies had, the amount of time they were in business, how often they were doing business with Glenworth and what were the transaction amounts. He was just hoping for the moment that something out of ordinary popped up. Nothing special, nothing that would make him pin point a lead towards a certain direction. Disappointed and a bit frustrated, John put the pile of paper aside, reclined his seat and started looking for a sports or a news channel. The movie selection was quite large and diverse. Well, maybe I will watch a movie, some sports and then go to sleep.

The dinner was about to be served, so he brought the seat back up into the upright position.

-Here you go, Mr. Parker: your sushi plate.

-Thank you very much, it looks great.

-Thank you, Sir! Would like a drink before your dinner? We have a large variety of spirits on board.

-Sure, I will have a Cognac; one cube of ice, please.

-Certainly; anything else you would like?

-Not for now. Thank you very much.

-I will be circling around again…in case you need a wine or a beer.

-I will have a glass of wine later on.

-Bon appétit, Sir!

-Thank you.

John looked at the plate in front of him and couldn’t believe the refinement in presentation and variety. Where do they make these? It’s unbelievable…you feel like you are dining out in a restaurant! He deliberately skipped the bread and butter so he could get the real taste of the wonderfully presented sea food in front of him. The spring rolls and the salmon sushi looked phenomenal! When coming down to sea food, the spring rolls were John’s favorite and from Western Cuisine, the B.C. rolls (sake salmon sushi). To his surprise, the Carrier had it on board. “This flight won’t feel so long as it initially I thought!” John cracked a smile and immediately started working on his sea food plate. “Maybe I need to order a wine to go with this awesome stuff!”

-Excuse me, mam’…is there any way I can have a glass of wine, please?

-Certainly, Sir. Would you like a red or a white?

-White of course.

-We have several options; I will bring the list to you.

-Fantastic! Wow…they have several options! This is amazing.

-Here you go, Sir!

John opened up the wine menu. He quickly counted ten different types from few countries. Shockingly, he couldn’t decide right away but at the end he went for a dry white, just good to go with his sushi.

-Very well, Sir! It will be a minute. The wine was well chilled and the aroma released while poured into the glass, made John understand that he made a good choice. Enjoy, Sir!

-Thanks very much! The wine was as good quality wise as the food was. His taste buds were excited at the maximum as John tried to enjoy every single ounce of food and wine.

At the end, a barely audible sigh of relief and satisfaction came out of John’s chest. It was the deep pleasure of enjoying the aftermath of a good meal at the tandem with a good wine while watching an easy and relaxing movie.

-How was the meal, Sir?

-Fantastic! Compliments to the Chef!

-Thank you. We actually hired a well-known Chef to craft our menus; it looks like he did a pretty good job. Would like something for the sweet tooth?

-Sure, why not? Don’t tell me that you will bring a menu again…both John and stewardess burst into a laughter which raised few heads around. People were probably asking themselves why John and the beautiful attendant were having so much fun.

The stewardess put her right index finger on her lips (the universal sign of: “quiet”), dropped her head and when close enough to John’s head, she whispered: it looks like some people don’t like the fact that we are just trying to make this flight seem as short as possible). John affirmatively nodded and replied: I don’t want to get you in trouble.

-No, you are not getting me in trouble, but we need to keep this low…sorry”

-I fully understand. My apologies.

-You don’t have to apologize. Sir, can I entertain you with some sweets? We have Crème brûlée, we have Profiteroles with dark or white chocolate, we have Tiramisu, we have Gelato de la Romagna and de la Umbria and we have Siena Zuccotto.

-Wow! Sounds impressive! I am not that familiar with the last one and I really do not feel like having ice crème. Profiteroles are always exciting and crème brûlée is something I have had many times before. So…let’s have a Tuscan delight!

-Well done, Sir! I will be right back with your Zuccotto di Siena. Would you like a white sweet wine to go with your dessert?

-Absolutely. I leave the wine choice at your discretion. I fully trust your taste.

-Thank you Mr. Parker! I will be right back with your wine and dessert.

John started flipping through the Sports channels. The Olympic Games (even if they were recorded) captured his attention as the fast track was played. The explosiveness of the athletes when leaving the blocks, the “all in” commitment during the short 100 meters of run, the maximum concentration needed at the start, the possible turn of events, was making this event something John was not going to miss for the world.

-Your dessert, Sir! And your wine, as you ordered: a sweet white to go with the sweetie in front of you.

-The dessert looks fabulous! Thank you! I am sure that the wine is perfect too.

-For anything else you may need, just call me. There is an attendant button right here. She pointed out a little button on one of the arms the chair had.

-Very well. For now, I am just going to enjoy these track and field show and my dessert. Obviously I will finish up with this intriguing white you recommended.

-I hope I didn’t disappoint you, Mr. Parker. Please let me know how you like it.

-I will for sure. John scooped a bite from the famous Zuccotto; after swallowing, he smacked his tongue against his roof of the mouth in a sign that the first impression was positive. Once the sweetie taste of the dessert hit his soft palate, a whole world of fantastic flavors stimulated his taste buds. John closed his eyes and slowly and methodically took another taste of the Tuscan wonder. It was like all the smells of a late spring poured through the roof of his mouth into his nostrils. The vanilla and the raspberry smell, the sweet-bitter chocolaty taste and the smell of the Marsala wine flooded his senses. John opened up his eyes only to bring the piece of dessert closer to his nose. He inhaled deeply and closed the eyes again. I have to learn how to make this! Slowly, he finished whatever was left off of the Zuccotto. All this time he placed the TV on pause, as he really wanted to fully enjoy the Tuscan Cuisine wonder. When the last bit of this great dish was done, he laid back into the chair and closed the eyes again. It was a great culinary experience! Then opened his eyes up and grabbed the glass of wine. As usual, he brought the glass close to the nose, slowly swirled the liquid and took a fast and deep sniff. A whole panel of aromas hit his trained nostrils: the pineapple, the apple, the jasmine and fresh basil were all captured into this white-goldish liquid, making it smell like summer in a glass. John was stunned! How can these guys entertain like this? It is almost like you are in a pretty upscale Restaurant!

-How did you like your dessert, Mr. Parker?

-I absolutely loved it! Both the Zuccotto and the wine were fabulous!

-I am glad to hear this. More wine?

-Sure, why not? I will enjoy my TV even better. Stewardess turned around and brought the bottle again.

-Let me take a picture of the label, please. I never had this wine before. John pulled his cell phone and snapped a shot of the label. This is a great wine! Thank you for recommending.

-My pleasure, Mr. Parker. Anything else you would like to have?

-I think I am set for now. Thank you very much! I will get back to my Sports. John made himself comfortable into his seat, grabbed the glass wine and started playing the Olympics from where he left them of. The enjoyment was total: great athletes running and the awesome wine in his glass made the overall show something to remember. Let’s play a movie now; enough of Sports. There was a huge selection of old and newer movies. He picked an action movie and turned his seat into a bed. At this point, John just wanted to watch something easy to follow, something that was a no brainer, something which would keep you awake and your interest sharp without having to invest much thinking. Now, let’s see: Die Hart or Austin Powers? A little laughter doesn’t hurt so…Gold Member it is! John made himself as comfortable as possible and played the movie. The lights in the cabin were turned off and one could only see the individual lights of each “cubicle” lit up as people were either watching TV or reading. He watched Austin Powers series quite few times alongside Linda. This time was different; something was missing. Soon he realized that he was missing the laughter they were having while watching together, the always changing comments they were making and the snacks which were part of the overall entertainment. John finished his glass of wine and then completely turned his seat into a bed. It was a long day and in spite of the nap he took at home, the events were now catching up on him. Without noticing, he fell asleep. The seat-bed was quite comfortable so he only woke up when the lights in the cabin were switch back on by the stewards. A short announcement made him understand that they were serving another hot meal. A pleasant smell was coming from the carts the stewards were pushing. John was intrigued as it was something that he was familiar with but he just couldn’t pin it into the board. He slept for five hours. On the monitor of his TV, the tracer was showing that the flight was just into its ninth hour mark. Five more hours is not that big of a deal anymore, said John to himself while getting ready for the food. He brought his seat all the way back upwards, brought the stowed table into usable position and curiously waited for the stewardess to show up with his food.

-Good morning Mr. Parker!

-Morning?

-Yes, it is almost 9 am US time.

-As time flies by!

-Indeed. What would you like for breakfast? We have omelets, sausage and bacon with potatoes, we have pancakes and freshly baked bread.

-I will have an omelet, pancakes and tomato juice please.

-Here it is your tomato juice, I will come back with the main course.

John turned the TV back on and switched to financials. Reports, analysis and expert opinions were all bundled up into a show he never watched before. The focus was on the Asian financial market, which captured John’s attention immediately. He was all eye an ears when the attendant came with his breakfast. While still watching, he set his table and nodded a “thank you” for the service. The trends shown on the screen were a little skewed comparing to what he saw at Glenworth and to what he read into the newspapers and pulled off of the Internet. In John’s mind this was a sign that the markets were a little shaky at this point waiting for something to be happening. He ate his food while watching the show. He was totally captivated. Slowly but surely he started understanding that he needs to look at this endeavor from a different angle, from a unique and particular view: particularities of the Asian markets. He quickly finished his meal. This was a sign of how eager he was to absorb the free information which was flowing towards him. For the next two hours or so, he was glued to the screen, not paying attention to anything else but the show. He pulled the stack of papers he looked at before dinner and stared making notes again. At this point he didn’t really know if he will ever use them, but for the moment the info seemed useful and worth the effort. When the show was over, he leaned back into a more comfortable position and reclined the seat. Now he had something to chew on, something that could point him into the right direction while in China. Slowly he got up and started stretching as the numerous hours he spent into the seat took a toll on his joints. There were just three more hours to go and his spirit was high, was full of confidence and hope that he will get to the bottom of the problem. The slippers he received were very comfortable; he took them off and started massaging his feet. Immediately fell how the blood was now better flowing from the foot upwards. It was a trick he learnt from the trainers he had during his football years. Overall, he felt good and resourceful, he felt like he was up to the challenge and the success was not that far-fetched as it seemed on Friday when he got the news from J.J. Now, as he was closing in to reaching China, he was actually welcoming the task, he was eager to step into the field and make that winning throw which will bring the stands again on their feet. He was all pumped up and the fact that the tracer was showing just two and a half hours to go, made him wanting the challenge. Slowly, he chilled down and set the TV on sports again. This time he was just flipping through channels, just to kill some time. Grabbed his notes again and for another ten minutes or so he browsed through them yet again in a hope that he will see something that would lead him to the right direction. He was now comparing Glenworth’s charts with market’s and both of them against the latest notes he took by hand. Nothing popped up, so John decided to put them back into his carry on luggage. When the attendant passed by, he asked for some nuts and another tomatoes juice.

-Right away Mr. Parker! In few minutes, a nicely shaped porcelain bowl with a lid on top was sitting in front of him alongside a full glass of the red liquid everybody enjoys. He thanked and lifted the lid: Macadamia and Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans were all mixed up into the bowl in front of him. These guys don’t go cheap on food! He was pleased again with the selection and now he turned again his attention to Sports. Some College Football highlights caught his eye sight. One of them was the final play of the game he watched on Sunday. Once again he shook his head at the guts that coach had. Without noticing, there was just over an hour and a half left into the flight and the attendants showed up again with food.

-Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now serving lunch. As usual, we have a good selection of dishes. Enjoy your meal. Bon appetite.

John chose chicken Florentine and Pêche Melba for dessert. A red wine to go with the chicken accompanied his order. He was amazed again with the variety and the high quality of the food. At least the Peach Melba was absolutely fantastic. The aroma of the peaches and the thick raspberry syrup poured on top of the vanilla ice cream made him repeat the drill he followed at dinner. Everything was delicious. By the time the attendants were done wrapping up and cleaning, the plane was already into a descending path. It was a sign that soon, the captain will ask passengers to prepare for landing. John pulled the seat into upright position, stowed the table, removed his slippers and put his shoes on. Not knowing how to dress, he switched the TV on Weather Channel. A pleasant 66 F was waiting for him so he decided to leave the jacket inside the carry on luggage.

-Ladies and Gentlemen, we are approaching Shanghai. It is a beautiful sunny day at your destination, the time is 3:45 pm local time and the temperature is 19 Celsius or 66 Fahrenheit. We hope that you enjoyed your flight and we thank you for flying with us. Attendants, please prepare for landing procedures. Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your seat up and seat belt on.

John buckled up and all the way to the point of touch down, he followed the monitor and the plane descending path. Once he landed, for some reason he felt like taking a deep breath. It was a way of telling himself: “it’s game time!”

Pudong was very busy at this time of the day. After retrieving his large piece of luggage, John headed straight for the    Exit. “I hope Vic is waiting for me”! One more time he pulled a picture from one of the Office parties they had when Vic was still in North America. A large guy, with a sweaty and red face was showing in the middle of the picture while trying to exhibit his dancing skills. John cracked a smile. He remembered that party well…Vic got dead drunk and Scott found himself into the situation when he had to give Vic a lift back home. “I hope I am still going to recognize him”. The lines formed at the Customs were immense. Three other overseas flights landed approximately at the same time. Business Class had a fast lane and John headed that direction. The process was fast and soon he found himself out of the Customs and into the Airport itself. The number of people waiving white sheets with the names of the people they were waiting for, was very large. “How am I going to recognize Vic”?

Chapter 19

Vic

John started browsing through the signs. There were few “Johns” but none of the people waiving the signs looked like Vic. John decided to ignore the signs and look through the crowd at people. “There is no way I can’t recognize Vic in this crowd! He is twice the size of any of these individuals here”! In spite of the efforts, he couldn’t identify the man supposed to greet him. “This is unbelievable!” All of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of that gathering, John spotted a very insistent and lively sign with his name. He concentrated his whole attention on the man waiving the sign and to his great surprise, he recognized a Vic who looked not near close to the Vic into the picture John had in his wallet. John was stunned! His eyes couldn’t believe the transformation. He was tall, standing half a head above everybody else, but he was virtually half the size he used to be.

Vic pushed some people out of his way and came to meet John. The hand shake and the friendly hug Vic gave John, were not enough to wake John up from his almost transcended state he got into when spotted Vic.

-Hey, John! What’s wrong with you? Vic’s question, brought John back to reality. He recognized his voice: deep and sober like a Baritone’s voice.

-Vic! What happened to you, man? John hugged him back thus showing a sign of relief, a sign of assertive energy, a sign that he was truly happy seeing him again. Instinctively he knew that something positive happened into his colleague’s life, but for now he refrained from saying or asking anything related to the subject.

-I know that this new image of mine is shocking to you. Actually I am glad I shocked you, John! Both of them burst into a huge laughter which didn’t go unnoticed by the other people in the crowd. Even if many heads turned and looked at them, they both seemed to enjoy that moment of sincere happiness which brought them face to face again.

-Here…I have something for you, Vic! John pulled the picture he had in his pocket and gave it to Vic. Another round of laughter came out of their chests. It is you at that Christmas Party, remember?

-Vaguely! His whole body was shaking from the fun they were having. Vic tried to return the picture back. John shook his head side wise few times.

-It is yours to keep. Scott took you home.

-Yeah, he told me the next day. I was so embarrassed! Thanks for the picture.

-You just had a bit of fun…nothing to be embarrassed for! Well…actually we had some fun too!

-I can only imagine…you guys calling me: “bozo”, “clown”, etc., etc.

-Nobody called you that, but we did have a lot of fun watching you dancing – I have to admit it!

-Here we go! Now you are speaking the truth! Both John and Vic left the Terminal with the strong feel that even if they hadn’t seen each other for so long, they connected at the personal level that the ice was broken between them and they can start now a good and successful professional relationship.

-We will take the fast train. I have tickets. There is one which leaves at 4.35 pm. Can I help you with your luggage?

-I am OK, don’t bother.

Both men headed for the Exit while still chit chatting. Vic was asking questions on rapid fire mode: who else was hired in the Office, did the layout change? Who is sitting now in his old place, was the Happy Irish still in business, etc., etc. John couldn’t help but notice that the last question he asked was: “How is Vickie doing?”  He cracked a large smile realizing that Vic had a little thing going for Vickie. He answered very diplomatically mentioning all the professional qualities Vickie had, avoiding (of course) mentioning to his interlocutor that she annoys him at the utmost level.

The train was already pulled into Pudong Station and the doors were opened for the passengers. After making themselves comfortable, Vic started exposing his welcome plans to John. Prior to today’s meet and greet scenario, he had few conference calls with Scott and J.J. and everything was ironed out in order for John to feel at home, to feel like he had been taken care of, to give him the chance to only focus on his task. Vic checked numerous hotels close to the Office. The prices were into the high range (of course) and the suites were at a range that would’ve not been justifiable over the long run. However, for the first thirty days, Vic found a suite at the Penthouse level at one of the iconic Hotels in Downtown Shanghai.

-OK. We have few minutes to talk about your stay here. The trip as you can see is done by a Maglev train. It is very fast, reaching over 250 miles per hour. It will only take us eight minutes to reach Downtown Shanghai. I rented a suite into a nice hotel for you. You will like it, for sure.

-What is Maglev? I am not familiar with the term.

-Magnetic levitation…basically the train is “airborne” if I can say that and it levitates following a track where magnetized coils are placed and thus repelling the magnets mounted underneath the train. This makes the train to levitate. To say it plainly, the technology replaces the wheels of the train which now are replaced by electromagnets.

-Interesting. Thanks for the educational scientific report! Both Vic and John cracked a laughter, at which point the train started moving. In less than two minutes, the train reached top speed of 264 MPH as the TV mounted on the back of the seats in front of them showed.

-Unbelievable! We are traveling at over two fifty an hour!

-Yeap! In eight minutes we will reach our destination. By Taxi would’ve taken us over an hour. But the investment is worth it. I can’t imagine myself sitting in traffic conditions in a car for over an hour.

-Wow! Looks like somebody is thinking big in this city.

-For sure. You will find out by yourself. We could also learn from the Chinese as they learn from us the know-how related to technology and business. They have an acute talent of absorbing new information and applying it to their needs. It is a very pragmatic culture. Now…I am not sure where you stand regarding jet legging. Are you tired? Do you feel like you need to go to sleep? It is almost six already and if you give in and take a two-tree hour nap, at night time you will look at the walls trying to fall asleep.

-I think I am good. I do feel a little tired but I think I can resist the temptation. What do you have in mind for the rest of the day?

-Well, I will let you settle in first: unpack, shower, and organize your work space. Then I will pick you up and take you out for a nice dinner. It will be Chinese food -this is just to let you know that western food is not accepted tonight! They both laughed again. The train was zooming through the city residential area and the buildings were passing by at speeds that would make one get dizziness.

-Alright, now we are getting off at the Metro Station and will take a Taxi to the Hotel.  John was blindly following Vic and realized how important it was for him that Scott and J.J. organized his arrival by involving Vic. The car was so small in comparison to he was used to drive back in America! Vic saw his reaction and started laughing: it’s a little different from your muscle car, isn’t it? John joined in in laughing.

-Yes, it is a little different indeed.

-Are you still driving that gorgeous 500 HP classic?

-Yes, I am still driving it. Wouldn’t change it for the world.

-Perfectly understandable! I wouldn’t trade something like that for anything else out there. You will have to get used though with these standards. Once you will get to know the city, you can rent your own car if you want.

-I hope I can get out of here before I would get to know the city well! John’s voice was confident and somehow he expected a positive, affirmative reaction from his colleague. It didn’t come. Vic simulated that he was watching something interesting on the sidewalk, but John’s remarkable face reading skills alongside with his feel for any sort of adverse or dangerous situation, made him stop short of another statement regarding his plans. A cold sweat was now running along his spine…”is he in bed with Tony Wang and whoever else”? Nervousness made him bring his eye browses together, signaling discomfort and a need to play safe, to get back into the “pocket” until he figured out what’s going on.

-Alright! We’ve arrived. Let’s go check you in. The bus boy took John’s luggage while they walked towards the Entrance. John’s fine tastes and trained eye for quality interiors couldn’t help but notice the elegance of the Reception area. It was absolutely spectacular: live plants and trees all over, rugs of real quality, plenty of greeting staff, lounges and furniture of hard wood and real leather were decorating the whole area. In few minutes, Vic (speaking in a good Mandarin – one could say) finished the checking in procedure and together with John headed for the elevator. The Penthouse suite was stunning!

An apartment with a living room, a bedroom, kitchen and an Office! Same quality furniture was part of their amnesties. The Office table and the chair were real cherry wood, the table was hand carved while the chair was a beautiful imitation of a Rococo type of chair. John moved his hand over the back frame and the arms of the chair, almost like petting a cute cat or dog. “Yes, it is hand carved indeed”. The small, fine irregularities into the wood betrayed the chair as being manually sculptured while the amount of detailing showed a willingness for a top quality product. One of the bedroom’s walls was entirely made out of glass, so from the bathtub one could watch TV. The living room was large and could entertain many guests. It was almost like it was designed for partying. The large screen TV, the sofas and a couple of tables with chairs were part of the overall room arrangement while a very large and beautifully and lively colored wool carpet gave the penthouse an even more sense of openness and spaciousness. The kitchen was designed with an open concept mind set, with an isle in the middle, dining area and was fully equipped with the best kitchen cookware possible. John cracked a large smile as he felt right away at home. He already pictured himself preparing some orange coated sweet and sour chicken with noodles or a Teriyaki beef with noodles or Linguine.

The view from both Office, Living room and Dining room was stunning. The whole busy business district of Lujiazui was stretching in front of the viewer giving him a sense of unrest, a sense of fast paced life, a sense of “everybody on his own”. But at the same time, the smooth waters of Huangpu River were bringing the viewer a sense of steadiness and stillness, a sense of calmness and tranquility. The apartment, the amnesties and the view were spectacular!

-So, John…I booked this apartment for you for thirty days. If you feel comfortable here, we will extend the contract. If you want more privacy, I can go out there and look for houses for rent. There are many options available in high class residential areas where the owners – either because they are mostly out of the country or because they just keep the houses as investment opportunity – rent out their properties. I have seen gorgeous properties in gated areas, where the houses are built in traditional Chinese style – bungalow type – and the landscaping they have is absolutely gorgeous. There are little man made lakes and almost all year round there are blossomed water lilies and other water plants you can watch while trying to gather your thoughts. You can do your jogging, they have gyms and even small authentic family restaurants.

-Vic, I don’t want to put a dent into Glenworth’s pocket. I really don’t need all these facilities. A decent hotel room where I can make phone calls from, where I can have a good Internet speed and where I can comfortably rest it’s all I want.

-Unfortunately it’s not up to you, John! J.J. demanded that you should have everything you need to feel like home, in America. He burst into laughter. John looked Vic into the eyes and pulled a large smile thus showing that he is ok with whatever Vic is arranging accommodation wise. However, in the back of his mind he was still trying to process the look on Vic’s face when he told him that in a months he expects to head back home. “Now, instead of getting started with my investigation, I have to make sure that he is on my side and not sleeping with the enemy! Damn! Not the start I wanted and expected”.

-Let me show you how you make phone calls from your Office…we have a land line which will be paid by us of course, line you can use to make phone calls anywhere in the world. No time limit, no specific hours to make the calls, no restrictions. You can call your wife as many times you want. And here it is your cell phone for China. I activated it, you don’t have to worry about SIM card, activation, etc. If you want, you can change your voice mail. I suggest you do that when you have a free moment. Here, it shows personality and character as if you just have a general robot answer, shows carelessness and apathy. By the way, don’t forget to change your password on your voice mail…it is 123 for now. This is about it…do you have any questions for me? What do you think about your place?

-Vic, you did an amazing job and I want to thank you for this. I think I am good. I will take a shower, call my wife and unpack as much as I can.

-Very well, John. It is almost 6.30 pm; how about I pick you up at eight o’clock and then we’ll head to a nice decent restaurant for dinner?

-Excellent. I will be down at the reception at 8 pm.

-Fantastic! I will see later, John. Vic turned around and headed for the door. The same time as he was opening the door, the bell boy showed up with the large luggage. Vic tipped him and both of them headed out.

 

Chapter 20

Zhaohui

John dragged the luggage into the bedroom and opened it up. He realized that he will need lots of time to unpack everything, so he just pulled a pair of blue jeans, another pair of shoes, and a short sleeve T-shirt. The weather was gorgeous – still into the low twenties which made John smile as he was ready once again to wear a short sleeved T-shirt. Shortly he hit the bathroom with the idea of soaking into some hot water into the tub, but the numerous hours of flight took a toll on him and he started feeling tired. He realized that a bath instead of a short shower would be a killer, it would send him straight to the bed. He decided to resist temptation and follow Vic’s advice. Dropped his cloths and got into the shower. He set the water temperature to just warm, so the sensation of tiredness would go away. It took two or three minutes to get accustomed to the lower water temperature. But it felt really good and now he was feeling perfectly sharp, awake and ready for the remaining activities of the day as agreed with Vic. He went even a step further and completely turned the hot water off. The cold water flush made him yell, but it did the trick: he was now completely awake without any sign of tiredness bothering him anymore. John wrapped a towel around his waist and got out of the bathroom only to get right back in with his shaving set. The normal routine followed and shortly he was all done with the bathroom activity. While dressing to go out for dinner, his mind was working…the new hypothesis that was already bothering him, wouldn’t leave him alone. “What if…” the question which felt like was now almost glued to his brain was popping up all the time. He quickly dressed and moved into the living room. The view over the Business District was spectacular indeed. John only spent a couple of minutes to admire the scenery. He reached for the wallet, grabbed the cell phone and the room card and headed out in spite of the fact that was still early. He decided to take a short walk around the hotel’s neighborhood so he can talk to himself. Many times before, when he found himself in situations where he didn’t feel perfectly safe or didn’t have the proper answers, he used to take long walks or jog. Now he had half an hour to kill before Vic would show up. Once at the Reception and out of the building, he picked up a side street and merged into the crowd. And it was crowded indeed. His stature allowed him to be with at least a couple of inches above everybody, so he used this advantage to scrutinize the surroundings. The busy and the vibrant life in the Lujiazui District was bringing back memories from back home, memories of the crowded Downtown at peak hours and not only then. But there was no match whatsoever to the amount of people on the street, here in this particular area of the city. There were so many people on the sidewalks, like a tide that was slowly invading the shores. At the green light, everybody was setting into the motion walking to and from a direction. The street was jam packed with cars; this also brought back memories from back home. “Looks like these guys have their traffic issues too”. John tried to memorize the names of the streets as well as the directions he went from the hotel. It was not hard, as the town had its streets built similar to North American streets: like a chess table. When John realized how easy it was to navigate through the city, his face became as expressive and his facial expression as bright and colorful as a well-polished sapphire. He stopped by one of the kiosks which were promoting the city to tourists by offering maps and flyers. Grabbed a map and immediately identified the hotel and the surroundings. He saw on the map some of the streets he passed by and this gave him confidence. “It is actually pretty easy to get around in this area!” This statement came out of John’s mouth pretty loud while he was lowering the map.

-I am sorry, Sir? Would you like some directions? Where do you want to go?

John was in a state of shock! He just realized that his out loud statement was actually addressed to somebody who was passing by…and there were a lot of people doing that! In front of him, two girls stopped by to answer John’s “question”. First shocking image (to John) was that one of the girls was holding other’s arm. “Are you kidding me? Did I just talk to a pair of lesbians?” John felt like a cold sweat was running down his spine…he was so embarrassed by the situation that he really dropped his head in a sign of asking for forgiveness. But the girl who spoke to him, burst into laughter and made him understand that there is no issue whatsoever.

-We just want to help, Sir! We heard you say: “to get around in this area” and realize that you are foreigner and you need help.

– I am so sorry for this! Actually I was kind of congratulating myself when realizing that it is not that hard to navigate through the city. I did not even realize that I was talking to somebody! My apologies again.

-Oh, you no worry. Shanghai is large city but no hard to get around.

-This is what I thought! I looked at the map and it’s like I am almost back home to America.

-You, American?

-Yes, I am.

-My boyfriend study in America. He do his Master in Business.

-Aha, OK. He is doing his Master in US. At which University?

-In California.

-OK. Well, I am glad I met you two…my name is John Parker.

-I am Chu Hua and this is my friend Yue Ying. John stretched his hand and shook her hand. Before doing the same for Yue Ying, the most beautiful and melodious voice he has ever heard, greeted him:

-Nice meet you, John. She looked straight into his eyes and pronounced again her name: Yue Ying is my name.

John was stunned. He didn’t know how to react. A “nice to meet you” came out of his mouth while his face turned red from emotions.

-Her name is: Yue Ying; she only speak little English.

John understood right away that Chu Hua was in charge of conversation as she had a pretty good command of English, thus speaking for her friend too. Dropping the map and gathering his thoughts, John was still holding Yue Ying’s hand. The face of the girl lit-up like a Christmas tree and John realized that the beautiful big nicely slandered black eyes were complimenting a gorgeous smile which in turn was creating two pinkish hues into her cheeks. The scene was something John was not prepared for and this was the reason why he didn’t know how to react. Her hand was still locked into his palm and for some reason he didn’t want to let go. He was virtually still hypnotized by the fire power that was coming out of those two wonderfully shaped almond eyes which were releasing a mystic but in the same time a peaceful and relaxing energy, eyes which were capable of saying stories from the past – equally of chivalry and rightness or stories of conquest and brutal murder. Her long, black hair was freely flowing on the shoulders giving the interlocutor the image of a warrior in search for justice and peace.

John nodded in an affirmative way. This was all he could pull out of his communication panel giving the circumstances. His eye sight was still captured by the gorgeous black eyes which were still looking at him, eyes which were trying to pierce two holes through his armor.

Chu Hua realized the awkwardness of the situation and grabbed her friend’s arm once again. It was a sign that they should go now.

John released the hand he was holding hostage for half a minute now, not knowing what to say anymore.

-We should go now, John.

-It was nice meeting you two.

-Good bye, John! We hope to see you again some other time. They both turned towards the direction they were initially heading and made a farewell sign to John. All he could do was the same: waive a good bye sign with his right hand. For few seconds John felt lost. He was still trying to process what just happened. Out of nowhere he met two girls, one of them offering to help with directions while the other one made him feel like a high school boy standing in front of a beautiful girl ready to talk to him. He shook his head in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous! What am I? A teenager getting all excited when girls are willing to crack a word with me?” He felt mad at himself and nervously turned around and headed back for the hotel. All the way back, he dissected the event without paying attention to the surroundings anymore. He remembered all of a sudden that he was supposed to meet Vic at 8 pm in the Lobby. He looked at his wrist watch and realized that was already late by twenty minutes. He tried to increase the pace of his walk but finally he understood that he could only walk as fast as the crowd was doing it. There was no chance to pass by people, to speed up. The walkways were jam packed. When he made it to the hotel, Vic was already into a panic mode.

-For goodness sake, John! Where have you been? I was very close of calling Police!

-Call the cops for what?

-What do you mean? I went up to your apartment, you were not there. Then somebody from Reception told me that you went out. You got me worried sick, man!

-Oh, don’t worry my friend…I just took a walk in the neighborhood. I wanted to get myself accustomed to the surroundings. I got caught into the rush hour traffic.

-You have my cell number. Why didn’t you call me?

-Well…I didn’t realize how fast the time passed by. Sorry, man!

-You scared the hell out of me!

-Don’t worry, my friend. I’m a big boy. John burst into a big and healthy laughter. But this time Vic didn’t join in. Common, Vic! I can take care of myself.

– I believe that you can take care of yourself, John. I truly believe that. But you just landed into a city you’ve never been before and you don’t know that there are certain areas where you cannot go by yourself.

-I understand, but I just wondered around the block for a while. Don’t tell me that you booked for me a hotel in a bad area! Vic couldn’t argue with John’s argument, but the fact that he ventured out without letting him know, was almost like a bad joke.

-Common, Vic! I promise to be a good boy from now on!

-Damn you, John! You know that I can’t be mad at you! Both men started laughing and a friendly poke into John’s shoulder put an end to the situation.

-OK. I am hungry. Where is that restaurant you were bragging about?

-Before we go there, I want you to meet somebody.

-You want me to meet…who?

-Just a moment. Vic slowly headed for one of the lounges. He grabbed from behind the seat someone’s shoulders and murmured few words into the person’s ear. John was completely mesmerized when a woman stood up and together with Vic was now heading towards his direction.

-John, please allow me to introduce Zhaohui to you. She is my fiancée.

John wouldn’t have been so perplex and shocked even if the sky was about to fall upon him. For the second time in a matter of probably twenty minutes he was speechless. The surprise was total, was huge and was something he couldn’t quite comprehend. He pulled the introductory phrase: “Nice to meet you, Zhaohui. I am John Parker” with a weak and trembling voice, showing this way that the level of emotions in his head reached a peak he thought he would never achieve.

-Mr. Parker, Vic told me a lot about yourself. It is my pleasure to finally meet you.

-Please call me John, Zhaohui; between friends there is no Mister. John put a smile on his face, even if was already feeling that he wouldn’t be able to disguise the difficulty he found himself into, for too long.

-As you wish, John. I hope that your stay in China will be fruitful and you will return home to your family as soon as possible.

-This is my hope too, Zhaohui.

-OK guys! Let’s head out. I am as hungry as a wolf in spring time. Vic pulled a laughter while John tried to accompany him. “Who is this woman? Nobody said anything about her back home. It looks like Vic already briefed her up on my assignment. Do I have to worry about another piece into the puzzle?” These questions annoyed him and all of a sudden he felt like all the odds are against him. The man who thought he was always in control, who thought that he would be able to always manage his state of mind, was now shaky and emotional, uncertain and untrusty on the next move he was going to make, but most of all, he was untrusty on the next decision he was going to make. This was immensely bothering John as he was now struggling to understand whom he can trust.

All three of the headed for the exit. A taxi was waiting for them. In less than ten minutes, they arrived at the restaurant. Vic paid the driver and confidently walked into the restaurant. It was not an upscale place, but it was decorated with lots of taste: traditional Chinese handmade art was hanging on the walls while the atmosphere was a family type, with tables for large gatherings or with tables separated by everybody else through “walls” of reed wicker. While having a sit, John couldn’t help but notice that Vic’s fiancée was a woman into her late thirties maybe early forties, with a typical long flowing black hair and beautiful almond eyes. The lips were thin and the skin white. No sign of wrinkles whatsoever, which made John debate in his mind the age of the woman. She was quite tall, not the typical short Chinese female. Her body was perfectly shaped: slim, narrow waist, long legs which were betrayed even more by the tight blue jeans she put on and also by the high heels she was wearing. The eyes were bright and investigative (in spite of their black color), leaving one with the feeling that she was trying to find as much information as possible about the interlocutor at every eye contact. The rules of the game were changing by the moment and John realized that he had to use all the tricks in the bag, all his life experience to pull this assignment through. “Why is he introducing me to his fiancée? Is this a custom? Is this another way of saying: I have my life here, I will help you as much as I can but don’t rely on me too much?” Lots of other questions popped up into his head and the first encounter with Shanghai was far from what he expected, far from what he envisioned and what he was prepared for.

The waiter came to their table and brought the Menu. He simulated that he was focused on what he would like for dinner, but his mind was somewhere else: the street episode when he met Ying Yue and now the fact that the puzzle was getting more and more complex by adding new players, made him retreat into defense and expectation. For few minutes nobody said a word and the quietness was becoming embarrassing to everybody at the table. John didn’t really know what to do. Back home he would’ve cracked a joke, would’ve brought a sports or a political scenario into the discussion. But at the moment, he simply couldn’t find anything. It was like his brain froze and was incapable to come up with anything. This was obviously due to the fact that he had so many questions in his mind: Vic’s reaction in the taxi, the presence of a woman he was seeing for the first time – and presented as Vic’s fiancée – and maybe the whole new environment which didn’t really seem like being close to anything from back home.

Finally, (to both Vic’s and John’s satisfaction), Zhaohui looked at John and with a waggish tone asked him:

-John, back home in America, when you go to a Chinese restaurant, what do you order? I expect you order Chinese food, right?

-Of course!

-Well, I guess in China we just have to order food, don’t we?

Both John and Vic dropped their Menus and a huge laughter came out of their chests. John was holding his head into his palms while the whole body was shaking like a leaf into the wind. Tears were coming out of his eyes. Vic was in the same state of mind, as his tall and (now slim) body was following the same ritual.

-I have to admit that I never looked at this little detail like this!

-Me neither! Vic’s voice was betraying a sense of accomplishment, a sense of proudness as his fiancée managed to break the ice and say a joke that made both him and John laugh like in the old days, back home.

-This is a good one and with your permission Zhaohui I will be using when I will have a chance.

-I did not patent it yet, but sure, you can go ahead and use it, John!

Another round of laughter broke out and from that moment a friendly and inviting environment settled at the dinner table. All his worries were gone for the moment, Vic’s face was radiant while Zhaohui’s eyes were showing joy and happiness, emotions which John initially did not think she was in mood of showing.

-Have you decided? The waiter was standing by the table with his note book in his hand.

-No, we have not decided yet. But how about we get started with some appetizers first? Both John and Vic nodded affirmatively. While Zhaohui was ordering, John looked at the drinks Menu and softly asked Vic what he wants. He raised his shoulders in a sign that anything will do it. After ordering the appetizers, Vic’s fiancée calmly asked John:

-What would you like for a drink, John?

-I guess we can have a beer or a shot of something strong…either one…I really don’t mind either one.

Zhaohui placed the order and for the next ten minutes small talk was part of the discussion: weather, the Olympics, world affairs, Education system in China and US and the prospects of the Economy, now that it reached global dimension.

– Zhaohui let me ask you a question if I may…

-Go ahead, John. You can ask as many questions as you want.

-How come you speak such a good English? Did you study in US?

-Let me answer your question, John: first of all, thank you for your compliment.

-You are welcome Zhaohui, I was just stating the obvious.

She nodded with an appreciative gesture and explained that she was teaching Chinese to the English speaking foreigners who were coming to Shanghai for business or to settle in the town for good. Now things were coming together for John…so, Vic took a Chinese course to learn the language and this is how he met Zhaohui. He stopped short from smiling as he earlier noticed that Vic’s fiancée had a keen sense for reading people, as her eyes were as sharp and investigative as a detective’s eyes.

-I see. It makes sense now. Congratulations once again.

-Thanks, John.

The waiter showed up with three beers. To John’s disappointment, he didn’t see the specific condensation on the bottles. He grabbed one and held it into his hand. His supposition was confirmed. The beers were not kept into the fridge. Vic realized John’s dilemma and told the waiter to bring another one from the fridge. To John’s wonder, Vic accepted his beer like that.

-Cheers guys and thank you for taking me out for dinner.

-Cheers John and let’s hope we can do this as often as we can.

-Cheers, John! Welcome to China and good luck with your assignment.

-Thanks again you two guys!

The appetizers showed up and the smell of the food made the three of them only concentrate on the goodies in front of them.

Zhaohui started describing each appetizer and how are they made. John realized that she was doing the cooking, as her knowledge of mixing ingredients was far above someone’s who only cooks occasionally. The spring rolls looked fantastic: the light goldish color, the greens from inside the roll contrasting with the few drops of raspberry sauce “thrown” on the top, showed that the presentation on the plate was at least as important to the Chef as it was to deliver good, tasty food. Also, the coconut breaded large shrimp and the spare baby ribs made in Teriyaki sauce looked at least as inviting as the rolls. Overall, the good looking platter of appetizers sitting on the table completely broke the ice between them and a joyful and sincere atmosphere was the set mood for the rest of the night. Again, small talk and chit chatting kicked in, only to be momentarily interrupted by the main course: Peking duck, steamed vegetable with a bit of Teriyaki sauce on top of them and Himalayan rice with cashews and dried fruits. The food looked stunning indeed and the three patrons sitting at the table felt like the feast in front of them was perfectly complementing the good atmosphere which was surrounding the table. For dessert, the mango pudding was “out of this world”, as John exclaimed! Both Vic and Zhaohui started laughing and by the end of the evening all three patrons had the feeling that the event was extremely pleasant, relaxing and represented a good start of a great collaboration and maybe a great friendship.

It was already 11 o’clock when the taxi pulled in front of the hotel. Both Vic and Zhaohui got off the car, shook John’s hand and wished him good night.

-John, what time do you think you can be up tomorrow? How about I come over and pick you up after you call me?

-Sure, let’s do this. I really don’t know how my body will react. I managed to stay up, so I don’t think it will be a problem to wake up at 6-6.30 tomorrow morning.

-OK, have a good night John!

-You too, guys!

-Have a good night John and again, it was really nice to finally meet you.

-Likewise, Zhaohui. It was my pleasure to meet you. Good night!

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 17

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 17

Last day in America

The alarm clock went off at the regular set hour. This time, John didn’t waste much time with his morning routine. He wanted to get into the Office as soon as possible. Shower, dress up, coffee and set off for work.

When he made it down stairs, his wife was still sleeping. In spite of all the precautions he took, Linda woke up and greeted him with a “morning sunshine” which made him smile and take a knee by the couch: “morning honey, how did you sleep?”

Linda grabbed him into her arms and kissed him softly.

-Go upstairs and sleep. I am heading to work early today”. Linda slowly grabbed her pillow and while heading for the Master bedroom, waived at him wishing a good day.

-Call me and let me know how your day is going.

-I sure will.

Once she made it upstairs, John got into his usual routine: coffee, TV news, morning newspaper. Only this time everything was on a sort of fast forward. He badly wanted to get into the office and have a head start for the day. This week was going to be something special, something he never faced before. It was supposed to be a week of preparation for the trip, a week of home work and number crunching.

It was still early into the day when he stormed out of the garage. The engine of his muscle car roamed like a lion in the savannah while the tires left burnt rubber marks on the drive way and on the street. Shortly he was on the Freeway and the joy of handling the stick of the manual transmission coupled with the fact that the traffic was almost in-existent due to the early hour, made John deeply inhale the fresh air of the early fall. He just couldn’t wait to get into the Office. His foot stepped on the gas pedal giving the engine the chance to show what it’s got. In no time the engine was all revved up to 7000 RPM and while switching into the fifth gear, he had the feeling that was slowly diving into the seat. In few seconds the car disappeared into the darkness. Only the noise of the mighty many horse power engine was now the witness of a man desperately trying to make it into the Office before everybody else does, before the traffic will get all jammed up, before the dawn of a new day will lit up the city once again.

Soon, John saw the sky scrapers of the Downtown and carefully slowed down moving to the right. He decided to cut the Downtown across and use the same city streets to make it to the Office. It was all clear and shortly he made that right turn where on Friday he got stuck. He cracked a large smile and couldn’t help but looking around to see if Leo was around. “Leo, Leo, Leo! Is it too cold? What happened?”

Leo was too smart to waste time freezing outside when there was no need to be out there. He was inside of the Reception area, trying to crack a tip from wherever was possible. However, he was all eyes on the street as well. He was now known by the two top persons at Glenworth Financials. He was making a good living from parking cars, but his latest achievement was something he wouldn’t give up for the world. His nose already smelled fat tips to come and in his mind he was already counting nice, crisp twenty dollar bills from J.J. and Scott. Not to mention that John was still on the hook. His face was all smiles revealing two rows of superb white teeth when he saw John making the right turn on the street where John’s Office was as well as the Hotel he was working for.

All of a sudden, he literally jumped over a couch at the Reception area and in less than two seconds he was out. Unfortunately for him, the street was empty and he could only see the vapors coming out of the exhaustion pipe, in a sign that John stepped on the gas pedal towards the Office and eventually pulling into the underground parking. “Why is he showing up for work so early? Something must have happened. I gotta’ find out”. Leo was one of those street smarts who knew how to make a fat tip from anything. But mostly, he had a superior intelligence comparing to his fellow bellboys. Quickly he crossed the street and while bundling up, started running towards the Office Building where Glenworth Financials was based. The Security Guard was one of his team mates in High School Football Team. Leo played as a wide receiver, while Kubwa played offensive line. Yes, Kubwa was a big man indeed. At his 6 foot 8 and 290 pounds, he was physically dominating the whole Reception area. In spite of his stature, he was a kind and always happy individual. Same like Leo, he possessed two rows of white impeccable teeth, always showing up due to his large and warm smile. The moment one would meet this giant, was immediately getting an uneasiness feeling due to his massiveness. But the next second, that feel was gone instantaneously, chased away by the most beautiful and sincere smile one could put up on his face.

-My man Kubwa! ‘Sup, bro? Long time no see. Where you hiding bro’? I missed you. Remember our good times…

-Good Lord, not again! The smile on his face was instantaneously gone when hearing Leo’s voice. What do you want Leo?

-What’s happening brother? This is how you greet your old buddy, your old team mate who looked after you on the field…

-You did what? You couldn’t look after yourself, let alone taking care of somebody else.

-Now this hurts and you know that, big K!

-You are full of crap, as usual! Again, what do you want? Make it quick and get out of here. Soon people will start showing up in the building and I have to keep my eyes on the area.

-OK. I can see that today you are not in a good mood. Maybe you didn’t get any honey during the weekend? Leo burst into a big laughter trying to get his interlocutor at ease and squeeze some information from him. However, his remark didn’t sit well with Kubwa. He stood up and with an agility hard to imagine that such a massive person would possess, jumped over the counter and landed right in front of Leo.

-Ma’ man, ma’ man! Take it easy now! Leo’s feet were already floating in the air, trying to reach the ground. Kubwa literally lifted Leo up from the ground; there was no more smile on his face, just a willingness to toss Leo through the Reception windows into the street.

-Common’ man…Put me down. Put me down, man! I was joking! I am sorry, man!

Once Leo felt the ground under his feet, he started straightening up his bellboy uniform in a sign of deep disturbance; didn’t expect this reaction from his old team mate.

-I have to say that I am disappointed, ma’ man, my big K, my inspiration on the field…

-Cut it off, Leo! I am your inspiration now? I thought that you took care of me on the field.

-I was just messing with you, bro’; just messing. Another big laughter came out of Leo’s chest, while his eyes were keeping close contact with Kubwa’s. Leo realized that he screwed up and now his brain was working on a recovery plan on the fly. He didn’t expect this sort of reaction from him. “Something happened at home. Why the hell did I say what I said?”

-Listen, I am sorry for what I said, OK?

-OK, apologies accepted. Now get out of here! This area is going to get crowded and I don’t have time for your bull.

-Ma’ man, ma man…brother, I will go. But I need to ask you a favor first.

-What is that?

-Earlier, I saw Mr. Parker from Glenworth driving in. He never comes to work this early into the day. Did you have a chance to exchange some words with him, did you take a look at his face, how was he?

-I have not seen Mr. Parker today.

-What do you mean you didn’t see him? I saw him driving up this way right before I showed up here.

-The elevators are running all the way down to last Parking level. Are you aware of this?

Leo’s face turned into an embarrassed man face. “Right. Of course there are elevators which people can take from Parking to Penthouse. Damn it! Just made a fool of myself” Leo wouldn’t admit such an embarrassment, so he came up with an emergency response which brought a little smile on Kubwa’s face.

-Of course I am aware, ma’ man! Of course I am aware. But I heard that Maintenance crews are doing some repairing.

-I never heard of such thing.

-I am well informed, ma’ man; well informed.

-Whatever, man…now get out of here. I need to write my report.

-Alright brother! Always good to see you, said Leo while simulating leaving the Reception area. Kubwa was already back on his seat, beginning his report on a night shift which seemed like would never end.

Leo was now in a pickle. He got no intelligence whatsoever on what’s going on at Glenworth and his old team mate didn’t seem like wanted to cooperate. He had to come up with something quick.

-Oh, my brother!

-What now?

-Listen, do you know what time is Mr. Glenworth showing up for work?

-Why do you care?

This was Leo’s chance to dig in and find more intelligence.

-Because he specifically asked me to park his car when the street is busy.

Kubwa’s massive body was shaking like a leaf from laughter while his eyes where watering from tears.

-Mr. Glenworth is trusting you to park his million dollar car? Ha, ha, ha! Good joke, man! Good joke!

Leo’s eyes opened wider than a raccoon’s eyes caught into the head lights.

“He is driving a million dollar car! Bingo! If I can take that car into the hood…I can pick up as many girls as I want!” The plan was now sketched up. He was going to keep his eyes on the road for as long as needed, hoping that J.J. would show up late for work and get into a traffic jam on the street.

-Alright brother! I am going now. It was great seeing you, big guy. I will drop by and say hello from time to time.

-Don’t bother!

-You are crushing my heart, bro’! With a talent for acting hard to imagine at a bellboy, Leo simulated a person crying out over a huge loss. His theatrical performance made his ex-teammate gnash his teeth in a sign of deep distress.

-Don’t make me jump over this counter again, Leo!

-Alright! Alright! Alright big guy, I’m gone. Still…

Leo didn’t finish the phrase. His eye, as sharp as a hawk’s eye, sensed a move from Kubwa. This time he did not want to experiment another levitating exercise and in a rush he was out through the door.

For him, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t find out what’s going on at Glenworth, was not a defeat. He found out that J.J. was driving a very expensive car. This information, coupled with what Glenworth told John on Friday: “look at the big picture…so what if he took your car for a spin?” made him consider the little trip to the Office Building a success. Again he was picturing himself into a very expensive, exotic car driving through the hood, picking up girls and slowly making it through the Downtown, where everybody could see him. He was even imagining people on the sidewalks taking pictures of him, talking among themselves: “it must be a NFL or NBA star”. This very image made him crack one of those beautiful smiles of his.

It took him another two minutes to reach his observation post at the Reception’s window where he took a seat by the window and started monitoring every car that was driving up the street. His patience had no limits, because his superior intelligence taught him that this is a “must have” in this business. Same like a predator in the Serengeti, he took cover – so he wouldn’t be seen by the Receptionist. At this point, he had a bigger fish to fry…he couldn’t care anymore about the tips he was going to make by hauling customers’ luggage to the rooms. His whole attention, concentration and energy were now focused on the street in front of him.

Lights in the Office were turned on when John arrived. Cleaning crew was wrapping up and was ready to leave.

-Morning Mr. Parker, how are you? It was one of the cleaning guys John knew well due to so many late night work days.

-Morning Samuel! I am doing very well, how about yourself?

-Thank you very much, I am doing fantastic! I am ready to walk out and call it a day.

-How come you guys are doing mornings and not evenings?

-We had some personnel changes in our crew and we changed Sunday nights with early Monday mornings.

-Aha…oh well, I hope you have a good day Sam.

-You too Mr. Parker! By the way…did you watch that game last night?

-Which one? The one where the coach made that crazy decision?

-Yeah, that one! How crazy was it? Sam’s eyes opened up like a raccoon’s eyes in the headlights. One could see that the man was not only enjoying watching football, he was living it and he was all in when it came down to America’s game.

For the next five minutes, the janitor explained every single tactical move of the play. It was like hearing the commentators again. John was listening in a sign of politeness for his interlocutor, but he really wanted to get as soon as possible into his office and get back to those statistics that were causing so much grief now at Glenworth. He made a move in shifting his weight from one leg to another one. It was enough for Sam to realize that John had to go.

-Oh, I am so sorry Mr. Parker! I kept on rambling and you are busy, you have work to do.

-That’s OK, Sam. I always enjoy talking football, you know me.

-Mr. Parker…you were the star of the town once. The whole town was talking for weeks about that throw you made for the win.

-Long time ago, Sam…long time ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, though. I am not sure why.

-Because we humans are subjective by nature Mr. Parker, and we always filter our memories by the ones we like to keep, not by the ones we would like to toss. John looked completely mesmerized at the janitor standing in front of him. There was so much kindness in that big smile of his, yet so much wisdom in his words.

-You have a good day now, Mr. Parker. It’s time for me to go home and get some rest.

-Enjoy your day, Sam. It was a great pleasure chatting with you.

-Thank you Mr. Parker. We’ll catch up some other time for sure. Sam waived, turned around and headed slowly for the Exit while singing “What a wonderful world”.

John smiled and while walking towards his office, he let go a loud exclamation: “What a nice gentleman and what a great person, too!”

The office was dark, as the day was still very young. He turned the light on and in a heartbeat his workstation was set for yet another stressful day ahead. Soon he dove again into the numbers in front of him and nothing on the earth was able to disturb him anymore. His immense capacity to focus in key situations was well known by everybody. However, now he just felt that all his efforts were going nowhere, his efforts were absorbed by a big black hole and directed somewhere in the Universe, to a place of no return and no retribution. He felt like a hamster who constantly is spinning its wheel but at the end of the day he just makes it back to the starting point, only to begin again the very next day.

A barely perceivable knock on the door’s frame made him raise his head. J.J. was standing in front of the opened door and his massive stature was almost blocking any sort of light which was trying to sneak from the main Office into John’s office.

-Good morning Mr. Glenworth! John jumped from his chair in an attempt to shake J.J.’s hand.

-No, please…sit down…John…common’. Too late. John already made it to the door and took his boss’s hand shaking it vigorously. A large smile flourished on J.J.’s face. He loved John like his own son, but what he admired the most at him, was his determination, his quick reaction, his willingness to put the efforts in and get the job done.

-Do you have ten minutes to talk to me right now, in my office if you don’t mind?

-Absolutely. Of course, Mr. Glenworth.

-Let’s have a chat over a cup of coffee.

The two men headed for the President’s Office. The door closed behind them. Coffee was slowly brewing and the smell simply embraced the whole room with an aroma of chocolate, toasted nuts, vanilla and almonds. John started wondering on what sort of coffee was his boss using. In his opinion, the smell was too aromatic, too many ingredients interacting with each other. In his mind he was already wondering if these were added ingredients to make up that final product named coffee beans or the beans themselves were bearing that rainbow of enticing smells. “I gotta’ ask at the end. J.J. is too classy of a man to add flavors to the beans. It’s gotta’ be the beans alone”

While John took a sit into one of the fine pieces of leather chairs at the little table beside J.J.’s desk, his boss prepared two cups of coffee and brought them to the table. The splendid porcelain in which he served the coffee took John’s eyes right away. The little plate, on which the cup was resting, was another piece of art which together with the cup, were offering a spectacle of taste and class. John’s trained ear picked up the fine crystalline noise the cup was making while touching the plate. “This is Bohemian porcelain for sure”. The little cubes of sugar came into another piece of porcelain, which was obviously part of the set. The amazing blue figurines bordered by golden ridges, were blending on the white background of the little cups so well, that even after the dark liquid was poured in and the reflections of the figurines were still playing games to the eye of the coffee drinker.

-Now let’s enjoy a good coffee and have a talk. Glenworth Sr. finally took his eyes off the table (as he wanted everything to be perfect) and looked at John. My Goodness! What happened to your eye?

John realized that in spite of the fact that the swelling in his eye was almost gone, some of the areas were still presenting signs of bruising and especially below the eye. Now he had to come up with a plan on what to tell his boss. Amazingly, he just couldn’t come up with anything. So, he decided to tell the truth.

-Mr. Glenworth…on Friday I took my wife to a movie.

-Oh…I so miss those Friday night movies! It was a time when Eileen and I wouldn’t skip a single week without going to the Theater. A short sigh came out of his chest while a cloud like smile flourished on his lips. I’m sorry John, please go ahead.

-No worries, Mr. Glenworth…so, we go to the Theater and watch a movie. On our way back, I missed the exit and this is where the whole thing started. John’s voice was calculated and at a low pitch. He didn’t want to miss conveying any detail from what happened to him on Friday night. Slowly, as the facts were revealed, J.J. became more and more attracted to listening to the story. He took a comfortable stance into the large leather chair and with his coffee cup in one hand and with the plate in the other hand, he was absorbing the information as it was uncovered by John. His face was now completely relaxed and his whole being was carefully listening to what John was saying. The moment of the encounter with the large buck on the road, made J.J. put his cup and plate on the table. One could see that he was already fascinated with the turn of the events and he was now watching John’s story with the eyes of his mind, fully engaged and prepared for what the next minute would bring out of John’s mouth. However, something strange showed up into his eyes when listening to this turn of events. John couldn’t help but notice that his boss’s eyes were throwing bolts of light and that his face changed from a relaxed and pleasant look into a grimace of anger and unrest when the stag episode came up. It was strange (to say the least), how his mood changed so drastically in such a short period of time.

It didn’t take John too long before getting to the tow truck driver encounter. Before he started uncovering the story, he grabbed the coffee cup, took a sip and closed his eyes. The coffee was indeed to die for. “It is for real! There are no flavors added to it! This is the bean itself! Goodness, what an aroma! Where is he buying it from?” John was a coffee expert and he knew that you cannot make a call on the quality of a coffee from the first sip you are taking. Consequently, he took another sip and this time held it in his mouth, making sure that the liquid will touch for few seconds the palate. His fine senses were enticed at the maximum. For another thirty seconds, he kept his eyes closed. A large smile appeared on J.J.’s face as he was watching this spectacle. He knew right away that John was a heavy weight when came down to knowing coffee. Slowly, John opened his eyes and exclaimed:

-What an aroma! This is heavenly! Can I ask you…where are you buying it from?

-The story first, Sir!

John burst into a laughter which made J.J. softly laugh as well. The ice was broken, if there was any, keeping in mind that this relationship was almost like a father/son type of relationship.

-Very well, Sir! Here it is…John’s voice caught a low pitch again and he continued from where he left off. Shortly he reached the tow truck episode and stopped for few seconds. He didn’t know if he wanted to say the full story or just portions of it. As he planned from the beginning, the full story came out. As he was revealing the facts, J.J.’s moved forward into the spacious chair and now was virtually sitting on the front edge. His fingers were grabbing the arms of the chair as tight as he was able to, while his eyes were looking John straight into his eyes.

-So, that bastard hit you and simply left! God, I wish I could cross path with him! His face was now turning red and his hands were squishing the soft portion of the chair arms with a force which showed the hands’ veins dilate until they looked like mini ropes.

-It’s not over…I recovered and I left. I badly needed gas. John continued the story with all the details he could remember while telling the story. The gas station action inevitably came up and here it is where John took a little break. Sensing that the story teller wanted to put order into the events which he was sharing with him, J.J. raised one hand in a sign of: “Time out” He poured another round of coffee into the little beautiful coffee cups, took a deep sip, placed the cup with the plate on the table and with a short nod of the head, made John understand that he was ready to listen to the rest. The story came out of John’s chest freely, naturally and uninterrupted, in a nice and flowing rhythm and cadence.

At the end, J.J. was looking at John in a complete admiring state of mind. The story captivated him, making him listen to it on the edge of his chair.

-So, you beat up that jerk!

-Actually I didn’t. He punched me and I choked him. Both men burst into a big, healthy laughter which made them take a comfortable seat into the large chairs. J.J.’s face had already turned red and tears of joy and happiness were flowing down his cheeks.

-John, John, John! You amaze me. I would pay big money to see you choking that jerk into a gas station with the Police trying to break you up.

-Well, actually it felt so good! Another round of laughing filled J.J.’s Office, making it as loud as it could’ve been heard from the Reception. A short and barely audible knock on the door reached J.J.’s ear.

-Come in! Come in!

It was Scott, who heard all the laughter from J.J.’s Office and was now trying to check it out and see what it was about. Keeping in mind that this early in the morning J.J. was always having his coffee and reading the news, it was highly unusual to hear this sort of noise coming out of there.

-Scott! How are you? Come in and have a seat. J.J. pulled another chair at the table and headed to the coffee machine. I will make another round of coffee. John, please tell your story again.

-Oh my God! What happened to your eye? Scott pointed at John’s black eye, while wiping his lenses.

-Hahaha! This is what I asked him when he stepped into my Office. Listen to the story. It is something to die for!

John found himself in the posture of saying again the same story. This time he just narrated it, without passion, without voice inflections, as he was already tired of it. By the time he was done, J.J. returned to the table with another round of coffee and took a sit; he was visibly well disposed after he heard the story again.

-John, you are remarkable. You picked up a fight with a tow truck driver…Scott was immediately interrupted.

-Scott, for Goodness sake, I didn’t pick that fight up!

-Yeah, I know. But it feels good to have your revenge…one way or another. You have to admit it, John.

-For sure. Only Linda believes that I behaved like a high school teenager.

-John, women have a more cautious way of approaching life challenges than us. We are still the slaves – up to a point of course – of the primary instinct: defend your family, defend your territory. Women will always avoid conflictual situations because they want security, because they want an environment in which they can become comfortable and confident. A fight will always bring animosity, no matter how minor the fight is. We are lucky we have them. Otherwise, human raise would’ve been long extinct by now. So…we have to tolerate them! John and Scott joined J.J. into another huge laughter. The massive bodies into the room were shuddering from laughing and nobody was sitting anymore. The coffee cups were in their hands, which made J.J. make a desperate sign: “watch for my Persian rugs, gentlemen!” John and Scott laid the cups on the table, simply to make sure they were not spilling the black liquid on their boss’s precious carpet. Overall, the atmosphere was set for a good business meeting, for a meeting that would shape eventually the fate of Glenworth Financials in the Far East.

-Gentlemen…we have made our decisions: we will tackle the problem we have abroad (on a territory we thought we knew, on a territory we wanted and we thought that it will be part of our culture) by sending John there. Unfortunately, things are developing way different than what we expected. This morning, I got even more bad news: another financial leak (hole) into the budget cannot be justified. It is an almost half million dollars leak which cannot be accounted for. We cannot keep losing money like this! If we don’t find a way to patch this hole, we will have to shut down that operation. It will be a pity, as we invested so much efforts and energy and money to open it up and make it functional. Yes, we made some money there, but it has got to a point at which we have to weigh our options: we either find out what the problem is, what is actually causing us so much grief, or we (as I said), will close it down. There is no other option in my mind. And I want you two guys to tell me now, in my face what you think, what you think about my strategy, what your opinion is, what is your take on this great problem we have on hand.

A deep silence followed J.J.’s speech…both John and Scott avoided looking into their boss’s eyes. Their bent heads, showed a state of helplessness, a state of hopelessness which made the big boss burst into a nervous reaction:

-I don’t need a loser attitude, gentlemen! I expect a fighter’s state of mind, I expect a team of “go getters”, I expect a “do or die” attitude! What’s happening here?

John raised his head and felt like he was already fired up by his boss’s words. His fighter’s abilities kicked in.  His numerous years of training into scorching temperatures, into rain, mud, snow and freezing weather, brought a warrior spirit right on the spot, which made him jump off of his chair. Without hesitation, he made a fist, in a sign that he was deeply disturbed by the situation.

-We’ll get to the bottom of this, Mr. Glenworth, we’ll get to the bottom of it. I promise you!

J.J’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He grabbed John by the shoulder and his massive body became one with John’s. It was a shocking move for John who didn’t know how to handle it, so he slowly raised his hands and hugged J.J. back. For three seconds, the two immense bodies were like one. Scott was mesmerized by the scene…he literally did not know how to react, so he just stood up and cleared his throat.

-Oh, sorry Scott.

-No problem Mr. Glenworth. I think we need to get into details. Our plan changed all of a sudden.

-Yes. John, please have a seat. Scott, please do so too. John, over the weekend, I and Scott met and put together a new strategy, according to the new challenges. We gotta’ stop the bleeding! We don’t know where this is coming from, that’s why we need you there as soon as possible.

-Yes, I know. Next Sunday I will be flying to Shanghai.

Both J.J. and Scott looked at each other and with a short and barely imperceptible nod of head, J.J. gave Scott the go ahead to break the news to John.

-John…latest business development and funds leaking, made us take a decision you may not like. John startled and looked right into Scott’s eyes with the look of a boxer warned of a technical mistake.

-I am not going to like it…like I am going to fly Economy? He forced a laughter out of his chest, but very soon he realized that neither J.J. nor Scott played along. Their faces were straight and cold, like the face of an executioner when looking at his victim. This brought a cold chill down John’s spine. He was now worried.

-John…J.J. grabbed John’s arm and looked him into the eyes. John, we need you to leave tonight.

John made an attempt to sit, but the strong grip of his boss held him straight. The eyes of the two men met again. John’s were inquiring, were asking for answers, for explanations on the changed plan.

-John, we believe that the earlier you are there, the better will be. We think that whoever is doing this is poised to drain the company and flee. What we don’t know, is when is this going to be done.

-But you just said that another half a million was drained.

-Fortunately, we managed to stop it. We put a filter few weeks ago on that particular place – where another two transfers were made previously – a Bank in Singapore.

-So, they know that they shouldn’t use that account anymore.

-Yes and this is why we want you there as soon as possible. It seems to us that their plan is to finish up, bank as much as possible and flee. However, now that we closed that Singapore venue, I am certain that they will come up with alternatives. I need you there, my son! I need you there, now!

John took a sit and grabbed his head. There were so many things going through his mind, so many questions he wanted to ask, yet no question came out of his mouth…

-John, please go home now and rest. Tonight you have your flight. It’s a long flight, so you should be rested. You will fly Business, of course, so it will make it a little easier on your body.

-I didn’t even pack…I have to tell my wife…it’s so sudden!

-John, I would’ve never done this to you, if I didn’t have to do it.

-Yeah…I know, J.J. – I know.

-Take whatever you need from the office and go home. The tickets are waiting for you at the Airport. Before you go, you have to sit with Scott. He arranged everything there. Vic will be your guy to go to. He was briefed up. He knows all the politics in that Office. He will be your greatest source of information and guidance there. Good luck my son! J.J.’s huge hand grabbed John’s hand and again, the two massive persons were joined by a hug of friendship and confidence, by a hug of respect and admiration for each other.

-Let’s go, John! Scott was already walking to the door. John followed him and the door closed behind them. It was a moment of immense loneliness for J.J. He walked to his desk and slowly pulled the chair to the window. Comfortably put his legs on top of each other and both on a little ottoman he had there especially for this activity and let himself dive into thoughts while looking over the city. People walking on the river’s walkways and the activity down there were relaxing him and in the same time were providing a sort of buffer image which he was using like a curtain between reality and the thoughts from the back of his mind. He put all his hopes into John, into his superior intelligence and maturity, into his natural abilities to avoid unnecessary risks but also into his ability to go all in when the time was right.

-Let’s go into your Office!

-Sure.

Both Scott and John walked quietly towards John’s Office. It was still early, nobody showed up for work yet. John made a sign showing Scott a chair. He closed the door and brought another chair by the little desk he also had into his Office.

-OK, John. It’s show time. I can’t tell you how much hope is J.J. putting into you and into a successful return home.

-This is a sort: “no pressure, though” huh? A big laughter filled the room and finally both men were sitting face to face; John was waiting to hear as much details as possible about Office, Vic, and Shanghai. Scott was hoping that the little information he had on hand, would be sufficient enough to place John on a winning course. A moment of pause settled in and John (as a perfect host) felt like he needs an ice breaker…

-Do you want another coffee? I have a good batch.

-It’s alright John, thanks. I was trying to gather my thoughts…didn’t quite know how to start.

-Well…let’s start with the beginning: who is Vic? You told me something about him on Friday.

-Yes, and I don’t know if I can add much more. As I said: he used to have a drinking problem and he was quite overweight. Apparently he cleaned up and dropped a lot of weight. It looks like the woman he’s with, put him on the right course.

-Can we trust him?

This question made Scott startle…why wouldn’t we trust him? We are paying him from here, he is making a North American salary in China and we are paying for his accommodation and expenses: rent, private medical insurance, car, car insurance etc.

-Just asking, Scott. I’m just asking. People change. So, he is reporting directly to you, huh?

-Yes. However, he must report to Tony as well as Tony is the General Manager of that Operation.

-I don’t understand…he is reporting to you and to Tony?

-No. Let me say it like this: he must inform Tony on his activity.

-OK. I got it. Do you know what sort of relationship is between these two guys? Do they get along, are there any frictions between them, do they hate each other, etc, etc…

-I have always sensed a little hesitation on Vic’s side when we were talking about Tony’s activity…

-What sort of hesitation? Fear to speak, or just a sort of: “I despise this guy and I don’t want to talk any further”

-Well, John…these are good questions and I think you will have to come up with answers, as you will be there every day and you will have the time to observe Office politics, to process this information and eventually make decisions.

-Fair enough. Now please tell me how that Office is organized.

-Gladly. Here it is the Organigramme. Scott started explaining the Shanghai Office Organization to John. Deliberately he was speaking slowly, so John could make a mental picture of the Organization. The years of management experience under his belt made John quickly understand how that Office was structured. Now he was supposed to learn the names.

-Can I have a printout of whatever you just told me?

-Of course. I will get a printout to you immediately.

-Please try to insert names above each box that shows position. It will be easier for me to get a picture of the Office, of who reports to whom and especially of the second tier Managers.

-Absolutely. I will get somebody to do this as soon as people start arriving into the Office. But you can get one from Vic when you get there.

– I want to have a head start. What am I going to do anyways during that long flight?

-Sure. Anything else you need from me, John?

-No, Scott. I think I’m good.

-Well, then I wish you a pleasant flight there and good luck in trying to come up with some answers.

-Thx Scott! Appreciate your help. The two men shook hands and Scott turned around and headed for the door.

-Do you want me to send that Organigram to your attention at the Airport?

-No. I will still be around for a couple of hours. I need to put order into the business here.

-Great! Appreciate this, as I will be taking over while you are gone. A list of priorities and the responsible persons would be much appreciated.

-Absolutely. I wouldn’t leave you blind folded without any sort of briefing.

-Good luck, John! I think you are destined for great things.

-Thanks Scott! I see you soon.

Scott turned around and with his right hand waived at John good bye.

It wasn’t too long (in John’s mind) after Scott’s departure, before somebody knocked on the door’s frame. John turned around and suddenly realized that the Office was almost full, which meant that the time was around 9 am. He checked his wrist watch and shook his head…Unbelievable! It is already 9 fifteen in the morning. The time just flies!

-Yes Cynthia, come in. John stood up and invited her to take a seat where her boss sat just two hours ago.

-Good morning Mr. Parker. I brought the paper work you requested from Scott.

-Sure, please have a Seat and I would appreciate if you could please spend few minutes with me and go through the material

-Absolutely, no problem Mr. Parker…

-John. Please call me John.

-Sure, John. She sat into the chair John has pointed at and shortly started explaining the Organigramme. Her voice was mellow, but professional, a voice that was inspiring confidence to the interlocutor, a voice that could motivate through the clarity of the message sent. Cynthia not only provided the Organigramme and the names of the people in that Office, but she went above and beyond her assignment and gathered information from Human Resources Department on persons’ background and activity within company.

-Cynthia, you are treasure! I have a lot of reading to do on my way there.

-It’s a long flight, John. I thought that you may want to keep yourself busy when not watching TV or movies. She smiled and two rows of perfectly shaped white teeth showed up, making that smile even more beautiful and intriguing.

John smiled in return and walked her to the door.

-Good luck, John!

-You know…

-No, I don’t. But I can see that something interesting is brewing around here.

-Thanks Cynthia. Appreciate your help.

-Anytime Mr. Parker.

Right when she was about to exit, Vicky showed up and an awkward situation resulted in a fraction of a second. Both women were now at the door waiting for each other to make a move…”Do you get in first? Are you letting me to get out first?” A false and sour smile flourished on the corner of Cynthia’s mouth…one could see that she had a rough time hiding her feelings when seeing Vicky. The same cold and insincere smile flourished on Vicky’s lips. John looked at the scene and turned around with a large smile on his face: “Oops! It looks like they can’t stand each other. If we could only understand a fraction of the woman’s brain! What powerful beings we could be!” He felt like letting laughter go, but he knew that Vicky was standing in front of the door now, waiting for him to turn around. He was seeing her into the windows from his Office. Finally, he decided to turn, even that he really was not in a mood of having a conversation with Vicky.

-Good morning Vicky, how are you?

-Good morning John, I am wonderful. How was your weekend? Her voice chocked, as she was approaching him. God, what happened to you? You have a black eye.

-It’s not too bad. Just a small accident.

-Let me see if I can help…she tried to reach for John’s eye with a calculated and tender gesture. John grabbed her arm and slowly but firmly brought her to the understanding that he wouldn’t accept any out of Office protocol gesture. A large sign of disappointment darkened Vicky’s forehead.

-OK, Vicky…what do you need?

-Just wanted to drop by and say hi. You didn’t show up for the Team’s gathering on Thursday and on Friday you were in meeting with J.J. the whole day.

-Yes, we are very busy with some issues we are having right now.

-Is it bad?

-Vicky, we are big boys and we can take care of business. Anything else you need to communicate to me?

-No John, just checking if you were alright.

-Fantastic! I thank you for this. Now I have to leave…

-So early? It is 9 thirty only. Problems?

John understood that if he wanted to get out in a rush, he had to come up with something. Vicky was the type of person who wouldn’t just give up before she got everything she wanted. So, John put a worry type of look on his face. It worked perfectly!

-So, it is so bad? Where? Vicky was dying to know. Her whole body was trembling from curiosity.

-Yes Vicky…it is bad. It’s about our businesses in the Mid-West.

-I knew it!

-Really? OK, you are smart and intelligent. I gotta’ go now.

-Flying today?

-Yes.

-Do you need a ride to the airport?

-No! John’s voice went up a level which scared his interlocutor.

-You scared me, John!

-I am sorry. I am so sorry! I am ok, my wife will take me to the Airport.

-Oh…yes. Sorry. How is Linda, by the way?

-She’s fine. Gotta’ go now.

-How long will you be gone for?

-Not sure. I don’t have a time frame set. When I figure out what’s going on I will come back.

-Do you know that I have an aunt in the Mid-West?

-No, I don’t. Bye now!

John grabbed his coat, his suitcase and swiftly turned the light in his Office off, inviting this way Vicky to step out. He closed and locked the door behind him, then stormed out of the Office without giving Vicky a chance to say anything. At the elevators, he nervously pushed the “P1” button looking behind him, in a sign that he was even afraid that she was going to follow him just to tell the aunt story.

The elevators were not coming soon enough! John almost got into a panic mode, imagining that Vicky was coming out of the Office to say: “Have a good trip”

Finally, one of the six elevators showed up and John couldn’t see himself out of the building and into the Parking lot.

Once inside his car, he released a sigh of relief and after setting his suitcase, the coat and the overcoat on the passenger seat; swiftly he fired up the beast and stormed out of the garage. This time of the day (going now the opposite way as he was usually coming in the morning), the street was clear. He cracked a sarcastic smile when he looked at the cars on the opposite lane just sitting in the traffic due to the morning rush. It felt good and it felt strange. This hour, he was supposed to sit into the infernal traffic of the Downtown listening to people honking their horns for no reason, playing his favorite songs to forget about the day to day traffic jam misery. Quickly he made it to the traffic light – it was red. He stopped and bent sidewise to grab a handkerchief from his coat. A knock on the passenger window almost made his heart stop. He looked up and to his disbelief two rows of immaculate white teeth were smiling at him. It was Leo. John felt like his blood pressure went to the roof. He wanted to grab him by the tie, bring him into the car and beat him up; but he was still wearing the seatbelt and his motions were severely impaired by the belt. With a nervous and almost uncontrolled gesture, he unbuckled and was now ready to open up the door of the car and settle scores with Leo. But J.J.’s words came right away into his mind: “look at the big picture, John…always the big picture”. John buckled back up and opened the passenger window.

-What do you want Leo? I am still mad at you!

-Mr. Parker, Mr. Parker! I am so sorry I made you feel uncomfortable…

-You made me what? Are you kidding me? You took my car for a spin and you are telling me that you made me feel uncomfortable? I don’t know what is stopping me right now to get out and whoop your ass!

-Mr. Parker, I didn’t want to say that…listen: I am sorry. Sincerely I am sorry. But whatever you see as a failure on my part, I see it as an opportunity.

-Maybe opportunity for you to get your ass kicked! Yeah, I truly believe in that kind of opportunity!

-Mr. Parker, you don’t have to look at this situation so dramatically. Let me tell you something: we both need each other. Leo made a sign (back and forth) with his thumb and index finger, re-iterating that he is of great importance to John.

John didn’t know any more if he should’ve been mad given the circumstances or he should’ve just laughed at the whole situation. The light turned green and he put the car into the second gear. Bye Leo! The beast roared and made the left turn only to disappear between the skyscrapers. John still had a chance to look into the rear end mirror. Leo was desperately waving at him.

John burst into a large and healthy laughter. I think J.J. was right…you have to look at the big picture. Few seconds later he shook the thought by moving his head sidewise in a negative way. No, way! This guy is a bozo, he takes advantage of the situations, and he is probably a crook too. With this thought in mind, he hit the freeway and same type of sentiment hit him as when he left the building. Almost nobody was driving his way. So, he stepped on the gas pedal, the engine roared once again like a lion into the savanna and the whole freeway opened up in front of him.

Once he reached his home, he changed the cloths and came down into the kitchen. He made another coffee and turned the TV on while going through the newspaper. Linda was gone, so he timed his phone call to school in a way that would happen during her break.

The conversation was short and Linda couldn’t hide her disappointment and emotions.

-I thought we had another week with each other…

-Sorry hon…J.J. wants me to leave on the emergency basis.

-So it’s that bad, huh?

-Apparently. And this means more pressure on me.

-You’ll manage it, don’t worry. Listen, let me see if I can get somebody to replace me today and I will come back and help you pack.

-OK. Thx hon, but you don’t have to do it. I can pack myself.

-That’s OK. I will be home in about half an hour.

John headed right away upstairs and started going through his wardrobe. He took every suit out and laid them on the bed. On his way back home from the office, he decided to take five suites with him and ten shirts. Now, when everything he wanted was laying in front of him, he panicked…”There is no way I can pack all of these and everything else I need: T-shirts, pajamas, under ware, socks, bath robes, shoes…” The last word he mentioned made him panic even more: ”shoes…I need at least three or four pairs. I need sneakers for my daily walking or for the Gym and I need sweat pants and shirts”. In less than five minutes, all items he was mentioning in his mind were laid either on the bed or around the bed, making the Master look so much smaller.

When John realized that he would need the second piece of large luggage, he took a sit on the floor with his legs crossed, like in a Yoga position and simply started contemplating the enormous amount of clothing which was displayed in front of him. He was in disbelief. In his mind everything should’ve fit in one piece of luggage. Disappointment set on his face and a question he didn’t want to ask himself all of a sudden popped up: “what do I leave behind?”

When Linda stepped into the Master Bedroom, she covered her mouth and a slight sigh came out of her lungs.

-Oh my God! What have you done, John? Are you planning to take the whole wardrobe you have with you?

-That’s the whole point, hon! I only took out whatever I considered it was strictly necessary.

-Are you kidding? Her voice went up in tonality and almost sounded as being in distress. John…honey…why do you need five suits? Why don’t you take two or three max and you rotate them while taking them to the dry cleaning?

-I don’t want to bother myself too often with this activity, that’s why I am taking so many.

-OK, I could understand this up to a point…but you have so many pairs of shoes and sneakers with you. Why don’t you just take from here minimum quantities you need and you buy there more if you really run out of clothing, shoes, etc.?

It’s Shanghai; they must have some quality stores there!

John’s face lit up and in a split of a second he was up hugging his wife.

-You are a treasure! This is what I will do and thus, I don’t need another large piece of luggage. Now, let’s see: what do I pick to come with me?

Linda shook her head in a way one would do it when seeing the kids listening to the advice the parent gave them. A smile flourished on her lips; it was a smile expressing deep love and full understanding of the partner, almost like a smile of a parent who knows his children by heart. Once she got downstairs, she pulled a chair in the dining room, took out of her suitcase a stack of papers and started working on some assignments she had to evaluate.

None of them realized how fast the time went by. It was already 2pm when John came down with a large piece of luggage full of cloths. His face was all lit up. He managed to fit inside everything he wanted. He rolled the luggage towards the exit door, turned and headed for the dining room where Linda was working. He grabbed her by the shoulders and softly kissed her on the neck.

-I need to work. Her whisper wanted to be a sort of: “leave me alone, I have to finish this”, but ended up of being just a soft push back, a very anemic rejection to John’s advances. However, she had to finish the work she brought home so she firmly (this time) pushed her husband away from her.

-Go take a walk, John! I am busy, I have to finish this.

-OK. I will be back in half an hour or so.

-Great! Dress well; it’s cold outside.

John disappeared into the basement and shortly came back dressed for running.

-You are not going to run, are you?

-Yes, I am going to run…it’s not that cold and I need a little adrenaline to flow through my veins. Today is a great day for me. I am throwing myself into something I have never done before, I will be doing this into country which is ten thousand miles away from home and most likely I will face an environment which will most likely be hostile to me.

-Perfect environment for a last second winning throw, don’t you think?

In seconds, John’s chest filled up with air. The very thought of him winning on the road, into a hostile and never tested environment made him feel proud of his mission, feel like he is the right person indeed for this job. He hugged again his wife and headed for the door. It was cold, but he didn’t pay any sort of attention to the temperature outside. Slowly, he increased the pace of his run and soon the details of all the conversations he had with J.J. and Scott were coming back as short lived memories, transforming him into a running machine playing back recent life experiences.

Linda put another sweet, barely noticeable smile on her face and murmured: “Men are so predictable! You just have to stir them to the direction you want!”

John ran for a full hour. When he returned, his face was all red from the cold and effort. Vapors were coming out through his hat and sweat pants. He took off his sneakers and headed right away for the basement. There he took a shower and put some comfortable sweat pants and a T shirt on and came back upstairs.

-How was the run?

-Awesome! I didn’t realize I ran for an hour! This is good. Now I can eat something fatty. Are you hungry?

-Yes, I am. What do you have in mind?

-Not sure. I don’t feel like cooking. I think we have some wings in the freezer. I make some fries and we have a lunch. How about that?

-Perfect. Let’s go for it!

It was all John needed. He pulled the bag of wings from the freezer and set up the oven to the right temperature for the pre heat activity.

Potatoes were kept into a little place underneath the kitchen island. He picked three large ones and skillfully started peeling them. The Deep fryer came out of the storage. John knew exactly how to time the two activities so the fries wouldn’t get cold by the moment the wings were done. He did this many times before. It was getting busy into the kitchen again!

-John, what time do you have your flight?

– It’s at 11.30 pm

-You mentioned that you need an entry Visa for China.

– I left my Passport with J.J. this morning. He was going to get my Visa on emergency basis. I will get my Passport at the Airport when checking in – they will send it there.

-Wow! I didn’t know something like this is even possible.

-Everything is possible, hon…for the right amount, of course. John raised his head and deeply inhaled showing that he is on top of the game and he knows who is calling the shots. Almost ready, honey…almost ready. Can you please set up the table?

Linda wrapped up the work and in a heartbeat placed the plates and the silverware on the dining table.

-They look so delicious! Indeed, the nicely browned breaded wings looked like they were cut off of a cooking magazine. The steam that was coming out of them, the smell of the white meat and the barely audible noise of the bread crumbs falling on the plate managed to incite their senses. The fries were at least as good looking as the wings: the goldish brown color and an irresistible smell of garlic made both of them salivate while their mouths were watering.

It did not take any more talking, any more inviting or any other sort of eating fore play. They both just dug into the pile of wings and fries. John stood all of a sudden and headed for the kitchen. They had assorted pickles on the table, but he also wanted something else: a sour kraut salad. He quickly opened up a package of sour kraut, drained the brine and added black pepper and olive oil and…voila! The salad was ready.

John brought it back to the table and for the next 20 minute or so, neither him nor his wife felt like opening up a conversation.

The meal in front of them made the couple concentrate on food only. The smell coming out of the chicken meat was acting like a drug. All five senses were captured and held captive by the steaming two dishes laid on the table.

-I am full! John wrapped the napkin and placed it carefully by the fork, while admiringly looking at the big pile of bones he built up.

-I am full too. God, these wings were delicious. Now I feel like I need to take a nap! They both laughed as this was not first time when after a good meal, both of them headed straight for the bed.

-Did you pack up? Do you have everything?

-Yes. I have my carry on done as well. It is still in the bedroom. Other than these two pieces of luggage I will have my laptop.

-OK. It’s almost 5 o’clock. You should probably get some rest. You don’t know if you can sleep during this long sixteen hour flight. What time do you have to be at the Airport?

-By 9 I have to be at the Terminal to check in.

-OK then. You have a couple of hours to rest. It will take us one hour to get there. Go upstairs and have a nap.

-You are not going to sleep?

-Maybe I will. I will set up the alarm for 7 pm, just in case we both feel like waking up tomorrow morning.

-OK. I see you in a bit. John headed upstairs and quickly put his pajamas on. The afternoon run into the cold, wore him down. As soon as he put his head on the pillow, he fell asleep.

Linda tried to do some more work, but the emotions she went through during the weekend, made her body ask for sleep. She set the alarm clock for 7, set the pillow the way she liked it and covered herself with the blanket. It didn’t take very long before she fell asleep too.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 16

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 16

Weekend in the suburbs – relaxing Sunday

– Giovanni Ferrari

John quickly got into the powder room and in less than three minutes took a shower, dried the hair and put the robe on. In the Master Bedroom, Linda was changing as well. He went fast through his many options…at the end he picked a t-shirt, a sweat shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Apparently Linda went for pretty much the same attire. Downstairs, Linda picked up a pair of cowboy boots she was wearing once in a while.

-Ooo! You are a farmer now, cowgirl?

-Yes, Sir! And Linda simulated the cowboy salute, with her two pointing and middle fingers stretched and pointing at her imaginary cowboy hat.

The blue jeans she was wearing were emphasizing her voluptuous lower body shapes: the appetizing buttocks, the long legs with the little space between the knees showing an active person and of course the middle section (as thin as a wasp’s body one could say) being accentuated by her comfort fit jeans style and the classic all Western leather belt, eventually drawing attention through the exquisite shinny belt buckle which had the shape of a bull head. All of these, were portraying a woman who in spite of the fact that she was in the dusk of her fifties, she was in a top physical shape. The t-shirt and the sweat shirt, were somehow hiding her breasts, but at a closer look one could only guess that those two beauties were not shy themselves from attracting curious looks. For some reason, Linda put on the studded fringed leather jacket, which turned her final outlook into an almost complete Western style…she was just missing the hat.

She grabbed her long blonde hair and with a swift motion turned it into a flowing weave down her left side of the chest. The result was stunning: John looked at his wife and for few seconds couldn’t speak anymore.

-You are planning to go Western? The question was asked with a sort of hesitation into his voice. Even John was mesmerized by the look of his sweetie!

The dark red cowboy boots with all the amazing models the boot maker was offering, were stunningly pairing up with the fringed black leather jacket but on the other hand, were offering an astoundingly contrast with the long, blonde, weaving hair and the jeans.

-I don’t know; it was a spur of the moment.

-You look stunning!

-Thanks honey, this means a lot! Let’s go, now…I can’t wait to have some gelato!

John put on some boots and a sports jacket and both headed for a portion of ice cream which was supposed to close up their afternoon meal.

The walk to Giovanni’s place was quite short…fifteen minutes on a normal pace. They took this walk so many times, that even if one would’ve blind folded them, they still would’ve made it.

Giovanni Ferrari was a man in his late fifties (maybe early sixties), a middle height stature man with grizzled hair, which was beautifully contrasting with his lightly tanned skin. The fresh hair cut he had, the clean shaved face, the immaculate white shirt and apron, made one realize that he wasn’t just the owner of the Bakery. He was actually the face of it as well.

He owned a house right there in the Community and opened up his Bakery by buying another house and turning it into a quite successful business. Everybody in the area heard of Giovanni’s Bakery, everybody walked into his store and most of all, everybody loved the product he was offering. The ice cream and bakery stands were at the main floor and the options one would have were endless. And this was due to the fact that he managed during the years to always come up with new offers, with new recipes which enticed customers to come into his store over and over. Linda and John knew everything about his family as he wasn’t shy to tell to whoever wanted to listen to him, about his family “here” and “there”. Obviously, “there” was a little village in Italy, a village he passionately spoke about. It was a community where he spent his childhood only to leave it when he reached fifteen years of age. That was the time when he moved to America with his parents. “Here”, he was the proud father of a daughter who was now studying in a Medical School and a son who was studying Law. If one would listen to him (as John and Linda did so many times), would find out the “latest” in Medical Science and of course the “latest” in the practice of Law. In his mind (just because he had a son and a daughter studying Medicine and the Law), he was an expert in both these fields. When the kids were coming home during their vacations, he was not missing one single conversation they were having with their friends, conversations about the school and the fields they were studying. He was all ears…then he was swiftly swinging to his home office and searched the internet for those particular subjects he heard about. For him it was like a competition, it was like he was trying to get better than the kids. A Psychologist would say: “No, he is simply trying to catch up with the times; He is simply trying to prove to himself that he could’ve made it into the field of Academics himself”. He always liked studying and he was still keeping – at a highly regarded place in his house (above the fire place into the Family Room) – an enlarged black and white picture of himself tending the goat herd on the heights of the Apennines Mountains – while he was holding a book into his hand. After his family reached America, both he and his father went to work to support the five member family. He had two sisters, both younger than him. He started working in a butcher shop, but he didn’t like it. The smell of the blood, the smell of the crushed bones and the dirty cloths full of blood and marrow made him quit and look for something else. It was like an angel’s calling…while wandering through Downtown looking for a sign that said: “Help wanted”, an old man was almost hit by a Cab while crossing the street. Giovanni saw the whole scene and with a courage and presence of spirit specific to teenagers only, managed to pull the man out of the car’s reach and drag him to safety. They both fell on the ground. Young Giovanni checked on the old man that he was still ok. He was ok and this is how a great friendship started between a seventeen year old new comer – eager to make a name for himself in his new country – and an old man, also Italian, who knew everything about the field of Bakery and about making ice cream. This friendship lasted all the way to the end, until the man he saved in that grim November morning passed away. In his store, he was keeping a picture of Senor Rossi in a place where everybody could see it: on the wall in front of the main cash. He had the picture greatly enlarged and framed into a sophisticated wooden frame, thus showing a sign of deep respect for the person who “put a white bread” in front of him and his family.

He was willing to spend hours talking about his mentor…how he taught him to make a good dough, how he taught him to make a puffy and “snowy” whip cream, how to make the best fruit cake ever and of course: how to make gelato. Years and years after Senor Rossi took him under his wing, he realized that he struck a gold mine. All that knowledge the old man possessed was now at his finger-tips. He worked hard into Rossi’s Bakery being all eyes and ears…every detail of the recipes, every trick, every ace the Master Chefs were holding up their sleeves eventually made it into Giovanni’s memory or hand written note book. Whenever he had a chance, he was taking notes…everything that he thought it would help him become the Master Baker he wanted to be. And what an expert he had become! His wedding (as well as regular) cakes, his pastries and of course his gelato, made him famous not only into that particular suburb, but into at least another two neighboring ones! He had customers ordering all the way from Downtown. When it was the wedding season, his place was running 24/7…the ovens never stopped, the bakers never took their cap Chefs off, the auxiliary personnel was buzzing around like the bees in a sunflower field, the cash would close only to re-open right away and cashiers would be on the phone all the time taking orders. This was a busy place, a place which was run proficiently and efficiently so the profits were steadily going up. In other words, Giovanni Ferrari put up a business that was flourishing and was providing jobs to eighteen people. He started first in Downtown by buying Mr. Rossi’s place. The old man had two sons, but none of them was interested in continuing the family tradition. They went both to University; one of them became an Engineer while the other one studied Archaeology and eventually moved overseas while the other one stayed locally and entered the field of Academics becoming a Professor at the Faculty of Applied Science. Mr. Rossi was very proud of his sons’ achievements, but deep in his heart he truly wanted one of the two boys to take over the family business. He worked so hard to get it running, to get it known, to make a name for himself and his venture. But when he understood that none of his two sons was interested in the field of Bakery, he changed…from a jovial and outspoken person, he turned introspective and quiet, passive and introverted. Then he turned his attention to his new young friend and apprentice: Giovanni Ferrari. He was everything the old man wanted an apprentice to be: hard worker and quick learner, eager to exceed in everything he was doing, swift and unafraid to make decisions, coordinated and always having the eyes and the ears open.

And this is how Giovanni struck a gold mine! Under the wing of his Master, he turned into a Master Baker, a man for which the bakery had no more secrets. When Rossi finally understood that it is time to let it go, Giovanni took over. Rossi agreed to split the profits with him. It was another five years of hard work, talent and professionalism invested by Ferrari into Mr. Rossi’s Bakery, years which took the business to a different level: the orders were pouring in, the ovens never stopped, the “Help Wanted” signs never managed to bring enough people to help with the work on the cash or with the work in the back.

When Rossi decided to finally get out of it, Giovanni took over completely. He bought the entire business and in a swift and bold move decided to move it uptown, in the suburbs, where the rents were more affordable and where he could start making really good money from running it. Of course, the traffic was not the same, but at least he could keep an eye on the store as his house was just steps away. It was the time when he had Julia and Nicolas into the store all the time, it was the time when the kids were coming from school and were doing their homework at one of the tables in the store and then they were making their own cookies, of course under the watchful eye of Mr. Ferrari’s. “Those were happy times” and Giovanni Ferrari was willing to start the story all over from the beginning, assuming that there was an interlocutor willing to listen to him.

That particular Sunday, the store was half empty and when Linda and John stepped in, they were surprised to see it like this. Usually, even on Sundays the tables were all taken and the traffic was quite high. For some reason, the cold weather kept people inside in spite of the fact that it was sunny and bright outside, in spite of the fact that one would strongly consider taking a walk through the neighborhood to get some blood flowing – as the Parkers did.

The moment Linda entered, she was noticed right away by Giovanni Ferrari – who was working the cash as the cashier was on a bathroom break.

-Mamma mia! Quale bella donna è entrata nel mio negozio!

-E ciò che un signore elegante, ho la privilage di vedere!

Hearing Linda’s greeting, Giovanni’s chest filled up with air like a bagpipe; his face brightened up even more, his eyes were throwing arrows of pride and a smile the size of Coliseum flooded his face. Being complimented by such a beautiful and educated woman, was as high of an achievement as the name he made for himself in the business of baking goods.

Linda had a Master’s in Latin and learning Italian was the next normal thing to do. Reverend Wilson pushed her hard to learn Latin, thus exposing her to easily learning other modern languages which belonged to the Latin family.

-E ‘cosi grande piacere rivederti, Mr. and Mrs. Parker! Where have you been? I did not hear from you in a long time. Molte volte mi sono chiesto: che cosa e successo a loro?

-Mr. Ferrari, please don’t take this the wrong way but we had a handful of events this summer… we went camping up North almost every weekend….and this is how the summer went by. Questa e la situazione!

-Capisco perfettamente e sono contento che i bambini sono bene. Now, what do you want me to make for you? Do you want some sweet bread (freshly made) with almonds, or walnuts, or poppy seeds? Or do you want some Tiramisu or “biscuit salami”, or a Savarino, or a…

-Mr. Ferrari, we are here just for a gelato.

Giovanni’s face literally dropped. “Just a gelato” did not sit well at all with Mr. Ferrari. He expected to have the Parkers for a long time into his store so he can tell them about the kids and the latest in the medical and law field, as well as how the business of making sweets is doing.

-Just for a gelato…No! You cannot be here “just for a gelato”! His thumb, the pointing finger and the middle finger of his right hand, all joined together and started moving forward and rearward direction, symbolized a big distress. “Cannot be just a gelato! Dio, che e casa questa casa? Just a gelato! No! I will give you the best crèmesnitte you ever had. I made two big plates. One of them is yours”. And just like that, Mr. Ferrari disappeared into the back. Both John and Linda burst into laughter. This was not the first time they have seen a reaction like this from the owner of the place. The Italian baker loved them and the fact that their kids were at the same age as his kids, put the Parkers at the top of his preference list.

-Now what? We are going to get a plate of crèmesnittes without paying for it?

-Looks like…you had to dress that Western style!

-What? What does my attire have to do with the schnittes?

-When you put those jeans and that jacket on, you will get free stuff everywhere!

-Oh, thanks honey – that’s quite a compliment! Linda grabbed again her long hair and with a delicate, gentle and balanced motion she knitted a tail which clearly showed that she was enjoying the compliments directed at her.

-Sure thing! Let’s think now how we will make Giovanni accept us to pay for the stuff.

It was not long before Mr. Ferrari showed up with a large box, holding something of great importance – judging by the small calculated steps he was taking. It was a box full of crème schnittes, carefully protected from touching each other by baking paper. He put the box down on the table and proudly opened it up. The smell of the freshly baked schnittes, the light gold color of the pâte feuilletée, the white yellowish color of the light vanilla flavored crème which was shining from the multiple layers of pâte feuilletée and never the less the sprinkled white sugar powder on the top, made Linda release a “wow”. It was a “wow” of surprise, a yell of sincere and unrestrained admiration for the art of baking, for the people who have the talent to make these sorts of culinary wonders.

-Mr. Ferrari…how much do we owe you?

-Mr. Parker! Let me tell you something…Giovanni took a deep breath of air and released it almost instantaneously. He repeated this exercise few times. Mr. Parker, you and your wife are to me like my brother and my sister. Our kids played together, I had Jerome and Anne-Marie in my store so many times doing homework together with my Julia and Nicolas – right at this table – and you are telling me: “I want to pay for these schnittes”. Giovanni’s voice was already catching a high pitch and in a sign of nervousness, he was shifting his body weight up and down, from his tows to his heels.

-Mr. Ferrari…please don’t feel insulted, but you have a business to run here; you can’t just give away free stuff to us!

-Mr. Parker…God was good to me and my family. I have everything I ever dreamt at. I have a great family and I make enough money not to go bankrupt from a box of schnittes.

-Mr. Ferrari, I apologize. I am so sorry I put you into this sort of situation. We thank you for your gift and we hope we can repay you some other way.

-Mr. Parker, now we are talking like good neighbors and people who know each other for so long. I leave you two alone now. Hey, Tony! Where are Mr. and Mrs. Parker schnittes?

-Coming, boss!

-This kid is so slow, but he has a nose for flavors. Nobody in the store can match more than three flavors like him…except me, of course. Immediately Giovanni burst into a healthy and unrestrained laughter while his guests accompanied him. In the same time, Linda and John looked at each other completely mesmerized! Their eyes were talking to each others’: “is he going to bring us another box?” To their piece of mind, Tony showed up with two plates, each of them holding one huge schnitte.

-These are for you to enjoy here in my store.

-Mr. Ferrari, we thank you very much, it is too much.

-Please don’t mention it…his palm was showing the “stop” sign of the policeman while diverting the traffic. It was a sign of: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore”. And in few seconds he disappeared through the revolving doors into the kitchen and before anybody noticed, he already started giving instructions.

Ferrari was running the place with a strong fist, where there was no room for error or amateurism, but he was fair to his employees and whenever they needed help, he was first in line to offer it.

The dessert in front of them was like from a different world.

-We never bought this kind of desert from here.

-Yeah, I know. Now we know how good it is. We will have to drop by more often.

-Right.

Their faces were exhibiting again emotions of pleasure, of delight and joy, of unhidden admiration for the art of Bakery, art taken to a whole different level by Giovanni.

By the time the Italian Master came out from the kitchen, Linda and John were done eating the two huge “cubes” of schnittes and now both of them were simply trying to digest, feel the pleasure of an excellent desert and have a well deserved siesta.

-Come ti è piaciuto il dessert? How did you like it?

-Fabulous, Mr. Ferrari! Molto bello! Grazie! Non sei solo un grande panettiere, ma sei anche un perfetto padrone di casa. Linda’s compliments made Giovanni inhale the maximum amount of air his lungs allowed while a deep feeling of satisfaction was imprinted on his face. The fact that he was called “the perfect host” made him so proud of his achievements, made him so proud of the work and passion he was investing in this Bakery, made him shed a tear which was not gone unnoticed by Linda. She realized that it was a tear of joy, of satisfaction for an accomplished mission, a tear of celebration at the end of a long and hard journey.

-It is time for us to go and get ready for tomorrow. Once again, we thank you so much Mr. Ferrari for your generosity.

-As I said, Mrs. Parker…please don’t mention it. I am glad you had a good time while in my store.

-Absolutely. These schnittes are out of this world!

-Grazie ancora e ti prego di tornare presto.

-Of course we will come back soon, now that you introduced us to this fabulous dessert!

Giovanni’s face was radiant, was all lit up with a smile which made him show his perfect white teeth beautifully contrasting with his tanned skin while matching the immaculate white collar of his shirt.

John was now holding the box with the precious baked products inside and one could see (by the way he was walking) that he was not going to drop it no matter what happened.

Linda simply burst into laughing watching her husband’s new way of walking.

-Yeah, you got it babe! This box will not end up on the ground if I have to defend it with my life.

The rest of the evening was quiet and uneventful up to one point. John went into his office and tried for one more time to decipher the meaning beside all those numbers which didn’t really make any sort of sense to him, numbers that got JJ almost into a panic mode so he reached out to John and asked him to go to China and try to resolve the puzzle.

Linda just chilled, changed her clothes and flipped the channels to some movies she had not seen for a while. From his office, John kept running numbers hoping that he could find the glitch which would make him more valuable here, at home, rather than going to China. He knew that it was like playing Lottery, it was like finding the needle into the haystack.

Finally, he gave up and into a sign of deep disappointment he closed his laptop, turned the light off and came back into the Living Room hoping to find some decent sporting events he could watch before calling it a night.

Linda was napping while the TV was on some movie John didn’t recognize.

“This movie managed to make her nap…I can only figure out how boring it is! How about some Sports”?

He slowly took a seat into one of the two recliners chairs they had and started flipping stations, searching for a suitable sporting event. Few football games were on, so his attention focused on a particular NCAA match. Home team was leading 15 to 8 and was defending into the red zone. Memories from his big game involuntarily kicked in and all of a sudden he was living that Championship match once again. Everything was almost identically matching the conditions of the biggest game of his career: it was pouring rain, the game was down the wire and there were ten seconds left to the final whistle! He simply dug into the sides of the chair. His fingers grabbed the soft material and held onto it with all the force he could. The ball is played, the Quarterback throws to the Wide Receiver and it’s a touchdown! Score now is 15-14 and the team coming from the back still has a try, a try to make the game all leveled up and head into OT. “Alright! They have an easy try and the game will be all leveled up for Overtime”. This is what John believed it would happen and everybody else who knew a bit about Football, everybody else who would make normal decisions giving the circumstances.

What happened next, made the whole Stadium stand and John jump from his chair: “What? He is going for two points? Are you kidding me? This coach is crazy!” Everybody was mesmerized, the announcers were speechless and didn’t know how to explain the move anymore; John was now taking a knee in the front of the TV and had his eyes wide open looking at the screen without blinking. “I can’t believe something like this is happening. This is not High School League, buddy!” He was obviously “yelling” at the coach who made that so unusual decision.

There were seven seconds left and the coach called a time out. The tension inside the stadium reached paroxysm. Everybody was standing, waiting for the game to start again. During the time out break, commercials picked up steam and John was simply pinned to that position he got caught when the decision was made. He has never seen something like this in all those NCAA career years of his. “This is unbelievable! He could’ve easily played the one point scenario, tie the game up and head into Overtime! Unreal! Never seen something like this! This coach either has lots of guts or is crazy”

When the game was back on, one could hear the Stadium roaring. They liked what they were seeing, in spite of the fact that their team could end up holding the short stick. This was such a gamble, but the crowd loved it!

Finally, the two rivals faced each other…the “I” formation of the attackers versus the 4-3 formation of the defenders.

This strategy was so obvious, that John started laughing…”and you are playing an “I” formation? It is so obvious you will run the ball! I thought you would come up with something special”. John was completely puzzled, when an idea flashed into his mind: “they are just four yards away from the touch-down, what if the Quarterback takes it to the end? No way! It is so risky! The size of those End Tackles and Linebackers are too impressive. He wouldn’t be able to get through!”

What happened next, was something for the History books, for the record books, for the specialists who were keeping track of unusual play situations. The Quarterback got the ball into his hands, simulated a pass to the Full Backer who made a run to the left and managed to draw the center Line Backer to him. Then he simulated another pass to the Half Backer who made a run to the right and drew the defenders left Line Backer onto him. The opening created was enough for the Quarter Back to make a pirouette, run for three yards and leap for a touchdown!

John was stunned and so were the commentators. The Stadium was all of a sudden quiet. Nobody expected that such a huge gamble would be successful. Only the visiting team was celebrating: all the players from the bench, coaches and auxiliary staff were on the field, hugging and congratulating each other, yelling and screaming, laughing and shaking hands. It was a play for the history books indeed.

John still couldn’t believe his eyes. “This is something I would never forget! Unbelievable! This coach has tons of guts!” While shaking his head, he kept watching the replays over and over. Everything was surgically planned. The two faked passes to the Full Back and the Half Back, the 180 degrees turn and finally the tiger’s leap for the touchdown! “Wow…I still believe this coach is crazy. What if one of his Left or Right Tackles or Guards would’ve failed to block those huge Defensive Ends or Tackles from the opposite team? Everything would’ve ended up into a great disaster. However, they were successful and the final result it’s all that matters. They won!” John couldn’t hold from clapping of admiration.

The commentators themselves couldn’t stop from throwing superlatives at the event everybody just witnessed: “What an unbelievable turn of events, folks and most of all: what a gutsy play. This is a play for the ages, for all those young coaches out there who trust their teams and are not afraid to pull the trigger when they see an opportunity”.

“It was unbelievable indeed, said the other commentator, but I wonder if this scheme would be successful the next time they are playing it”

“It doesn’t matter! It did the job when it had to do and this is the end of it”

“I agree up to a point with you, Peter…but I still have my doubts. This was a moment of extreme courage but I am not sure next time will be as finely executed as it was today. There are so many variables getting into the play, so many factors which can ruin this marvelous plan…”

“Bryan, I couldn’t agree more with you. But let’s face it: it was stunning! And we all Football fans loved it”

“True. Fantastic play! This game will remain into the history as one of the greatest. And if it was a play for the Championship, it would’ve probably been voted the greatest ever”

John startled: “If it was for the Championship…but it wasn’t”

He took a big breath and slowly released the air in a sign that his ego was still up there, it was untainted; it never dropped from that magic night when he made history. It was a sign that even at his age he was not willing to buckle and give up his hard earned credentials. “My game was for the Championship and this is why it will be remembered as the greatest ever”. On his way towards the dining area, he pushed the Office door open. He looked at the great picture hanged on the wall again: the intensity shown on his face, the pouring rain, all the mud and the dirt on his jersey, his right arm fully extended to make that throw in spite of the brutal tackle he faced, made him smile once again.

He turned the lights off in the office and grabbed his laptop. Before the night was over, he wanted to check once again – for the last time – the numbers he just couldn’t understand, the numbers that made JJ send him all the way to China to investigate and eventually come up with an answer.

Methodically, he started analyzing the trends. Nothing made any sense and he knew that there was no way he could come up with an answer as he would’ve hoped. This trip was something that he really did not want to do. He was a professional, not a detective! Time was flying and soon he realized that was late and he had to go to bed. Slowly, walked back to the living room. Linda was sleeping deeply on the couch and he just didn’t have the heart to wake her up. Carefully, grabbed another blanket and covered her up, then headed up stairs. “Tomorrow is another day”.