Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 43 (Yue Ying)

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 43

Yue Ying

John was mesmerized! The two girls he bumped into on his first day in Shanghai, were now on the stage. The traditional white overcoats (waist long) were contrasting with the black modern stretched skirts. Who would ever thought at such an out of the box idea? A traditional Chinese overcoat and a modern stretch skirt? The overcoats were tighten up with wonderful wide ribbons knotted with skill and taste while the characters out of (probably) Chinese Mythology were filling the background. The colors and the execution of the characters was exquisite to say the least. Yellow stitches were beautifully blending with red ones, while the majestic purple purls were encompassing the whole scenery. John’s fine and trained eye for details immediately picked up a difference between the coats the two girls were wearing. The shorter girl (who did not speak much during their street encounter) had the whole scenery on her coat surrounded by thick magenta purls while the other girl’s coat scenery was surrounded by red thick purls. Immediately he remembered that the magenta/purple color represents royalty while red is the color of the upper class in medieval China.

“Wow…is she trying to tell audience that she is a royal? However, she is so beautiful! She deserves to be a royal. I am so excited to hear what they are going to sing. It looks like it will be traditional Chinese music. Not a bad idea we listened to this numb nut who calls himself a cab driver”. John pulled a large smile and nodded affirmatively to their taxi driver who was all eyes and ears waiting for the show to start. The smile, the genuine happiness on his face was priceless. He truly believed that his driving skills landed him some pretty lucrative business with these two foreigners.

The lights went down and everybody was taking his seat to listen to the show. The noisy neighbors insisted in showing everybody that they are there to make a statement, to have fun and eventually get even drunker than they already were. They were using the silver in front of them to bang it against the table. The noise was loud and John felt like he couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and headed to their table:

-Guys, would you mind keeping it down a notch? We are trying to listen to some music.

-Listen to this mates…pretty boy wants us to keep it down a notch? What’ya all thinking?

A huge laughter burst from the table and the four drunken men started hitting the table with their fists. The tension reached the peak. John took a peek at the band. The only one who didn’t seem to be scared out of the four of them, was Yue Ying. She managed to stay calm and composed but one would’ve realized that she was furious inside. The beautiful white face, the gorgeous cheeks with two hues which were emphasizing an angelic smile, the long dark flowing hair which was cascading on one side only to fall on the left breast and thus leading  the imagination of the interlocutor to earthly things, caught John by surprise. He was just now realizing how beautiful this girl was! Their eye sights met and an out of the Earth smile flourished on Yue Ying’s lips.

John tried to smile back, but he couldn’t. He thought that he swallowed his Adam’s apple. His lips were dry and felt like he urgently needed a glass of water. “Jesus…she is so beautiful!” His attention was again drawn back to the table of the four drunken sailors.

-Swallowed your tongue, pretty boy? So, what are you going to do about this? One of the individuals closest to him was now laughing right into his face while pounding the table even harder with his fists. At this very moment John’s sight was completely blurred – he was furious to say the least. His quick thinking and trained eye for detail realized that the individual was leaning rearward into his chair and thus the two front legs of the chair were not touching the ground anymore. With a kick into one of the rear legs of the chair, he made the man who was laughing at him land on the ground as the chair lost another point of stability. His first intention was to punch the guy into his face, but he realized that the next man sitting to his left, was already on his feet and had his chair lifted up ready to hit John into the head. To John’s advantage, due to the alcohol consumption the man was not very stable on his feet and this gave John the opportunity to step aside. The man completely missed his target and thus greatly leaning forward into a completely unstable stance. John made a fist and with a well-placed hook into the liver area, made the individual moan from pain and put a knee on the ground. This was the moment when the large fellow who was the body-guard of the restaurant stepped in and made a great statement by pounding the table with his huge fist. The silverware was now all on the ground while the glasses broke one after another one after hitting the ground. The two individuals who were still sitting at the table, ducked. The stature of this fellow was impressive to say the least. He grabbed both of them by the collars of their shirts and apparently with no effort whatsoever crushed their faces against the table. It was a moment when everybody realized how powerful this Hercules truly was. Immediately, an individual (who came out of the kitchen) showed up and assessed the situation by getting an update from the body guard.

-Gentlemen, I am asking you to leave my restaurant. At this point, one of the men (who had the pleasure of “biting the table”) was able to speak as Hercules loosened his grip on them:

-It’s OK, Sir. We will not bother you anymore. It’s OK. I will make sure that it will not happen. My friends just wanted more drinks…that’s all.

-You guys are already drunk! And you are asking for more drinks? Are you kidding? John’s voice was loud and had a tonality which was not hiding at all his disgust with the drunken individuals.

-We will keep it down. Just get us another round of double shot whiskey and we will keep quiet. John couldn’t believe his ears when he saw the owner’s eyes shining like a Christmas tree and especially when he heard him saying:

-OK, gentlemen. But you pay first.

-Of course, no problem mate.

-Very well, Sir: four double shots of whiskey. That would be eight hundred fifty RMB.

-No problem! Bring the drinks, mate!

John was stunned. On one hand he couldn’t believe that after all the trouble they went through, the owner was ready to bring them even more drinks…

-I cannot believe this! You want to give them more alcohol? They will not stop! They will create even more trouble! You are making a big mistake, Sir!

John’s voice was again loud, but this time was embracing a tonality which betrayed a sentiment of perplexity rather than anger and disgust.

-Sir, I appreciate your help. And as a thank you for all the trouble you went through, the drinks at your table are on the house.

John was speechless! “This is unbelievable! He is still giving them drinks!” But the very next second, John remembered the price the owner was charging for the drinks: “He is charging eight hundred fifty RMB! That would be roughly thirty dollars for a double shot. Not bad! He is charging American prices and I am sure he will give them a cheap whiskey” A smile came up on John’s face as he assessed the situation: “He will ask his body guard to keep an eye on them so they will not be trouble anymore and in the meantime he is taking a couple of skins off of them? I have to admit that this is kind of brilliant!”

-I thank you for your offer Sir, but we have no problem paying for our consumption.

-I understand, Sir. But this is a thank you from the house and it would be disrespectful if you refused.

John startled! He looked closer at his interlocutor’s face, as he tried to read him. The lights were down, so he couldn’t really guess the features of his face. But behind the glasses, John guessed two sharp and intelligent eyes. John’s natural curiosity kicked in and now he wanted to get to know the man better, to get to see his physiognomy and eventually understand what he was up to…

-Sir, please understand that business is business. They were trouble from the beginning, but on the other hand I have to make a living…I have to make money somehow. To me, this is an opportunity more than it is a trouble. His voice gradually changed and it made John freeze when mentioned about “making money”…he swore in his mind that he heard Mr. Wang’s voice. Now John was frightened. A cold sweat was now running down his spine. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. What was bothering him the most, was the fact that the restaurant owner was always keeping his face into the shadow, into the dark, carefully making sure that John doesn’t see much.

-Very well, Sir! I thank you for your kindness. We accept your offer.

-Once again, Sir…I thank you for your help.

John slightly tilted his head in a sign of respect and headed back to his table where the driver and Vic were still having trouble digesting what had just happened into the last two minutes. The owner gave few orders and two helpers showed up with brooms and cleaned up the mess from the nearby table.

-What was that? And why are you so pale? You look like a corpse! Vic’s voice was genuinely sounding like the voice of someone who is troubled by whatever he is seeing.

-I can swear that I heard Mr. Wang’s voice when the owner spoke to me.

-That guy who came out of the kitchen is the owner?

John nodded in an affirmative way.

-What did he tell you?

-He said that he will fulfill the request of these four drunken guys and give them more alcohol – business is business…

-Wow! This guy must’ve been trained in America! Vis’s laughter was not accompanied by his friend’s laughter, signaling the fact that John was still troubled by the encounter he had with the restaurant owner. The four neighbors seemed to be alright and quit creating trouble, especially after the waiter showed up with their drinks.

-John, I have to admit that you were brilliant! The way you knocked down those two guys was awesome!

-They are drunk, Vic…you could’ve put’em down yourself…all four of them.

-Of course I could’ve…you’ve never seen my jab and my one-two combination followed by my deadly upper cut, man! This time both of them burst into a huge laughter and a good and happy mood settled at the table. The cab driver clapped his hands towards John and simulated two jabs with his fists:

-You, good fight! Bam, bam! Once again, the two friends started laughing. Tears were coming out of Vic’s eyes…

-Mr. Football…you good fight, too! Bam, bam! Vic was holding his abdomen with both his hands, while John was trying hard not to follow him. However, the atmosphere at their table was set for what apparently was supposed to be a good night out.

The stage was ready…the lights came down again and the band was ready to show their talent.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 42 (Turkish coffee on a Sunday afternoon)

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 42

Turkish coffee on a Sunday afternoon

Ismail showed up followed by two apprentices (apparently) who was each bringing a large tray loaded with goodies; immediately memories from their trip to Anatolia surfaced. Linda remembered their good times in Turkey, the sweets they ate, the fresh fruits from the farmers market, the great dinners they had while watching the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea. However, Linda couldn’t see the coffee. Shortly, she realized that another helper standing behind the two plate bearers was holding something strange which was releasing a heavenly smell. It was a sort of wooden box which apparently had something burning inside. Soon her wonders were completely shattered when the two boys carrying the plates placed them onto the table and immediately after stepped aside thus making room for the third one to step forward. Linda realized that it was a ritual well planned and studied, a mini show which was probably done for the important guests and most likely had a known significance. The young bearer of the coffee chest stepped back and all three helpers left as quietly and elusively as they came. It was Ismail’s turn to carry on. Slowly he kneeled and started stirring into something. Linda’s curiosity was shown on her face, making their host smile. He made a discreet sign, telling Linda to approach and watch. It was a magic moment: he was making coffee into a large ibrik which was slowly boiling into a bed of fine hot sand. The fire source must’ve been underneath the sand layer as she felt a comforting wave of heat radiating from underneath. The wooden box must’ve been made out of pine tree as the familiar smell of the resinous family was tickling her nostrils. She immediately remembered this coffee making technique, very common in Middle East. Next moment was truly impressive: with a dexterity which betrayed lots of practice during many years of experience, Ismail pulled two wonderfully decorated ceramic cups, placed them in front of his guests and half-filled them up. Then from a little red box found on the fruit plate, he took one little cube of sugar and put it into Linda’s cup. Slowly stirred until a nice, goldish layer of foam covered the entire surface. Then, with a slow and meticulous motion he finished up filling the cup. Again he started stirring very carefully until another layer of foam, thicker than the previous one encompassed the whole surface of the liquid.

-The smell is out of this world, to say the least! Linda was truly sincere with her statement, which made Ismail bow even more and thank again for the visit.

-Allah sizi korusun, Mrs. Parker! It is my pleasure to have you and Mr. Glenworth as my guests. Then, as elusively as his helpers, he disappeared.

It was a moment of deep silence. Ismail’s departure created a difficult moment for sure. However, J.J. realized the awkwardness of the situation and quickly broke the silence:

-What do you think of this table, Linda? He asked the question with a large and candid smile on his face. He knew that he managed to impress Linda by taking her at this unusual place.

-Stunning! I think I remember all these goodies which are placed on this plate, said Linda while pointing at one of the plates.

-Of course you remember. This stuff is very common in Turkey as well as in Middle East. But the Turks took it to a different level of refinement and sophistication. It is called Turkish delight – you know this – or in Turkish is: lokum. It was the preferred desert of many great Sultans including Suleiman the Magnificent. It takes great knowledge to make it and only master confectioners knew all the secrets to make this great dessert. Then, as the time passed by, it became more and more sophisticated when the masters started mixing the gelatin with all sort of nuts or dried fruits. For instance, on this plate we have samples of this famous gelatin mixed with (at this point, J.J. started pointing at each different assortment): pistachios, almonds, hazelnut, walnut, coconut, rose petals, dates, dried apricots and even marshmallows. We do have few samples of “rahat lokum” and you can see that they are plain – no fillings. Master Turkish confectioners are saying that the true art and skill of a confectioner is shown when he makes this product. And the reason is that in this case you do not have the help of the nuts or the fruits to enhance the flavor. You have to completely rely on the gelatin and whatever aromatic essences you are using. For instance, we have these red samples – I am one hundred percent sure they are using rose petals syrup and essence. How about these beautiful yellow ones? You already guessed: they are made with lemon essence…the art is to balance the sweet gelatin with the lemon juice or essence. How about these gorgeous orange ones? Of course they are using oranges or mandarins. And so on…the variances are unlimited. At this point, J.J. stopped and with a voice which transpired knowledge and authority said:

-Let’s have our coffee now. But before we start sipping from this gorgeous looking cups, I suggest we have some fruits: white grapes first, then a couple of slices of orange and we finish with two or three cubes of cantaloupes.

Linda followed J.J.’s advice and started eating the fruits in the exact order mentioned by J.J. The flavor and the taste of these fruits was so different from what they were buying at grocery store…she couldn’t stop smelling the fruits prior to eating them.

J.J. smiled and with the tone of somebody who knows the business said:

-You cannot find them in our grocery stores. This sort of fruit quality would make the price go high and no grocer chain can afford it. Not too many people would buy and they would eventually go bankrupt.

-Still, how does he manage to bring such high quality products into his store? Now I remember (it is almost like yesterday) the smell of the fresh fruits when we were wondering through the fruit markets of Antalya, Aleppo, Jerusalem or Haifa. I could’ve spent the whole day there, just smelling those fruits!

-Of course! They are using sustainable agricultural land management programs and this is the reason why their fruits and vegetables are so tasty. These countries are still preserving their centuries old techniques of farming and the result is obvious: high quality products free of chemicals and additives. I will have to ask Ismail where he is getting his fruits from…in spite of the fact that we’ve been known each other for long time (and I can say that we are good friends), I don’t think he will tell me. J.J. pulled a loud laughter out of his massive frame and in spite of the fact that Linda was into a self-protective mode, she joined in.

-And you two guys are friends?

-Yeap…but business it’s business. No friendship, no feelings are interfering with the way or the decisions you are making when doing business.

Linda startled! “Is this statement directed at me? Is he trying to tell me that the fact he sent John to China and left him hanging it is business as usual? Bastard! I have to be careful now”

J.J. was tasting the fruits one after another one, slowly and methodically. He was leaving the impression that his whole attention was concentrated into getting the most out of the fruit’s flavor. Periodically he was closing his eyes into a gesture of absolute delight while chewing onto small slices or cubes from the tray in front of them. Linda decided to follow and soon her taste buds were indeed feeling the aroma of those fruits while her nostrils were dilating every time she was bringing a slice close to her mouth. “God these fruits are so tasty!”

It didn’t take long before most of the fruits were gone…

-We did a fantastic job! There is not much left! J.J. pulled another big laughter out of his large chest. Now it’s time we taste some lokum. You probably like the filled style, but I strongly recommend you also taste rahat lokum – the simple one – no fillings. I need your opinion.

-I will sure try it out. But for the beginning, I will go for the pistachios filled lokum.

-Great choice. Let me know how you like it…

Linda took a bite out of one of them…instantaneously, she remembered the taste of this dessert they were buying from the vendors directly on the streets of Antalya or Jerusalem. The smell, the taste, the colors and the aromas of those products they tasted many years ago came back with the same intensity as if it was yesterday. So many memories rushed in! A beautiful smile sparkled on her lips, smile which made her whole face shine and glow, glaze and glisten. J.J. was closely watching her reactions…he was too versed and trained into human psychology not to spy on his interlocutor’s state of mind, on her feelings, on her ability to hide all of the above. When Linda realized that J.J. is watching her emotions, she turned into a stone. A blank face replaced that gorgeous smile. From that moment the discussion became a chess game. Each player was actually trying to guess his opponent’s next move, next emotional reaction and next fall back. The conversation turned into a banal chit-chatting in which the answers and the questions were almost mono-syllabic. Few moments of embarrassing silence followed up and J.J. realized that he has to break the ice once again.

-A little time ago, I saw a great smile on your face, Linda…was that a smile of nice memories coming back?

Linda startled and looked at him with an almost hostile state of mind. “Unbelievable! This guy can read minds!” She became frustrated and impatient and for the moment she decided to raise her guard even higher in an attempt to watch between her gloves his next move.

-Linda, why did you pick this particular church for your Sunday Mass?

The question fell like a hammer! Earlier, J.J. answered the same question by saying that he had relatives in the neighborhood. Amazingly, his relatives’ names were Peter and Andrew! Now she was frightened! J.J. was somehow related to the two men which made such a great impression on her, he was relative with Peter who showed up in the church and prayed with her and made her believe that her father re-incarnated into his body…

Every move J.J. was making, put her into a defense mode, asked her to take a step back and pushed her into the corner. It was a situation Linda couldn’t take anymore…she decided to throw all the cards on the table and point blank ask J.J. what he wants, ask him why he asked her to join him for this afternoon coffee into such unusual place? She felt like she was running out of aces, she felt like no more steps backward needed to be taken! She was ready to throw the question out there, when out of nowhere, Ismail showed up; as elusively as he slipped away, he made his way back…

-Is everything ok? Is everything as you had expected? How were the fruits? How about the lokum? I hope the coffee didn’t get cold! Let me fill up the cups…it looks like we need a little work to be done here. Without even getting the permission from the two guests, he poured the coffee from the two cups into a secondary recipient which was immediately picked up by a helper and taken away; then he started stirring into the large ibrik he had on the hot sand. The smell of the freshly brewed coffee encompassed the boot again and the flavors of the roasted beans brought again a sense of calmness, a sense of serenity and forgiveness, a sense of peace and tranquility.

Linda was stunned…”How come he showed up exactly when I wanted to confront J.J.? These two guys are for sure hand in hand! But how do they communicate to each other?” Linda was furious! However, something inside her heart told her to hold back, told her not to ask the questions she was ready to ask…

-Now is the right time to taste the coffee, Linda! We had the fruits, we had some lokum…now the time is perfect to take few sips from this heavenly made liquid.

J.J. picked up his cup and with a sort of: “cheers” gesture, he closed his eyes, slowly sipped from the high quality ceramic cup he had in his hand and then put it back on its little plate on the table while still keeping his eyes closed.

“What a fraud! What a show off!” Linda was not happy at all with the way things were progressing. “I was about to spill the beans, when Ismail showed up all of a sudden! And now, J.J. is keeping his eyes closed, in an attempt to tell me that he wants to enjoy his coffee! This charade has got to stop! Does he think I am a school girl he can twirl around his fingers and do whatever he wants with me?”

Again she wanted to ask J.J. the questions which bothered her…and once again Ismail showed up.

-Do you need anything else? Mrs. Parker, how is the coffee? I wish you are enjoying your stay here, at my humble place.

Linda was perplex! The second time she wanted to take it to J.J., Ismail showed up. It looked to her that he was somehow J.J.’s guardian angel. She was now fuming with frustration, but then she looked at Ismail…his face was transpiring such a genuine, childish happiness; it such a great way to say thank you for visiting…this took all her anger away. His tanned, wrinkled face, coupled with the greatest and kindest smile, made her drop the weapons. There was so much genuine kindness in his smile, there was so much gratitude and appreciation in his words! Linda put her cup down on the plate and looked at her host. His little eyes were radiating with joy and humbleness, with pleasure and happiness. Linda was once again into a puzzled situation…”This is the second time he is preventing me from speaking up, from spilling the beans, from taking it to J.J.; why is this happening? What sort of ties are between him and J.J.? Why is he always showing up when I want to ask J.J. some straight forward questions?” Linda didn’t know anymore how to react. However she remembered an advice from her dad…an advice he gave her long, long time ago: “Linda, when you find yourself at the cross-roads and don’t know which way to go, sit back and listen. If listening is not enough, just let Good Lord make that decision for you”. She smiled again, looked up and in her mind said again: “Thanks Dad! I will let Good Lord make the decision for me; right now I’m stuck…I am serious, dad: I am stuck” She managed to put up a great smile on her face, lifted up the coffee cup and sipped from the dark goldish brown liquid. Then she sipped again, and again…a strange feeling of acceptance and peacefulness encompassed her. The confrontation and adversity perception left her mind, leaving room just for harmony and serenity. She couldn’t explain this metaphoric state of mind, so she decided to let it go, as the advice from her father surfaced up.

J.J. was in a transcendence like type of mode. He was sipping slowly from the cup and then placing it back on the plate while keeping his eyes closed. It was a sort of saying: “don’t disturb me”. Linda complied with this new scenario and decided to enjoy this truly special coffee.

Finally, when they were almost done, J.J. opened his eyes and as loosely as he had his coffee, he invited Linda to have another lokum.

-Now it’s time to finish up…please try the rahat lokum…we have four choices: orange, lemon, rose and mango. Without inviting Linda again, he picked up a mango square. Linda looked at the plate and grabbed a reddish piece. It was a rose flavored rahat lokum. The first bite she had, made her mind travel back to the times of their honey moon travelling…it was literally like smelling a rose from the garden! It was so flavored and the perfume of the roses in blooming came back. It was so tasty and real, it was so genuine and flavorful! “This is out of this world! So delicious and so tasteful!”

Few more minutes went by, time in which both J.J. and Linda enjoyed the sweets they chose. Nobody was saying a word anymore. And it looked like Linda seized from asking the questions she wanted to ask. She leaned back against the comfortable pillows and enjoyed the delicious dessert while sipping from time to time from the coffee she had left into the cup. They systematically avoided each other’s eyes…it was a sort of armistice and gentlemen’s agreement between them: “nobody takes charge anymore”. This situation frustrated Linda, as she wanted more answers from J.J.

But she also realized that he was a heavy weight player, who will not give up anything if he wanted to do so.

-I think it’s time to say thank you to our host…do you want anything else, Linda?

-Everything was fantastic, J.J.! I am good. I guess we can go now.

-Very well. I thank you for a lovely Sunday evening.

-The pleasure was all mine, J.J.! I thank you for introducing me to this great and unusual place.

-Anytime, Linda. Whenever you want to have a good coffee and some great sweets, just drop by Ismail’s coffee house. It’s not that far from your house.

-Absolutely! I will take John here, as soon as he returns.

-I am sure he would like it. Shall we go?

-Yes, please. I thank you again for your invitation.

-Pleasure is all mine.

They stood up and headed for the exit. On their way, Ismail greeted them again:

-Many thanks for visiting my place, Mr. Glenworth and Mrs. Parker!

-Kesinlikle memnun, efendi Ismail!

-Zevk bana ait, Mr. Glenworth. Allah seninle oslun, Mrs. Parker…may Allah be with you, Mrs. Parker

-And with you too, Efendi Ismail!

-Let me show you to the door…Ismail took charge and headed for the exit. Their shoes were waiting for them as well as their coats. Linda was shocked that Ismail never brought a bill…”It looks like J.J. has a running bill here; I guess he can afford it” She felt like giggling, but stopped short from doing so. She didn’t fully understand what the business relationship was between them, so she kept quiet. Once out of the door, J.J. took his hat off and with a slight tilt of his head thanked Linda for a great afternoon.

-The pleasure was mine, J.J. and as I said: I thank you for inviting me to such a lovely and unusual place.

-It was a great pleasure to have you as a companion today, Linda. As always, your grace and style are turning heads.

-Thank you again, J.J. I hope you will enjoy the rest of your weekend.

-You too, Linda.

Both of them started heading for their cars, when J.J. stopped and with a voice as authoritarian and at the same time as protective as it could be, he called Linda:

-Linda!

She stopped and turned around completely puzzled:

-Yes, J.J.! Is there something wrong?

-No Linda…nothing wrong. I just wanted to tell you that I never ever betrayed my friends and I will never ever do it, no matter how dire the situation is for me! I would rather die than leaving a friend hanging. This is all I wanted to say. You have a good night and may Good Lord watch over you.

Within few seconds J.J. got into his car and disappeared. His last sentence made Linda understand that he read all her fears, all her doubts and questions. Now she was scared: “He can read minds! Who is J.J.? Is John right in saying that he is part of the story? Then why he sent John there?” Her mind was now trying to comprehend all the information she has got in the last twenty-four hours…however, J.J.’s last sentence brought her to an ease: “I will never ever betray a friend…”

A smile flourished on her lips…she started the engine and soon she found herself on the freeway. The trees on the side of the road were zooming by. But her mind was still at the conversation she had with John…”J.J. is involved into this China business; the question is: at what extent, at which level? Well, at least he is saying that he will not betray John”

She stepped on the gas pedal and left all the worries behind her. Somehow, she now trusted that John will not be left hanging, as J.J. said. Soon, she pulled into the driveway.

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 41 (Ismail)

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 41

Ismail

Once inside, Linda felt the warmth of the place…not necessarily temperature wise, but the warmth released by a well decorated room, by a room full of nice paintings hanged on the brown wooden panels which were entirely covering the walls. “This place is so…so…so different; it is exactly the opposite of Mr. Ferrari’s. It is sober yet warm, it is classy yet very inviting and friendly”; Linda murmured these two sentences while turning around to catch as much details of the place as possible. The fire place had a real log lit up and this was bringing the patrons a nice and warm feeling, a sense of homeliness and belonging, a sense of uncapped curiosity and willingness of exploring new things.

-Iyi gϋnler Bay Glenworth, Iyi gϋnler; what a pleasure! Long time…

-Efendi Ismail, good day to you too. Yes, it has been a while since I stepped into your store. I apologize for not dropping by more often.

-Mr. Glenworth, you are always welcome at my place. I can see that you have a guest.

-Yes, Efendi Ismail…this is Mrs. Parker. She is the wife of one of my top Managers at Glenworth.

-Linda Parker is my name, Efendi Ismail. It is a pleasure to meet you. Linda stretched her hand for the hand shake. Ismail bowed and shook her hand while saying something in Turkish:

-Seninle tanişmak ne gϋzel, Bayan Parker! What a pleasure to meet you!

-The pleasure is all mine, Efendi Ismail! I love your place. I have to admit that is different…different from everything we have here. Actually last time when I stepped into a Turkish coffee shop (which resembles yours), was many years ago…we made it into one of the little towns, down in Anatolia, by the sea. After we dropped our luggage, we started touring the town and we stopped by this little place, right on the seafront. They had a gorgeous patio full of flowers. But inside, it was heaven…so beautifully decorated with all sort of handcrafted things. We were both so impressed. That was also the time when my husband bought a copper ibrik. The next day, the man who sold us the pot, came by our hotel and gave it to my husband. In the meantime, he had written something on the pot. Apparently he was the pot master. We absolutely loved everything we found there: the people, the culture, the little villages and of course the food!

Linda’s story may had been sat really well with the host, as his eyes were all lit up and the face was radiant and illuminated by pride and gratitude. One could see that the man standing in front of J.J. and Linda, was taking great pride in the fact that such a well-read and educated woman was praising his culture and his native lands.

-May Great Allah bless you and your family Mrs. Parker! May I ask what the pot master had written on the pot?

-I think: “For those who love each other now and forever”…I completely forgot, but my husband remembered. As a matter of fact, last week he made coffee in that pot.

-Pardon me if I ask one more question, Mrs. Parker…do you remember the name of that little town?

-Oh…Efendi Ismail…now you got me puzzled…I am not really a person with fantastic knowledge of Geography, but my husband is. When he returns, we will for sure pay you a visit. He can list all the places we visited in the Middle East and Turkey, all the little towns, taverns, little ma and pa stores, all museums and libraries we stepped into.

-It is a great pleasure to hear this, Mrs. Parker! I am looking forward to meet your husband. Now, if I may take you to a booth I am sure you will enjoy what we can offer here, in this little store of ours. Ismail deeply tilted his trunk from the middle section of his body and took the lead in taking his new customers into an area which from the entrance, one wouldn’t have guessed it even existed. As a matter of fact, the coffee shop was gaining space while advancing towards the back. Linda figured out right away that Ismail started small and slowly bought the businesses at the rear end of his shop. Now his coffee shop was stretching for the whole width of the small plaza. He smartly divided the patrons’ area with little live palm trees, creating an oasis atmosphere. As a matter of fact, every booth was surrounded from three places with wooden barrels in which he planted six feet tall palm and fig trees. Nobody knew how he managed to keep these trees this short, but they definitely were giving the patrons the sensation of a fairy tale, a feeling similar to the un matchable “Arabian nights”

The spot Ismail chose for his guests was “tucked” somehow at the far end of the room and one would realize that it was meant to be “awarded” to special people who were visiting his business. It was almost secluded from other booths by being almost encircled with these barrels. The palm and the fig trees were offering a full “protection” from the other patrons’ eyes and the sign “Reserved” strengthened Linda’s opinion that J.J. was a very important guest whenever he decided to sip and enjoy a good Turkish coffee. Her mind started asking questions once again: “How does J.J. know this place? How does he know Ismail? What is the relationship between him and the man who owns this place? Is this just another coincidence, same like her encounters with Peter and Andrew McCarthy? At the end of the day, who is the real J.J.?” All these questions were pouring in, tormenting her imagination and judgement.

Linda realized that all these booths were designed for people to sit in that lotus position, typical to oriental cultures. It was the time when J.J. asked her:

-I hope you don’t mind sitting at this table, do you? It requires a certain flexibility I guess, but I do not think this is a big deal for you. You are an athlete!

His face was all of a sudden lit up with a large and kind smile, a smile which left Linda perplex. She was in a defensive mode since she decided to follow J.J.’s invite, but this last turn of events puzzled her. He was jovial, he was relaxed and he was happy and eager to taste once again from the liquid which was filling the air into the room with aromas which were making ones imagination wonder through the stories of the childhood, stories riddled with white palaces built into the oasis, stories with princes and princes , stories with  betrayals and chivalry.

The room was indeed loaded with scents which were inevitably bringing the patrons at ease, at peace and was making them relax and enjoy their coffee and the sweets which were brought along with the unique Turkish coffee.

Linda realized that the seats were actually very comfortable divans which had the shape of an arc, leaving open just the side where the waiter was bringing the goodies to the table. She also noticed the beautiful pillows wrapped into silk covers, covers decorated into the most lively and inviting colors, from red and purple to yellow and light greens and blues. She couldn’t help but grabbing a pillow and run her palm on top of it. Yes, it was a high quality silk. On the floor, she realized that a thick Turkish woolen rug was making your bare feet rest so well, had you decided not to do that lotus sitting. Removing the shoes was a must and the waiter brought right away the traditional terliks, a Turkish version of warm and comfortable slippers. The rugs were complementing the sofa and the pillows and a good eye would’ve realized that these were exceptional handmade woolen carpets, thick and warm, beautiful and colorful. Everything at this table was contrasting with the sober walls, covered with dark wooden panels. But the combination was exquisite in taste, refinement and elegancy. Linda was completely captured by the environment and for a moment she even forgot that she set her mind up to watch J.J.’s moves. When the magic moment passed, she shook her head and inaudibly murmured to herself: “What a crafty guy! He brought me here to make me feel at ease and eventually make me open up on some things he is interested into. That’s it! No more magic moments, no more exploration of the environment! I have to be all eyes and ears” She didn’t even realize that J.J. was ordering from a Menu. Ismail was taking notes and soon he disappeared. Now she was sitting on the nice sofa, having a pillow tucked behind the back into the lower back area. To her surprise, J.J. (in spite of his age) didn’t have any problem sitting into the same position. A few moments of quietness took over and both of them were looking at each other trying to guess what his interlocutor has on his/her mind. Finally, J.J. decided to break the silence:

-So, how do you like this place?

-It is spectacular, I have to admit it…everything is done with such refinement and attention to details! The combination couch, pillows, rug is stunning!

-Indeed! This place has its uniqueness, its charm, its mysterious look and Oriental touch.

Another round of silence encompassed the table. This time, Linda decided to get out of her shell and start the attack.

-So, J.J. – how did you make it to this particular Church? You live on the other side of the town, if I am not mistaken…

He looked at her trying to understand if this was just a simple curiosity, or there was a hidden agenda tucked behind the question? At that moment, Linda’s face exhibited the most innocent look one could put on. She managed to show a typical feminine curiosity, which tricked J.J. and made him speak freely, without guessing that he was spied on.

-I do live on the other side of the town, but I know lots of people in this area through my wife’s siblings. As a matter of fact, two of her brothers live nearby. They are farmers and we spent many Thanks Giving Sundays at their houses. I’ve been knowing this Church for many years as we used to come here for the Mass on those particular Sundays. I know many people from the community. Here in the country, you really get that old, almost holistic spirit of the man living at peace with the land he works and with the crops he is harvesting, living at peace with the nature and the living things out there, living closer to the good Lord, closer than we do in the city. These simple people, know how to talk to the land, how to talk to their crops, how to live peacefully side by side with the wild life. I have so much respect for them!

Linda was stunned! She never expected something like this from J.J., a man of exquisite taste and refinement, a man who spent lots of money on fine clothes and cars, on furniture and memberships at exclusive Golf Country Clubs. She decided to get back into the shell and prepare for defense at any costs. “He is so crafty! He knows that I am all eyes and ears trying to get something out of him. By now he probably knows by heart what John is up to and what his next steps are. Why did he approach me, though? How come he showed up at this Church exactly when I showed up? It was the first time when I stepped into this Church and he was there! Is he watching my moves? What if he is travelling from the past to fulfil that nonsense curse? Is he part of it? No way! You cannot travel in time!”

Same as John did when he asked himself this question, Linda cracked a smile and then a barely audible laughter followed in a sign that she is not buying this theory.

J.J. picked up on this little emotional relief and with a large smile on his face asked:

-Why are you laughing? It must be something nice. Please tell me why you are laughing so I can pick up the pace. I can always use a good laughter.

Linda realized that she has to back up and quickly come up with something credible and innocent, with something which will divert the pressure J.J. was already putting on her, with something that will lead eventually her interlocutor into a dead end.

-Have you noticed the quality of these rugs?

J.J. was stunned and didn’t know how to react, but the chance he had to exhibit his knowledge on furniture, home decorations, quality rugs and Turkish culture prevailed.

On the other hand, Linda felt how the noose was slowly loosening up and J.J. fell into the trap she laid down for him. This little challenge set J.J. up for a long speech on the way the rugs are still manually made in some parts of the world and what was stunning, he knew exactly even how the people (the peasants or farmers) in those countries were making them. He explained to Linda how the wool strings are carefully made out of a big bundle, how they are then made into the shape of a ball and lately pulled through the wooden pieces of an equipment which was obviously handled manually by a human.

-How do you know all of these things? Linda’s question was genuine. In the same time she realized that J.J. forgot about her laughter. “Things are getting back to the right path! Keep your eyes open, Linda!” It was a self-assuring, a self-defense mode she was now calling upon.

-Well, Linda…first of all I read a lot. I absolutely love Geography, History, Archeology and Architecture. Secondly, I did travel quite a bit. It’s been now few years (especially after Jen’s passing) since I stopped travelling. But I had probably seen most of the countries in this world.

-Wow! That’s impressive, J.J.!

-Thanks Linda! You and John did travel in your youth as well, didn’t you?

-Yes we did. Not as much as we would’ve loved to, but we can say that we are well traveled.

-You see Linda…travelling gives you that freedom which probably the explorers felt hundreds of years ago while they were sailing sometimes to a destination, but many times towards an unknown land or maybe to an unknown destiny. When the wind rages into the sails of the ship, when the masts are bending under the relentless pounding of the wind gusts, when the bow of the ship dives into the sea only to raise higher riding on the wave, when the salty air penetrates every single pore of your body, when the speed of the ship (which splits the waves the way a sharp knife splits a piece of tender meat) makes you forget that you are still at the mercy of the sea…that is the moment of maximum freedom, Linda. J.J. stopped to catch his breath. His eyes were throwing bolts of fire, his whole face turned into the face of a man who was in the middle of a fight, of a man who was living in that moment the story he was telling, a man who probably did not even belong to this world. Linda got scared. J.J.’s metamorphosis made her get into an extreme defensive mode.

-I am sorry about my little monologue. I hope you didn’t mind it.

-Not at all, J.J.; it was actually quite impressive! The way you described that boat sailing through the waves, it almost made me envision one of those explorers’ adventures into uncharted waters. Very well done!

-I thank you, but this is nothing. It apparently comes naturally when talking about ships and navigation. Don’t know why…

Linda looked at him and felt how a cold sweat was slowly moving down her spine. “Who is he? I’ve been knowing him for so many years, but I have never seen him like this. I have never seen him so excited, so passionate, so revved up and open! He was calm and calculated, never letting emotions take over. Now he is a totally different man from what I used to know”

-Your coffee has arrived!

 

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 40 [(Sunday Church (II)]

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 40

Sunday Church (II)

The tears eventually froze (as the air was crisp), making her face feel like it was pierced by thousands of little needles. The pace at which she was running was fast! She wanted somehow to put some distance between her and the place where strange things happened. However, once she reached the top of the hill, she stopped and for few minutes she kept her eyes on the beautiful white church with a foundation made out of river stones and brick walls. The cross on the top of the main nave, was now shining into the sun in all its splendor and its white color was displaying an array of spears which were pointing back to the sun, probably in an attempt of reciprocity, of thankfulness for the life he was generating, for the joy he was sending down to the people. Instinctively she waived…it was a good bye sign? If yes, to whom? Her father’s image came back and she realized that he was still there for her, trying to guide her steps to make the right decisions, trying to comfort her when she needed his help.

Linda turned around and started running again. What happened at the Church was still pounding her mind. “Where did Peter disappear?” When she entered the house, she took her sneakers off and dropped on the couch. She was now holding her head between her palms and was trying to go again through every single detail of her morning run. The image of Peter and her father were haunting her already…”Dad showed up as Peter McCarthy!” This very thought made her shiver and soon she was sitting on the couch into a fetus position, with her forehead resting on her knees while the palms were joined together holding the ankles. Into this strange position she actually fell asleep. It was a power nap which made her walk again through the morning church events. Her father again showed up into her dream and advised her: “You have to pray Linda…you have to pray. God will help you get over all the hurdles the life is throwing at you. You cannot lose hope and faith. You must pray, Linda!”

She woke up and made a quick decision: “I am heading to the church”

This time it took her just few minutes to shower. Once she managed to dry her hair, she tightened it into a large knot. Quickly opened up the dresser and picked up from her wardrobe a black suit and a white shirt; then grabbed a nice large black hat which was still leaving a portion of the knot exposed and put a pair of elegant grey leather shoes on. A dark grey woolen overcoat and a pair of black thin leather gloves were finishing a sober, yet exclusively elegant attire. She stepped out of the house and shortly her car was heading to the direction where she jogged earlier.

The church was packed. When she opened the door, the warmth from inside, the gathering, the happy and relaxed faces of the people waiting for the Mass to start, the smell of burnt candles and the beautifully painted windows embraced her in a way which was saying: “welcome back”. She stopped for few seconds, deeply inhaled and closed her eyes. Memories which she believed were well shelved started pouring out. Same like the early morning, the times when she and her father were working together preparing the church for the Mass were surfacing. People whispering and chit-chatting prior to the Mass was so familiar to her! A smile showed up on her beautiful face making her open the eyes and take a close look at the gathering. While she was screening the crowd, her sight dropped on a person she thought she would recognize. A yell (which she quickly muffled with her hand) came out of her chest. She could bet that she saw the face of her father in front of the Altar. He was smiling at her with that kind, understanding, angelic smile which only a good man, a man touched by the Holy Spirit could produce. There was so much kindness into that smile but in the same time one could sense a little drop of sadness and serenity. She shook her head…it was the priest she was looking at, the man who was running the Sunday service. He was a man in his fifties, with a grizzled hair, a man with a large and kind smile on his face, a man who looked like he loved what he was doing as his smile was complimenting every gesture he was making, every gesture being calculated and full of compassion and understanding. Linda found a seat in the last row, slightly tilted her head towards the family seating beside her and from that moment she was all eyes and ears. “How come I never knew about this little church? It is so close to the house!”

She was listening to the service with the same curiosity and hunger as she did in the past. She was doing it to understand the words of wisdom coming out of the priest’s mouth as she did many years ago when her father was holding the Sunday Mass. To her delight and in the same time to her wonder, the eagerness to absorb the teachings of the Holy Bible has not changed over the years. Linda smiled again and slowly but surely she started remembering all those prayers spoken with a loud voice by the congregation, as she remembered the faces of the people lightened for the moment by the Holy Spirit while praising Good Lord for His Greatness or asking for His forgiveness. The time passed by so fast and she was so absorbed by the service that she didn’t realize the service was over. She stood up and headed for the door, while leaving a donation for the church. Once out of the church, the crisp early afternoon air encompassed her body in spite of the fact that the sun was generously trying to hug and keep her warm. She immediately put on her nice dark grey woolen coat and started walking towards her car.

Suddenly, the tall stature of a man (who was speaking to few other people), caught her attention. She could only see him from behind, but something was telling her that she knew him from somewhere. Linda realized right away that this individual had a taste for quality cloths as his overcoat (made out of the finest wool) and the vintage fedora on his head were bringing a distinguished look which eventually was further refined by the superb black leather shoes and exquisite brand name suit. The white hair showing up between the fedora and the woolen scarf was greatly contrasting with the black overcoat, thus giving the individual an unmatchable gentleman’s allure.

Linda was ready to walk by and head to her car, when all of a sudden the man turned around and looked straight into her eyes. In spite of the cold temperature, she felt how little drops of sweat were making their way on the forehead and slowly coming down on the chicks only to wrap around the chin and fall on the ground. She felt her cheeks on fire and didn’t know exactly why…could’ve been due to the sweat which was freezing on its way to the ground, or could’ve just been a normal reaction to the sight of the man. He apologized to his audience by lifting his black fedora and then headed straight towards Linda. A large smile was imprinted on his face when he finally stopped four feet away from her. Again, he lifted his hat and with the voice of a tenor greeted the beautiful woman standing in front of him:

-Good afternoon, Linda! I have not seen you in a while. How are you?

She felt like she was about to swallow her Adam’s apple. After the discussion she had with her husband, the site of this man was making her feel angry, outraged, appalled and frighten. However, she managed to stay calm and with an immense dose of will power put a smile on her face and returned the greetings as naturally as she could:

-Good afternoon Mr. Glenworth! I am doing wonderful. How about yourself?

-Linda, please…you know very well that between friends there is no “Mister”. Please call me J.J.

-Al right, then. How are you J.J.? Yes, it is true. Last time we saw each other was at a Christmas Party if I am not mistaken. And that was probably three or four years ago…

-You are absolutely right, Linda! It was four years ago. After my wife passed away, I quit showing up at the parties. It is still an open wound.

-I am sorry to hear that, J.J.; I liked Jen so much! She was a true lady…I miss her. I only got good advises from her.

-I thank you for your words, Linda…yes, she truly was a special lady.

At this point, the conversation halted for few seconds, but these seconds felt like eternity for Linda. They were both looking into each other’s eyes, trying somehow to guess their interlocutor’s next move. Neither J.J. nor Linda was taking charge of the conversation…she had all her attention summoned into a tensed (yet well disguised) state of mind, while the physical strength was now residing into a tall, and balanced posture, demanding from her interlocutor a great deal of respect. It was J.J. who finally broke the silence and saved an already embarrassing situation:

-Is it too much if I asked you to join me for a cup a coffee? There is a place just four miles North from here where they serve a really nice Turkish coffee.

Linda startled. A week ago she discovered in the kitchen that copper pot bought by John during their trip to Turkey, pot which brought back memories from their honey-moon which they spent in the Holy Land and Turkey. She clearly remembered now the inscription scratched on the outer surface of the pot by the pot Master: “For those who love each other now and forever”. She became emotional again, but this time she forced herself not to show any kind of softness, any kind of weak spot where J.J. could’ve eventually hit. Initially, she wanted to refuse straight forward, but a second thought made room into her mind: “What if I accept? Maybe I can find out something, maybe J.J. spills the beans somehow and I get to know something that could eventually help John” She made a decision on the spot:

-I would love that, J.J.; it is not too late for a cup of coffee.

-Fantastic, Linda! You will love this little place. It is run by a Turkish family; this is the best coffee you can have in town!

-OK. You lead. I will follow you.

-Great! It is just four miles from here. We will be there in five minutes. J.J. respectfully tilted his head again, removed the hat with a gentle and well-studied gesture and then headed for his car. Linda couldn’t help but remember the Leo story and the fact that maybe one day, Leo will take this gorgeous classic collectible for a spin. She felt like laughing once again when she replayed the whole Theater episode: the fact that John had his beloved muscle car taken for a spin and who knows…maybe J.J. will pay one day tribute to that street smart guy, called Leo. She giggled and headed straight for the car. She couldn’t help but notice that J.J.’s crowd paid a certain level of respect when she passed by. She didn’t know how to react but the instinct prevailed and stopped for a couple of seconds, graciously tilting her head. Once in the car, she started asking herself questions which she was more than eager to find answers to: “Is J.J. having followers? Did he start his own Church, religion, and cult? This church is no different than my dad’s. Then why did people look kind of obedient towards him? Maybe I am wrong and I am over-reacting…still, he is clearly a leader of this community” She was now driving on the freeway while blindly following J.J.’s car and as per their discussion, it only took few minutes to make into a small plaza by the freeway. J.J. pulled his car in front of a store that had a great picture painted on a banner above the door: a person bringing on a plate few cups of coffee; the steam coming out of the cups was so well depicted, that a customer would immediately ask for one of those inviting, hot drinks. The background was kind of dark, but this is probably what the owner envisioned in his attempt to market his business: “we have the real coffee here” On top of this, the man carrying the cups was wearing the traditional Turkish fez garnished with the well-known tassels.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 38 (A peculiar phone conversation)

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 38

A peculiar phone conversation

At the time when the phone rang, Linda was considering her dinner options. The freezer was stuffed with semi prepared food and her dilemma increased fourfold when facing the options: pizza, lasagna, spaghetti or fries and chicken nuggets.

She closed the freezer’s door in a hurry and picked up the phone.

-Hey, how are you? I was worried! You didn’t call the whole week! Is everything alright? At this moment she put the phone on the speaker so she can have the freedom to move around and use her hands.

-I’m alright honey, I am alright. I didn’t call you because initially I was jet legged and my biological clock was obviously upside down. And for the past three days, I have been going through lots of strange encounters.

-I have the whole night in front of me to listen to you.

-Yeah, unfortunately I promised Vic and Zhaohui that I will accompany them for a visit to Suzhou Gardens.

-Who is Zhaohui? What Gardens?

-There are so many things that happened and so many things I need to tell you, that I will probably need two days to get everything out of my chest.

-Can you summarize at least?

-Sure. Let me answer your first question: Zhaohui is Vic’s fiancée.

-You are telling me that Vic found his half in China? Linda burst into a huge laughter while at the other end of the line John couldn’t help but crack a large smile.

-Vic is a completely changed man. He is half the size he used to be, he stopped drinking, he is not gambling anymore and he is fluent in Mandarin.

-Wow! Now this is impressive! How did this happen?

-Take a guess…

-Zhaohui?

-Bingo! You got it!

-Unbelievable! So, for him the move to China was all beneficial. He turned out to be a reborn man and he found a wife. Good for him! Tell Vic that I wish him and his fiancée all the best in the world.

-I will surely do so.

-What is this trip to those Gardens about?

-Not sure, but Zhaohui goes there as many times as she can, whenever she has a chance. It looks like these gardens present a sort of getaway for her, a sort of a place where she meditates and recharges her batteries. They specifically mentioned: “Humble Administrator’s Garden”…I don’t know the significance, but apparently it means quite a lot to her.

-Wow! This is fascinating!

-It surely is.

-What else can you tell me before they are picking you up?

-There are so many things that happened to me…I met Tony Gang – the guy in charge of the Office and I met the people he is associated with in this criminal activity.

-What? You think they have an organization, a cartel, a criminal enterprise that is stealing money from Glenworth?

-Positive.

-Incredible! So, your first instincts were right.

-Actually during the lunch I had with J.J. and Scott, I was warned that Tony could be the head of this organization or whatever it is. The actual fact is that he is not the brain of the enterprise. The head of this criminal cartel is Zhiming mao.

-What? Who is this Zhiming guy?

-You see…there are so many things which happened in this past week that it will take me forever to tell them to you through a phone line. This “guy” actually is the head of one of the most aristocratic families from the Ming Dynasty – The house of Chonghuan, the House which founded the “Seven Orchids Order”

-I am so lost…I don’t understand a word you are saying!

-Because (again) I need to spend many hours to tell you what happened from the beginning. Apparently I am part of some curse which happened when Chongzhen Emperor executed General Yuan Chonghuan. The General cursed the Emperor. The other thing that stands out of this is that this curse must end soon and I am (with or without my will) part of it.

-An Emperor, a general, an execution during Ming Dynasty, a curse and you: John Parker, are all related to each other…

-Yeap! John could actually hear Linda’s crystalline laughter at the other end and once again cracked a smile. Unfortunately, all the encounters he went through for the past six days and the (still fresh in his mind) meeting he had last night with Zhiming mao, made his smile look more like a barely visible sign of discomfort. His mind brought back in front of his eyes Zhiming mao and his statement: “if I wanted to kill you, you would’ve been dead by now”. Of course, he was not going to share this detail with Linda, but his voice was trembling and his wife picked up the change in his voice immediately.

-John, please come back home…you are really scaring me.

-Relax, hon! I think in a couple of weeks everything will be settled. I will be back for Thanksgiving.

-Thanksgiving? That’s almost six weeks away!

-I am just saying Thanksgiving. It could be a lot sooner. I will get to the bottom of this story soon, trust me. I got a good handle of it.

-OK, I trust you. But please, don’t do anything irrational, don’t get into situations you don’t recognize. Please stay prudent and safe!

-You know that I am always prudent and I have a nose for safety…

-Yeah, I know! The episode with the truck driver who you tackled to the ground in a gas station says it all about your prudency and nose for safety! Says it all!

-Common hon! This is a low blow! This time John couldn’t help himself but release a huge laughter from all his lungs’ capacity.

-No, it’s not a low blow, it’s the truth! Your competitive nature makes you sometimes take decisions which are not compatible with your calm, settled and cerebral nature. There are two Johns in you: one is balanced and intellectual, the other one is impulsive and makes split second decisions, decisions which are scaring me.

-Those split second decisions won a Championship, honey…it was indeed that split second decision which made me change my mind and I went for the throw. I knew I could make it, that’s why I took it. So, a decision initiated on gut feelings, was actually done based on using accumulated knowledge.

-Don’t talk technicalities to me! I know you better than you do!

-OK, OK! I will play safe. I will not throw, I will run the ball. At this point, both of them burst into a noisy and well deserved laughter, a laughter which cleared the atmosphere created by so many unknowns laying in front of them.

-OK, I let you go now. I will watch some Hockey, maybe a movie and go to sleep.

-Alright, hon! Stay safe and warm.

-I will. You take care of yourself. Bye now.

-By the way, before you hang up – John felt like wanted to get more out of his chest and decided to share with Linda his thoughts on his boss’s involvement into the story…

-I am listening…

-I, Vic and Zhaohui believe that J.J. has a hand into this whole adventure of mine in China. He is somehow related to the curse – as I am – and sent me there to probably do the dirty work for him.

-No way! You gotta’ be kidding! How is he involved? And why?

-Trying to understand myself honey, but it looks like all the roads are taking me to either J.J. or Zhiming mao.

-So, you are saying that J.J. set you up for failure? Why would he do that? It’s his company, his money!

-Linda, I do not know the answers myself…I am at least as puzzled as you are regarding J.J.’s involvement. But definitely he is using me somehow. I feel like he is the man in the shadows and this is not necessarily a bad thing. He is probably on my side, but I didn’t like the way he approached this business endeavor.

-Absolutely! He should’ve told you upfront what his intentions are! This is not fair to you…

-That’s OK hon, I am a big boy – I can handle it.

-Please be careful, John!

-I will, I promise.

-OK then. I let you go. Love you and please, please stay safe.

-You bet! Have a good day!

After she hung up, she didn’t feel quite well. It was a strange feeling…it felt more like a frustration that she is now alone while John is trying to figure out some centuries old curse (apparently related to funds drainage from Glenworth). She felt a bit of uneasiness…in her subconscious she realized that it was just a hidden and never tested way her brain was trying to tell her something.

The rest of the evening was spent between a frugal dinner and flipping through channels. An interesting Hockey game was on, but her mind was not at all into watching it…she couldn’t help but letting her brain go back to the conversation she had with her husband. The names which came out of the short chat, the apparent intricacy of the story, the fact that J.J. fed John to the wolves by sending him there in the middle of a conspiracy – or curse, or whatever was called – made her angry. Nervously she started flipping through the channels faster and faster until she realized that it is useless to get nervous and angry. She was not able to help John regardless of what she was doing. An immense feel of guilt and helplessness encompassed her. Few tears came out of her beautiful blue eyes…it was the relief valve she needed! A strange but comfortable sense of calmness followed the initial state of discomfort making her look for the favorite pillow and blanket. Once she turned off the night stand lamp and the TV, the warmth of the thick blanket deeply penetrated her body. A nice smile flourished on her lips. It was the sign that she was now relaxed and ready for a good and deserved sleep.

“Tomorrow it’s another day” whispered Linda and immediately fell asleep.

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 37

Black Swan

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

-Zhaohui asked me to move immediately.

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

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

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

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

-Guess what?

-What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Oh, well…this is what I do, man!

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

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

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

-You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!

-Mister! Mister! Hello! Me, driver…

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

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

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

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

-I don’t wanna’ see you! Go away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yeah, let me talk to him.

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

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

-I can’t believe you are doing this!

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

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

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

-Yes, I think it is a good one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Told you! This guy is a maniac!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You think so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Where? Can’t see him.

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

-Great! Now we have them as our neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Would you mind just follow me, please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-That’s on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-G’day, mates! How you going?

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

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

-Good evening to you too, gentlemen!

-What you mates having for a drink?

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

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

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

-What, yaw ladies too delicate to drink?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Show good, Mister. Show good!

-I believe you. What is your name?

-Yuan Jun. Nice meet you, Mister…

-Parker is my name. John Parker.

-Nice meet you Mr. Parker. Show good!

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

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

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

-By the way…what does Yuan Jun mean?

-Fountain of joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 36

Investing in books is always a good idea

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

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

-Last night I met my neighbors…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-So, she is beautiful, isn’t she?

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

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

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

-Nine on each side.

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

-It’s them…

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

-Do you remember their names, John?

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

-So, she is a master of the sword…

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

-They are members of the “Nine Orchids Order”, however these are not their real names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Your neighbors are descendants of the great General Yuan Chonghuan, the head of a family of warriors, statesmen and also writers. The General himself was a talented writer and the most capable General the Ming Dynasty ever had. This was indeed one of the greatest families, one of the highest aristocratic houses during Ming Dynasty.  Their blood line stretches for few centuries before Ming. This family produced many great generals and high officials. They are the founders of “The Order of the Nine Orchids”. Only members of the highest aristocratic families were allowed to join and only based on their bravery onto the battle fields. It was exclusively a military Order; you had to be a soldier by profession in order to join. Many representatives of the high level aristocratic families joined “Nine Orchids”. It was one of the highest honors in the empire and the Emperor encouraged and supported the Organization. However, after the decapitation of Chonghuan, the Order was dismembered and many members found their end under the sword of the executioner or went into hiding. Yuan Chonghuan had a son: Yuan Chengzi who disappeared after the decapitation of his father.

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

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

-Hard to believe that the Emperor fell for this.

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

-So this is how this curse started? This great General cursed the Emperor, cursed him because he knew he was innocent and he did nothing wrong but defend his country.

Zhaohui dropped her head again; John remained mute and refrained from saying anything anymore. He knew at this point that this was a gesture of acceptance, an act of being at peace with the past and with the decisions of the past no matter how harsh they were. In John’s mind, the mystery around the Curse started to clear up and he understood that the two opposing sides cannot be other but Zhaohui on one side and Tony and his neighbors on the other side. He got goosebumps. “So, Vic’s fiancée is a royal? She belongs to the lineage of Chongzhen Emperor?” This scenario made him look at her with lots of uncensored respect and astonishment. “She can trace her lineage back to the late days of the Ming! This is unbelievable! What if she came back from the past to close this thing called “cosmological path”, this Curse which is supposed to end after nine generations from its origination?” He shook his head and with a smile on his face he reminded himself: “there is no such thing as time travelling!”

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

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

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

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

-Is this little detail important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I will see you later.

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

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