He gave up trying to sleep at 6:00 AM.
Shaved, showered and dressed by 6:30 AM, he went down to the lobby only to learn that, even in China, Sundays are special; the restaurant that served breakfast wouldn’t open for another hour and a half.
No coffee in the room. No coffee in the lobby.
Out the glass front of the hotel, traffic looked lighter than a weekday but, nonetheless, many were up and about.
Should he risk it?
There was no killer in sight.
Oh yeah, another part of his mind answered, like he’s going to be standing there waiting?
The lobby doors were pegged open and stepping through it was, he had to admit, gorgeous. The sky was blue, the air clear, and the temperature brisk.
Coffee. Where can I get some coffee?
He headed south, away from the avenue and into the residential area behind the hotel. City noises receded as he strolled along the tree-shaded single lane side street.
No children were out yet and only the occasional resident could be seen sweeping their front stoop or sitting with what was probably a cup of tea.
He lengthened his stride and picked up the pace. And the extra lift needed on each step to keep from tripping on the sometimes irregular sidewalk of individual stones improved the morning exercise.
By the time he reached the abrupt end of the little neighborhood, he was breathing deeply with the effort.
The neighborhood ended at another east-west major thoroughfare and he turned left so he could keep up the pace.
The sidewalk was smoother here and he could take time to look at the shops on both sides of the six lane avenue. Most were unrecognizable. One had dozens of CDs hanging inside the window in front of long lows of shelving that receded into the still dark shop. Another had female mannequins in the front window wearing long coats, black leather gloves and fur hats.
On his side and a block ahead were familiar-looking golden arches.
McDonalds? Some Chinese ripoff?
Stopping out front, the sign with the Big Mac meal looked authentic. The sandwich had the right bun, the correct color sauce was oozing out, the lettuce and pickle were correct, the fries thin and crisp and, yep, the cup was filled with something the correct shade for a Coke. Doing the math for the two prices on the sign, he was surprised that Big Mac all by itself was somewhere between $2.50 and $3.00, and the meal just under $5.00.
A laughing Chinese couple, students perhaps after partying all night he wondered, came out and brought with them all the right smells.
Spence walked in without any further hesitation.
Stepping up, he ordered his meal exactly as he would in Surprise Arizona.
“Big breakfast, please, no hot cakes, and a large coffee with quadruple cream, no sugar.”
The bright smile of the young female order taker froze as her eyes started darting about.
When she didn’t touch the order terminal in front of her, Spence simplified.
He pointed at the breakfast portion of the sign behind her and said just, “Big breakfast.”
Her smile broadened and her eyes sparkled as she nodded and pushed a few buttons on the terminal.
“Coffee,” he said and gestured for a gigantic cup.
She nodded again and when Spence added nothing, she waved her hand toward the price on his side of the order terminal.
About six bucks. He wasn’t sure that was as good a deal as the Big Mac combo but, hey, the coffee was coming!
When his tray came up, he removed the lid on the coffee. It was black.
“Cream?” he made a pouring motion.
She held up one finger and said something like, “naughty,” followed by way too many syllables.
Shaking his head, he held up four fingers and tried to say the Mandarin word, “sì” pronouncing it like the woman’s name, “Sue?” He used pitch as in English to indicate he was asking permission for four creamers.
His young order taker giggled.
Holding up four fingers, she carefully intoned the same vowel sounds but her pitches started and stayed high through to the end like she was singing a single note.
Remembering Robin’s explanation in the Shanghai hotel elevator, he realized he must’ve asked for “death” with his coffee instead of “four” creams.
He laughed and nodded.
“Xiè xie,” he said like he was saying the man’s name “Shay” twice.
The eggs were firm but not rubbery. The sausage was hot, lightly crisped but well drained. The hash browns, well, they were greasy and overdone but that just added to the real McDonalds impression.
Sitting in a McDonalds in Wuhan China on a Sunday morning, he smiled and waved to the other McDonald’s employees when they looked at him and laughed after the order taker apparently told them of his butchered Mandarin. He’d rarely had a more enjoyable breakfast — with hot cakes.
And the coffee “with death” was perfect.
Finished, he put his trash in the flap-covered bin, stacked his empty tray on top and then stepped to the counter with the lid of his coffee removed. The young order taker grinned, refilled his cup and handed him four more creamers.
On his relaxed walk back through the now awakening neighborhood, he paused several times to sample the exotic cooking smells.
I could eat that, he thought more than once.
With half of his refilled coffee approaching luke warm, he arrived back at the hotel. For the first time since arriving in China, he felt refreshed and energized for the day. The few aches from his scrapes and cuts yesterday were no more than faint reminders.
In the lobby, Megyn sat on one of the small sofas near the now open restaurant.
She shook her head and smiled as he approached.
“McDonald’s. You’re a desperate fool, Mr. Spencer Blake.”
She rose for his hug and a kiss on the cheek, “Good morning. Beautiful day isn’t it?”
“You look much better than last night,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Not really, but I had a good breakfast and I think my body clock is solidly on China time finally.”
They sat together on the small couch and talked of little things.
The students arrived a little before 10:00 AM.
Standing in the lobby, Alex and Robin introduced themselves. Spence remembered their faces from class. It was Alex who had told him to go on in English after the translator had stomped out. The van’s driver, James, had parked next to the front door before coming in and introducing himself. His English sounded like it was coming from a book. Spence thought English wasn’t his forte’.
And while no one mentioned his injuries, their stares were obvious and it reminded Spence of yesterday. He sobered from the morning elation and remembered he might be in very serious danger. But it was a beautiful day and the thrill of learning new things, a foreign and very ancient culture, that of contemporary China as these your people had come to know it, the promise of exotic foods — not McDonalds for lunch, please — beckoned.
As much as possible, he decided he would stay in the center of the group to discourage any would be attacker and, other than staying alert and aware of his surroundings, he wan’t going to let his fear drive him into hiding.
There’s a totally different world, several of them, out there for me to experience.
Introductions complete, they went out the lobby doors, Spence in the middle, and piled in for the drive. James started the van and, in a break in the sparse Sunday morning traffic, turned left onto the main avenue.
Pointing to the campus on their right as they drove past, Megyn said, “We could probably get to the museum faster on foot. It’s just on the other side of the campus, to the left around the lake.”
Five minutes and two turns later, Megyn’s face was almost pressed against the glass as they turned into the driveway of the museum. James stopped the van in front of the entrance and everyone got out.
“They’ve added several buildings since I was last here,” Megyn said sweeping her hand around as they stood in front and waited for James to park the van.
“This is supposed to be one of the best museums in all of China,” she continued. “The concert is the best part, I think. But the whole museum collection covers more than two thousand years. I was too young to appreciate this when my brother and I used to come here. The beautiful costumes of the musicians, all of them, are absolutely spectacular. The fabrics alone ….” Her voice trailed off as they climbed the steps to enter.
Consulting a sign in the lobby, Robin said, “There’s a concert at 10:00 AM. We should be just in time.” She waved her hand urging them toward the stream of others passing through open double-doors to their left.
Entering the darkened concert hall of the museum, Spence shook his head when Robin tried to take them to seats in the front. She frowned when he led them away from the door to the far side toward the back.
The dim lights in the hall went out and those on stage brightened. Megyn was right, the colorful blues and reds of the musician’s costumes were spectacular. From their sheen in the bright stage lights, he guessed they were all silk. The music included exotic instruments he would later see in museum display cases and which he’d seen in photographs. But hearing them actually played was a treat for the ear, and imagining the practice it would take to master them, put him in awe of the performers. Years ago, Spence had played piccolo in the high school marching band and had learned the tiny instrument’s cramped fingering, sensitivity to temperature changes, and strict requirement for a good ear to control the intonation, were no small task. Seeing and hearing the ancient Chinese instruments, he nodded in sincere appreciation.
“These players are wonderful,” he whispered to Megyn.
Long poles were used on the Bianzhong the bells, the centerpiece of the concert. These were the actual bells, he reminded himself, dug up from some ruler’s tomb, cleaned and repaired for this showcase. Their sound, each bell able to play two different notes, made for ear-challenging chords while the fixed intonation occasionally clanged against his western ear.
Distracted from the music at those moments, Spence quickly scanned the hall for dark, stealthy shapes but saw nothing suspicious.
After the concert, they wandered into an exhibit area.
Robin translated, “The sign says this is the Warring States collection, mostly from the tomb of Yi, king of the Zeng Sate. He died around 433 B.C.”
She sounded proud as she added, “China had a very sophisticated civilization long before anything in the west.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much of your history,” Spence apologized. “If I ask a dumb question or say something stupid, please feel free to educate me.”
Alex smiled. “We feel the same way about America.”
“Can we sit down?” Spence asked, his knees aching from yesterday’s injuries. “All this walking is tiring.”
Seated between Megyn and Alex on one bench with Robin and James on another across from them, Spence confessed, “About the only names I know from ancient Chinese history are Genghis and Kublai Khan. Did they ever come to Wuhan?”
Alex shook his head. “I don’t think so. Their kingdoms extended to this area but they never actually here in person as far as I know.”
Unchallenged by the others, Alex continued.
“Genghis Khan started it all. He’s from Mongolia, up in the north. He lived in the Christian eleventh century, I think. That’s more than 1500 years after the artifacts we’re looking at in this room, by the way. Compared to these things,” he swept a hand across the room, “the Khans are very recent.”
“Kublai is the grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai started the Yuan dynasty. It lasted only about 100 years but controlled just about all of what we call China today and more. It included the Korean peninsula, went as far west as the Black Sea and Afghanistan, and then all the way up into Siberia.”
Megyn leaned over to Spence and said, “My half-brother’s family is Khan — we have the same mother but different fathers.“
She continued for all, “I don’t know if my brother is related to the historical Khans but when we were kids, we often played like he was. I would put on my best clothes and dance while he …” Megyn blushed and her voice trailed off. “That sounds kind of strange today but we were just kids playing out our imaginations.”
“Where was he born?” Spence asked, intrigued by the possible connection to history.
“My mother — she’s Han Chinese — married a Uygher.”
Spence tried to copy the sound of the word.
Meghan suggested, “Say ‘Wee-jher’ with a soft ‘J’ sound, that’s really close.
To the group she continued, “They lived in Kashgar, in the special administrative region of Xinjiang.”
“I’m sorry,” Spence turned to her. “Where is Xinjiang, and what is a ‘special administrative region’?”
Robin jumped in excitedly before Megyn could speak, “Our government sets up special governing councils in areas that I guess you could say aren’t sure yet they want to be part of China. They still need to feel independent from Beijing. These councils gives them more control. Of course, Chinese law applies to everyone and they can’t do anything the government opposes, so the councils often just act as a buffer and usually give approval to Chinese law. Tut they are allowed a few exceptions, and sometimes there are special considerations for holidays and historical events unique to their culture.”
“Such areas have,” Robin paused, turned to address Spence directly and started over, “You would call them ethnic minorities — that are different from the Han.
She waved a hand to include Alex, James and Megyn, “We’re all Han, Han Chinese. But in these special areas, they have their own customs of dress, social manners, music, and some even have religious practices that Beijing normally discourages. And, of course, practically all of have their own language. In China, everyone is required to learn Mandarin in school. It’s the official spoken language. But in everyday life, just like we use Cantonese, each region of China will have their own language.”
Spence could see Megyn had more to say but Robin plowed on.
She asked, “Did you see the jewelry being sold on the sidewalk across from the University as we drove by this morning? Those people are from Tibet, another of our groups. Their dark, reddish skin is beautiful especially with the turquoise and jade stones.”
Robin paused, apparently transfixed with the jewelry.
Megyn took over, “As I mentioned, my brother is from Xinjiang. That’s in northwest China next to Mongolia on one side, Kazakhstan and Krygystan to the north, and Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west.”
“Wow,” Spence exclaimed. “I’ve never heard of half of those places.”
Alex laughed, “We had to look up your ‘Arizona’ — we thought it was south of California.”
They all laughed.
Megyn continued, “The Uyghurs are another of the Chinese ethnic groups. They are quite distinctive — you wouldn’t have any trouble noticing the difference.
“The Han are the overwhelming majority in China. Something like 90% countrywide. Here in Wuhan, it’s more like 98%. The Tibetans that Robin mentioned are a very small minority here. Uyghurs are even rarer in this part of the country. They stay to themselves. Intermarriage, like with my mother’s first husband, is very rare. And, sadly, the children of such marriages often have a hard time.
“Xinjiang,” Megyn continued, “is strongly Uyghur. Their skin is darker, brownish, not like the red of the Tibetans. And a Uyghur face is wider and sort of square with features spread out a little.”
Spence asked, “So did your brother grow up in Kashgar?”
Megyn shook her head, “No. He was born there but his father was killed when he was an infant. My mother moved back to her parents in Zhenghuangwan and our grandmother helped take care of him for a while. That’s where she met my father and, in 1964, they were married. I was born the next year.”
Alex perked up, “Ah, if you were born in 1964, then you grew up during the Cultural Revolution!”
Megyn’s voice sounded pinched but strengthened as she answered. “Yes, very much so. I would say it was not a good time for our country. For example, my mother told me how terrified she was living close to here when the ‘Workers’ Headquarters’ tried to seize control of the center of Wuhan.
“The ‘Million Heroes’ had control and fought to keep it. I think 1,000 people were killed before Beijing sent in the military to stop both groups.”
Robin nodded, “That was the summer of 1967. We have pictures in our books. They don’t portray it quite the same way as you did.”
Megyn continued undaunted, “Later, the government started taking students out of school and sending them to work on farms in the countryside where they were expected to improve farming and crop productivity. When my brother was twelve, the local committee ordered my parents to send him to Shandong Province.
“That night, he ran away. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead for a year. Mom cried a lot.
“Then one day, I was doing my homework, looked out the window and there he was coming up the path. I was so happy to see him, I ran out and hugged him with all my strength. But he barely hugged me back. His face was hard, like his body. He seemed much older. After I’d barely started hugging him, he pushed me away and said, ‘Stop that, Lili.’”
To Spence, she added, “My given name is Li, Zheng Li. He has called me ‘Lili’ my whole life.
“He told me that he walked, rode trains and hid in trucks for weeks to get to Kashgar, begging and stealing food to stay alive. He wanted to find his real father’s family.
“When he found them, he says he walked right up to their door, knocked and when they opened it, he announced, ‘I am your grandson.’ But his grandfather said he was ‘piroytki’ — that means ‘half-breed.’ They let him stay only as long as he worked like one of the hired hands. In a sense, he was doing what the Cultural Revolution had wanted, just in a different place. He said he worked hard to show them he could be a man but, in spite of it, they just wouldn’t accept him as family. Everyone said he wasn’t a real Uyghur. Eventually, he gave up and made his way back home.”
Megyn’s eyes were red. “And now things are even worse. Poor Taq.”
Everyone sat quietly while Megyn recovered.
She apologized, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk about my family problems.”
Megyn took out a compact, looked at her face and started making small fixes to her makeup.
Alex started a new topic.
“Professor Blake, when we looked up Arizona we saw it’s pretty close to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Do you go there very often?”
Spence laughed, “Please call me Spence, and I’m not a Professor. Just an engineer trying to make a living. But yes, I do go to Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, San Jose and just about all the other parts of Silicon Valley. That’s where I met Megyn. She lives in Cupertino.”
As Spence had rattled off the city names, Alex’s brow had crinkled up.
Spence guessed at his confusion, “All those cities are part of Silicon Valley just like Wuchang is part of Wuhan.”
Alex smiled and said, “I’m working for our Systems Engineering degree. I do both hardware and software. Is that your degree, too?”
“Actually,” Spence answered, “my degree is just in Electronics because when I went to school there was no software department, much less any sort of degree. But I took all the software classes because I liked them better than the electronics. So, yes, you could say I’m more of a systems engineer.”
Spence continued with a question for Alex, “What kinds of systems do you like?”
Alex grinned and spoke rapidly, “Embedded micro-control systems, ‘gadgets with computers’ I like to say. We did some 8-bit machines at first in class two years ago but it took a lot of code to do much. But then we got some Arduino Unos last year and then this semester, I got my first Raspberry Pi. I love the Pi!
Alex hesitated before asking, “Maybe I could bring in a couple of my projects to class next week?”
“Sure, I’d love to see them. What’ve you done with the Pi?”
“Well, it’s my only project that’s sort of gone into production. I mean, I just get reimbursed for parts so it’s not like I’m being paid but still, I’ve delivered two sets using a total of,” Alex paused and looked toward the ceiling for a moment, “eleven Raspberry Pi’s.”
“Wow,” Spence nodded, “you’re in production mode. What does it do?”
“It’s sort of a remote control that uses WiFi,” Alex began what would turn into a fifteen minute geek-fest that only Spence and Robin could follow.
Winding up, he summarized, “So the green LED means power is on, yellow means the receivers are actually in communication with and synchronized to the transmitter by Wi-Fi, and then finally a blinking red LED means the ‘GO’ button has been pressed and all the receivers will fire their relays at the same instant ten seconds after.”
“I look forward to seeing the finished units,” Spence nodded.
Alex’s face beamed!
On the short drive back to the hotel, everyone seemed tired but happy. The students said they would be in class again next week even though Spence warned the lecture would be the same.
“Hearing everyday English is very helpful. I’m learning a lot.” She smiled all of a sudden. “I think I’m starting to understand prepositions!”
Spence said, “I’ll be pleased to have you in class and, please, ask any question you want even if it’s not about the lecture. I didn’t realize how important all the ways this class would be helpful.”
Alex chimed in, “Are we going to Tsing-Tsing tonight for dinner? I’m ready!”
James, who hadn’t said a word all day, brightened at the name of the restaurant.
He stood and announced, “I have school credit card for dinner!”
Alex and Robin rose and, accompanied by James, went to get the van.
Still seated, Megyn reached over and squeezed Spence’s arm as she said, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, all things considered.”
Spence shook his head and smiled, “It’s been a wonderful day. They’re all expecting it and so am I. We’re doing just fine out in public; I don’t think anything’s going to happen. I’m really starting to believe I got away without being seen.”
Megyn looked worried.
“Or maybe the killer is busy elsewhere? Or maybe he’s out of town? Spence, I could think of a hundred reasons he might not attack you. Only one of them uses the words ‘he didn’t see me’.”
They went to Tsing-Tsing and the students delighted in trying dishes on Spence who found some of them very tasty, some “very interesting” and only one, “Woah, I don’t think I can eat that!”
Back in his room and alone again, the idea that he would be only a few hundred yards from the decaying body and head began working on him again.
Who knows what a crazy killer might do?
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