Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 24 (A history lesson)

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 24

A history lesson

-Before the final assault began, the Emperor gathered all his concubines and children and killed them all with the exception of the male children. He did not want his family to be mocked, humiliated and fly-blown by the peasants. However, his noble Consort – Lady Yuan – survived. And so did Changping and Kunyi – two of his daughters. Changping placed her left arm in the way of the mighty sword, trying to defend herself. The arm was cut instantly and she fainted. Kunyi was spending her spring vacation in Suzhou thus not being present at the events. The two Portuguese sailors who were doing business with the Imperial Court dropped on top of Changping and begged the Emperor to spare her. It was this moment when he decided to stop and walk away heading for a hill nearby, still part of the Forbidden City, where he hung himself. At this point, Zhaohui stopped. Both John and Vic could clearly read on her face a sentiment of deep sadness, gloom and melancholy. A tear came out of one of her eyes and slowly made its way across the cheek only to drop on the table cloth in front of her. She apologized, quickly stood and told the two gentlemen at the table that she needs some fresh air. Vic stood up as well and tried to follow her, but she raised her right hand in a sign of: “please stop”. He remained pinned into this position and could only watch her walk out. Vic virtually dropped on the chair and grabbed his two temples into his palms. John was completely perplexed. He did not expect this story to take such an unexpected turn of events. He felt like he was responsible for this and felt ashamed and embarrassed. With a wavering stretch of the hand, he grabbed Vic’s shoulder. Vic startled and looked John right into the eyes.

-I am sorry, man…I did not want to be the cause of this distress between you and your fiancée.

-Unfortunately you have no choice, but to be that.

-What do you mean, Vic? I am sorry again and I would like to make it up to you and to Zhaohui.

-You will understand soon, John. It is nothing you can do about. You were part of the curse from the beginning, you participated at the events and you cannot leave the fight until it is over.

-A game! A fight! A curse! What the hell, man? What are you talking about? I am here just to figure out how J.J.’s money is funneled…God knows where.

-Exactly. Did you ask yourself why J.J. picked you? Instead of answering, John replied with a question of his own:

-So, you are telling me that J.J. is also part of this game, or curse, or fight, or whatever the heck you want to name this?

-Nobody knows so far…he could be, or he could not be part of it. My guess is that he is part of this too. It was the moment when Zhaohui returned and again she apologized for her behavior. John mumbled a sort of: “there is no problem”, but his mind was already absent from the table. “I am part of a game, of a fight, of a curse…how did I get myself into this? Now I have to start doubting J.J.? I can’t believe that I am now part of a conspiracy, or whatever this is”

-John…Zhaohui’s voice was no longer emotional. It was the voice of a woman who knew how to master her own feelings and emotions, the voice of a strong person who saw and lived through lots of hardships in her life.

-Yes, Zhaohui! This “yes” came out of his mouth smooth, soft, mild and unconvincing. He was now terrified that he was indeed part of a game he did not understand and never wanted to be part of. His palate was now as dry as a piece of tinder. The Adam’s apple was sliding up and down, in a sign of deep difficulty.

-Earlier I said that you should move.

-Yes, you did.

-I gave it a second thought. In order for you to solve this fund drainage mystery, you must find out as many details as possible about Gang’s private life. I don’t know any more if moving out would be the right thing to do. Right now, you are just one hallway away from him, or whoever lives there and he is visiting. You already found few details which are very interesting. For instance: that smell of some burning material…leafs, or spices, or pieces of wood, or whatever it was…we can find out lots of things by accurately identifying the nature of that smell and thus the place where it was brought from or purchased from. The mysterious woman who doesn’t want to show up her face and the other woman she brought to the apartment. Maybe all these things are connected to each other and will eventually help you understand where the money is going. You have to remember, John…everything that happens in this world it happens for a reason. Nothing is circumstantial, random or accidental. Everything is connected to everything, in spite of the fact that your rationality can’t see it for the moment. Rationality at a point becomes an obstacle in our way to see life the way it is, to see life as a blessing and a gift from heaven. You have to start believing in faith too, in things you never trusted or you were never taught to trust.

A long pause followed; John tried to gather his thoughts as the amount of information he was trying to absorb and process was piling up on him, not from a quantity point of view, but from a contextual and meaningful way of thinking.

-So, you think I shouldn’t move…but eventually Tony will see me in the Lobby or getting out or in from or into my apartment.

-We will deal with it at that moment. Gang knows everything in the Office. He is also connected to people I would simply call: not trusty. I don’t know if he is part of an Organization or a Sect, or something like this; Vic can tell you more about this.

-John, we need to sit down – the two of us – and have a long chat.

-Agree. But before we do this, I need to ask you two guys a simple question.

-Sure, go ahead. Zhaohui looked at John and slightly bent her head down, in an affirmative way. It was another moment of silence before John spoke and placed the question which he badly wanted to get it out of his chest:

-Are you two guys with me? Can I fully trust that you will be by my side regardless the circumstances? Both Vic and his fiancée looked at each other first and then at John. Their eyes were expressing disbelieve that John ever doubted them, which made John feel again embarrassed. He apologized once more. It took another moment of silence. Nobody was saying anything anymore. This time, John felt like it was his mistake and needed to do something to fix it.

-So, what happened after the Emperor killed himself?

-It’s enough for today, John. Too much too soon is never good. You need some time to get accustomed to the Chinese way of life, to our way of dealing with adverse and hostile situations. I will finish telling the story for you soon. It’s getting late. It is ten o’clock already. Shall we go?

-Sure, please ask for the check. As I said, it is my treat.

-Thanks, John.

-No problem, Vic. It was my pleasure again to have dinner with you two guys.

-You are a gentleman, John. Thank you for the dinner.

-Again, my pleasure, Zhaohui.

-You are getting good with your Chinese accent! She started laughing; John and then Vic, both joined in. Everybody was happy that those few moments of tension and emotions were over and the evening ended up into a positive and high note of optimism.

The taxi ride was short. Vic asked the driver to wait. All three of them, went inside the Lobby to have a final word. The place they picked, was a darker corner of the Lobby near a cherry and a lemon tree. John couldn’t help, yet again, watching Zhaohui getting close to the lemon tree and almost fall into a transcendental state of mind. Both Vic and John moved closer to her…this time, she managed to hold onto her emotions and murmured: “it is so beautiful, the flowers are perfectly blossomed…same like…” The last few words were inaudible but John (almost involuntarily) continued the phrase still on a low and soft pitched tone: “…same like the lemon trees’ flowers in the garden”

Zhaohui startled and her face looked thrilled, while the chest was throbbing from the almost uncontrolled heart beats. Vic’s face turned white like a sheet of paper. His Adam’s apple was racing in an uncontrolled vertical motion, while a cold sweat was dripping buckets from his forehead. He was stunned! On the other hand, looked like John had joined in alongside Zhaohui in admiring those surreal white flowers which were bringing the perfume of a heavenly garden. For few seconds, he did not realize the change into his demeanor. From a realistic and hard to impress Executive attitude to almost a romantic, sensible and delicate stance. Now, both Vic and his fiancée were looking at him with complete different eyes. Zhaohui was in a state of complete shock. Hearing John’s sentence, was like a cold shower. She was now frightened and her big, black, slender eyes were expressing this feeling by wide opening and thus emphasizing even more their beauty. John realized the situation he was into. He felt embarrassed and apologized. Zhaohui was still keeping her eyes on him, scrutinizing his face to the latest detail. Finally, John broke the ice yet again:

-It is late, I guess we have to call it a day.

-Absolutely! I am tired too. Vic simulated a yawn and covered his mouth. It was just a gesture to hide his uneasiness produced by the late events.

-Good night, John. We will finish the story some other time. It was much of a pleasure again to have dinner with you.

-Thank you, Zhaohui. It was lovely to have you two guys with me. They shook hands and both Vic and his future wife turned around and headed for the doors.

-By the way…do you want me to pick you up tomorrow morning, John? Vic asked this question while half turning his head towards John’s direction.

-No, that’s fine Vic. I will grab a taxi. Thanks for offering though.

Vic turned around and made the well-known “good bye” sign.

John watched them for few seconds and then headed for the elevators. A different way of looking at the hallway was now part of his ritual. Upon exiting the elevator, he was cautiously looking towards the direction of his apartment door on which he had a clear view. However, Tony’s apartment was around the corner, so he was blindly walking towards his door not knowing if he would eventually bump into Tony (or the person he saw through the cracked door) or the mysterious woman apparently living into the same apartment. He was almost walking on his toes when he reached his door. Swiped the card and he was in. He rested his shoulders against the door for few seconds, then slowly started sliding down until he dropped on his buttocks; he brought his knees close to his mouth and grabbed them with both his arms. His head was now resting on his knees while he was trying to clear up his mind. The multitude of events which he’s been through that day, drained his tank of energy and resources: both physical and mental. He just wanted to lay into his bed. It was almost 11 o’clock and he had to call J.J. Slowly picked himself up and headed for the window. On his way there, he took his shoes off and left them in the middle of the living room while placing his coat on the back of a chair, as he never did before. The long and eventful day took a big toll on him. He stopped by the bar, and looked inside. Spotted a bottle of 12 years old single malt Scotch he loved. Without hesitation opened it up and poured himself a glass of the great spirit from that bottle. The first sip was taken with his eyes closed; he wanted to relish that drink and feel it how it burns the palate while smoothly sliding down the throat and then into the stomach.

He grabbed his cell and dialed America. J.J. picked up right away. It was a short conversation. J.J. realized that his man is dying to go to bed. John refrained to mention all his adventures, as he was dead tired and did not want to give his boss just bits and pieces of information. Ultimately, J.J. just wanted to make sure John is safe and the accommodation is alright. After hanging up, John placed a stool in front of the window and put his feet up letting himself being dragged into contemplating the Downtown lights and the river traffic. The lights from the barges that were sailing on Huangpu, made him relax. This great river was conveying every time the same sense of eternity and serenity, the same sense of endurance and strength.

The events of the day overwhelmed John. There was so much information he absorbed, that he was now wondering what to do with it. And most of all, he felt like he was slowly getting sucked into this three hundred sixty six year old story of the last Ming Dynasty days. “Why me? Why? Why not somebody else? Who am I to be “the right person” for this job? Why all the persons I have met here are pointing towards the same direction? Why did Vic say that I am part of the game now, that I am part of the fight? Which game? Which fight? Fighting on whose side? Who is the enemy? Who is Zhaohui? How did Vic become part of this? He is clearly into it. But how was he sucked in? Who is Tony Gang and Mr. Wang? Who is that person who participated at our conversation with Wang, who sat into the dark all along? Who is the mysterious woman getting in and out from the apartment across the hallway?”

All these questions made his head spin and he realized that the maze of connections between people who were part of this “game” was so intricate and obscure, so enigmatic, mysterious and mystic that it was impossible for him to decipher the message of the story. He finally understood that he has no other option but to fully trust Vic and Zhaohui. At this point, he felt like his hands were tightened up and he had to completely rely on his friends. One of Tony’s remarks came to his mind: “We are all the products of the past, John” and this was already bothering him…why do we have to go back into the past? Why the dying days of the Ming’s?” So many questions were popping up into his head, and so very few answers! Suddenly, he remembered an advice Scott gave him, using a Football analogy: “When your pocket doesn’t help you on the field, what do you do? You still have to win the game, right? How do you win it? You have your legs! If you have no pocket and you cannot throw the ball, you have to use your legs and try to get the first down, right? This is what you have to do there, John. Of course, instead of using your legs, you have to use your eyes and ears, you have to use your feel for people; you have to ask questions, you have to gain people’s trust”.

It was enlightening and John cracked a smile. “I guess I have to win this game without the help of my pocket. It will be hard, but at least I can try”.

John finished up his drink and headed for the bedroom. It was the moment when he physically dropped on the bed and fell asleep right away.

 

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Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 23 (Tony Gang)

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 23

Tony Gang

Vic hailed for a taxi and in less than ten minutes they arrived in front of the building where Glenworth was located. Ironically, the same floor (27th) was the floor on which Glenworth Financial had its Chinese operations. The elevator took the two men up in a blink of an eye and while entering the office, John couldn’t help but notice that the layout was almost identical to the office back home in America. Same cubicles for the non-managerial staff and same layout (alongside the walls) for the Managers’ offices. Vic passed by Tony Gang’s office. The door was opened but he was not in.

-Ok. He is not in. I will introduce you to him later. Let me show you to your office now. At exactly the opposite side from Tony’s office, John got himself a nice place with a great view over the downtown and a portion of the Huangpu River. The furniture was hard wood, nothing special though. The blinds were up, thus letting the natural light to flood the office. For the guests, a sofa and a couple of arm chairs were placed around a table by the left wall. On the opposite wall, there was a library which had the shelves almost completely filled with binders. It looked to John that this room was a sort of storage room for the entire office and whoever was assigned to turn it into a working space didn’t quite finish. All those binders were supposed to be moved somewhere else and leave room for the new tenant to place his stuff. Vic pulled one of the chairs and invited John to have a sit at the guests table.

-Ok, I am setting you up with everything you need to know around here. In few minutes Vic set up John’s laptop, his temporary password for Windows and other Applications they were routinely using. Then, he pulled an access card out of his pocket. “You need to swipe this into elevator or it won’t stop at 27th floor. It is the same access card for the office and this is your office key”. Vic pulled a key from his pocket and handed it over to John alongside the access card. “The desk drawers are opened, you will find a key in one of the drawers which locks’em all. You are now set with your cell phone, laptop, access to office software (it is the same as what we have back home). I suggest you lock your drawers and your office door when you leave. The cleaning crew has a key to the office and they are instructed to close and lock all the office doors when they leave”.

-Thanks for doing all this leg work for me, Vic!

-Don’t mention it, John! I will help you as much as I can. Just take a piece of advice from me: take it easy. Life flows differently here than back in America. You have to blend in, otherwise you will be like one of those guinea pigs which walk on the wheel never to reach their destination.

-Thanks for all advises you gave me and for everything you do for me!

-Again…no sweat, man! Both men burst into laughter as John didn’t hear this expression in a long time.

-You didn’t forget the cool expressions from back home.

-How could I have forgotten’em? Remember? I used to bet on horses for God’s sake! You have no idea the kind of vocabulary you learn there!

-Hahaha! Yeah, you lost your shirt betting on horses!

-Hey, hey, hey…I made some cash on betting.

-Cash you lost aftermath. Hahaha!

-Well, I am not sure if I lost or I broke even, but now I am out of it. Vic stood up, headed for the window and exclaimed with great admiration: “What a view! You got yourself a really nice office, Mister!”

-Thanks to you, I guess.

-Actually Tony Gang insisted that you should have this one. We had an Account Manager (who quit few weeks ago) holding this room. Then, Tony made a deposit out of it – as you probably already figured out. Ok, I gotta go do some work. I will pick you up tonight again. We’ll dine somewhere to a place that’s not too expensive, a place that’s not too sophisticated, but where we’ll find good food. I will pick you up at 8pm; don’t make me come look for you again! Both men laughed and Vic headed for the door.

-Vic!

-Yes, John!

-How did you decide to go to Wang’s Restaurant today, at lunch?

-My fiancée suggested. I even forgot about this place, but when she mentioned it, I said: “Hey, why not? The food is good and it is on our way to the office”. John looked at Vic and a feeling that Zhaohui knew a lot more of Mr. Wang’s whereabouts crossed his mind.

-Fantastic! I will pick up the bill tonight.

-If you want…oh, by the way: I forgot to give you a Credit Card. It is company’s card and you have a five thousand dollar limit on it. There is an ATM machine down stairs into the Lobby. Your PIN is: 1234. I suggest you either call them (do this immediately) and change your PIN. You will need money for the Taxi anyways. I will leave early today – I have to take Zhaohui to the doc. Nothing major, don’t worry.

-Great! I will get set and probably in three-four hours I will leave too. It is three o’clock already. Let’s hope that Tony will drop by and directly introduce himself.

-I am so happy you are here, man! In a burst of sincerity, Vic shook John’s hand and hugged him as if they were two inseparable friends who were forced to live apart for too long. I will see you tonight.

-Yeah, take it easy now.

-Hahaha! You are telling me to take it easy! You learn fast, man! Vic turned around and made a “good bye” sign while walking out and disappearing into his office. He started right away writing an e-mail to Scott and J.J., giving the report on John’s first day in Shanghai, skipping of course all the little “adventures” John and him went through. Ultimately, Mr. Glenworth just wanted to know if John made it safely into Shanghai and has everything he needs in order to do his work.

After Vic left, John walked to the window and for few minutes he just stood there admiring the scenery. The bright light of that sunny fall afternoon was flooding his office, thus giving one the warm and inviting feeling to take a seat, to relax and simply watch the barges sail downstream Huangpu River towards the place where it will empty its waters into the Great Yangtze River, or just watch the vibrant life of the downtown, swarmed by cars and pedestrians. Either way, the view was magnificent: it showed not just a vibrant city, it showed a city of tremendous economic power, moved by business and entrepreneurship. Finally, John pulled the nice office chair he had, opened up his laptop and started going through the same material he went so many times back home. In his sub consciousness, he thought that now, being in China, he would solve the mystery of the funneled funds immediately. It was a sort of: “I am here, I know what I’m doing and I should be able to get to the bottom of this thing”. The reality was not even close to what he expected; same lame numbers which didn’t make sense with whatever J.J. presented during the big meeting, same positive trends shown by the market. Regardless, the graphs showed a deep into Glenworth’s financials in spite of all the new business picked up in China and America for the past two years.

When John hit again a dead end and wanted to call it a day, he realized that the office software Glenworth was using to run numbers and compile graphs and information, was much slower than whatever he was used to. Initially he thought it was an Internet connection and speed issue. He checked the speed and to his surprise, it was more than enough than whatever he needed to run the Program safely and rapidly. John raised his left eye browse, a gesture he was making when he didn’t have a logical answer to something, a gesture of doubt and confusion. He never liked these sort of situations, but now he felt like he had his hands tight. Not only he wasn’t able to figure out why the fund drainage is happening, but he was now facing a simple technical issue. “Ok, I will talk tonight with Vic”. He logged out and closed his laptop. Then he placed it into the top drawer of his office desk, grabbed the key and locked the desk. Carefully, he placed it onto the key chain where he was holding all other keys from back home. It was six thirty already and he was still planning to hit the gym for at least half an hour and take a shower before Vic was going to show up at eight. A slight knock into the door’s frame, made him startle. John raised his head and understood right away that the person who knocked and waited to be invited in, was Tony Gang. He was a middle age person, with a round face and a tanned skin; he was shaving his head but he kept a little goatee, one would wonder why? The hair into that goatee was scanty and soft. Eventually, John understood that the habit of smoothening that beard was one of the reasons Tony was keeping it. However, there was more than that into his gestures. It was a sort of proudness and haughtiness of growing that goatee beard, which John remarked right away. Tony’s face was all smiley, but that smile was a sort of pity smile, probably driven by the fact that he truly believed that John was just losing his time trying to decipher the mystery of lost funds. John captured this little detail too and smiled back. He learnt from J.J. that in business you have to master the way you cover your emotions, the way you make your interlocutor feel that he is superior, that he has the upper hand. “Ok, so looks like vanity is his weakness. Let’s play along and see what we can find out”.

Gang was of a medium height, but stocky and well built. One would say that he was overweight, but at a closer look, one would realize that his broad shoulders frame, his thick arms and neck and overall body profile were the attributes of a man who valued physical work or was practicing sports.

His brand name shirt, tie, pants and shoes showed a taste for high quality stuff which John couldn’t help but admire. “Well, I am dealing here with a gentleman who is all smile and who has apparently good intentions of cooperating. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I believe there is lots of hidden stuff underneath this nice gimmick and great attire”.

-You must be John Parker!

-And you must be Tony Gang!

-I am Tony Gang and I would like to say: “Welcome to China”, John…if I may call you John.

-Of course you can call me John. It is nice meeting you, Tony.

-Likewise, John. So, how was your first day in China? Tony’s oblique, slender eyes were scrutinizing his interlocutor like a laser, trying to find out everything, to the smallest detail. He was scanning John from head to toes, looking at his facial expressions, at his hands, at his posture, analyzing his attire and not lastly, looking straight into his eyes in an attempt to read his mind. John realized that he had a master of disguise in front of him, that Tony was very intelligent, cunning, crafty and slyly; he understood that he has to call upon his “A” game against Tony right from the beginning.

-It was very good. I settled and went out dinning last night with Vic. He was about to say: “with Vic and his fiancée” but he didn’t know if Tony knew of Vic’s endeavors and thus, he refrained from mentioning. He also stopped short from saying it, as a result of the fact that now he was in a self-preserving mode. Since he realized that Tony is a heavy weight fighter, he became very cautious on everything that was coming out of his mouth.

-Excellent! Where are you staying?

John was about to say the name of the hotel, but a glimpse of last night’s encounter on the hallway, made him to again avoid a straight answer. Instead, he changed the subject immediately.

-I thank you for this office, Tony. It is great! It has a wonderful view over downtown and especially over the Huangpu. I absolutely love it.

-Fantastic! I knew you would like it. Yes, Huangpu is the life line of this city as it has been for so many, many years. Shanghai is relatively new comparing to Nanjing, but its economic and strategical importance is by far superior to the old great capital of China.

-Nanjing was the old capital? When? When did the capital moved to Beijing?

-I can see that you have a curious mind and you are opened to learning new things, said Tony while smoothening his goatee. His voice was calm and the tone was smooth, the words were flowing quietly bringing the interlocutor at ease, giving him the impression that he was taken care of. John recognized right away the strategy Tony was employing and became even more alert. “What a crafty bastard!” said John to himself and from that point on, he was all eyes and ears.

-I have to admit that I don’t mind learning new things. For now, he diverted Tony’s curiosity on finding where he was staying. It was something that John in his sub consciousness felt like he had to keep to himself for now, away from Tony’s reach and curiosity.

-Well, where do we start? Are you familiar with the Ming Dynasty period? John startled and Tony’s fine sense of reading people, realized that.

-Just a little bit, from what I have read in the past or I saw in the TV. I know that it was a great period of economic and cultural achievements in China. John understood that he has to keep his guard as high as possible. Tony was watching every single detail of his face mimics, hands and posture expressions.

-In 1420, Chengzu Emperor moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beijing including his army, the court and ministries and starts building the Forbidden City. It was his desire to place himself in a safe place. Nanjing becomes again the capital in 1644, but just temporarily, as the rebels took Beijing.

-Thank you, Tony! Appreciate your little History lesson.

-Anytime you want, John. Anytime. Ultimately, we are all the products of the History, of what happened into the past, aren’t we? This question almost caught John off guard and involuntarily raised again his left eye browse. Looking straight into Gang’s eyes, John tried to investigate and figure out if he knew where he was staying and if he knew he had lunch at Wang’s restaurant. He was now asking himself if Tony was somehow part of the dark room event he and Vic were part of. It was so strange that both Wang and Gang were talking to him about the same period from China’s History with a particular emphasize on the dying moments of the Dynasty.

-I have to go now. I want to hit that gym, I will have dinner and then go to bed. I am tired. Probably the jet legging is still taking its toll on me.

-Absolutely! It must be that! I let you go now. Have a good night, John.

-You too Tony.

-By the way – Tony turned around as if he forgot something very important to mention to his interlocutor – I would like to invite you to dinner (whenever you are available). And I would also like to take you for a nice trip to Nanjing and Beijing eventually. I know quite a bit about these two little towns. He put up a large smile on his face and in spite of the fact that John was ready to leave the office, he was again occupying the whole opening of the door with his large frame waiting for an answer. It was getting dark into the office as the sun went down already. The obscure light that was still coming through the window was now falling right on Tony’s face. For the second time that day, a deformed face appeared in front of John’s eyes, a face which exhibited a strange sort of satisfaction and self-confidence. Again, John felt his hands all sweat and just an immense effort of self-controlling himself prevented him from drying his palms by grabbing the handkerchief from his pocket.

-Of course, Mr. Gang. We will have dinner sometime. I am not sure about the trip as I will be probably very busy for a while.

-Tony is my name…remember? He burst into a laughter and John saw an opportunity to get out of the uncomfortable situation by joining in. But his laughter was more like a shriek, more like a yell, a shout, something he has never done before. He understood that he got away without telling Tony where he was staying and without committing to any trip to Nanjing or Beijing.

-Alright. I see you tomorrow, Tony.

-Have a good night John! Don’t forget to lock the door.

John took Wong’s last sentence as a warning. He closed the door and locked it. Something felt really strange…he was missing something. “Damn, I didn’t take my suitcase from the hotel”. He took the elevator down, headed for the ATM machine and withdrew some cash. Scott warned him that he must have cash at any time in his pocket as Credit Cards don’t necessary work or are accepted everywhere. The trip to the hotel was short. The taxi driver was a short, skinny middle age person who apparently was smoking like a chimney. The car smelt like a smoking house and John couldn’t see himself out of there. At the hotel, he literally ran out of the car, gave the driver a hundred yuan and headed for the elevators. It was also late: seven thirty already. He didn’t want to be late again. “I am going to miss the gym again” said John to himself while getting into elevator. The hallway was quiet, but John’s curiosity beat the fact that he was trying to be punctual for dinner. He slowly approached his neighbor’s door and started listening. He thought he heard some music playing inside. Listening more carefully, John’s fine ear and sense for music realized that someone was actually chanting, or reciting lines from a poem as the rhythm was steady, even and rhythmical and was following a certain cadence. Also, a strange smell was coming out of the room; he right away recognized and identified the smell from last day, when he managed to look for a little while at the activity in the room. Now he was intrigued and wanted to know more about his neighbors. He wanted to know who they are, what they do, what sort of practices are they employing while burning that stuff which he did not recognize. The “cling” of the elevator made him realize that someone on that floor was coming and obviously it couldn’t’ve been anybody else but one of his two neighbors. Even if he would’ve made it to his door, he didn’t want to be seen, as from elevator there was a clear sight path to his door. He had to make a split second decision. By the end of the hallway there was a vending machine, so he decided to simulate a purchase. When he got to the machine, he realized that there was enough space between vending machine and the wall, so he hid himself in that space, while being all eyes and ears with whatever would happen on the floor. He was right…his neighbors across the hall were coming back to the apartment, or at least people they knew. Five double knocks on the door followed and John realized that that was a coded knocking as the knocking intervals were identical time wise. His curiosity reached a climax. Soon, the door opened and the guests entered, not before having a short conversation with the person who opened up. The voice of one of the guests sounded familiar. “Swear, I heard that voice before”…John was about to leave his hide-out, when his fine ears picked up a noise coming again from that direction. The door opened and while one person was walking out, another person (still inside) mentioned something in Chinese. This time, John recognized the voice of the woman who was standing in the dark while he was trying to fix the flickering light. Shortly, another person started walking towards the vending machine. John felt a torrent of cold sweat running down his spine. He even refrained from breathing. The sequence of making a purchase at the vending machine followed: cash in, selection, product dispense. John realized that a beverage was bought judging by the noise made by the falling container. All of a sudden, when he thought that the person would leave, he felt like a grenade just landed into his lap: the individual who just made a purchase spoke into a very good English, but with a heavy Chinese accent: “Did she ask for a diet or regular? Hmmm…why don’t I buy both, to be safe?” He chuckled, made another purchase and headed back to the apartment. Same routine followed: coded knocking, door opening and then silence. It was Tony Gang! John still spent another five minutes or so into his hide-out. When everything was settled, he got out and headed straight for his room. Carefully opened the door trying to not make a sound and got in. He then leaned against the door wiping his sweat with the back of his hand. Immediately looked at his wrist watch and realized that it was already eight o’clock. “Ok, no time for shower”. He opened up the door without trying to make a noise and headed towards elevators. Now he had Tony as his neighbor or friend of his neighbor. Vic was already in the Lobby. John could also see Zhaohui admiring a lemon tree which just blossomed and was spreading an out of this world perfume. When Vic grabbed her arm in a sign of: “we have to go” she was almost in state of transcendence, trying to fondle every flower with her eyes sight, trying to embrace the whole tree and call it “brother”. She startled and looked at Vic. Her look was the look of somebody who was just woken up from a meditating state of mind and was now making efforts to come back to reality. John’s fine sense of reading people’s faces picked up this little detail, adding it to the other three strange encounters of the day. It was a day to remember for sure. All three of them walked out and in a minute the taxi that was waiting for them headed to the place Vic or his fiancée picked. Same like last time, it was a place where one could have a nice dinner with the family or with the friends without living his shirt with the waiter or at the cashier. Again, they had a booth which was surrounded by fake trees and a fence made out of bamboo wood, which was giving an overall rustic look at the place and customers a sense of privacy. Lights were skillfully hidden into the fence so the customer wouldn’t see them and also between the branches of those fake trees “planted” into large pots. Once they were sited, John ordered right away a round of beers. Vic looked at him and realized that he didn’t even change the cloths he wore earlier. The two men looked at each other and John understood right away that he owed Vic some answers. He slightly bent his head in an affirmative way, thus telling Vic that they need to talk. In spite of the fact that John tried to make Vic understand this should stay between them, his friend pretended he did not understand and with a tone which showed a complete confidence in his fiancée, he asked John to tell them whatever he had in mind. At this point, John understood that from now on he has no other choice but to trust Zhaohui. Her slender eyes were now the shape of two knife blades, scrutinizing every emotion shown on John’s face, every gesture he was making. Once again, he felt like he was going through an interrogation, though a Purgatory where he was analyzed, weighed and placed into a certain category, a category he felt like he had nothing to do with. He looked again at Vic. Unfortunately, his friend had his head almost buried into the Menu, thus telling John that he either wants out of this, or John will have to share everything he wanted to tell him with Zhaohui. Finding himself into a situation with no end, he opened up and released everything he’s been through that afternoon. As the story was revealing, both Vic and his fiancée became more and more engaged into participating into events by virtually absorbing every word which was coming out of his mouth. At the end, Zhaohui placed both her hands on the table and while still looking John straight into his eyes, she said something which made both John and Vic startle.

-You need to move.

These words made John feel like he was hit with a hammer right into the back of his head, it was like the earth opened up and was ready to swallow him alive.

Why? What is wrong with him being there? So what if Tony Gang was his neighbor – or his neighbor’s friend?

-Why do I have to move? His tone was almost abrasive, angry and investigative.

A long silence followed up his question. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations he’s been into. Neither Vic nor Zhaohui were willing to say something, so John felt like it was his duty to break the ice and do whatever was necessary to make the atmosphere friendly and pleasant again.

-Why do I have to stay away from Tony? Who is this guy anyway?

Another round of deep silence followed, at which point John started to be afraid. He didn’t know exactly why, but the two episodes of unusual behavior from his interlocutors made him retreat into defense, into a self-preserving mode. This whole endeavor, the strange situations he’s been through in just twenty four hours, the things he just couldn’t comprehend and understand, took a toll on him already. His instinct was telling him to back up and wait for things to clear up. But his competitive and fighting nature prevailed. He was not going to give up fighting before the battle even started! That’s for sure!

-I guess I need an answer from you two guys…

-Beers, Sir! Want to order? The waiter came at a moment at which the tension between them was reaching its peak. It was like a safety valve of a pressure vessel kicked in and released the built up steam, released the tremendous forces accumulated into a boiling container.

-Yes, we would like to order. What do you recommend some hungry folks should have for dinner? What your specialties are?

Vic picked up the vibe on the fly and in an impeccable Chinese ordered without asking everybody else at the table what would they want to eat. It was a moment when all three of them released a sigh of relief, a sigh of easiness and disengagement a suspiration which saved the night. John and Zhaohui were still looking at each other in a way which one would say it was confrontational, hostile, adverse and abrasive. However, still a warm trusty feeling was floating in the air and the actors were just waiting for something to happen, for some positive energy to take over and relief the tension.

-Did he tell you anything else besides explaining why the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing?

-No. But he did invite me to take a trip with him to see these two cities.

-You didn’t mention it when you told us the story.

-Oh…sorry, I obviously missed it. Why is this so important? Once again Zhaohui’s eyes turned into blade sharp shapes and John felt one more time how he was scrutinized and weighed.

-Because Gang does not do anything without a purpose, without using all the tools he has on hand (especially people) to achieve his goals. He wants to have you close to him for a longer period of time to find out what you want, why you are here (probably he already figured out by now), what are your weaknesses, what are your strengths, how he can manipulate you in order to divert your attention towards dead ends.

-Wow…J.J. warned me and during the short conversation I had with Tony last night, I figured out he is sneaky, well versed in reading people and very crafty.

A large smile flooded her face. Zhaohui pointed her index finger towards John and with a calm and balanced voice said:

-John, I believe you are the right person for this job. J.J. is lucky to have you on his side.

-Thanks, Zhaohui. Appreciate. But I will need big time help from you two guys.

-That’s why we are here, discussing this thing. John realized that for a while, Vic hasn’t been saying a word. He refrained himself at reading the Menu in spite of the fact that the orders were already placed.

-So…I believe that both of you or at least one, was planning to tell me something. John looked straight into Vic’s fiancée eyes. He realized that Vic made a step back, leaving his future wife to do the honors and answer John’s questions. Zhaohui turned her hands with the palms facing the ceiling and with a jovial and cheerful (this time) voice asked John:

-What’s the rush? We have time. Let’s eat first.

He understood that he has to slow down, to pick up the pace at which people function in this country, that he cannot rush things as the output would’ve probably been different from what he expected.

-Sure. I am hungry like a wolf. Both Vic and John burst into a big and healthy laughter, accompanied by Zhaohui. John couldn’t help but notice her beautiful, crystalline tone which gave up a person with a talent for singing.

-I told you! You gotta’ stop using my line!

-Alright, Sir! I promise, not to use it again.

The atmosphere was now relaxed, cheerful, joyful and sociable. At the same time, the dinner showed up and soon, all three of them became fully concentrated on meal only. From time to time, Zhaohui was explaining the kind of dishes brought at the table, where they originated, how were made and what other dishes from different Provinces would be similar to what they have on the table. Overall, the dinner was great, they told lots of jokes and John started picking up bits and pieces of Chinese humor.

The meal was great and all three of them felt like the time they spent together around the table was time well spent, was time in which their friendship strengthened and was taken to a different level: to a complete trust status. At the end, while waiting for their desserts, Zhaohui started telling the story which John was waiting for so anxiously…her voice was clear and well balanced, was melodious and soft, thus keeping ones attention tuned to the subject

-That April twenty fifth of 1644 was unusually warm. The lemon, the cherry and the mandarin trees were all blossomed into Imperial Garden. There was so much peace, tranquility and quietness in the garden and the lemon flowers were smelling like they were from a different world. At this point, John couldn’t help himself but startle. He remembered the gimmick on her face when she was admiring the blossomed lemon tree in the Lobby of the hotel. Also, she was speaking in a way which would give one the impression that she was there. His heart was now pumping blood at a rate he felt like would explode. Are all these personages: Mr. Wang, Tony Gang and Zhaohui linked somehow together to the last days of the Ming Dynasty? Are they time travelers? His American background, Western education and rationality made him calm down and take a deep breath. “No way, man! Nobody is travelling through time all the way from 1644!” He sketched a little smile and was again all eyes and ears at her story.

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 22

Mr. Wang

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

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

-Good morning, John!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Hey, this is my line!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-This looks great!

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

-Fantastic! I am as hungry as a wolf!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long you be in Shanghai Mr. John?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How was I supposed to know?

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

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

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

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

-Where is Wang?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I leave. Have good day gentlemen.

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

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

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

-Gentlemen, you have meeting. It is late.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 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”.