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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 29

The Curse of the General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Two, of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 28

All cats are black at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You are welcome, Mr. Parker!

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

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

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

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

-I wish I knew what he did there.

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

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

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

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

-Great work guys, great work!

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

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

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

-You didn’t tell them?

-No. You go ahead and brief them up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Why are you two guys concerned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Any trouble sir?

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

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

-You too officer and thanks again for your help.

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

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

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

-Very good, Sir! You have good night!

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

-What happened, whispered Vic?

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

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

-I don’t know, man! I really don’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Fantastic! You can help Yuhuan now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-OK, John – you go.

-You first. I will cover.

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

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

-So, did you find friend?

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

-May I know which hotel you are staying on?

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

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

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

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

-Yes, that person no good head.

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

-OK sir. Have good night.

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

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

-Good strategy! They were following you.

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

-Do you think they know of our breaking in endeavor from tonight?

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

-Agree. He is clearly on our side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 27

The book of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Knock, knock!

-Hey, Vic! What’s happening, man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yes, he is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-How long have you been spying on Tony?

-Immediately after J.J. hired him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Let’s pay Mr. Wang a visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you know that this place is not lit after eleven o’clock in the night? Everybody leaves by ten. Electricity issue. I made many complaints at the city telling them that I cannot safe guard my restaurant after eleven. Nobody did anything and I am not sure they will ever do something…

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

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

-Do you think he has microphones into those booths?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-And your plan is…

-My plan is to get in tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I can only imagine.

-Exactly! However, I guess due to the amount of money I was spending there, I got to know some of those guys who owned or were in charge of that kind of business. Actually I played many times Texas Hold’em with them. It is unbelievable how popular this game was among them! Gambling was obviously just a portion of their business. They were running prostitution rings and drug selling as well. However, this is how I started picking up Chinese. Of course it was the street language, but I got to know it. Then I started getting classes and I met Zhaohui. The rest is history.

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

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

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

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

-Good deal! I will ask her.

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

-Yes. This is the plan.

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

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

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

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

He spent the rest of the day doing again and again the same thing, even if he was slowly losing his confidence that he would eventually find something among office personnel, something that would point him towards another path, lead, venue towards Gang’s hidden world. One thing he liked about all this exercise, was the fact that he was slowly getting accustomed with people’s names, their backgrounds, job responsibilities and line of reporting. When the dusk knocked at his window, he was still deeply scrutinizing the activity of the office. His eyes were hurting from so much concentration so John decided to call it a day. Logged out, grabbed his coat and the suitcase and headed for the door. Everybody was gone as it was a Friday and the office had a short work day.

Downtown was packed with people and cars. The night life was about to start and the restaurants couldn’t keep up with the demand. The tumultuous life of the city was breathing through every single pore, through its lights and congestion, through its myriad of cars, people and delivery trucks. The short walk to the hotel was a great pleasure as the temperature was still comfortably oscillating into the mid-sixties.

The Lobby was busier than ever showing a healthy and steady increase in business. As usual, he stopped few feet away from his neighbors’ door. The lack of sound or any movement betrayed the fact that they were not home. “Well, I guess I have to be more patient. Something has got to happen here, something out of ordinary, something which would eventually point me to the right direction. I guess I just have to stay patient”. John entered his apartment, took his clothes off and headed for the bathroom. He felt like he needed to take a long bath, to soak up and spend an hour just for himself, in an attempt to gather his thoughts and possibly come up with a miracle answer to the multitude of questions he had. There were four hours left before Vic was supposed to show up, so he dived into the hot water and started watching TV through the glass wall. Nothing special caught his attention; he decided to close the eyes, enjoy the benefits of the Jacuzzi and process all the information he had already gathered into almost a week since he landed at Pudong International.

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

-How are you doing, big guy?

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

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

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

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

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

-OK. I will let them know.

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

-I see you then, big guy. Bye.

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

-Will do so. Bye now.

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

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

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

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 26 (Yuhuan)

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, 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 with the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.

Chapter 26

Yuhuan

Vic turned around and for the second time that day made the “good bye” sign while walking to the door. John spent few more minutes watching the downtown crowds and inevitably the barges sailing on Great Huangpu. Eventually he pulled the chair and started testing the programs one by one. Whatever Li Jie did, it seemed like it worked out. The Program was running much faster now…still not at the same speed as back home, but quite satisfactory. “Just wondering what he did” said John to himself and a typical anxiety grabbed his mind. “What if this is the key to what I am after? What if this is the lead which I need in order to get to Tony? Is Li Jie working for Tony? Apparently he knows all the software in this office by heart. What if Tony got to him somehow and he is black mailing Li Jie? I need to find out everything about this guy”.

John started browsing through the personnel lists he brought with him from America. First he pulled Tony’s information. Nothing different from what J.J. mentioned to him when they met. His background was impressive whatsoever. Shortly he got to Li Jie. He was one of the first people hired by Scott and J.J. in this office. He had a background in IT one hundred percent. Before being hired by Glenworth, he worked for a Singapore based company but in their Nanjing office. John couldn’t help but remember the fact that Tony asked him to go to Nanjing and Beijing into a joint trip so he could get familiar with a fraction of rich Chinese history. “Nanjing is a big city…why would it be a connection between Tony and Li Jie based on a supposedly common ground in Nanjing?” John shook his head side-wise in a negative sign of rejecting this idea. However, in his subconscious, he didn’t want to give it up. So, he placed it into an invisible drawer, a place which he was opening sometimes just to make sure his old ideas are still in there and they are still usable. His curiosity did not stop here. He separated all the personnel by the hiring date. The more senior people were, the closer to the table they were placed. To his surprise, majority of the hiring happened after Gang joined the Company. Then he separated all the files of the people hired after Tony joined and started going through every single one in great detail. Nothing out of ordinary popped up. The skill sets were normal (required) to this type of business.

John turned his chair around, put his feet up, wrapped his hands around the back of his head and fell again into a sort of contemplation, lethargy and meditation. Due to the fact that he had a corner building office (and both East and North walls were glass made), he had a full view of the Yangtze Delta and Huangpu River at the point of joining one of the Great River’s branches.

He felt like he wanted to fully absorb the image of the great Yangtze’s waters at sunset, in spite of the fact that the life giving star was setting into the far West lands of Xinjiang and couldn’t be seen from any of his office windows. The sunset was spectacular, regardless! The last rays of the incandescent disk were stubbornly refusing to go away, turning the delta waters of the mighty Yangtze into thousands of living fires, into a myriad of dancing fire-flies guiding the fishermen boats towards their night fishing spots. Everything was surreal and in the same time it was so close to one’s touch, as if the magical powers of the setting sun transcended their deity and turned human, touchable and palpable. It seemed like the sun was tired and needed to cool down following its daily nuptial ritual of resting into the West lands, only to raise again the next morning from the East China Sea’s waves to give people another day of hope and prosperity.

Soon the room turned darker and John realized that it was already six thirty in the evening. He turned around, gathered the pile of papers he had in front of him and placed it into the suitcase, logged out, placed the laptop into the case as well, grabbed his coat and headed for the door. When he lifted his head, his heart stopped. Tony was again standing in the door and to give the impression that he just arrived, knocked into the frame of the door.

-Knock, knock…anybody home? He was trying to put as much waggishness as possible into his voice to cover the fact that he managed to scare John yet again.

John’s heart was pounding from emotions. He didn’t exactly know how to feel…to feel angry because this was the second time when Tony was scaring him to death almost or to feel cautious knowing that the man in front of him was spying on him and was watching all his moves. His head prevailed over the impulse of his heart which was telling him to slam on Tony for his behavior. But he remembered what Vic’s said: “patience is a virtue the Chinese value the most”. He took a deep breath and with a balanced and controlled tonality which he managed to keep under control, answered:

-Hello, Tony. How are you doing this beautiful evening?

-It is beautiful? I wouldn’t know I guess, I just woke up. He started laughing and his massive body was shaking up and down. John couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing an all-black suit with a white shirt and also a black tie and black shoes. These little details jumped right away into his eyes and the dressing up similarities with his neighbors from this morning were striking. It looked like all three of them went to a funeral. From this moment, John was all eyes and ears and actually he thanked in his mind Tony for dropping by.

-You are a funny man, Tony. You just woke up…it is six thirty in the afternoon.

-Yes, I like working during the night. I am a night predator. His body went again into spasms like type of shaking and his laughter was even louder this time. John didn’t know how to take Tony’s last phrase…as a threat or simply as a statement meant to warn him, meant to give him a heads up? It was a dangerous game Gang was playing, a game which John started to understand. Tony was practically playing the Russian roulette: he was giving John hints strongly believing that he wouldn’t be able to touch him, to get him red handed. He was actually telling John: “here it is a bullet, place it into the cartridge, put the gun at my temple and pull the trigger.” It was the mistake John was waiting for: “Now I know how to play this game…you have way too much self-esteem, you are arrogant and you are full of haughtiness. I will get you, Mr. Gang. I will get you. I found the weak spot into your defense.” John put up on his face the largest smile he was capable of producing and with the voice of a novice who is ready to be lectured by his teacher asked Tony to explain himself.

-You are something different, Mr. Gang! You like to work during the night…Boy, I would be toast the whole next day. Actually I read somewhere that not too many people can do this and if they do it for an extended period of time, their brain gives up on them. They develop psychological diseases. Be careful. Tony burst again into a laughter of superiority, of pity and mercy. His face was now all in the dark, but the two perfectly white rows of teeth betrayed a man who was having lots of fun at his interlocutor’s expense. Eventually he stopped and with a totally changed voice asked John:

-And how do you know I am part of that category, John – “many people”?

-I didn’t say that, Tony…my apologies. But at the end of the day we are all humans and our DNAs are not much different from one to another. A long pause followed, with John waiting for Tony to step in and reply. It didn’t happen and John started getting irritated. Another long two minutes followed, during which the silence was so deep that the men could actually hear each other’s breath.

-And how do you know I am a human? John felt how a cold, icy torrent was running down his spine. His forehead was covered in sweat and because he didn’t want to show emotions, he let it drop on his cheeks, nose and eyes. He eventually had to close his eyes to prevent the salt from the sweat get into his eyes. With an effort worth of admiration, he managed to pull a laughter out of his chest, but anyone could’ve realized that it was an unconvincing, false, forced and feeble expression of good disposition.

-This was a good one, Tony! Please don’t tell me that you had been abducted by Martians and brought back to Earth to recruit as many followers as possible in order to conquer Planet Earth.

-Not quite, John. But you are not too far from the truth. Anyway, I saw that you were still in and I dropped by to say “hi”.

-Appreciate this, Tony. So, you are now going to do some work as you are well rested? This time John’s burst of laughter was genuine and waggish.

-Ha, ha, ha…funny guy. No, I will go home and work from there. The office closes at nine and the alarm is set. John startled and he thanked God that inside of the room was already dark. His bottom jaw dropped. “I hope Vic knows the pass code”.

-So, if you want to do some work tonight from your office, you will need the pass-code. John realized right away the trap: “if I tell him that I need it so I can work from here, the question would be: why can’t I remotely work from my hotel? If I tell him I don’t need it, if Vic has the pass-code, he can check tomorrow morning that we went in…” It was that type of situation when one has to think fast and react accordingly.

-Thanks Tony, but I will go to my hotel room, hit the gym and have an early go to bed. I am just a human, Tony. I sleep during the night. Both men laughed and Tony turned around making again the good bye sign while walking out. John locked his desk drawer and headed for the door. “It is clear: Li Jie briefed him up about the work he did for me. He knows. But why did he mention the pass-code and actually invited me to come to the office? This bastard knows everything and it looks to me that he is always one step ahead of me. I gotta’ talk to Vic right away”. He took the elevator down and once in the street, he hailed for a taxi. It took less than ten minutes to get to the hotel. Once in his room, he called Vic.

-What’s up, John? It is just seven o’clock.

-Vic, I think we need to change the plans.

-Why? I already asked Zihuan to come over. He is bringing his buddy as well.

-Great! Just come to my apartment with both of them. We need to change plans.

-Why?

-I tell you then. I bumped into Tony again.

-Damn, what else happened?

-Just get here as soon as possible.

-Well…Zihuan is calling me as we speak. It will take him half an hour to get to my place and then will take us another half an hour to get to your hotel.

-Fantastic! I will hit the gym for forty minutes. I will order food for all four of us.

-Great! I will see in an hour.

-Vic, make sure you keep an eye on the neighbor’s door.

-Will do. I see ya’ later.

John took his clothes off, put his shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt on and headed for the gym. As expected, the exercise room was equipped with latest machines for cardio work out as well as with brand names bench presses and other equipment for weightlifting and muscle training. While jogging on the tread mill, his thoughts were gathering around his latest meeting with Tony. He realized that this man was a high caliber player, sneaky, very intelligent and ruthless. John couldn’t get out of his mind one of Tony’s questions: “how do you know I am a human?” He felt again how he was getting goose bumps, how the cold sweat was running down his spine. “What if this guy is just crazy? I can’t believe that he is willing to give me so much leverage. It is almost like he wants me to figure out what’s going on. I can’t believe he can be so foolish and arrogant to actually lead me into solving this thing and catch him”. In John’s mind, there was no doubt that Gang was the one who was siphoning Glenworth’s money. Also, the meeting he had with Scott and J.J. back home during which J.J. unconditionally accused Tony of the leakage, contributed decisively to his assumption.

-OK, time is up. Let’s head upstairs and wait for Vic. Once he reached his floor, he couldn’t help but getting close to the neighbor’s door. He felt that smoky type of smell, that unusual aroma of herbs he wouldn’t recognize. It was obvious that his neighbor was burning them again while meditating into that Yoga type of position. John headed for his apartment, opened up and quickly sneaked in. He picked up the phone, called room service and ordered dinner. Then headed for the bathroom where a short half warm shower made him feel like new. Once in the bedroom, he pulled a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of nice comfortable sporty shoes from his luggage. In few minutes he got dressed; he was all pumped up and ready to jump right into the danger. The renewed and increased energy he was feeling, made him realize for the first time that he now owned the assignment, that he wanted (as much as J.J. and Scott wanted) to catch Tony red-handed. He stepped into the living room, opened up his laptop and logged into the data base. One by one, he tried again the few office software Glenworth had on board. There was no difference between the speeds they were running in the office versus his hotel room. “Well, let’s wait for the specialists”. That being said, he dropped into an armchair and turned the TV on.

Nothing interesting: business – John was up to date with everything that was going on in the world of finance and didn’t pay much attention to these channels so he flipped to sports: European Soccer highlights – not much of an interest to him – and the Olympics. He set for the swimming and closely followed the competition. He loved this Sport, as he was a very good swimmer himself. His childhood memories inevitably were bringing back the moment when he had to make a decision: Swimming or Football. His parents left it entirely up to him. He loved them both but could only focus on one, as he wanted to be a “somebody”. His love for the local NFL team pushed him towards this great Sport and the rest was history.

The phone rang and John knew that it could only be Vic. He was downstairs.

-Come on up, Vic.

-Sure, I will be there in a minute. I have both Zihuan and Yuhuan with me.

-Great. I’ll see you in a few. John cracked the door open and propped it with the little carpet found at the entrance. He moved towards kitchen, to grab some cold drinks for his guests. A double knock at the door, was the sign that Vic and his protégés arrived. John couldn’t help but notice that (as the name was stating), Yuhuan was indeed a handsome individual. He was at the same height as his friend while the body was thin but not skinny. One would say that his face was the work of a very talented artist: regular, beautiful lines were harmonizing the transition between the forehead and the cheek bones and then further down between cheeks and the chin. The chin was square and was baring a cleft in the middle, which was adding to the overall look a sense of strong personality. The hair was dark black and it was carefully maintained and cut. On top of all these great features, the warm, candid smile was completing the overall picture of an individual with great looks and supposedly a great personality.

John smiled and headed for the door to greet his guests. Shook hands and invited all three of them to take a seat into the living room area specifically designated for receiving guests. Zihuan and Yuhuan shared the large couch, while Vic took an armchair. The remaining armchair was John’s. Before seating, John asked each of his guests for a drink preference:

-Gentlemen, what can I get you? I have soft drinks and I have liquor. I also ordered dinner, I believe it should be here any minute now.

-John, you can hit me with a scotch on the rocks if you don’t mind.

-Not at all, my friend, not at all. How about you two gentlemen?

-I have orange juice, Mr. Parker said Zihuan.

-John is my name, please call me that. Do you want ice in it?

-OK, John. I call you John. Both of them laughed. No ice, please.

-How about you, Yuhuan?

-I have soft drink, please.

-Great. Any ice in your drink?

-No ice. Thank you.

-All right then: one scotch on the rocks for my dear friend Vic, an orange juice for Zihuan and a soft drink for Yuhuan. How about me? What do I want?

-This is a question you have to answer yourself, John. All four men in the room started laughing and a nice and warm atmosphere settled in the living room. While John was preparing the drinks, the bell rang and John knew right away that it was the room service.

-Vic, would you mind getting the door, please?

A military type of “Yes, Sir!” was the answer to John’s inquiry, an answer which made both Zihuan and Yuhuan burst in laughter.

It was the room service indeed. The cart was pushed to the table and shortly, the table was all full of dishes filled with great Chinese food: from Wonton soup and spring rolls to steamed dumplings filled with crab leg meat. The salmon sushi and tuna Sashimi was also part of the menu while traditional orange chicken with fried rice didn’t seem to miss the party. The great Sichuan Cuisine was present at the dinner table with the well-known mouth burning hot chilly beef stake as well as with its spicy hot chilly Kung Pao chicken. The multitude of the dishes, the fantastic green and red color of the vegetables well assorted with the meats and the sauces, made everyone salivate.

-Boy, I am as hungry as a…John stopped short of saying the magic word. Vic looked at him and both of them cracked a huge laughter.

-Told you…don’t use it anymore. It’s my line.

-Sir, yes Sir!

Another round of laughter followed but eventually stomach’s call for a good meal prevailed and all four men ended up focusing their whole attention on the food in front of them only. Nobody was saying a word anymore and just the noise of the chop sticks hitting the plates was heard in the living room. The gastronomic delight displayed on the table, made all their five senses stretch at the maximum of their capacity and everybody wanted to indulge from this feast of tasty mouth-watering food, colors and great smells

When most of the food was gone, a pleasant sense of sufficiency settled in and the smile on their faces was showing four men who enjoyed having a meal and being together.

-Ok guys, I am full! John’ exclamation was followed by approval across the board and immediately the cleanup activity started. In a heartbeat all the plates and other eating utensils were piled up on the cart left into the room by the room service personnel. John pushed the cart towards the door and took a seat. Then, started laying out his plan for tonight. He mentioned to interlocutors his encounter with Gang and his suspicion that Li Jie actually works for Tony.

-John, before we go further on, let’s hear from Zihuan and Yuhuan. They have things to tell us based on their today’s mission.

-Great, let’s hear the story. John took his glass (where he initially poured his favorite Kentucky Bourbon), relaxed, took a comfortable position into the armchair and prepared himself to hear the story. He was all eyes and ears. Vic did the same, while the two detectives came closer to the edge of the couch, in a sign that they are ready to reveal their findings.

-Ok…when I left morning hotel, I told you I will follow Yuhuan. Zihuan’s voice was timid at the beginning, but as he was revealing his story, the voice became firm and a great degree of self-esteem kicked in. John loved this, as he wanted in his team people who can make decisions by themselves, people who can master their emotions, people who can perform under stressful situations without losing the big picture from their eye sight.

-Yes you did, Zihuan. Yes you did. And you also said that Yuhuan will follow them up to a point and then you will switch cars.

-Yes, this is what I say and we followed. They went to funeral. It was the point when John stopped him.

-Well…let me tell you something: I believe Tony Gang was at the same funeral. Vic’s eyes almost popped out of their eye sockets. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan startled and looked at John with an astonishing wonder on their faces.

-How do you know, John? Actually I am not surprised anymore. Every time I leave you alone, you manage to do something, to find out something, you never stop to amaze and dazzle. An immense smile flooded his face while John chuckled and looked him straight into the eyes:

-When I had the discussion with Tony, I realized that he was wearing mourning cloths, same like the pair we saw this morning in the Hotel’s restaurant.

-Good observation, but it doesn’t mean that he went to the same funeral.

-Agree, but we need to remember that he is visiting my neighbor, right?

-OK, good point. Zihuan, do you guys know Tony Gang?

-No, Vic. We not know Tony Gang. A moment of silence settled in, a moment in which everyone was trying to come up with an answer, with a lead into the investigation.

-Wait a minute! Did you guys take some pictures? Actually let me ask you this: did you manage to get close to the funeral cortege?

-No Mr. Parker. Security very heavy. Private funeral.

-So you didn’t take any pictures of the people attending the procession? John’s voice was showing some disappointment. He really wanted to see who was there, who the personages are, as now he understood that he is dealing with higher up individuals who belonged to the privileged class of rich and powerful.

-I say we no get close, but I never say we not take pictures. The smile on both their faces was a huge relief for John and he understood that Zihuan managed somehow to take some pictures. He grabbed his backpack from which he pulled his laptop, turned it on, plugged a memory stick in and started showing the pictures they took. John and Vic moved to the sofa trying to have a glimpse of what he was showing. It was the moment when Yuhuan came with a solution which brought John to a high level of anxiety.

-Mr. Parker…this is smart TV?

-I think so…not sure

-Let me see please. He grabbed the remote and started playing with it. In few seconds, he confirmed that John had a smart TV in his living room. We need now to sync laptop to TV. We can all see pictures after.

-Fantastic, let’s do this! Vic was at least as excited as John was. It took Yuhuan little time to synchronize the laptop with the TV and soon, the pictures from the memory stick showed up one by one. Everybody in the room was now “glued” to the screen. There were lots of pictures to show and Zihuan started browsing through the folder slowly, so everyone could see.

The pictures were so clear that one would think they were taking from close range. John was amazed and astonished! He just couldn’t understand how these two guys took these detailed pictures (apparently from a large distance) so well-focused on people’s faces, attire and posture. He understood right away how important the two guys sitting on the couch were for him. They did an amazing job without getting themselves exposed.

It took some time before the pictures from the folder were all played and neither John nor Vic could figure out where the two personages (they saw that morning into the restaurant) were.

-I will have to go myself through these pictures one by one, in a lot more detail. It’s impossible not to find them into that crowd! You guys followed them all the way, right?

-Yes Mr. Parker! They go to cemetery in Christian area.

-There is a Christian area in Shanghai? Actually…wait a minute: this was a Christian burial judging by the ritual! It makes sense.

-Yes, Mr. Parker, Christian ritual. We no familiar with Christian faith but look at pictures better and you see crosses at people neck. John followed Zihuan’s advice, grabbed the remote control and started browsing again through the files.

-So, it looks like my neighbors are either Christian or have friends into Christian community, here in Shanghai. Through a logical assumption, do I have to believe that Tony is Christian too or somehow related to them through my neighbors? I must find out what the relationship between Gang and my neighbors is! This is an absolute priority!

-Mr. Parker…good plan. I follow your neighbors and Yuhuan will follow Tony Gang. We must divide forces.

-I never liked to divide my resources, Zihuan…never liked it. But it seems that we have to do this. It is getting complicated. So, we have a plan: starting tomorrow, Tony and my neighbors will be under constant surveillance. But how will you guys be able to keep your eyes on them all the time? You will get tired and eventually will have to sleep.

-No worry Mr. Parker, said Zihuan with a large smile on his face. We professionals. We have good resources. John started to like that smile, as every time Zihuan was putting it on, good news was following it. He was just a little concerned about a certain portion of Zihuan’s statement: “We have good resources”. What exactly does this mean? Do they have reliable, quality resources? Do they have enough resources? John refrained from asking these questions as Vic nodded in an affirmative way, basically saying: “I trust them”

-Fantastic! Now let’s move on to our tonight’s assignment. Vic, did you brief them up? Vic shook his head side-wise in a sign that he never had the chance to do so.

-Ok, so I mentioned to you guys my encounter with Tony. All of them nodded: “yes”. Before he left, he almost like gave me a hint: the office door closes at 9 pm and the alarm is set. Vic, do you know the pass-code?

-I do, but then he would know that we went in.

-True. Can we do this from here, guys? His question was addressed to both detectives who instantly nodded like: “yes, we can”

-Mr. Parker, we can, but Li Jie would know that we hack system. At this point, Yuhuan stepped in again and came up with a compromising solution.

-Mr. Parker…we can get in and look at what he did. When we tell you, you have to come and see software. We no inquire job he did. Then we go out.

John was trying to understand what Yuhuan was saying or at least follow him as rationally as he could, but the gimmick on his face was showing that he was puzzled and he was not able to follow him. At this moment Vic stepped in and in a fluent Chinese carried a conversation with the two detectives.

-Alright, here it is the deal, John: they will break into Administrator’s rights, and follow Li Jie’s work. But at a certain point, they need your help to identify the software you are concerned about.

-Fantastic!

-They were saying that we couldn’t have gone in, as the video surveillance system is active 24/7.

-Right. However, we need to figure out how to temporary disable it – have we ever had the need to get in after hours.

-Good point. Let me talk to them. Vic started again a conversation with Zihuan and Yuhuan and explained John’s request.

-Mr. Parker. We can do it. But we need to know server location.

-Vic, I guess we have some work to do tomorrow…

-Yeap…let me think how I can get my hands on an office plan…

-Vic…you need talk to Maintenance…Building Maintenance. Yuhuan’s face was carrying a waggish smile and Vic understood that he just got a lead he had to follow.

-Great! Good one, Yuhuan! I have to figure out whom am I supposed to talk to…leave it with me. I’ll work on it.

-Mr. Parker, your laptop please. You log into Glenworth system.

-Right! Let’s go guys, I like the progress we are making! John logged in and in few minutes he handled his laptop to Zihuan, who passed it to Yuhuan. John understood that the latest one was the IT guru. However, after few minutes, Zihuan pulled his laptop from his backpack and shortly asked John to remotely log into Glenworth from his laptop too. For first few seconds John hesitated. Logging into company’s system from a different computer than company’s computer would leave traces which could be followed in order to hack into Glenworth network…but his assignment was way too important. He remotely logged again into the network and handled the laptop back to Zihuan. At this point, Yuhuan pulled a cord from his back pack and connected the two laptops from one USB to another. Now they were working as a team, in tandem, each one knowing in real time what the other one was doing.

Both John and Vic understood that it will take some time before the two detectives will manage to break into Administrator’s rights, so John poured another round of drinks for them. Without being asked, he placed another orange juice and soft drink on the table for the detectives and then moved with Vic to the window area. Quietly, both friends started admiring the great spectacle of the night life in Shanghai and the fluvial traffic on Huangpu. It was spectacular indeed!

-Do you regret that you left? Do you miss America, Vic? John asked this question softly, with a low tonality in his voice. The need for silence and an environment in which one would need to focus his whole attention to performing a task, made Vic and John almost whisper at each other. The question took Vic by great surprise as he startled and looked his colleague straight into the eyes. Before Vic answered, John felt a short hesitation into his body language, into his willingness to provide an answer. It was something barely perceptible, but John’s keen eye and experience in reading people’s faces and non-verbal conscious or non-conscious movements, made him realize that he actually put Vic into an uncomfortable position.

-I am sorry I asked this question, Vic…really sorry. Please forgive me.

-That’s alright. No worries, man! And to answer your question…no, I do not regret that I left. Do I miss America? Maybe…a little. But here I found the inner peace I’ve been looking for my whole life. I do believe that here, I found the answer to the way I was living my life back home, I found the answer to all those questions I was asking myself: who am I? Why do I do what I do? Why do I feel the urge of living my life on the edge, at such high level pace? Why do I get the call to drink, gamble and party so often? Well…all of these questions were answered here: I was living my life in the wrong place. Two worlds were colliding with each other: I was the product of one of them, but I was living in a different place than the one where I should’ve lived. And why not mention that here, I found my better half. It was John’s turn to startle and look Vic straight into his eyes. Immediately he recalled a short phrase his friend said at the dinner table while Zhaohui was taking a breath of fresh air: “You were part of the curse from the beginning, you participated at the events and you cannot leave the fight until is over”. A cold sweat was covering his forehead and temples. He was in a state of shock. “Why me? What did I so specially do that I had to be part of the events? Who was I at the time that my presence was so important there? What events are we talking about? Who were the players of the event and how do I relate to them?” This myriad of questions was making his head spin and in the same time was putting his brain into a high alert mode. With a trembled voice, John asked:

-So, you do believe that you should’ve been born here rather than in America.

-John, do you have any idea how fast I picked up speaking, reading and writing in Chinese?

-No idea, man. You have been here for…what? Seven years or so?

-Exactly. In my first year, I was already fluent in speaking. In the second year, I was able to read and write.

-I am not expert, but it seems very fast to me. I can’t imagine myself learning this language so quickly.

-It is not very hard if you have a good teacher. You know what I mean? His voice became waggish and he winked at John. It wasn’t hard for John to decipher the meaning of that tonality and eye closure: Zhaohui.

-Yes, I figured that you had a great teacher. A muffled laughter came out of John’s chest and the tensioned atmosphere which settled between them for a little while, perished. However, John was still at unease and Vic picked it up right away.

-John, on Saturday Zhaohui will tell you the story. Don’t occupy your mind with these details. We have work to do and we need our minds clear so we can make the right decisions. Again, it is nothing you can do. This is your fate in this world, in this life I should say and you have to accept it the way it is.

John dropped his head as Vic’s last statement came as hard as the decision of a judge who is not willing to believe your story. He was part of this strange game, or curse, or fight, or whatever this was supposed to be. And it looked like there was no way out of it. He was bonded to some ancient ties, to some mystic believes, to some legends which apparently are bringing characters of the past into the present only to fulfill their cosmological path, their birth given meaning and their known end. He dropped his feet down from the comfortable position he took in the beginning and headed for the bar.

-Do you want another round?

-Sure, why not? Just dump a little more ice into the glass. John nodded in a sign that he understood the request. He poured himself another straight Bourbon and came back by the window.

-Here you go, my friend, my fellow prisoner of a world I do not know and never knew actually, of a world which is strange and mystic and full of drama.

-You summarized it perfectly, John! This time it was Vic’s turn to crack a muffled laughter while grabbing the glass of scotch from John’s hand. Cheers, my friend!

They made themselves comfortable again and for a long time, nobody said a word anymore. They were just silently watching the night lights of Downtown Shanghai and the barges sliding on Huangpu, like ghosts following a mortuary procession.

-Mr. Parker, we need help please.

Zihuan’s voice made both Vic and John jump off of their chairs and move to the middle of the living room where the two IT gurus were working.

-Yes, Zihuan! How can I help?

-We need you recognize software. We put on TV so it is clear. That being said, Zihuan’s computer was already displayed on the big screen TV in the living room.

-So, what do you want me to look at, Zihuan?

-Mr. Parker, we need you look and try recognize in the lines on screen, commands from software.

-Aha, I understand. Please go slower when you scroll down.

-I will give you control. Please use TV remote control.

-Got you! John picked up the remote and patiently started browsing through the numerous pages of programming lines which were displayed in front of him. This was a task that could take some time, so Yuhuan came up with another great idea: to bring the TV from the bedroom and hook up his laptop to it so Vic can do the same thing as John was doing. John pulled a giggle of happiness; Vic managed to hire two skillful and smart guys. Shortly, Vic started scrolling through the pages himself. Zihuan and Yuhuan moved to the window to admire the view.

-Do you know what to do?

-Of course I know what to do. Wanna’ bet on something?

-I thought that you quit betting, said John and a bid laughter came out of his chest.

-I did, but this would be fun and it wouldn’t ruin either of us.

-What do you have in mind?

-I bet you that I find the software before you do.

-Ooo…this challenge is something I simply cannot miss! I’m in. What are we waging on?

-A bottle of single malt of the best quality.

-Done!

-Good luck, but you are dead meat anyway.

-Ooo…trash talk! We’ll see, Mister! We’ll see.

Both Vic and John pulled the arm chairs closer to the TV screens and patiently but rapidly pushed that down arrow on the remote in a hope that they will quickly identify the lines the two IT guys were looking for. The work was tedious and soon both John and Vic felt like their eyes were watering from looking at so many lines and characters. John felt like he had to rest his back and quietly dropped into the armchair. He grabbed his head with both his hands and rubbed his eyes in an effort to chase away the tiredness which was slowly embracing him. The events of these three days had overwhelmed him. He found himself as being part of a saga that took place probably few centuries ago, nobody knowing when this circle of cosmological trajectory would come to an end.

-Bingo, came from Vic’s direction. John realized that his short break was skillfully used by his colleague and he probably identified a line or a key word of the software in question. Vic also realized that John was not even competing anymore.

-You are tired, I can see.

-Yes, a little bit. But this doesn’t matter anymore. Good job! You identified the line that could take us inside Mr. Li Jie’s world. Not to mention that you won a bottle of single malt. Both John and Vic burst into laughter, while Zihuan and his friend took over yet again of the laptops and eagerly started the second phase of their search: isolating this particular software from all the other ones, so they could figure out what sort of filters or even small pieces of software Li Jie implemented to manipulate John’s access to information. Once again, the two friends moved to the window and quietly sipped their drinks without starting another conversation.

John felt like he wanted to gather his thoughts. He found himself tangled into a story he did not understand and did not want to be part of. He just wanted to go back home to Linda, to his house, to his habits and hobbies and to his normal job. This was a challenge which his competitive spirit accepted, but he didn’t expect to emotionally get connected to it, he didn’t expect to be part of it. He envisioned his role in this assignment as being more of a consultancy role, more of a supervisory type where his management skills would place the right people in place and he would just compile the results. He was wrong…he realized that he has to deep dive into the action and get his hands dirty. It was a “do or die” situation…the game was getting nasty, his opponent was using dirty tricks and ultimately his reputation was on the line.

He looked at Vic…his sight was somewhere far away, beyond the great spectacle of the downtown lights or the lights of the barges slipping down on Huangpu towards the junction with the Great River. John couldn’t help but ask himself: “I wonder what his role is in this story? Why was he sent here? He said that in China he found peace and strength as this is the place he should’ve been from the beginning. He said that his struggle back home was due to the fact that he was living in the wrong place, incompatible with his celestial destiny. Is J.J. part of this fight too? How come he knew that he had to send Vic here to clean up, to become who he apparently was supposed to be? Who would J.J. be and what would his role be into this cruse, or story, or fight, or whatever else is? If I am part of this story, what is my destiny? How do I blend into this story which apparently has a divine fate?” He dropped his head in a sign that he was puzzled and didn’t really know which direction to proceed. It was a strange feeling, a feeling he never experienced. He always had a plan, he always knew exactly which steps he was going to take first and then the next ones and the next and so on. Scott’s suggestion came again into his mind: “you have to improvise…you have no pocket, you have to use your feet for the first down”. He lifted his head and looked at Vic. It seemed like he came back from the transcendental phase he was into.

The two men looked at each other and without opening a discussion, they both understood each other’s fears and line of thoughts. At this point John realized that both of them are fully dependent on each other, that they are on the same part of the barricade, that they have a destiny to fulfill and they must work as a team or they will lose the fight. They were doomed to look out for each other, they were doomed to walk and fight side by side regardless of how strong the enemy or how adverse the situation was in the field.

-Yes! This is work Li Jie done! Both John and Vic jumped from their chairs and in a heartbeat were again in the middle of the living room by the couch were Zihuan was sitting.

-OK, please explain to us what’s happening here.

-Yuhuan better. He can explain.

-Fantastic, let’s hear from you, Yuhuan!

-Mr. Parker…please see TV. He transferred to the TV a set of lines which had no meaning whatsoever for John.

-I am sorry, Yuhuan, but you have to explain to me what am I looking at.

-Of course. Please understand: lines on TV are small software…tick software. John started scratching his head as he didn’t understand what his interlocutor wanted to say. Vic took over the conversation right away and started having a direct conversation with the two detectives he hired. At the end, he nodded in a sign that he understood and immediately turned to John:

-John, it looks like Li Jie installed a bug type of software meant to spy on your activity when you are using the outgoing transactions software.

-Bastard! How do we know that he installed it?

-Mr. Parker…he did work. Look at time and look at the user ID. Instantly both John and Vic checked their wrist watches, trying this way to remember the time Li Jie was in the office. It matched exactly the time they remembered having the conversation into John’s office, when they called him to trouble shoot. Vic recognized his ID on top of the screen.

-Unbelievable…this bastard is watching my moves too!

-This is not too bad, John. We know that he is watching, we have to feed him information we want.

-Good plan. How do we do this? What other piece of software is he spying on? Actually let me rephrase: what other office activity of mine is he spying onto? John eye sight fell on the two IT gurus.

-Not sure, Mr. Parker. We need think. It is very complicated. We need more time. Li Jie use common spy software – we use this too. He modify it to add delay for you or other Americans when you come China, to slow down. You lose patience and system will soon crash. Is for you to give up and no follow. You think is Internet issue because of China. No, is spy strategy.

Both Vic and John were in a state of shock. Whatever they were hearing it was out of their comprehension. On the other hand, John couldn’t help but notice the ingenuity of the method: it was combining the technical skills of a professional with the mindset of a Psychologist who knows that human patience is limited.

-This is brilliant! John released this statement with all the admiration he could put into it, admiration and praise for a job very well done, for a job that was taken to the end using a stroke of geniality. Vic felt like he wanted to wage in as he was equally mesmerized by the method:

-Unbelievable! I would’ve never imagined that something like this was even possible.

-Vic, Mr. Parker…this no genius work. This common work. Li Jie just smart and know how to spy. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling as they were amazed themselves how come the two Americans didn’t know it. It was the time when John started to understand that his assignment will face bigger challenges than what he thought, that the tactics and the strategies he wanted to employ must be changed. He was facing an opponent who was playing dirty, an opponent who didn’t give a damn about fair play, an opponent who was playing all the cards possible (legal or illegal) to win the game. It was the time when he understood that he has to pull himself all the dirty tricks from his pocket, from his baggage of knowledge. A short pause followed and nobody was saying a word anymore. John and Vic were trying to assess the situation, while Zihuan and Yuhuan were waiting for John or Vic to say something.

-Ok, we made a huge progress today. Guys (John was now speaking to the IT gurus he had in front of him), you did an amazing job.

-Thank you Mr. Parker. We happy.

-You truly did an amazing job and I am extremely happy to have you in my team.

-No mention, Mr. Parker. We like you. You great Quarterback!

-Well, I thank you for this, Zihuan. I am not sure how great of a Quarterback I was. I didn’t play in NFL. John’ voice felt a little soft and Vic picked up the vibe right away. He understood that John’s biggest dream was to be a starter into a game on Monday night Football. He looked at him and the sorrow into his eyes, confirmed his assumption.

-Yes John, but you made that last seconds throw which won the Championship for your team. You are a great athlete.

-I was a good athlete, Vic and I thank you for your words. Few more seconds passed by. John shook his head in a sign that “whatever was in the past is in the past, now we need to focus on the present and look into the future”

-OK, guys…enough with the past. Let’s sketch up a plan on what our next moves will be. Li Jie is spying on me. Great! Let him think we don’t know this. Now, how do we outsmart him, how do we manage to be all the time one step ahead of him? He is indeed very smart and we need to be smarter. I understand that he is using this strategy to slow me down so I cannot watch the outgoing transactions. Why? Here is the key…These outgoing transactions are closely monitored from America by J.J. and Scott. They couldn’t find anything out of ordinary. It is the same system, the two offices are linked to each other, and they communicate to each other. How come nobody from overseas can pick up the funds drainage? It was the time when another pause took place and everybody in the room was trying to find the logic behind it. Yuhuan raised his hand, signaling that he needs to say something…all eyes in the room were now watching his face, his hands, his moves.

-Mr. Parker, it looks like here, in China, someone modify software. I not understand how. How can same software work here different than in America? We need to see. But we need access total. Now we just solve small piece. You are spied. We need access to server, here. We can copy software and look at home. We need many time to do this. Very complicated.

-Well, let’s do it then! Vic, do you think we can get into the server room somehow?

-Good question, John. I don’t know. We need to be absolutely sure that Li Jie is not all of a sudden coming to work to do some maintenance to the server or to any other office software.

-Can we do it tonight?

-It is eleven already. The alarm is set. I do have the pass-code, but don’t you think that Tony already instructed Li Jie to keep an eye on the security camera system as well? They would see that we popped in.

-Good point. What do you two guys think?

-Mr. Parker…we need plan this. Tonight it is danger.

-Alright, I can see your concerns. I agree, we need a little patience here. So let’s put together a plan: Vic, we need to figure out what Li Jie’s patterns are. Everyone has patterns, habits, own rules by which they are guiding their lives, their behavior. We need to know exactly when he will not be in the office for routine maintenance work. However, how do we bypass the video system without leaving a trace that we were in?

-This not complicated, Mr. Parker. We record video and write on top. No issue. We record time, day, year and write on camera software. Nobody come in. Both Zihuan and Yuhuan started giggling again which made John very happy. He knew right away that the two Chinese experts were already familiar with a solution for breaking into the server room without leaving a video trace.

-Great! How about breaking into the system? How do you break Li Jie’s pass-code to get in? Is this going to leave a trace which he could follow?

-Mr. Parker, we already break his pass-code when we look for small tick software, one it is spy on you. For third time that night, both of them crack a laughter which made John and Vic burst into an unstoppable, laud and healthy laughter too.

-Right, you already did. I forgot all about this! Now here it is another question: what if he changes the pass-code before we get in? What if he set up his pass-code to be automatically changed?

-No worries Mr. Parker. We come in second time. And maybe three times. We can see pattern. We see at that time. We keep video record on the door and just change time and day.

-Ok, guys. I think we have a plan: Vic, you will have to figure out Li Jie’s patterns somehow – I will help if I can; Zihuan, for now you will continue to keep an eye on my neighbors, while you – Yuhuan – will have to start monitoring Tony Gang.

-Good plan, Mr. Parker. Remember…we need more and more information on: video system, Li Jie and server room.

-This is on me. John, you are watched; you need to stay put. You have to talk to Tony on regular basis so you make him understand that you have no idea what’s going on around this office.

-Understood. I have to look pretty and smart and do nothing…I love it!

A huge laughter erupted into the room and a great, friendly atmosphere set in. It was the beginning of a great friendship between the two detectives and John.

-Mr. Parker, we need to go. We have work.

-It is eleven o’clock into the night! Don’t you go to sleep? Both detectives laughed and Zihuan’s answer confirmed what Vic told him earlier: they have other assignments on the roll.

-Mr. Parker, in our job no time to sleep.

-Ok, I am not arguing with this. You two gentlemen have a good night and we will touch base soon, for sure.

John walked them to the door while making a sign to Vic to stay a little longer.

-I am not walking you downstairs, as I don’t want you two to be seen with me. You take the elevator and leave by yourselves.

-Understood, Mr. Parker. Make sense. Good night!

-You two guys have a good night too and try to catch some sleep, for Goodness sake!

-Ha, ha, ha! We try, we try.

John opened the door and the two detectives quietly and discreetly slipped out of his apartment. He kept the door cracked watching them taking the elevator down. He just wanted to make sure his neighbors didn’t see them coming out of his room. After he closed the door, he walked again to the window where Vic was waiting for him. Two minutes of silence followed up. Both of them were trying to sum up the events and process the amount of information they had on hand.

-It’s been just three days since you came to China, John and I have to admit that you are indeed the right person for the job.

-Now you are trying to be nice and flatter me. You know that I hate these things.

-Not at all, man. Not at all. Since you made it here, we made huge progress. We have four leads now which we need to follow and this is solely due to your eye for details, due to your feel for people, due to your keen sense of identifying where the danger is coming from. I never thought of Mr. Wang as being part of this fight. Now I truly believe he has an important role into it.

-Are you thinking at what happened in his restaurant?

-Of course. That strange individual who sat all the time into the darkness, that woman upstairs who was watching us when on the hallway and that strange atlas and book he showed us.

-The way I understood this, was that he was trying to tell us he was the descendant of some great warrior close to Emperor Chongzhen.

-He said that the warrior was the head of the Emperor’s personal guard.

-And when I asked him where Yonggan Zhongcheng was, he invited us to leave.

-Right! We need to read more about this Dynasty…but the way I know it, in those times, if you could not protect your Master, it was your honorary duty to commit suicide.

-I read something about the Samurai code of honor. It is similar to what you are telling me. The question is: how is Wang stepping in to be part of this story? Why do we need him?

-We will find out…on Saturday, Zaohui will tell us more.

-I better bring plenty of booze with me. For sure it will be very enticing. John wanted to ask the question: “But who is Zhaohui? What is her role into this saga? Why did she suggest we go have lunch at Wang’s?” He realized that he had to keep these questions for himself, as they could’ve put Vic in a delicate situation, in a position he was not comfortable with.

-Well, my friend…it is late and I have to hit the road. Tomorrow it will be another day in the office. Try to keep Tony on his toes and get as much information as possible. It looks to me that he has no problem giving you details and leads. I just hope that he is doing this out of arrogance and vanity. Otherwise, I think the knot is tightening up and we are getting close to the conclusion. I am only afraid that we are not ready yet. John wanted to ask: “what conclusion?” but refrained from saying it. There were too many unknowns in his mind and too many obscure and mystic meanings to the questions he’s been asking since he set foot in China.

-Alright my friend, I hope you have a good night and I guess I will see you tomorrow. John once again opened up the door and watched Vic take the elevator down. Before closing the door, he took a last look at his neighbor’s door. Nothing out of ordinary, nothing that could tickle his curiosity, no apparent activity from that side. He closed the door and made himself comfortable into one of the armchairs while opening up the file with the multitude of pictures he got from Zihuan. One by one, he looked at them again. He couldn’t see either Tony or his neighbors at that funeral. His eyes were watering again and John decided to call it a day. Slowly he walked to the bedroom, put his pajamas on and slipped under the warm blankets. The multitude of the happenings from the busy day that was coming to a closure made him fall asleep immediately.

Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General – Chapter 25 (Shanghai Office / Zihuan / Li Jie)

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 25

Shanghai Office. Zihuan. Li Jie

It was already eight o’clock in the morning when John opened up his eyes. He realized that he slept into the cloths he wore the day before. Slowly he got up, completely undressed and headed for the shower. “The suit and the shirt will have to make it to the dry cleaning” John told himself while stepping into the shower cabin; once the warm water hit his skin, a calm and relaxing feel encompassed his whole body inviting him to spend as much time as possible in there and enjoy the benefits of a morning shower. His mind was always working when bathing or showering and so did this time. Following the many unanswered questions from last night, he started organizing his thoughts.

First, the office work…trying to figure out who are the main players into the office who are helping Tony. How do they relate to each other and what their hierarchical roles are?

Secondly, John realized that he has to do lots of reading and fully understand the circumstances of the last Ming’s days.

Thirdly, he had to gain Tony’s trust. He was now convinced that this man is the key to solving the problem, the main actor of this play who managed to conceive a system of draining company’s money which was unbreakable (apparently) – or at least this is how it sounded to be – from J.J.’s description. John cracked a smile. He put a plan together and now he had to follow it to the letter.

Gradually, opened up the cold water knob until the jet was completely cold. It made him release a yell of manhood and from a burnt out person as he was last night, he felt like he turned into an individual with lots of energy, many ideas in his head and lots of desire to get to the bottom of this thing. In few minutes he shaved and was out of the bathroom. While dressing, he turned the TV on and set it to Business channel. Nothing new, old stuff, things he already knew. A new suit and shirt, another pair of shoes and he was ready to leave the apartment. It was already eight thirty and he figured out that he still has time for breakfast. The Restaurant was at the ground floor with a clear view of the Entrance. The hotel was providing buffet type of breakfast for the customers who were staying in and John decided to take advantage of this little facility. He picked up a small table in a corner, trying to stay away from too many curious looks. He was by far the tallest person in the room and this couldn’t’ve passed unnoticed by the people who were already eating their meal. John realized that he was now exposed to any spy work which Tony could’ve set up. He grabbed a plate, placed some food on it and went back to the table he picked in the first place. He had a wall on two sides, a window on the other side and thus the front was being left open to the main room. Curiosity settled in again and John decided to closely look at the people in the Restaurant. His fine sense of screening people by looking at their faces, posture, gestures and mimics helped him right away take a snap shot of whoever was taking breakfast in the Restaurant at that particular moment. “OK, so it looks like we have mostly business men here: Asian, Europeans and Americans. So, the price for even a normal room must be pretty high. But I have to admit that the amnesties are top notch and the service is outstanding”. The waiter came by and asked him if he would like a coffee or a tea. John went without hesitation for the coffee while keeping himself busy with the delicious steamed buns stuffed with meat and an egg pancake. Some fantastically well-presented fried rice balls wrapped in bamboo leafs and filled up with lotus seeds completed his choices for the breakfast. He initially wanted to go for some Western food but changed his mind. “I am in China, why not try the local Cuisine at the maximum possible extent?”

The food was delicious and so well presented! A “cling” on his cell phone let him know that he’s got a text. It was Vic: “Are you up?” John realized that it was already 9 am. He was ready to get up and leave when a couple entered the Restaurant and headed for the opposite corner of where he was staying. John had a strange feeling that the woman was the person he met in the hallway while trying to fix the light. She was of a medium-tall height regardless of the fact that she was wearing high heels. Her attire was all black and it was stunning! The hat was a big black retro hat with a white silk ribbon and an exquisite oversize and down turned brim (which was covering a portion of her face). The coat and the dress were of a high quality Cashmere, tailored by an artisan who knew exactly where to cut the notches into the collars and to place the two buttons so the coat will emphasize the nicely shaped breasts and who knew how to cut the dress right above the knees showing thus two beautiful long legs. The shirt was all white with fine vertical stripes which were making her look even taller. The black stockings and high heel shoes, were giving this woman an aristocratic profile which was also enhanced by a mysterious look. The man was of a medium-tall height, stocky but powerful. One could see that the span of his shoulders was quite large, thus releasing a sentiment of power, self-confidence and leadership. He was wearing also a Cashmere overcoat and an elegant wool hat with an upturn brim. The suit was a designer suit with a classic two button closure and notched lapel. The shirt was white with vertical stripes, while the silk tie was light grey in color also with vertical stripes. It was a nice combination, as the vertical features of the two pieces discussed above, were helping him “stretch” his upper body and made him look taller.

John pulled the Menu as high as he could so he would hide a portion of his face. With one hand, he held the Menu and with the other texted Vic back: “At Restaurant. Neighbors have meal”. He pushed the Send sign. As he expected, Vic replied immediately: “Don’t move. I’m coming. Where are you sitting?” Again, with one hand John texted: “Left, last table, by the wall. Neighbors sit opposite”. “OK. Will be there in a few”. Slowly, John dropped the Menu in a way that would allow him to have a better look at the couple. The man was sitting by the aisle and thus with his back turned at John while the woman was facing him. John realized that it’s just a matter of time before she would recognize him as being the man from the hallway. It was important for her not to know that John is part of Glenworth. At this point, he almost regretted that he allowed Vic to come over.  What if she knows him somehow? Then he will be exposed. These questions didn’t leave him alone until Vic showed up and took the empty chair across the table. While slowly walking in, he managed to disguise the curious look he threw at the couple’s table.

-I am dying to see the face of the man!

-Let’s wait a bit. The waiter showed up right away and Vic ordered a green tea.

-I think this is the same man I have seen through the cracked door. His skin is tanned and the neck is thick and short.

The waiter went to the couple’s table. Shortly he came back with a plate on which there were three cups of tea. It seemed like the man and the woman did not want to eat anything.

-Do you have a plan?

-Always, said Vic and he grabbed his cell phone. He texted something in Chinese. John was stunned. It looked like his colleague not only knew how to speak, but he knew how to write as well.

-What’s your plan?

-You’ll see. These two guys won’t be here for too long. They didn’t order food, so it looks like they have to go somewhere. Today is Thursday already. I have to do some investigation. Where they could go dressed up like this, at first time in the morning? I mean…look at them: they look like royals.

-Well said. Great looking couple…if I could only see their faces.

-Patience. Help is on its way. John raised one of his eye browses as always a sign of wonder and looked at Vic.

-Do you think I am kidding? I never do when I have something to get done.

-Ok, ok. I trust you. But you better hurry up with that help of yours because our neighbors are about to leave. Boy, they look great! Those cloths they are wearing are top notch designer cloths and the materials are of a very high quality.

-Yeah, who cares what they wear? I want to understand who they are. John cracked a large smile, as he knew that Vic was not paying too much attention to people’s attire. For him though, it was another good piece of information: these are not only people who have money, but are also people of great, refined taste.

-Ok. They are on their way to the door.

-Good timing. My man is here. At this point, a little skinny man stopped by the table. Vic pulled a chair and invited him to sit down. His name was Zihuan. John shook hands and realized that the individual in front of him was speaking a decent English. He was wearing jeans and sneakers and a sports jacket with the brand of a well-known NFL Team.

-Do you like Football?

-Yes, Sir! I watch American Football in TV.

-I guess this team is your favorite team.

-Yes, Sir! I like this team. They good and strong and fast.

Both John and Vic couldn’t help but start a laughter. Good, strong and fast.

-Well Zihuan, do you know that John was a Football player too?

-Wow…Mr. Parker you Football player?

-Not anymore Zihuan, not anymore. A breeze of sadness crossed John’s face, like a vagrant cloud on a nice clear summer morning sky. This little change of mood was observed by Zihuan.

-Why you sad, Mr. Parker?

John startled as he didn’t expect the new interlocutor to pick this up. On the other hand, he liked it! “This man has a keen sense of observation, of reading people’s faces and for sure will be an asset to the team”

-Just a little gloomy that I missed playing into NFL due to an injury.

-John, do you still have that big poster showing that throw of yours for the win in the last seven seconds of the game?

-I don’t know…I still should have some in the basement. I can ask Linda to send one over for Zihuan if he wants it.

-Wow…Mr. Parker you throw ball in last seven seconds and win?

-Well, this is what I was told, Zihuan. A Defensive Lineman hit me and I blacked out. I woke up in the Hospital. When I opened up my eyes, my future wife was there and she told me that we won.

-This is movie story Mr. Parker. This is movie story.

-Well, Zihuan…nobody contacted me so far. All three men started laughing and John understood that he could fully rely on his new addition to the Team.

– Zihuan, please listen up…Vic lowered the tone of his voice and in a cursive Chinese explained to the new interlocutor what his job was.

-John, I asked Zihuan to follow this couple. Wherever they go, he has to go. I also asked him to take pictures, snap shots, anything that could help us identify these two individuals.

-No worry, Mr. Parker. I know this work. I did many of this before.

-Of course I fully rely on you, Zihuan. If Vic trusts you, I trust you. Just please, take your time and get as many details as possible. Doesn’t matter if you take a thousand snap shots which would seem irrelevant. Maybe in there, there is something we can use.

-No issue, Mr. Parker. I know job.

-Fantastic. Now I think it is time for you to go…the couple is leaving.

-Not yet, said Zihuan with a large smile on his face.

-Not yet? They are leaving, you will lose them.

-Mr. Parker… no rush. If I follow them, they see me and job not good.

-But you will lose them!

-No, I not lose. My friend follow with his car. Then we change cars and take mine.

John couldn’t help but admire the strategy.

-Ok, then. I guess I just have to fully trust you and your judgement.

Vic placed a hand on John’s shoulder:

-He knows what he is doing. He built himself a camera which you can keep in your palm and take pictures you would normally take with the zoom in lens tower.

-What? Are you serious? John’s eyes moved to Zihuan and a sense of deep admiration flourished on his face.

-Yes. He is an Electronics Engineer and he has a Master in Optics and Acoustics.

-This is unbelievable! Why aren’t you working as an Engineer for a Corporation? I am sure that the pay is good. This question was addressed directly to Zihuan and John placed the maximum amount of stupefaction he was capable of generating into that inquiry.

-Yes, I know Mr. Parker. But work for Corporation boring. You not allowed freedom. I like use my brain, not follow orders and rules. His smile was candid, intelligent and genuine showing in the same time two rows of white, well maintained teeth.

-So, do you have a shop where you build all these devices?

-No. I have apartment. That is my shop. He laughed, but John was perplex. “This guy has a shop in his apartment. How about neighbors? Aren’t they complaining?”

He realized that this is one of those things with which he has to get accustomed, those little things which don’t make sense from a westerner point of view, but they are part of day to day life in China.

Zihuan picked up his phone. The “cling” of an incoming text made both Vic and John switch their attention to the devise which their interlocutor was holding in his hand.

-Now I go. Yuhuan follow them. I follow my friend. We talk by radio.

-You have your own radio frequency? This is fantastic! But you must pay a fortune for this.

-Mr. Parker…in Shanghai if you pay for everything, you no eat nothing. Zihuan burst again into a laughter and stood, signaling the fact that he has to go. John and Vic wanted to do the same, but their detective put his right hand up into the air into a “stop” sign. Both Vic and John looked at the man in front of them with perplexity not understanding why he was telling them to sit down.

-I go first. You wait five minutes and then you go. OK?

John couldn’t help but appreciate his plan. “He does not want all of us to be seen together while leaving. Smart!”

Zihuan made a sign of good bye by dropping his chin and in few seconds he disappeared through the Restaurant doors and eventually he was out into the street.

-So, Vic…tell me please what is this Zihuan story about?

-As you can see, J.J.’s money can go a long way in China. We have a private detective working for us. Vic’s laughter managed to pull a large smile on John’s face, however, Vic realized that his friend was not satisfied just with this answer.

-How much are you paying him that he agreed to do this for you full time?

-No, he is not hired full time…he has other things on the go, like: building all sort of electronic devices and selling them to God knows who (I think he is even connected to the underworld individuals and organizations), doing the detective work and I think he even fixes complicated devises for private individuals. Once, I was in his apartment – I needed him to do some work for me…at one point, an individual knocked at the door and stepped in. I swear to God, John…this guy was the largest Chinese I have seen in my seven years of China. He was the size of a Sumo wrestler, the size of the largest Linebacker you have seen back home. His skin was tanned like Gang’s and the eyes were typical Mongolian: very thin and almond shaped like, obviously slandered upwards. He gave him a backpack in which there was something the shape of a bowling ball. I never asked him what that was. I actually don’t even want to know what was inside of that backpack. Zihuan took it into another room and came back. God knows what sort of activity he is doing in there.

-Well my friend…I think this is a wrong approach. We need to know as much as we can about the people we employ in helping us with this task. You are saying that the individual who visited him while you were there might belong to the underworld organizations?

-I am not saying that! I am just conveying a piece of information. John couldn’t help but notice that Vic was in a sort of distress and affliction, a situation he was trying to avoid and hide as much as possible. He started getting worried again about his friend: “Why is he getting jumpy, fidgety and crusty? Does he have connections to the underworld of Shanghai? It appears to me that when I asked him that question about the appurtenance of that large fellow to the underworld fauna, he became irascible. I have to be more careful. I think he does have something to do with the hidden world of outlaws”

-OK, OK…sorry, man! Just a supposition. I guess I watched too many movies. John’s laughter was not genuine and he realized it by looking at his friend’s face. Vic’s mimic was frowned, was not relaxed anymore and was showing a certain level of distress and wariness.

-I think Zihuan’s five minutes are up. Let’s go to the office and see if we can get something done for today.

-Sure, let’s go. It’s already ten o’clock.

Both men stood, pushed the chairs under the table and headed towards the Exit. The temperature was already into the high sixties and it was again a beautiful sunny fall morning with a clear sky above. The taxi ride was short as the lunch rush hour had not yet started. Once in the office, both of them headed towards John’s office. John opened up and once he reached his desk, he placed his suit case on it, unlocked the drawers and asked Vic to join him to watch the view. It was spectacular as usual and for two minutes both men quietly admired the sun ray’s reflections from the calm and majestic waters of Huangpu.

-Listen, I am sorry about what I said a little earlier.

-Ah, don’t worry about. I also feel like I have to tell you a little story, as between friends. But not now. At the right moment only.

-I am not forcing you to tell me that story, Vic…

-I know John, but we are both into the same boat here and we need to be a hundred percent honest with each other, we need to row in the same direction, otherwise we will drown.

-Totally agree. Are you paying Zihuan well enough to fully rely on him?

-Don’t you worry about this! J.J. receives a monthly bill from me. I pay Zihuan cash obviously. Let’s put it like this: if he would only rely on this source of income, he would be more than ok. He would make more than an Engineer working for one of the big Corporations around here. But this job allows him freedom to move around, to do what he likes and to always meet new people. He makes a lot of money. That’s why he figured out that he had to team up with his friend.

-Did you ever meet that friend of his?

-Who? Yuhuan?

-Yeah, I think this was the name he gave us.

-No, I’ve never met Mr. Handsome.

-What?

-This is what this name means in Chinese: nobility and handsomeness. Both John and Vic burst into laughter. At least John, simply couldn’t understand the way the names are picked in Chinese culture.

-Well, my advice is to eventually know Mr. Handsome as well, whenever we have a chance. I would like to meet all the members of my team.

-Sure. We’ll do it sometime. Listen, I gotta’ go do some work now. I’ll see you tomorrow I guess.

-Yes, for sure. Thanks for all your help Vic.

-Don’t mention it. We are team mates now. Vic turned around and headed for the door. Before exiting, he turned around and walked back to the middle of room slapping his forehead in a sign that he forgot something. John, Zhaohui asked me to invite you for dinner at our place on Saturday night.

-How nice of her! Please extend my compliments to her and convey the following message: invitation accepted with many thanks.

-Fantastic! We’ll have a good time. She is a great cook. Is six o’clock OK with you?

-Absolutely. Where else am I going to go? This last phrase was followed by a big laughter and Vic simply joined in.

-Right! You are now a prisoner in a nice hotel and a luxury apartment. Way to go, man!

-Yeah, sure…wanna’ change?

-As much as I would like to…no, thanks. The volume of the laughter started few seconds ago became even louder as the two men felt like letting it go and get back to work on a high note.

-Alright then. Saturday night I will join you two guys for dinner at your place.

-Great! Saturday morning I will probably do all the shopping. When we have an event like this, she cooks the whole day.

-Can’t wait to try some real, authentic Chinese.

-The food we ate at the Restaurants was also good and authentic. Not sure what she has in mind so far, but you’ll see that it will be good. By the way, on Sunday we are planning to go to Suzhou and visit again the gardens. Many of them are protected UNESCO sites. They are absolutely gorgeous and the weather is still great for visiting. On Sunday, the temperature will be in the mid-seventies, perfect for a walk through the gardens. We visited them many times. Every time we go there, I have hard times to get Zhaohui to leave the place. She is obsessed with these gardens. There are also many kiosks where you can have a sit, rest and take pictures at the surroundings, as they are fabulous. If you want, we will be happy if you joined us.

-Thanks very much, Vic! You two guys are awesome! I appreciate your kindness in trying to make me feel at home. I will definitely come for dinner on Saturday. What would you like me to bring over?

-Just bring yourself, man! Vic burst again into a laughter of joy hearing that John accepted the invitation.

-OK, I will bring some drinks.

-You don’t have to, but if you really want to buy some drinks, there is a liquor store just five minutes of walking away from your hotel. You take the main street going North and at the next major intersection, it is right there, at the North East corner. Please, don’t spend too much money.

-Why? J.J.’s pockets are pretty deep! Both men cracked another big laughter and judging by the fact that this time tears of joy were coming out of Vic’s eyes, one would only imagine that he was having lots of fun. When he finally managed to stop from the burst of happiness which encompassed him, Vic placed his right hand on John’s left shoulder and while wiping his tears with his left cuff, he looked into John’s eyes and with a friendly and sincere voice he said:

-John, both I and Zhaohui love you, you are a great person and you can rely on us. We’ll get this thing done somehow. We’ll figure out together how.

-Thanks you two guys, I love you too. You are great human beings and I am happy to call you friends.

-Thanks John. I will convey your compliments to Zhaohui.

-Fantastic! I can’t wait to taste her food! I think she is a great cook.

-You better make room, so you can eat everything she is planning to cook.

-Don’t you worry Mister…Saturday I will hit the gym twice and I won’t eat anything the whole day.

-Ha, ha, ha! You want to put a dent into my budget, huh? That’s OK. I’ll expense it and get J.J. to pay for this. Another round of laughter burst out of their chests, only this time Vic made a sign of “good bye” and headed for the door.

-Hey, Vic! John remembered that he wanted to ask Vic something and until that moment he was struggling to remember. All of a sudden his memory helped him out and he asked the question:

-Why is the software we are using to track outgoing transactions so much slower here than back home?

Vic was about to leave John’s office but when hearing the question, turned right away a hundred eighty degrees and looked at John completely puzzled.

-It is slower? Are you sure? Never noticed that…hmm.

-I am positive. I used it hundreds of times. I checked the Internet speed and it is no different comparing to what we have back in America. Still…why so much slower? Is this temporary, has anyone else from this office complained?

-John, I had no idea that we even had this problem…never heard anybody complaining that software is slow. And by the way…nobody from this office went to America at our head office to have something to compare against, besides Tony Gang. Let’s have a look.

John pulled his laptop and fired it up. Shortly he logged in and starting running the usual applications, used by everyone in the company. When opening the specific application, indeed, the speed at which the system was working, dropped dramatically. Vic tried himself and shortly both men were scratching their heads.

-Honestly, I never noticed this. To me, this is normal.

-It’s not…I am telling you, it is at least three times slower than back home.

-Wow…I have been gone for seven years now and I really can’t tell the difference. Let me call the IT guy. He picked up the phone and called their IT office Manager. He will be here shortly…hmm, this is strange.

-This is what I am saying. Very unusual. Are there any filters, which would slow down the search?

-We’ll see what our hero will have to say.

-You mean the IT Manager is a hero? This is the meaning of his name?

-Yeap! Li Jie is our hero. Let’s see what he has to say.

Vic couldn’t help but noticing that John put a puzzling gimmick on his face in a sign that these Chinese names were becoming a headache for him in trying to remember them.

-Don’t worry, John…you will get accustomed with their names. It won’t take long. I suggest you wright them down and read them whenever you have a chance.

-Yeah, I have to admit that I have hard times remembering them.

-Patience my friend, patience. This is what they are taught from an early age. You have to be patient if you want to achieve anything serious in life.

-I know, unfortunately back home we dumped this concept; we want everything and we want it now.

-Yes, this is the dumpster (in which we tossed one of the greatest virtues of human kind): fast pace environment, multitasking, prioritization, fast food, fast learn, etc.

-You were part of the “fast forward” culture too…I can see that since you came here, you significantly changed though.

-Yes, I did. Unfortunately, China is following right into America’s footsteps. I realized this in these seven years of my stay here. Great cities (like Shanghai) follow America’s example. Things are changing rapidly and so do the people.

-Well…this is the pace of the evolution, I guess.

-I would say it is the pace of involution. We are going away step by step from our nature, from our essence, we are walking away from humanity and turning ourselves into the slaves of few material things which are insignificant to the Universe: a TV, a car, a house, a job, a hobby, etc.

-Wow! You became quiet philosophical. Any other things I should know about yourself? A friendly smile flourished on John’s face, in a sign that he agreed with everything Vic just said.

-No, I don’t think I became more philosophical. But I started paying more attention to things which now I believe really matter in life.

-I can see this, Vic and I have a tremendous respect for you and your choices.

-Thanks, John. I will tell you what my dream is…but not now.

-Of course, especially that our hero showed up. During the conversation between the two colleagues and friends, Vic stood with his back at the door the whole time. John, obviously was able to see the man standing at his door and knocking into the frame of the door as he was facing it. Vic turned around and in a perfect Chinese he invited the IT specialist inside.

-Li Jie, this is John Parker. John, this is the IT Manager of the office: Li Jie.

-It is nice to meet you Mr. Parker.

-John is my name. Nice to meet you too.

Li Jie smiled and replied with a still respectful voice:

-Very well, Mr. Parker. I will call you John. What is the problem you having?

-Well, when I run the outgoing transactions, the software is a lot slower than what we have in America. Why? I checked the Internet speed and there is no significant difference. Do you guys have some filters which may slow down the software’s function? Both Vic and John couldn’t help but notice that the smile on Li Jie’s face perished and a barely perceptible grimace replaced otherwise a pretty good looking smile. He was thin and quite tall for the Chinese standards. The nice dress pants and the white silk shirt and grey tie, showed a man who knew how to take care of his attire and thus he was sending a signal of neatness and a certain level of elegance.

-Let me check, John. May I have your laptop for five minutes?

-Sure, go ahead. John walked him to his desk, logged in and then came close to the middle of the room where Vic was waiting.

-So, I guess I see you on Saturday.

-Great! I think you are OK now. Actually you know what? Let me show my office to you and let me introduce you to few people you need to know during your stay.

-Sure. Let’s do that.

Both of them walked towards the entrance into the office where Vic’ office was. The window was facing downtown. The majestic sky scrapers line and the swarm of people down on the street was the usual view and one would realize how vibrant, rich and fast paced this city was.

John couldn’t help but notice the framed pictures that Vic had placed on his desk. There were four pictures and in three of them he was shown beside Zhaohui. In one of them (on the left side of the desk), John could see the man he knew from back home: the heavy guy with a round face and the hair all messed up, with a double chin and the skin all moist and stretched to a limit when one would believe it will explode. The other three pictures (all on the right hand), it was a man who was barely resembling the one from left. Only the eyes were the same: sharp, lively, intelligent, investigative and inquiring. The second chin was gone, and so was gone all that extra weight he was carrying. His face was now a sum of bones: cheek bones, the square chin and a forehead which was not covered anymore by messy and unkempt hair. He was now employing a short cut style which was making his head look even thinner and sharper. Zhaohui was holding him from the back, with her hands encircling his waist and the chin resting on his shoulder while Vic was hugging her with his hands wrapped around her neck. These three pictures showed John a happy and emotionally balanced man, a man in control of his life, a man who was now living a second life.

-Your life has changed so dramatically, Vic…

-Aha! You looked at the pictures. Yes, I can say that lots of things have changed since I left America. My leaving was a blessing and probably I should say thanks to Scott. Zhaohui is saying all the time that it was meant to happen, that it was meant for us to meet. I started believing in this philosophy, in the theory that everything in this life happens for a reason.

-It is part of Christian believe too, you know it very well.

-Yes, but I want to go further more and add a little Confucius: “Everything happens for a reason; don’t worry about reason, just live with what happens”

-Did you start reading Confucius? I can see that you have become a little more intellectual, more philosophical.

-Yes I did. Confucianism is a great philosophical system and has been part of Chinese culture for twenty five hundred years. It gathered so much wisdom in it that we would be so much better as a society if everyone would follow the teachings of this great philosophy.

-We both know that this is not possible. The human nature is not kind by birth. We are mammals and we have the instincts of the wild animals. That’s why we have possessions, that’s why we (unfortunately) start wars and kill other people, that’s why we have a competitive nature.

-Agree, but this is why we have that thing called Education. The Chinese saw the role of the mass education twenty five centuries ago when this great man started putting together his thoughts and sharing them with others.

-Have you turned into an idealist, into a humanist, into a visionary and wishful-thinker?

-I hope I just turned into a better person, John…that’s all.

-Wow! This is deep, Vic…I thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts with me.

-You are a good man, John. Zhaohui says that you have a good heart too. What a Confucian you could make! Again, both men burst into a heavy and uncontrolled laughter which was heard all around the office as the people in the cubicles started raising their heads and look through the open door and the glass hallway wall of Vic’s office, trying to figure out what was going on inside.

-Let me consider…never say never.

-Exactly. We will talk more on this subject on Saturday. We will engage Zhaohui as well so we can have an expert guiding us through the thinking process.

-Is she a Confucianism practitioner?

-Yes, she is. We, Americans, could also say: she is practicing Yoga as well. No, she is not practicing Yoga, she meditates following a ritual of breathing learnt from some Confucian monks.

-Wow…now I understand the change. This is where John stopped short of continuing, as he didn’t know how Vic would react. He obviously wanted to say: “now I understand the change in you, in your physical appearance, in the way you think, in the way you conduct your life”, but the subject was touchy and he didn’t want to touch a sensitive chord.

-You can continue if you want. I don’t care. I know very well who I was and who I am right now. I don’t give a damn about this stupidity called political correctness. I was wasting my life partying, drinking and gambling, I was morbidly fat and I was one step away from death (I will eventually tell you the story). In other words: I was a bum. She picked me up and turned me into the man you see. I owe her almost everything.

-I kinda’ figured this out myself, but I didn’t want to bring it up. When you first time introduced me to Zhaohui (in the Lobby), I realized that she played a major role into your metamorphosis and this was actually a blessing in the sky – knowing how hard you were partying back home.

-Yes it was, John. Yes it was. Funny how things work out in this life…I had to go half way to the end of the world to realize that I was dumping my best years into partying, alcohol and gambling. Both John and Vic kept quiet for few seconds. It was a moment of reflection, of meditation and forethought in which the two men tried to gather their own thoughts. A knock into the frame of the door made them startle. It was Li Jie who was standing there and wanted to obviously convey a message.

-Yes, Li Jie. Are you done?

-Yes, John. Come see please. He turned around and headed back towards John’s office, followed by Vic and John. Before reaching his office, John grabbed Vic’s arm in a sign of: “I need to talk to you”. Vic stopped and a question mark made his eye browses join above the nose bridge. It was the moment when John came closer and whispered into Vic’s ear:

-How long did it take him to fix this?

-Probably fifteen minutes at the max. We haven’t been talking for more than fifteen, after we left your office…why are you asking?

-Just a thought…I will tell you later. Vic’s face turned from a questioning type into a wondering type of gimmick.

-So, Li Jie…did you manage to fix it? What was wrong?

-Nothing major, Mr. Parker…I mean, John. Both John and Li Jie smiled at each other showing a mutual respect and consideration. I cleaned up cookies, internet temporary files and some other junk you don’t need.

-And this was it? Really? Hmm…It was that easy. I could’ve done that. Li Jie smiled again while John took a seat and started testing the program. It was indeed much faster. However, he still felt like it wasn’t that fast as it was back home in America. He decided to keep it for himself. Li Jie, please tell me why other programs were not affected (speed wise) the way this particular program was affected? Outlook was just fine, Internet browsing the same and other typical software we are using (large programs) were not affected either.

-Good question, John. Li Jie’s face brightened up and with the same confidence a professor is ready to present his lesson to the pupils, he mentioned to John that this particular software is very large as it carries lots of macros and links between different levels and stages of the program.

-Aha…I understand. It is a very complex Program and it takes more time to run the background information.

-Yes! Very well done, John. You are good IT person.

-No, I am not a good IT person Li Jie, but I know a thing or two about computers. He put a big smile on his face which in turn made his interlocutor smile back. Thanks for your help, Li Jie.

-You welcome, Mr. Parker…I mean, John. You call if you have problem again.

-Of course I will, of course. Thanks again, Li Jie. The IT specialist turned around and was ready to head for the exit when John stopped him with an apparently trivial question:

-Li Jie, please tell me…John stopped for two seconds waiting for his interlocutor to fully turn and look at him. Please tell me…is the incoming software (which tracks our entries) as large and complex sort of software as the outgoing one?

-Yes, John. It is large software and complex as other one.

-Thanks Liu Jie. That’s all for now. You have a good day.

-You too, John. Bye, Vic.

At this moment, Vic made a good bye sign to John signaling that he wanted to go to his office. John raised his right hand simulating a stop sign.

-Vic, two more minutes please. Vic froze in the middle of the room and inquiringly looked at John trying to understand what else he needed from him. John made a barely perceptible sign with his head: “come on over” and turned again with his face towards the window. He was now resting his butt against the desk, inviting Vic to take a seat into his chair. Vic refused politely and calmly took the same position as John. Now both of them were facing Downtown and that particular stretch of Huangpu.

-God, I love this view! This river fascinates me. Vic raised his eye browses in a sign of nervousness…”What the hell is wrong with him? This is why he called me to sit with him?” John realized that his friend was at least puzzled by his request and put the again a large and kind smile on his face. The tonality of his voice was low, telling Vic that he wanted to keep it between them.

-John…I have things to take care of…

-Vic, please tell me what you know about Li Jie. Vic’s lower jaw dropped.

-This is why you are holding me here for? You are kidding, right? John looked straight into Vic’s eyes and while keeping the same smile on his face, replied:

-No Vic, I am not kidding. I want to know everything about this guy. Vic looked again at John and his mimic was still showing a man who was all puzzled.

-Well…he’s been here forever. He was here when I joined this office. He knows everything, every piece of software.

-So, he was not brought here by Tony.

-No…why are you asking these questions, John?

-Simple! Have you heard what he said about outgoing and incoming transaction software?

-Yes, he said that both of them are complex and require lots of resources to run.

-Exactly! However, I tried both of them during my first day into this office. The incoming transactions program was running just fine, at the same speed as it was running back home. Vic’s face was now showing the face of someone who is perplex, who is at one more punch away from being knocked down.

-So, you are telling me that…

-I am not telling you anything. I am just asking some questions trying to put together the pieces of an apparently complicated puzzle. Remember when I asked him if you guys have some filters on the software you are using in this office?

-Yes, his face kinda’ turned blue and lost the smile.

-Exactly! But when I asked the question, I was actually thinking at some antivirus software you guys may be running on daily basis. Now, I am thinking at other things…

-Do you think he may have planted a piece of software into your laptop during those fifteen minutes of chatting we had? It is an awfully short amount of time, in my opinion.

-It seems to me too that it is not enough time to do something like this, but neither I, nor you Vic, are IT specialists.

-You are right, John…hmmm. How do we find out that he messed with your laptop and most of all: why he did it if this is the case indeed?

-This “why” is something that scares me, Vic. But it may as well be the lead we need to get to the bottom of our assignment. Vic took another look at John and started scratching the top of his head with his right index finger in a sign of confusion and encumbrance. Both men kept quiet for a couple of minutes and at that point, all their intellectual resources were focused on finding an answer to an already burden: who is Li Jie? Vic’s face all of a sudden brightened up. John looked at him and with a voice which was betraying impatience, eagerness and hastiness to find an answer, he grabbed Vic by the arm:

-Don’t tell me that you figured out a way already. Vic smiled and while fighting to get his arm out of John’s strong grip, he picked up his cell from his pocket, went to speed dial and made a phone call. What followed, was a short conversation in Chinese. After hanging up, he looked straight into John’s eyes and with a waggish accent into his tonality, said:

-Mr. Parker, we shall know soon if Li Jie is playing games on you.

-Whom did you talk to?

-Zihuan.

-But he is not a software Engineer…

-Trust me, man…he knows everything. Think about…he builds all sort of devices, only he knows the kind of stuff he is making. He built a camera you can hold in your palm. Do you think he doesn’t know how to look into a software?

-Good thinking, man! Good thinking. You are smart.

-Please tell J.J. this, maybe I can get a bonus or a raise.

-I am not sure about that. He is tight with the money right now, as his cash is drained God knows by whom. Once again, the two colleagues and friends burst into a laughter, this time a laughter of relief that they could be on the right path towards deciphering the mystery. So, what do we do?

-Tonight we come back to the office and we bring Zihuan with us.

-Now this thing really started looking like a detective type of work!

-Do you have another option?

-No I don’t. That’s why I am relying on you.

-Great. Now let me get to my office and do some work. God…it is noon already.

-I guess it’s time for lunch, though.

-Ha, ha, ha! I didn’t know you had such a great sense of humor. I see you tonight. I will pick you up at your hotel. I am figuring that if we come back at eleven, nobody will be around. By then, the cleaning crews are gone and we can look at the work Li Jie did for you.

-Listen, why don’t we do this at the hotel, in my apartment?

-Zihuan wanted to try this into the same environment Li Jie did it.

-Got you! I will wait for your phone call. I will probably hit the gym, have a bite at the hotel’s Restaurant and then go to my room and do some reading.

-Fantastic. You may want to take a nap. I am not sure Zihuan will figure this out as quickly as we would like to.

-We have a deal. See you tonight, my friend.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24

A history lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Earlier I said that you should move.

-Yes, you did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-So, what happened after the Emperor killed himself?.

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

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

-Thanks, John.

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

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

-Again, my pleasure, Zhaohui.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23

Tony Gang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ha, ha, ha! Yeah, you lost your shirt betting on horses!

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

-Cash you lost aftermath. Ha, ha, ha!

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

-Thanks to you, I guess.

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

-Vic!

-Yes, John!

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

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

-Fantastic! I will pick up the bill tonight.

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

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

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

-Yeah, take it easy now.

-Ha, ha, ha! You are telling me to take it easy! You learn fast, man!

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

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

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

“Ok, so looks like vanity is his weakness. Let’s play along and see what we can find out”.

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

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

-You must be John Parker!

-And you must be Tony Gang!

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

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

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

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

-Excellent! Where are you staying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-You too, Tony.

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

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

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

-Alright. I see you tomorrow, Tony.

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

John took Gang’s last sentence as a warning. He closed the door and locked it. Something felt really strange…he was missing something. “Damn, I didn’t take my suitcase from the hotel”. He took the elevator down, headed for the ATM machine and withdrew some cash. Scott warned him that he must have cash at any time in his pocket as Credit Cards don’t necessary work or are accepted everywhere. The trip to the hotel was short. The taxi driver was a short, skinny middle age person who apparently was smoking like a chimney. The car smelt like a smoking house and John couldn’t see himself out of there. At the hotel, he literally ran out of the car, gave the driver a hundred yuan and headed for the elevators. It was also late: seven thirty already. He didn’t want to be late again. “I am going to miss the gym again” said John to himself while getting into elevator. The hallway was quiet, but John’s curiosity beat the fact that he was trying to be punctual for dinner.

He slowly approached his neighbor’s door and started listening. He thought he heard some music playing inside. Listening more carefully, John’s fine ear and sense for music realized that someone was actually chanting, or reciting lines from a poem as the rhythm was steady, even and rhythmical and was following a certain cadence. Also, a strange smell was coming out of the room; he right away recognized and identified the smell from last day, when he managed to look for a little while at the activity in the room. Now he was intrigued and wanted to know more about his neighbors. He wanted to know who they are, what they do, what sort of practices are they employing while burning that stuff which he did not recognize. The “cling” of the elevator made him realize that someone on that floor was coming and obviously it couldn’t’ve been anybody else but one of his two neighbors. Even if he would’ve made it to his door, he didn’t want to be seen, as from elevator there was a clear sight path to his door. He had to make a split second decision. By the end of the hallway there was a vending machine, so he decided to simulate a purchase. When he got to the machine, he realized that there was enough space between vending machine and the wall, so he hid himself in that space, while being all eyes and ears with whatever would happen on the floor. He was right…his neighbors across the hall were coming back to the apartment, or at least people they knew. Five double knocks on the door followed and John realized that that was a coded knocking as the knocking intervals were identical time wise. His curiosity reached a climax. Soon, the door opened and the guests entered, not before having a short conversation with the person who opened up. The voice of one of the guests sounded familiar. “Swear, I heard that voice before”…John was about to leave his hide-out, when his fine ears picked up a noise coming again from that direction. The door opened and while one person was walking out, another person (still inside) mentioned something in Chinese. This time, John recognized the voice of the woman who was standing in the dark while he was trying to fix the flickering light. Shortly, another person started walking towards the vending machine. John felt a torrent of cold sweat running down his spine. He even refrained from breathing. The sequence of making a purchase at the vending machine followed: cash in, selection, product dispense. John realized that a beverage was bought judging by the noise made by the falling container.

All of a sudden, just when he thought that the person would leave, the individual who made the purchase spoke into a very good English, but with a heavy Chinese accent: “Did she ask for a diet or regular? Hmmm…why don’t I buy both, to be safe?” He chuckled, made another purchase and headed back to the apartment. Same routine followed: coded knocking, door opening and then silence. It was Tony Gang! John still spent another five minutes or so into his hide-out. When everything was settled, he got out and headed straight for his room. Carefully opened the door trying not to make a sound and got in. He then leaned against the door wiping his sweat with the back of his hand. Immediately looked at his wrist watch and realized that it was already eight o’clock. “Ok, no time for shower”. He opened up the door without trying to make a noise and headed towards elevators. Now he had Tony as his neighbor or friend of his neighbor.

Vic was already in the Lobby. John could also see Zhaohui admiring a lemon tree which just blossomed and was spreading an out of this world perfume. When Vic grabbed her arm in a sign of: “we have to go” she was almost in state of transcendence, trying to fondle every flower with her eyes sight, trying to embrace the whole tree and call it “brother”. She startled and looked at Vic. Her look was the look of somebody who was just woken up from a meditating state of mind and was now making efforts to come back to reality.

John’s fine sense of reading people’s faces picked up this little detail, adding it to the other three strange encounters of the day. It was a day to remember for sure. All three of them walked out and in a minute the taxi that was waiting for them headed to the place Vic or his fiancée picked.

Same like last time, it was a place where one could have a nice dinner with the family or with the friends without living his shirt with the waiter or at the cashier. Again, they had a booth which was surrounded by fake trees and a fence made out of bamboo wood, which was giving an overall rustic look at the place and customers a sense of privacy. Lights were skillfully hidden into the fence so the customer wouldn’t see them and also between the branches of those fake trees “planted” into large pots. Once they were sited, John ordered right away a round of beers. Vic looked at him and realized that he didn’t even change the cloths he wore earlier. The two men looked at each other and John understood right away that he owed Vic some answers. He slightly bent his head in an affirmative way, thus telling Vic that they need to talk. In spite of the fact that John tried to make Vic understand this should stay between them, his friend pretended he did not understand and with a tone which showed a complete confidence in his fiancée, he asked John to tell them whatever he had in mind. At this point, John understood that from now on he has no other choice but to trust Zhaohui. Her slender eyes were now the shape of two knife blades, scrutinizing every emotion shown on John’s face, every gesture he was making. Once again, he felt like he was going through an interrogation, though a Purgatory where he was analyzed, weighed and placed into a certain category, a category he felt like he had nothing to do with.

He looked again at Vic. Unfortunately, his friend had his head almost buried into the Menu, thus telling John that he either wants out of this, or John will have to share everything he wanted to tell him with Zhaohui. Finding himself into a situation with no end, he opened up and released everything he’s been through that afternoon. As the story was revealing, both Vic and his fiancée became more and more engaged into participating into events by virtually absorbing every word which was coming out of his mouth. At the end, Zhaohui placed both her hands on the table and while still looking John straight into his eyes, she said something which made both John and Vic startle.

-You need to move.

These words made John feel like he was hit with a hammer right into the back of his head, it was like the earth opened up and was ready to swallow him alive. Why? What is wrong with him being there? So what if Tony Gang was his neighbor – or his neighbor’s friend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

Lunch at Happy Irish

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

– Hey guys, how can I help you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Do you mean, Leo never showed up?

-No, Sir. Sorry.

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

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

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

– Who is Leo?

– A trusted valet, said John scratching his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Any drinks to start up with, gentlemen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.

– Now, let’s get down to business. Scott, I have already had a chat with John and I think he understands what we are asking him to do in China, or at least this was my impression that he got the idea of what he will be up against once he makes it to Shanghai. We are at a crucial time during Company’s history when we have to make a decision we’ve never made before. We never faced a situation like this when we potentially have to pull out of a market. And what’s bothering me the most, is the fact that I don’t know the full story, I don’t even know if pulling out is the right decision. Common sense, experience and my gut feelings are telling me to stay, but the numbers don’t lie. What the hell is happening? We’ve both been there Scott. We couldn’t put our fingers on the wound. We need a fresh pair of eyes to look at this. His deep blue eyes fell on John again.

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

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

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

– Your drinks, Sir!

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

– I hope you like it, John.

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

– Ooh…stout type of a beer drinker!

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

– Good thinking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Excellent, exclaimed Scott nodding.

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

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

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

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

– Excellent choice J.J., said Scott.

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

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

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

– Fantastic! I knew we could rely on you!

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

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

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

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

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

– Yeah, a week would be good enough.

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

– Sure. That would be a decent departing date.

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

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

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

– Yes, Sir!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Question, said John lifting an index finger.

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

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

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

-Your ribs, Gentlemen!

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

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

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

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

– Jimmy, bring another round please!

– Yes, Sir. Please give me two minutes.

– So, what do you think John?

– They are amazing! So tender and juicy!

– Told you! Best in town!

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

– Your beers, Gentlemen!

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

– Cheers!

– Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Very well, Sir. How was everything?

– As usual: fantastic!

– How would you pay, Sir? Separate bills?

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

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

– Not for me, thank you. Guys?

– I am good. Thank you.

– I am good too. Thank you.

– I will be back with your receipt, Sir.

-Thank you, Jimmy.

– You are very welcome, Sir.

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

– He needs Visa for China, exclaimed Scott!

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

– Yes, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Excuse me Mr. Glenworth, your check…

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

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

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

– I’m good, thank you, said Scott.

-Me too, came instantly from John.

– Alright then. Thanks again, Jimmy.

– Have a good day, gentlemen.

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

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

– Malay and Tamil?

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

– Impressive, said John.

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

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

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

– That’s correct, said John John.

– So, he hired everybody there, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Long story, J.J. Long story…

– Aha.

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

– Ooo! Crap! Mr. Parker!

– Why are you only bringing my car now?

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

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

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

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

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

– I think that’s John’s car.

– Then why is a strange person driving his car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yes Sir. I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

– Sorry for interrupting, J.J.

– Sure, go ahead John.

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

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

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

– Exactly.

– Why did Scott want to get rid of him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Do you know something I shouldn’t know?

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

– I guess we’ll talk Monday.

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

Chapter 6

A night at the Theaters

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

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

– Your date is here.

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

– Just a wild guess. Shall I retire?

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

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

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

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

– Which movie are we seeing?

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

– What happened? Where is the popcorn?

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

– I don’t have any cash on me.

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

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

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

– Thanks. I’ll be back in a minute.

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

– So, what are we watching?

– “Mystery on street Duval”

– Any good?

– Recommended by Sarah.

– Hoy!

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

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

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

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

Once they picked a couple of seats, they opened up the popcorn bucket and started working on it.

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

-Well, probably I should start with the beginning…

– Good idea!

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

– No I don’t. You never told me.

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

– Now you are really scaring me!

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

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

– Yes I did, gorgeous!

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

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

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

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

– OK. I am driving on the freeway towards Downtown…I was easily doing 90…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Who?

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

– How do you know him?

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

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

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

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

– He did what?

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

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

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

– Yes it is. Wait to see what happened.

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

– So, I give Leo all the money I had…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Stop it! Please stop it, said Linda while trying to wipe the tears which were coming out of her eyes. She was laughing so hard that she had to pull a handkerchief from her purse and wipe out the tears which were now flowing on her face and dripping all over the shirt. “Great financial contributor to the Church”…God, this is probably the best line I’ve heard in a long time.

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

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

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

– What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Can we skip this thing and go now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Yeah…I think that’s the lead.

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

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

– You are still worrying me!

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

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

– Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Do I race you back?

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

– You have a powerful SUV!

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

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

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

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

– OK. Let’s head back home.

– Let’s get back home and…

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

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

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