For the first few days, Qian took Qu to all the places he could think of where he had spent most of his time. The offices, factories, his penthouse and even the company retreat did not yield any clues to help them find what they were looking for. They were frustrated and tired but worst of all totally dejected. 40 days to explore a man’s life is a ridiculously short time, especially when trying to find something that has no finite substance. The challenge of their task was formidable and failure to complete it would exact a price that could not be afforded by Qian. They had to act quickly, aggressively and with great accuracy.
However, in their current state of mind they could not muster the energy to continue for the moment and this was especially apparent in the stiff pale visage that had engulfed Qian. For lack of any other idea, he suggested that they return to his 12th floor penthouse, reminiscent of the solace he had found there in the past when troubled by difficult business issues. Qu concurred so they drifted off to Songde Road in the Xinyi (SinYee) district and the luxurious residence befitting the powerful business magnate that Qian once was.
The luxury community consisted of five buildings constructed in Baroque style using the finest Italian marble. The main entrance to the central courtyard was through a massive archway supported by thick marble pillars. It was an obvious attempt to mimic Paris’ Arc de Triomphe but of course scaled down proportionately to integrate harmoniously into the building design of the complex.
The perimeter of the complex was surrounded by a re-circulating brook containing multi-colored carp that swam lazily amongst the water plants and lotus blossoms. From the fountain in the center of the courtyard, water overflowed into a narrow channel and cascaded downward into the moat where it began its journey to the other end only to be pumped back into the fountain to recapitulate.
Walking paths, bordered on both sides with manicured hedges, radiated outward toward the entrance of each building. Filigree wrought iron benches nestled between intermittent breaks in the hedges provided an ideal setting for meditation and relaxation.
Qu marveled at the pure opulence that emanated from the building complex and could not even imagine the riches that lie within these walls. But for now, his main concern was how to enter Qian’s penthouse without having to pass by the main door sentinel gods. He quickly grabbed Qian and jumped into a car that was entering the underground garage.
Once inside they left the car and drifted toward the elevator. The exterior frame and doors were laminated with beveled plate glass mirrors that dispersed the reflections of the decorative vanity lights in all directions, creating a dazzling jewel like effect. An obviously rich, not very young woman was standing in front of the mirror applying lipstick. Qu and Qian were positioned behind her studying her reflection in the mirror and joked about how her thick caked white makeup made her look like a ghost putting on lipstick.
When the elevator door opened, they got into the cabin with her. She was startled when she realized she had pushed the 12th floor button next to the 6th floor where she lived. She wondered why she would even subconsciously want to go there since every one in the complex knew that Qian had died and she did not want to risk a chance encounter with any ghosts hanging about. With a shiver, she methodically reached over and pressed “6”, comforted by the fact that the elevator would stop before the 12th floor anyway. She had no idea that two ghosts were in the elevator with her and had diverted her hand to select the floor they wanted. Qu was quite proud of his ability to manipulate the living to assist them with things they could not control themselves and they both chuckled at the puzzled look on the unsuspecting victim’s face.
The feeling of pride brought to mind how he felt the first time he came to the penthouse with Qian. He was at first, in absolute awe over the extravagance of the décor and furnishings. It was a surrealistic feeling to be standing so casually in the midst of this impeccable luxury when his point of reference was that of a middle class white collar worker. He simply could not have imagined this experience. But now, immersed in a palatial habitat, he could fantasize about how it must feel to be able to afford this life style. He finally understood how wealth could propagate a sense of superiority that could be as addictive as taking drugs.
So pride, after all, is pervasive to different degrees in mankind at all levels and he guessed that he too would have probably appeared pretentious to others that had not experienced such wealth first hand. He realized that what he had mistaken in Qian for condescension and loathing for the less fortunate was merely an unconscious display of pride and self confidence in his achievements. He began to have a deeper insight into Qian’s character and regretted that he had so harshly judged and condemned him when they first met.
He was nudged out of his deep abstraction when the elevator arrived at the 12th floor and stopped humming. The door opened and they both drifted out of the elevator and through the wall into Qian’s apartment. The silence induced by discouragement and fatigue, resulting from their failure so far to make progress in their search, had not been broken. Qu could not think of anything relevant to say so he carefully surveyed the apartment just in case he would not have another chance to return here in the future.
His first impression of the interior did not meet with his expectations based on the stunning architecture and landscaping of the building complex. Every element of the décor was rendered in a stark black and white theme. Though it was still obviously luxurious, Qu felt that even if Qian had received the services of the interior decorator for free he had still overpaid by twice what it was worth.
The windows were well placed to provide excellent lighting but were covered by black drapes with a thin white tulle lining that would flutter in the breeze, dancing in and out from behind the drapes like the bed sheet ghosts in a haunted house. In the night, they hung still and limp with moonlight just barely penetrating the fabric barrier. They reminded him of the evocation banners in the funeral home. He smiled inwardly at the sarcastic thought that Qian’s untimely death was no surprise considering how well he had prepared his apartment for the occasion. The feng shui engendered by this environment was an invitation to disaster.
Qu was laid back on the L-shaped white sofa whistling softly, imagining that he owned all that he saw. The surface of the white ceiling was dissected at regular intervals by crisscrossing beams forming a classic coffered ceiling motif with a recessed light in the center of each panel which reflected off the black marble floor panels like stars in the night. On the other side of the living room the silhouette of a concert grand piano was barely distinguishable. Qu could not detect where the piano legs ended and where the floor began; creating the illusion that it had actually grown out of the floor and become organically fused with the décor. The only thing that added a hint of warmth was the white wool carpet in the center of the room.
He continued scanning the four walls for any clues that would help Qian recall a forgotten fragment of a brief moment when a life-changing decision had been made. He paused for a moment, gazing at the wall where many colorful paintings were hung. At last, he thought, a touch of something that could actually be interpreted as an emotional attachment in this otherwise stark abode. He was puzzled though as to why a man with the resources to own the finest and rarest art work in the world did not have any pieces rendered by the Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso. Or for that matter, any artist with a name he could recognize.
His ponderous thought was interrupted when he noticed that Qian had walked over to the chandelier shaped like a huge cluster of hanging grapes that served as a room divider between the living room and kitchen. The semi-spherical shape of each grape projected the light from a single bulb inside the translucent plastic shade, illuminating the room in a curious way with circular pools of light melting together on the floor and walls. Standing directly under the light, one could imagine being safely tucked away inside a space capsule looking out into the dark universe. Perhaps Qian was seeking this kind of solace from his troubles when he reached up and touched the light. The perfect metaphor for his friend’s predicament Qu thought. His life is hanging like a cluster of grapes, going nowhere.
This thought brought his focus back to the task at hand as he resumed his search in the kitchen. Again the contrast was stark with black marble counter tops, black porcelain sink and polished stainless steel appliances. It was all high-tech design but seemed a waste of money since obviously, none of it had ever been used to any extent. Out of curiosity, he poked his head through the door of the refrigerator to see what kinds of food a rich bachelor would keep in stock and found only beer and an assortment of microwave dinners.
The one exception to the black and white theme was a wall featuring a gold inlay image of a dragon on the same black marble tiles used for the floor. Until the display flood lights were switched on, the image was not noticeable. Then, it gleamed brightly, contrasting with the black tiles that blended with the floor giving the impression that the dragon was floating in the air, waiting to spring out and attack at any moment. Qu recognized this familiar totem image as the one used by many of the famous Chinese emperors as a symbol of their power and dominance.
On the other side of the black wall was the master bedroom which featured an enormous dressing room filled with multiple duplicates of suits, ties, and shirts of every imaginable style and color. But the intricately carved Qing dynasty mahogany wedding bed was even more impressive. Qu smiled at the irony of this since the whole environment of the apartment clearly indicated that Qian had no intention of marriage or having children. Or for that matter, even entertaining guests over night. In fact, he was not even sure Qian had ever spent the night here himself. Everything was neatly arranged as if this were a fashion display room. For all the space in the penthouse, the study was the only other room besides the living room bedroom and the kitchen; and of course, the bathroom.
By contrast, at least part of the study definitely looked lived in. There were floor to ceiling book shelves completely filled with books on the two walls to the left and right of the entry. On the end wall, opposite the doorway, hung an eerie looking black ceramic relief of a doll’s face. The sinister eyes were incongruous with the cherub like features of the cheeks and lips and made Qu feel slightly uncomfortable. The desk was obviously the center of activity and the disheveled array of papers and magazines had escaped the fastidious attention of whoever attended to the rest of the house. Behind the desk chair was a two shelf armoire with the doors standing open. On the lower shelf was a stack of Business Weekly and other financial publications. On the top shelf was a complete ensemble of coffee paraphernalia, for brewing and consuming the caffeine addict’s beverage of choice.
A large desk pad calendar on the top of the desk was completely blocked in with scheduled meetings surrounded by a flurry of doodles on the borders, probably scribbled in during many phone conversations. The ashtray filled with old cigarette butts and a half full cup of coffee with a moldy film forming on the surface gave testament to the degree this room had been neglected; definitely the lair of a dedicated workaholic. Behind the coffee cup was a picture of Qian that had been taken of him while sitting at his desk. Qu sat in the leather covered chair imagining that he was a busy executive poring over financial reports on his computer. He glanced over at the picture and realized that if he had been Qian, it would be like looking in a mirror. Could he be so vain that he had to look at his own image while working at his desk to admire how successful he was? Probably not, but a question mark remained in his sub-conscience as to the story behind that particular portrait.
Satisfied that he had given the study a thorough examination, he moved on to the bathroom. It was roughly the size of a master bedroom, and as impressive as the rest of the house. This was the only room in the house that appealed to Qu because it felt like someone had actually given some thought to the décor. The massive black marble Jacuzzi was fashioned after the Japanese style hot spring tubs. He was not surprised at the elaborate collection of lotions and toiletries most popular with men, but the vase of white orchids and the electronic essence oil aroma dispenser seemed more like a feminine touch. Not surprisingly, all was impeccably in order except for the basket of dirty clothes and used bath towels on the floor. Finally, proof that someone did live here! At least Qian couldn’t be accused of not knowing how to enjoy life to the fullest.