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.
John and Yue Ying (I)
The little ma and pa shop was something totally new for John. He had never been into such small authentic little shops. Everything was jam-packed – obviously in an attempt to fit as many customers as possible into the given space. Two little windows facing the street were providing the necessary day light. In spite of the fact that it was just around 3 pm, the place was almost dark. No artificial light was provided and this was giving the visitors a mysterious feeling and the place an almost creepy look. The walls were covered in bamboo wood; mystical masks representing characters from the Chinese Mythology were hanging from the ceiling and from the side walls. The light from outside was desperately trying to make its way in, but the windows were grossly under-dimensioned to serving this objective and maybe this was done on purpose. The feeling of creepiness and unease encompassed John. “What the hell am I doing in this place? Why did that numb nut from outside took us to this shack?” He took a look at Yue Ying; apparently she was not bothered at all by the environment as she was looking around for a free table. John’s heart came to an ease seeing her completely undisturbed by the look of the establishment they just stepped in. “Well, hopefully the noodles are good in this place”. And yes, the place chosen by the cab driver was only making noodle soups. It didn’t take long before the owner (or the manager of the place) showed up. He was already anticipating a good business endeavor, seeing a westerner in his shop. He deeply bowed and started asking questions. Obviously Yue Ying was carrying the conversation while John was trying to smile and put a look onto his face, (a look which was mimicking a certain level of conversation understanding). Obviously he had no clue on what Yue Ying and the owner (or manager) were talking about.
-He say upstairs better, more room, not so busy, but more expensive. He owner.
-Great, then let’s go upstairs! It will be for sure money well spent. Both of them laughed and Yue Ying told their host that they want to go to the second level.
The little old man made a sign and took them in the back and then upstairs through a wooden staircase. The staircase was horribly squeaking and made John startle. It reminded him of his first day in Shanghai when Mr. Wang took him and Vic to the back room of his restaurant; on their way he saw that wooden staircase where a mysterious woman (which never showed her face) was always present at the top of the stairs. This place started making him feel nervous. However, he trusted Yue Ying and the fact that she was not bothered at all about the looks of the establishment, made him cool down.
At the second level, there was a totally different environment: The windows were larger and thus were allowing a greater amount of sun light. There were only five tables, thus signaling the fact that this level was a sort of “VIP” level. At the moment when they took a seat, only one other table was taken. This made John understand that the prices for dining upstairs were significant higher than at the main level. Shortly after they took a seat, the owner came back with the menu. John startled and felt like he needed to catch a breath: the little man in front of him was a carbon copy of Mr. Wang! The round face, the little strand of hair he was trying to use in order to cover the whole frontal area, the sharp, intelligent and investigative eyes behind the glasses made John believe that this individual was Mr. Wang’s twin brother. There were so many similarities between Wang and him! “This is unbelievable! How many brothers are they? It is Mr. Wang, it’s this guy and then it is the owner from Black Swan – which I do believe that has some ties to Mr. Wang…there was too much resemblance in spite of the fact that he was all the time trying to conceal his face by standing into the shadow. This is unreal! Are all of them linked to the curse?” John shook his head and grabbed the menu. Everything was in Mandarin, so he refrained at looking at the pictures. However, he couldn’t stop scrutinizing the man in front of them while pretending that he is reading from the menu. The many conversations he had with different people (into the short time he had been in China) about the curse, started surfacing again…this time though, through another piece of the puzzle which stepped in: Yue Ying! John looked at her while still simulating that he was interested into the culinary offer. “Who is she? Why did she so intempestively and abruptly butted into my life? Why did we have the amazing night we just had? Are we in love with each other? What is her role into this story? Does she have anything to do with the curse?” John was again completely lost into the intricacy of the story. It was the time when Yue Ying grabbed his hand and ask him what he wanted. John startled and looked at her. Her gorgeous eyes put a smile on his face:
-I have no idea what to order. I am assuming everything is fresh and good.
-Everything fresh, Mister. We make here. His hand stretched into a direction and John realized that the establishment had a little kitchen at the second level too.
-What do you think, Yue Ying?
-Everything looks good. I order noodles with vegetables and beef.
-OK, then. Make it two.
-They have many options: shrimp, chicken, fish…
-That’s OK. Whatever you are having, I am having.
-OK, two beef and vegetable noddle soups for you. It will be ten minutes.
-Thank you, Sir!
It was John’s turn to grab her hand. Until their meal showed up, both of them looked into each other’s eyes, smiled and held hands tight. One would’ve said that they just met after a long time of separation and were trying to catch up where they left it off. Yue Ying’s big, black eyes were looking at John in a way which would’ve made a neutral observer realize right away that she was deeply in love with him.
-Soups for you! Enjoy!
Two big bowls of soup were now resting in front of them. The smell of freshly chopped parsley and green onions sprinkled on top was making their nostrils dilate and deeply inhale. It was a happy combination of vegetables, rice noodles, and beef broth in which few pieces of meat and marrow were freely floating. However, John had a problem: in spite of the fact that he was more than able to handle the chop sticks, he never tried to eat a soup using the traditional Chinese eating utensils. Whenever he was ready to put the noodles into his mouth, they were simply slipping through his chop sticks and falling back into the bowl to Yue Ying’s great amusement. After few tries, he signaled that he is ready to give up trying to eat with chop sticks…
-No, no, no…you must try. I help.
-No, I don’t need help…I can do this! John tried again, but the soft, slippery noodles just wouldn’t listen to him and they were inevitably ending up at the bottom of the bowl.
-I help. You listen! Yue Ying’s voice was demanding this time. John looked at her and then affirmatively nodded. Yue Ying pulled a chair beside John’s and grabbed his hand, carefully adjusting the way his fingers were supposed to grip the sticks.
-Now you choose: bring bowl close to mouth or bring head down close to bowl.
-Obviously I am not going to do the first one…so, I guess I am just going to tilt my head closer to the bowl.
-Yes. You do that!
John listened and fished again for the noodles. This time he managed to grab a decent quantity and took it to the mouth; it was an instant success. Yue Ying clapped and cheered, the same way a mother would do it when she is seeing progress made by her child in performing new tasks. She moved back and the rest of the time they talked and laughed and enjoyed a nice soup. One would say that they had been known each other for ages, as no barriers whatsoever remained between them. The small talk, the laughter and the happy moments were greatly enjoyed by both of them. John remembered that the cab driver was waiting for them…
-Oh… Xiǎo lǐzǐ must be already bored. We need to go. John put his hand up in the air. The owner saw the gesture and immediately showed up.
-Everything good? OK everything?
-It was delicious. Bill please.
-Yes, Sir! One hundred RMB.
-Sure. Here it is the money. You have a good day. John stood up and headed for the stairs when all of a sudden turned around and asked the man:
-Do you have a brother in the city? Or maybe…two brothers?
John couldn’t help but seeing the face of the man changing colors while the physiognomy turned from an upbeat and jovial look into a gloomy and unfriendly one. “What did I say? I just asked him if he had one or maybe two brother in the city. What did I do wrong?”
-I thank you for your business, Sir! His right hand was already stretched towards the staircase, basically telling John that he is expected to leave.
Once they were out from the establishment, Yue Ying grabbed his hand and while lifting herself up on the toes to reach John’s ear, she murmured:
-I think…something not good with man inside.
-This is what I told myself…what did I say wrong? Why did his mood change so drastically? I just asked him if he had more brothers into the town…
-Never mind. We had good meal! Her face was all smile and the cheeks were showing now those superb hues which were making the whole physiognomy so friendly looking, pure and happy!
-Yes, it was a good meal! Today I learnt how to eat noodles with the chop sticks! It is a good day already! John started laughing and shortly he was accompanied by Yue Ying. Her vocal chords pulled a crystalline and jovial laugh out of her chest which followed her inside of the car.
-Where we go?
-Please take us to a store where we can buy some more comfortable cloths.
-OK. I know good store. I take you there.
-Alright. Let’s do it!
The usual second gear start up followed. This time John was ready for it; he had enough time to grab Yue Ying and plant his legs against the front seat. In another two seconds, the driver was already in the third gear and then into the fourth. “He is definitely crazy!” John told himself. But now he was saying it while laughing and enjoying the fact that he had Yue Ying into his arms.
The stores were all one level or maximum two level shops and were located into a busy commercial market. John was stunned! There were probably hundreds of little gift shops where one could’ve bought anything you could imagine. John was almost one head above everybody else and thus he was able to admire the crowd and the immensity of the place. “Man, if I get lost here, I am doomed!” Both Yue Ying and Xiǎo lǐzǐ were walking in front of him. His eyes were into a continuous alert, trying not to lose them and in the same time trying to find some stores where they could buy some more comfortable clothes for Yue Ying.
Eventually the cab driver pointed towards a store to the left, a store which looked a little different from any other stores. The front window was large and artificial mannequins were placed into display. The whole establishment had a more refined look than others…it was almost like this one did not belong to this place. Once they entered, two associates greeted them and started asking questions to which Yue Ying was quickly responding.
John didn’t bother listening…he couldn’t understand a word anyway. His curiosity was again kicking in and according to his habit of sticking his nose into everything, started wandering through the store looking at products. At the end of the shop there was a desk and the cash register. Nobody was there. However, a door towards the back was cracked open and he understood that the shop’s warehouse was probably in the back. His fine ear picked up whisperings behind the door. It was enough for him to direct all of his attention that direction. In spite of the fact that he couldn’t understand what they were talking about, he thought that he recognized a familiar voice tonality. He was now all ears…
Suddenly, the door opens up and a woman into her seventies (or even eighties) comes out. She didn’t look at all surprised to see somebody standing not far away from the now opened door. John’s eyes immediately caught a silhouette sliding into the dark, upstairs…”So there is a staircase going up to the second level. Interesting. And somebody just went upstairs as mysteriously and elusively as possible. Great! Here it is another Mr. Wang story!”
The woman had a face which was so wrinkled that one would say she was a mummy just coming out of the sarcophagi. The hands were at least as wrinkled as the face while the tanned skin was greatly contrasting with the white hair. Her attire was not the regular run down, neglected attire of a merchant from the area. One could actually see a certain level of sophistication in the way she was dressed, especially a superb thin gold chain hanging down from her neck. John was trying hard to decipher the meaning of the green jade figure which was resting on her chest. It was a superb piece of jewelry and John just couldn’t stop admiring it. He was fascinated by the beauty of the precious stone which was encircled by a black ring, a ring that had the freedom to slide alongside the chain, obviously. The shirt was white and classy with two large lapels which were covering the lapels of the nice red suit jacket she was wearing. The black ring of the precious jade was contrasting so beautifully with the white of the shirt while the green jade was matching so greatly the red coat! John smiled and with a sincere voice, complimented the woman standing in front of him:
-It looks nice on you. The necklace is so beautiful! What does that green jade represent? John simply rolled all these questions without even asking himself if she was able to speak any word in English. Quickly he realized that she didn’t speak the language he was speaking and to get out of an uncomfortable situation, decided to use the universal language of mimicking. He pointed towards the jade and then did a “thumb up”. Woman’s face lightened up and tilted the head discretely in a sign of “thank you”. Now John found himself into an even more delicate situation: he was looking at the woman and she was looking at him, probably waiting for him to say something else. John made the sign of a chain imaginary placed around his neck, then pointed towards hers and did again a “thumb up”. Once again she tilted her head in a “thank you” sign.
Unfortunately for John, this was the last idea he could come up with and he was now in a desperate need of help. The lady behind the counter was by no means too vocative or too willing to entertain him – probably she realized that it would’ve been a futile effort as she couldn’t speak any English. The salvation came from Yue Ying. Once she finished taking a peak through the store, she saw him at the counter trying to desperately initiate a conversation with the old lady. She approached the counter, grabbed John’s arm and quickly asked:
-Can I help?
-Absolutely! Would you mind telling this lady that I absolutely love that necklace of hers and I especially like that green jade enclosed into that black case? Yue Ying translated and once again the old lady’s face brightened up. A short conversation between the two women started up. John was listening, in an attempt to catch something…anything.
-She say: “Thank you; you gentleman”
-Oh, thank you very much mam! John turned towards the old lady and tilted his head forward, thus showing a great deal of respect.
-She also say that you handsome.
-Once again, mam…I thank you very much. For the second time, John tilted his head in a thank you sign. Yue Ying looked at him and quickly grabbed him by the neck with her arms and passionately kissed him. It was a gesture which put a smile on woman’s face. John felt a little embarrassed and slowly pushed Yue Ying back while whispering into her ear:
-We are in public…
-I don’t care, promptly came back from Yue Ying while pulling his head closer, so she can kiss him again. It was a long and passionate kiss, one of those kisses that are happening before one’s departure for an unknown amount of time.
The old woman behind the counter was scrutinizing every move they were making and one could see an enigmatic smile on her face. Her whole attention was now directed at the couple in front of her. Yue Ying eventually let go and was now looking straight into the woman’s eyes. This exchange of sights was not even close to being friendly. John picked up right away the hostility hidden behind that smile which the old lady had on her face. “Oops…she is not happy. Probably the last exhibit of affection from Yue Ying did not go too well with a person who potentially has a conservative and traditions based education. That look of hers, in spite of the smile I can see, is meant to be thrown at somebody you either do not like, or you despise. Things are getting a little dicey in this moment. I think it’s time for me to step in.”
-So, did you find anything you liked?
-Yes, but not want buy here. Let’s go.
-Why? They have nice stuff and the store is big and clean.
It was the moment when one of the two girls who greeted them in the beginning offered her services to help. The timing was perfect as one would’ve been able to pick up a certain level of hostility floating into the air.
-Of course you can help us! It was John who spoke. He did it from two reasons: first one, he didn’t want to start looking around for another store as all the establishments in that commercial center were small, jam-packed into each other and he didn’t really like their quality.
Secondly, his immense natural curiosity wanted to find out more about the back room and the person who elusively slipped upstairs when seeing him. He was actually dying from knowing who that person was, what is the purpose of this nice, elegant and spacious store so awkwardly placed into a regular traditional commercial center and who the old lady behind the counter was? Her smile was so enigmatic and intriguing, so cold and emotionless! His gut feeling was telling him that something was not right with this place and he may be able to find some leads into his investigation.