Xin Tong gunned the engine of the Toyota Corolla in a last exhilarating burst of speed as she passed the car ahead of her and raced around the curve. Though she had never owned a car she had learned to drive while in college and passed a tactical driving course as part of her intelligence training. She’d loved it. Some things she’d felt she was born for and speed was one of them. She glanced at her watch. She should be nearing the Lambros house.
This was her first visit and she was a little nervous but the ride out helped relax her. Leon lived with his parents about one and a half hours north of Toronto itself. He’d described it as a bungalow and she’d had to look the word up. There! That must be it. She pulled into the driveway, impressed once again at the size of Canadian homes and how much land they usually sat on. She checked her hair and makeup in the rear view mirror then got out. She’d decided on a pair of jeans today but had matched them with a stunning designer blouse she’d picked up downtown and a pair of sexy white heels that while not outrageously high still drew attention to her athletic shape. She pushed the doorbell and waited. She hoped Leon would be the one to answer but no such luck.
An older woman with the look of a wise but gentle matron opened the door. She shone with the dimmed afterglow of a beauty that must have at one time been fierce and bright. Nancy knew at once who the woman was.
“You must be Nancy. Leonidas has told us so much about you. Please come on in my dear. It’s so good to finally meet you.”
The welcome was so genuinely sincere that Nancy felt immediately relaxed and at home and she marveled at a presence that could so quickly put a stranger at ease.
“Thank You, Mrs. Lambros, Leon has told me so much about you too and I must say you’re every bit as beautiful as he insisted.”
“Please. Call me Cathy dear and Thank You. Where’s your uncle? Couldn’t he come?”
“He had an important meeting in Ottawa this weekend. He sends his apologies and says he hopes to meet you and get his first taste of authentic Greek cuisine another time. Lambros brags about your cooking so much that uncle Mike was tempted to skip the conference to come here but it’s a pretty important event so he went…reluctantly I might add.”
Cathy laughed, a pleasant merry sound like her son’s laugh, Nancy noted. Mother and son had more than magnetic blue eyes in common.
“Leonidas! Come out here! Your guest has arrived!”
A few minutes later a tired but smiling Leon appeared. He kissed her on the cheek in greeting. “Welcome Nancy. You’re in for a treat tonight!”
“I believe you! The smells coming from kitchen are heavenly”
“Trust me the tastes are even better than the smells. Here let me take your coat and show you the house and introduce you to everyone.”
She followed him through the house and into the living room where a horde composed of family members, guests, and friends lounged about waiting for the serving of the big meal to be announced. Children ran around screaming and having fun despite the occasional halfhearted admonishment from an adult for them to behave themselves.
A hockey game on the large TV that occupied most of the back wall of the room held most of the males’ attention. Leon had made good on his promise to teach her the game so Nancy could follow the action.
Leon made hasty introductions to the people she didn’t know. These were mostly family members, most of the friends she had met though she found it difficult to remember western names.
She had subtly but firmly woven her way into the fabric of Leon’s life over the last couple of months and Nick, Tony, Steve, Julio, and Richard were all her friends now. They accepted her and more than one of them had a small crush on her and wished Leon wasn’t in the picture.
But in signs writ big and small she’d let it be known that she was only interested in Leon. They all knew this now and accepted it. To her continual surprise, she liked Leon and her life in Canada. She and Leon had a mutual attraction to extreme sports, good books, and exotic cuisine.
Just as she was constantly surprised at his offbeat sense of humor he was still taken aback at her athletic prowess. They were both extremely busy but somehow managed to find time to play together. There were only two problems standing in the way of her mission. The first was time, and at some point, she expected pressure from Beijing to deliver the goods. After the rest of the financial and intelligence organizations woke up to this discovery it would be even more difficult to make sure it got into Chinese hands.
The second potential problem was one she was loathing to admit to herself. What if Leon just wasn’t attracted to her sexually?
She was confident of her looks and her desirability but she had to admit that she was in new territory in trying to encourage a romance with a westerner. She’d only experienced that one time but Stanley and Leon were as different as night and day.
She knew he liked her. What if she just didn’t turn him on? She was worried that he only thought of her as another buddy or the professor’s niece, an adopted kid sister that he was obligated to entertain and keep happy. If that is what he felt or was starting to feel she needed to change that as quickly as possible.
She walked a delicate line here. She wanted that first kiss! A sexual relationship was not out of the question but she wanted to make it something special to him, not just be some desperate foreign slut looking for an international quickie.
This dinner was a step in the right direction. There were few cultures where meeting mom, Dad and the rest of the family wasn’t important and Greek culture wasn’t one of those. A cute little girl whose age Nancy guessed as somewhere between seven and nine, overcame her shyness and approached her.
“Hello. That’s a lovely ribbon in your hair. Did you pick it yourself?”
“Yes, blue is my favorite color.”
“Then you are one lucky little girl because you have a pair of beautiful blue eyes you can look at any time there’s a mirror around.”
“Just like my uncle Leon and my grandmother. That’s what my dad says.”
“Ah, so you must be Sophie.”
“Right, and you’re Nancy. I heard about you.” she said with a mischievous grin, then added impulsively, “Are you uncle Leon’s girlfriend?”
That’s the million-dollar question little girl was the thought that ran through Nancy’s mind but she laughed nervously, not knowing how to answer this little angel. Her anxiety trebled when she realized everyone in the crowed suddenly quiet room was focused on her conversation with little Sophie and waiting expectantly for her answer. Leon came to her rescue. He scooped Sophie up and twirled her around, once, twice, three times and before the hapless child could recover her equilibrium whisked Nancy out of the room.
“Thanks, but where are we going?”
“I want to show you my workspace.”
“Is that like an office only at home?”
He led her down a hallway lined with pictures. Nancy was struck at the similarities between Lambros family and that of her own growing up in China. There was the smiling young Leon, no more than eight or nine, surrounded by his uniformed teammates holding a huge hockey trophy. Here was a serious Leon, a proud parent on each side, displaying his first-place entry into a high school science contest. At the end of the hall they went down a set of stairs into a basement.
When they reached the “work space” she was astounded. It was a high-tech haven in which all the interior, including all appliances and equipment was black. The place looked not so much like a home work space as it did a military tactical situation room, and as if to emphasize that point, a biometric and fingertip scan was required before they could even enter.
“This is where I do most of the real work.” Lambros announced proudly as she looked around in awe.
“Which consists of…?”
“I monitor all the currencies of the world, news and fundamentals. When an opportunity arises, I press a button on this screen and it opens a standard order. If I ever go public, what will happen then is that an email will go out to the clients involved stating whether to buy or sell. That’s basically it, but of course it takes a lot of diligence to reach that point.”
“How are the accounts my uncle set up for you doing?”
“Ah, you mean the test accounts? I’m glad you reminded me. Here, let’s look.”
He sat down at a computer and with a single touch of his index finger to the screen it came to life and launched a program.
“Wow! How did you do that?”
“I have a membrane-like attachment on this finger.” He said absently as he studied the information. “I haven’t been able to take advantage of every opportunity for trading. I don’t have a staff and you, the professor and of course myself, are the only ones who know about this and we’ve all been too busy to get together and establish an efficient routine and schedule. Still, I think you’ll have to agree the results so far are impressive.”
Nancy took a few moments to read and absorb the information on the huge monitor. Impressive seemed something of an understatement in her opinion to describe the enormous amount of profit the accounts were steadily generating.
She couldn’t help but think what it would be like if Beijing with all the resources at its disposal had Leon working his system full time for China, or better yet, if she learned how it was done and could simply pass the knowledge to them.
Looking around she finally believed in Lambros, in his genius and technical savvy. She realized that up until this point, she had thought this would play out with him just being a smart likable guy who had stumbled across a system for currency trading, a system that perhaps was good but certainly not infallible, certainly nothing extraordinarily phenomenal or revolutionary. But this screen gave the lie to those thoughts. Thousands and thousands in profit and he wasn’t even monitoring and trading full time.
She looked around her, taking in everything with an eye that had been trained to pay attention to the smallest detail and she had a vision of him here in his element, in an environment he had created. It was a new and profound insight into a man she realized she was only just beginning to know. She turned to him.
“You love this, don’t you?” You’re like a lion when you’re in here. A lion on a grassy knoll, observing everything in sight and waiting for the prey to wander into your domain.”
Lambros laughed. “That’s a pretty sexy way to describe currency trading, but yeah, currency is alive to me. I love watching it move, breath, sleep, flare up, and yes, like prey, even oscillate fakes sometimes. Maybe your analogy is a good one because when I see an opportunity I pounce.” he smiled a leonine smile. “And I ruthlessly bring it down and devour it.”
“Now who’s being sexy?”
“The imagery of violence turns you on?”
She shook her head in negation. “The imagery of action turns me on. You’ve seen me at sports. I like pushing myself to my limits and then I revel in the fact that those limits can be exceeded.”
“You are an unusual woman Nancy Guo.”
“And you are an interesting man Leonidas Lambros.”
They were facing each other now and Nancy realized that this was the perfect place and time for that first kiss. The kiss that she admitted to herself, she had been craving for a while now. They both instinctively moved towards each other.
“Hey you guys! You can come up out of the Bat cave now! Dinners ready!”
So much for the perfect moment.
The meal was a raucous, very lively affair, with everyone eating, laughing, and talking all at once, very much like a Chinese banquet. The food, most of it Greek, and none of it familiar to Nancy, whose experience with western cuisine consisted mostly of fast food and the occasional foray to the chain restaurants that appeared to be everywhere, was delicious. Leon had purposely avoided taking her to any Greek restaurants saying she should taste the very best first so she would know what real Greek food should taste like.
There were stuffed peppers with rice, beef, red peppers, spices, and feta cheese. There was spaghetti topped with escargot and Romano cheese. Nancy noted that western meals were very big on cheese, which was rare and hard to find in China.
She especially liked the Tzaztiki, a sauce made of garlic and cucumber. The marinated chicken souvlaki with garlic and herbs was also exceptional and excitingly exotic to her and she dug in figuring there was little chance of another perfect kiss moment tonight. She was glad she hadn’t eaten much all day and had room to sample everything. She promised herself a strict and especially rigorous workout tomorrow but for today she was going to gorge. She knew that if the Greeks were anything like the Chinese (and everything she had experienced so far led her to believe they were) a guest showed his or her appreciation for the meal by eating as much as humanly possible.
Leon’s father, the senior Lambros, Emmanuel, had blessed the meal before they started. He was a sharp, solemn, but very charming man who had started out as a mechanical engineer. Nancy suspected that Leon had inherited a lot of his scientific acumen from him. He had words of wisdom for every occasion and she had heard several people say his personality reminded them of Winston Churchill, a very famous Prime Minister from England. The personalities might match but Churchill was not who Emmanuel looked like. For one thing he still had a full head of hair. No, who he looked like was a Greek shipping magnate who had been married to the wife of the legendary American President, Kennedy.
Nancy found the absolute quiet before eating, along with the patriarch’s dignified prayer and manner very soothing, and decided she liked this Christian ritual, though like a good Party member she disapproved of religion in general.
“So Leonidas took you down into the Bat cave. You must be special Nancy. No one else here is allowed down there.”
The speaker was Soteris, a bookkeeper and longtime friend to the senior Lambros. Nancy reluctantly brought her eyes up from the spiced Saganaki cheese grilled with Ouzo that she was in the process of devouring.
“Bat cave?” She knew what a bat was and that they lived in caves but failed to see the connection to Leonidas and his work space. She thought the lion’s den would be a more appropriate term.
“It’s a cultural reference Nancy. Batman is this man with fantastic abilities that he uses to fight crime. His headquarters is called the bat cave.”
“Not exactly. A superhero. Like his friend, Superman.”
Nancy still didn’t quite get it though she knew a little about who and what Superman was. She helped herself to some spinach pie with Feta cheese. She wanted to compare it to the cheese pie with Feta cheese.
Meanwhile the conversation spun off into an incomprehensible tangent about superheroes and which publisher had the best ones, D.C. Or Marvel. Nancy had heard many things discussed over food back in China but never something quite as esoteric as this. She resolved to buy some comic books tomorrow and read them when she had time, maybe after her workout.
Like Chinese banquets, Greek meals had a long and very strong tradition of toasting. The sound of people taping glasses together and saying “Opa!” and “Healthy living!” could be heard throughout the course of the meal. Finally, after the Baklava, a puffed pastry with crushed walnuts and pure honey, followed by Catherine Lambros famous homemade custard cream with Baileys liquor, the guests returned to various parts of the house, drowsy, and exhausted from eating.
Although she was full and feeling lethargic herself, Nancy volunteered to help Catherine clean up and Leon returned to the bat cave.
“Thanks for staying behind to help me Nancy. I love to cook but I could do without the massive cleaning effort that comes afterward.”
“It’s the least I could do Mrs. Lambros. That was the most incredible meal and eating experience of my entire life. I mean it, and I come from a country where people love big banquets with an extravagant choice of items on the menu.”
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it.” Catherine replied, obviously pleased at the compliment.
“Anyway this gives us a chance to get to know each other a little better. My son really likes you, you know.”
Nancy was surprised at the statement but decided to run with it. “Really? Do you think so? I like him too but well… we’ve never even kissed. He’s never even tried. I thought western boys were kind of forward and moved faster than that.”
Catherine laughed. “Leonidas is a gentleman. I raised him that way. He won’t take liberties my dear.” Her face clouded over before she continued. “But part of the reason he hasn’t paid you proper attention may be my fault.”
Nancy’s eyes raised in confusion and just a little alarm. She had wondered if the reason Leon had failed to pursue her more aggressively even though he was obviously attracted and didn’t have a girlfriend might be her ethnicity. She knew it mattered to a lot of people, particularly Americans, but in every country some families would disapprove of crossing ethnic lines. It was certainly frowned on in China.
“Look Mrs. Lambros, if you want your son to marry a Greek girl or a Canadian girl, I will respect that. Your son has been wonderful. It’s enough if we just continue to be great friends.” she lied… not all that convincingly.
“What? Do you mean because you are Chinese? No, no my dear. We’re not like that. Look at me Nancy.”
Turning from the sink, her hands dripping suds from the dishwater, Nancy obeyed. Catherine grasped an arm in each hand and they stood there a moment looking at each other.
“I’m dying dear girl. I have chronic lymphocyte leukemia. Leonidas is convinced he can come up with something to save me or at least slow the progress of my deterioration but this disease is exhausting. At this point I would just be happy to see my son with someone who makes him happy, someone who deserves him and understands him, before I go. I’m thinking that might be you.”
Nancy was speechless. What could you say? She couldn’t think of anything. Ignoring her wet hands, she embraced Catherine and the two women stood there alone in the quiet kitchen holding each other.