Sometime in 2001
Shenghan woke from a monthlong dream of airports, of winter mothballs leaving a scent trail through concourses, of slurred words delivered to some overeager journalist for the provincial television station. He watched himself buy a stick of fried dough an hour before dawn and stepped into a glass box twenty-two floors above the concrete cloverleaf of Guomaoqiao with the thick grease still clotting his throat.
"Shenghan!" Zhuo's voice, ambushed, stumbled around for the proper tone before settling on its default flattery. The appointment had been scheduled under a false name. "What brings you to my humble abode?"
Shenghan slapped a fat sheaf of bills and gilt-edged paper on the mahogany dividing them. Winter sunlight, filtered through the coal-fired haze, colored the paper stacks varying shades of red. "Happy New Year."
Fat fingers, dove towards the stacks of yuan and preferred stock like plump worms. Shenghan, quick as a chicken's beak, caught the wrist. "Not so fast. We cleared up the receivables issue. Two-hundred-thirty million will become a one-off charge."
"A one-off?" Zhou's hand went slack.
"Yes. How much'll that cost us?"
The banker's forehead creased for a moment. "Two hundred on the forty percent stake. And listen, pal, that's--"
Shenghan smiled, let go of Zhuo's wrist, and withdrew another brown envelope from his winter coat. Black and white photos: one banker, pants around his ankles, being serviced by a KTV hostess.
Zhuo's response was immediate. "--oh, look at me. It's the New Year, and I'm neglecting my good friends." A snort. "Just this one time--I'll promise to drop the offer by only one-fifty." The banker extended his hand to take the photo. Shenghan refused to let go.
"Okay, okay. I'll get it on the NDRC fast-track too."
Shenghan smiled. "A pleasure doing business with you." Then he turned and left.
Shenghan ditched the engagement ring to a pawnshop owner on Nanjing Street for a third of what he'd paid for it. As the fat wad of pink bills crowded his pocket, he found an establishment for foreign businessmen, built by the local government more as an expression of hope than reality, the only place where he felt at home. Behind a liquor rack, one long mirror returned his lonely stare. Shenghan read his order to no one in particular.
"One martini, please."
The bartender returned with something brown in a cocktail glass. Shenghan tasted it, realized it was made out of whiskey rather than gin. Shrugging, he downed it anyway, then held up the empty glass to his face, watching his reflection twist left and right. As he did, a second iteration of his face joined the first. It was smaller, paler, and it smiled.
Shenghan blinked twice, before realizing his interview was playing on the twenty-inch Sanyo television above the liquor rack. Words scrolled beneath his onscreen avatar.
Jia Li Group inks 850M RMB equity deal with American Bromide
The bartender caught Shenghan staring and reached to turn up the volume. Shenghan flicked a one-yuan coin at the man, which pinged off the back of his head. "I'm not interested. Change the channel."
"You bing," the bartender muttered, but he did.
A moment later, Shenghan felt a tap on his shoulder. The hand was familiar. "So that's what it was all about, huh?" So was the voice.
"Miss Xia..." It was Shenghan's turn to stumble around for the right tone. "You've been following me?"
"You're not a hard man to find." She set down a bag of groceries. "And if you want to keep your little deal intact, I expect to see my fiance."
Shenghan stared back into his glass, then ordered another martini with whisky. "Drinks on me. Want anything?"
Yilin remained standing. "I'd rather not get knocked out again, Mr. Zhang. And you owe me far more than a drink."
Shenghan shrugged, ordered her a glass of red. "Your fiance's dead."
"You expect me to believe you?"
"No. But I know how you feel." Outside, it began to rain.
"I don't think you do. In fact, I doubt you can feel anything."
Shenghan smiled. "You're probably right." The drinks came. Yilin nervously threaded a thin finger around the wineglass stem. Shenghan watched her take one, tiny, sip. "What I mean is, I know how you feel right now, since I'm single too."
Yilin raised her hand for a slap. Shenghan caught her at the wrist. "You know, my dad used to tell me that if a girl slaps me three times, I should kiss her."
"Because if she's already slapped me twice, but still wants to talk to me, chances are she likes me."
Yilin--stunned, furious. "You--you son-of-a-bitch."
Shenghan chuckled. "You're right again." Then he let go of her wrist, withdrawing a small square of folded paper from his coat pocket. "This is for you and your husband."
"I thought I told you, we weren't--"
"I know. But unlike me, both you guys deserved it." Shenghan thrust the square forward. "And both of you deserve this, too."
She unwrapped the paper, stared at it for a moment, then threw it back into his face. "Three fingers and a jawbone? What, did you run out of spares at the morgue this week?"
Shenghan sighed, tried to answer, but she was already heading for the door. He caught her in the rain.
"Let go of me!"
"Let go of me or I'll scream."
Shenghan tightened his grip on her arm, dropped his voice to a leaden whisper. "So do it! Scream. Yell until your throat bleeds dry. Tell the whole world that Feng Yixian died in a puddle of hydrochloric acid because Jia Li Group runs its plants at double the safe operating limit. Wreck this deal. Wreck this company. Wreck Wang Baosen, wreck Gu Zhenlun, wreck me." He paused, catching his breath. "But even if you do all that, he's not coming back. No matter how hard you do it." He let go of her, lowered his eyes. "Nothing'll change, except..."
She leaned in until he could count the freckles on her nose. "Except what?"
The next ten seconds made sense to neither of them. Then he kissed her.
Read part 17 here: