by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Journeys Series are the creation of the author.
My deepest thanks to Lisa, Inga and Susan, my beta readers, who do the really hard work.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Seasons book 1 & 2 are now in print, and the Encounters,
and the Murder Mystery Series will be soon. These books
are being published by Renaissance Alliance Publishing.
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Dr. Petra Vossler pulled her jeep into one of the parking places reserved for Kurt Vossler, president and owner of Vossler Engineering Corporation. The five parking spots were not marked in any way, and except for their location right beside the private elevator that went to the top floor of The Vossler Building, there was no indication of rank or privilege. Kurt Vossler was a proud man but not one who felt the need to flaunt his power. He simply expected people to recognize his achievements and respect him for them. No one ever parked in these spaces without permission: it was simply understood.
Petra used her key to activate the security system, then punched in her access code. The elevator doors slid open with a soft hiss, and the woman crossed over from the functional cement world of the workers into the luxury and prestige of the corporate executive. It did not really suit the no nonsense sort of man her father was, but corporate image was everything, Petra understood this, but like her father, she wasn't always comfortable with it. The carpet of the elevator was a deep pile of burgundy, the walls brass and teak with inlays of mirror. Petra kept her face neutral, knowing that security cameras and microphones were part of the elevator's security system.
One minute later, she exited on the top floor. Olive Bond was there to greet her. "Dr. Vossler, welcome. Mr. Vossler asked that you wait for him in his private office. He will be there in five minutes."
"Thank you, Olive. It has been a while. I hope Jason and the twins, Sam and Mike, are well." Petra inquired, as they walked across the spacious reception room to the president's office.
"Yes, the family is fine. Jason has bought another store, and the boys will be going off to university this fall. Sam plans to study computer science and Mike is taking a law degree, and then intends to take a masters in business. I think they are plotting to form a new company and build it up as they go."
"Good for them. Do they still build computers on the side?" Petra asked, stopping at the door and allowing Olive to open it for her.
"Yes, in fact they have made enough through their business and scholarships to support themselves through university. But they feel that PCs are old technology now and they want to move into other areas. They are hard working boys. Jason and I are very proud of them," Olive concluded, as she stepped into Kurt Vossler's private office, and held the door for Petra to follow.
Petra Vossler was a beautiful woman. Petite and vivacious, her hair was the colour of sunlight and her eyes the deep green of her father's. Like her father too, she was intelligent and successful. There the comparison ended. Kurt Vossler was tall, aloof and a tough business competitor. His only child was more like her late mother, friendly, out-going, and concerned about social issues. Her doctorate, Olive knew, was in social science.
Olive wondered, not for the first time, how Kurt Vossler felt about his daughter's choice of career. The Vossler's were not people who talked about their private lives. She had worked as Vossler's private administrative assistant for five years now, and yet she could write what she knew about the family in a single paragraph. On the other hand, Petra knew enormous amounts about the private lives of the people who worked for Vossler Engineering, and she suspected that so did Kurt Vossler. Despite the fact that he was a rather stiff and distant man, he had never forgotten her birthday, and always wished her a happy anniversary. And the year that Jason had been in that terrible car accident, Kurt Vossler had cancelled all his meetings, and taken her and the boys to the hospital and seen to it that Jason got the very best of care.
There were some who found Kurt Vossler a very intimidating and arrogant man. He wasn't. He was very loyal to his employees and took a personal interest in their lives, but he was a proud and reserved man, and business came first.
Olive asked if Petra would like coffee and then left, the door closing with a soft click. Petra went and stood by the window, looking down over the city of Kitchener. Her father had immigrated here from Germany as a young boy, a number of years after World War II. Like so many in Europe, he had lost his family in those dark years. His father had been a soldier killed in the war, and his mother had died during the allied bombings of Dresden. Kurt had come to Canada, to live with a distant cousin, and to start a new life.
Kitchener had been settled by German immigrants in the nineteenth century and at one time had been called Berlin. The name had been changed, however, during World War 1 and the town renamed after the famous British general to show loyalty to the Commonwealth.
Petra sighed. Life was all about new starts. A little over four weeks ago, Kurt Vossler had suffered a mild heart attack. That information had been kept very quiet. Kurt Vossler was Vossler Engineering, and the company's stocks would plummet if it was known that the owner and president was seriously ill.
The door from her father's working office opened and Petra turned and smiled at the tall, handsome man who stood there. At sixty-five, Kurt Vossler looked far more fit than many fifty year olds. But as Petra walked across the room and hugged her father she could see the greyness to his skin and the stress lines around his eyes that hadn't been there last year. "Hi Dad. How are you feeling today?"
"Not so bad, Honey. Those pills I put under my tongue work very well. I just get tired more quickly now," Kurt answered honestly. He knew better than to try to keep the truth from his daughter. She had a way of worming information out of people without them even knowing it was happening.
The two went over and sat down in the conversation area overlooking the view of the city. Petra took out her palm pilot from her shoulder bag.
"Well, you went over the resumes, who do you think?" Kurt asked settling to business.
"Quin Venizelos," stated Petra, without hesitation. Kurt grimaced. "Dad, she is the only one with the brains and drive to fill your shoes. If you name her as your successor the investors will feel confident in the company. I hope you are not hesitating because she is gay," Petra finished, a note of warning entering her voice.
Kurt Vossler scowled. "My own daughter is gay. That is not an issue."
Petra busied herself arranging the resume data of the regional directors on her palm pilot to avoid looking at her father. "It could be an issue with the stock holders,"she conceded grudgingly.
"Business does not care who, what, or how many, an executive sleeps with as long as the profit growth is double digit. Sexual morality does not belong in the boardroom," grunted Vossler bluntly.
"Then what is the issue?" Petra asked, placing the palm pilot on the table and looking at her father with those direct, clear eyes.
Vossler frowned. "She is a strange one. Wild."
"Unpredictable," added her father.
"An amazing success rate," Petra responded.
Vossler rolled his eyes and looked annoyed. "I do not like her," he stated flatly.
"I'm not surprised,"laughed Petra. "She seems to be a lot like you; focussed, a risk taker, determined..."
"She runs our Pacific Rim division as if it is her own private company. She never asks permission, she notifies me of what she has done. She is a loose cannon," grumbled Vossler.
"Has she ever made a poor decision? Have you ever had reason to question her loyalty?" questioned Petra.
"No,"admitted her father and then added with a sigh, "The Pacific Rim is our biggest growth sector by far, but it is a huge market so I cannot completely give the credit to Venizelos."
"Agreed,"conceded Petra. "But you have to admit, having someone who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and who is familiar with the oriental culture is a great advantage. Not to mention the fact that she speaks three other languages reasonably well, and has degrees in engineering and business."
Vossler raised an eyebrow. He enjoyed debating with his daughter. She always came prepared for battle. It was nice to see, if only for a few minutes, the spunky, impetuous, independent girl that he had know before Val's accident. "She is more than qualified and has the experience to back up her studies, so I ask you, Petra, why has she not formed her own company? Why has she stayed with me?"
"Is that what makes you hesitate?"probed Petra, resting her chin on the arm she had draped over the back of her chair.
Vossler sighed and thought about this. "She is a dark horse. I do not know what makes her tick. Also she has a temper and no fear...I just don't know, Petra. What about Wilson or Schumann?"
"They are damn good administrators, but they haven't got the drive or the vision to take Vossler Engineering into the twenty-first century. Venizelos has," Petra stated confidently.
For a few minutes, Vossler sat staring out the window, his quick mind weighing all the factors.
"I trust your judgement, but I am not willing to hand this company to someone I hardly know.
She has always worked in the Far East. She shows up for our stock and policy meetings like a damn typhoon, gets what she wants, and disappears back to her own half of the world. I don't understand the woman at all, and I don't think she is a bit like me!"complained Vossler.
Petra tried not to smile. "We could send out some feelers. See if we could pick up somebody good from another company," Petra suggested. "But that could take some time."
Kurt Vossler nodded. "We'll do that as a back up measure. In the meantime, I want you to go out to China and get to know Quin Venizelos. Then we'll decide."
"Dad, I do have my own career,"sighed Petra.
"It's summer. You teachers don't work in the summer,"her father responded naively.
"I'm a professor and I do research in the summer and teachers ..."
Vossler waved a hand to stop her favourite tirade about how hard teachers work and how little the public appreciates their efforts. "You will go?"he asked.
Normally, Petra would have argued that her own life and studies were too important to simply drop and leave at a moment's notice. She knew, however, that her father was worried about finding a successor and stress was definitely not good for him at this stage of his recovery. Petra shook her head at her stubborn father and smiled. "Yes, I'll go, but you owe me big for this one!"
A week later, Quin Venizelos stood outside the Customs arrival gate for first class passengers. Outwardly, she was an island of calm in a sea of noise and activity. Inwardly, she was seething with anger. Thirty thousand metric tonnes of cement would be poured in the next few weeks and instead of being there to supervise, she was babysitting the boss's daughter.
When she had got Kurt Vossler's email, she had considered rebelling and telling him to go to hell. Then common sense had prevailed. Normally, Vossler gave her a pretty free hand in running the Pacific Rim division. He set the goals and she made sure that they met them. So for Vossler to send his daughter out and ask Quin to give her a tour of China, there had to be a good reason.
Quin knew that Kurt Vossler had suffered a mild heart attack over a month ago. Quin knew a good deal about the Vosslers and Vossler Engineering. She made it her business to know, hiring people to provide her with inside information. She did not see this as spying. It happened all the time in the corporate world; information was power.
Quin worked on the other side of the world from the company's headquarters. As a woman and stranger, she could easily be left out of the old boys' loop. She made sure that never happened by always having the information before anyone else. The other division heads had to come to her to find out what was going on, and that was the way Quin wanted it.
So she had emailed Vossler that she would be honoured to show his daughter China. It might be a waste of time but it never hurt to have the president and owner owing you a favour. If Vossler was in seriously bad shape, Petra Vossler would be the next owner. It was an ideal time to show the woman what she could do for the company and establish a working relationship with the her.
Quin considered what she knew about Petra Vossler. She was the only child of Kurt Vossler and Sophie Mueller. Kurt had married late to a woman much younger than himself. In Petra's eighteenth year, Sophie had died of cancer. Kurt had never remarried, nor was he known to play the field. When a companion was needed for an event, he tended to bring his daughter.
Petra Vossler was twenty-nine and had a doctorate in sociology. She had written a book on the formation and structure of immigrant communities within North American society that was well received by the academic community. She was gay and had been in one long term relationship. Her partner had died in a car accident three years ago and Petra had not dated since. Like her father, Petra was a private person and discrete.
There were questions that Quin hoped to get answers to. Petra had worked in various positions in the company from when she was a young teen, yet she did not hold a current position with the company but taught at Waterloo University. She did sometimes draw a salary from the company as an occasional employee. Quin knew this because she had hacked into the company's accounting system. What she didn't know was what Petra did for the company. That worried her.
Petra waited for her luggage to arrive with the other five first class passengers. She was looking forward to meeting Quin Venizelos at long last. The woman was a legend. Her father, Petra knew, had been a Greek sailor who had married a Canadian missionary working in China. Her parents had both died in a typhoon and Quin had been raised by her Chinese godparents in Toronto's China town. She had excelled at school, both in sports and academics, and had gone through university on scholarships, one of them provided by the Vossler company. During her summers, she had worked for Vossler and had taken a junior administration position with them on graduating with her engineering degree. Five years later, she headed their Far East division and was in charge of their largest contract, the designing and building of the dam at Mao Ping.
Kurt Vossler was right. Quin Venizelos was a power house that had taken a successful Canadian company and made it a world contender. That Venizelos had remained with the company was a mystery, one that Petra intended to solve.
An employee placed her suitcase next to her, and declining any further assistance, Petra wheeled her suitcase and laptop through the doorway into the arrival lobby of the new Hong Kong airport. She picked out Venizelos right away. She was tall, fit and strikingly beautiful, with strong classic features. Petra had seen photos of her, but in real life there was a vibrant energy about the woman that turned heads. Her presence seemed to demand respect and when the blue eyes turned and targeted Petra's, the force almost made her miss a step. Petra understood now why her father was very hesitant about handing any more power over to this woman until they knew her better.
"Ms. Petra Vossler?"the tall woman asked, coming up to stand in front of Petra. Petra took a step to the side so that she would not be forced to look up at the woman. She was very careful not to step back. Already the power games had begun.
"Yes," she said and smiled. "You are Quin. A pleasure to meet you. Please call me Petra," Petra responded, forcing, ever so nicely, Quin into a subordinate role.
The taller woman smiled knowingly and her eyes sparkled with amusement. So Kurt Vossler's daughter had teeth and could use them, Quin concluded. Round one to the little one. This should be an interesting few weeks after all. "Here, let me take your suitcase. The company plane is standing by and we should be in Beijing in two hours. Did you have a good flight?"
"A long one,"Petra admitted, "Six and a half hours from Toronto to Anchorage, Alaska and then, after an hour to refuel, an eleven and a half hour flight to Hong Kong." She had hoped that they would be spending a night in Hong Kong before taking another flight on to Beijing. She would have to be careful; jet lag would mean she was not at her best in duelling with this competitive woman.
"That is about par for the course. I am sorry to be rushing you, but we are well into the second phase of construction at the dam and I can not spare too much time away from the site," Venizelos explained as if she could read Petra's mind.
"Of course,"Petra stated neutrally, as she stayed at Venizelos's side while they manoeuverer through the wide causeways and shopping areas of the impressive new international airport. A smile curled the corner of Quin's mouth. She liked this woman; she could hold her own. She was worthy to be Vossler's daughter.
The Dash 8 owned by Vossler Engineering was basic but functional. While they sat on the runway waiting for the pilot to do his final check and for their control tower clearance, Quin made coffee, and offered Petra a tray of delicate sandwiches made from lobster and shrimp served with watercress.
They talked of the weather and mutual business acquaintances, keeping the conversation general as they felt each other out. To Petra's surprise, Quin chose to sit next to her during take off.
Their arms next to each other, Petra could feel the heat of Quin's tanned skin. To say the very least, it was stimulating. The young professor frowned and looked out the window, ignoring her companion. Quin had a reputation for conquests, in and out of the boardroom and both men and women. She would have to be on her guard. Besides, Quin was not Val. No one could replace Val in her life.
The flight to Beijing was uneventful. Ignored, Quin filled her time with calls to various mangers making sure that everything was going well. Once on the ground, Quin helped Petra clear Customs and then led her to the waiting limo that would take them to their hotel. Along the way, Quin played tour guide.
"There are twelve million people living in Beijing and another three million commute into the city each day to work. Bicycle is the best way to get around. There are ten million bikes in the city."
Petra tried to take in the information that Quin shot at her, although her mind and body had just about had enough. She needed time to wash, sleep and adjust to the change in time and location. "Beijing seems to be experiencing a building boom,"she observed, noting the skeleton frames of new construction everywhere.
"Yes, there has been a lot of investment in China, particularly by the Japanese and Americans. The last ten years has brought about amazing changes. There are fifty MacDonald restaurants in the city now, catering to the renewed interest in the west."
Petra watched through the window. Although poverty was evident, there were no beggars and street people that one found in most cities. The streets were packed with bicycles, Russian made mini trucks, old buses and people. Dressed neatly in the latest European designs, the Chinese people went about their busy days. Petra was both impressed and surprised by the wealth and prosperity that overlaid the city. Poor areas of ramshackle homes, ancient buildings, modern skyscrapers all mixed together in an exotic mix that was the new China.
Quin had booked them into a suite of rooms at the Palace, a five star hotel designed for westerners. Petra tried not to show her surprise. This was not what she had expected in coming to the world's largest communist country. The lobby was a spacious terrace that towered three stories above them around a central open area . A wide, curving staircase of marble was guarded by two life sized marble horses and a water fall cascaded from one story to the other, where shops and offices were located. On the main floor, stores such as Channel, Dior and Hermes offered their wares for sale and a string quartet played Bach in the corner.
They took the polished brass elevator up to the top floor to find their luggage already waiting for them and their tv broadcasting a personal greeting and listing the many services provided by the hotel. Their suite consisted of a central living and dining room off which were two dressing rooms, bedrooms and en suite baths. Petra thanked Quin for escorting her to the hotel and disappeared into her section of the suite, glad for the opportunity to wash and rest before she had to deal with Quin Venizelos again.
Quin used the time wisely, working for a few hours on her laptop and then planning for the days ahead. She had been right to come. Petra Vossler was a lot more than she seemed. It was clear that she had a considerable knowledge of the workings of Vossler Engineering and knew many of the North American administration very well. Quin had been remiss in not cultivating a friendship with the boss's daughter before this. She meant to use this golden opportunity to correct that oversight. Petra Vossler was rich, beautiful, gay, intelligent and available. Quin Venizelos found all those traits particularly appealing.
Petra woke feeling slightly sick and very disorientated. It took a few minutes for her brain to sift through the sensory data and remind her that she was in China after a gruelling twenty-five hours of non stop travel half way around the world. She rolled over and checked the clock. She had been asleep for five hours. Reluctantly, she forced her body out of bed and headed for the shower. Less than an hour later, she was ready to face the adventure ahead.
Quin was waiting for her with a smile that radiated far more friendship than was really being offered. Petra returned the warm greeting but did not take it too seriously. As the only child of a very rich and successful father, she was used to people attempting to cultivate her friendship.
They walked from the hotel, taking some of the back streets to the restaurant that Quin had picked for them. Here the mixture of the old and new China could not be more obvious. Either old walled enclosures, made up of a cluster of poor houses lined the street, or rows of single room shops, grey and cluttered with second-hand merchandise. Quin pointed out a small hospital built by the colonialists at the turn of the last century, a monument of Victorian architecture and the place where the bones of "Peking Man"had been examined before they were crated and placed on a train and never seen again. The loss of this valuable archaeological evidence of early man's development, Petra knew, was still a mystery today. At the end of the block a huge, modern sports complex was being built. China was a land of sharp contrasts.
They entered a large store and took an elevator to the second floor where a busy local restaurant was located. Quin placed her hand on Petra's back and led her over to a small, round table in a quieter nook. "I thought I would bring you here this first night because it is typical of the sort of restaurants that the rising middle class of China frequent,"Quin explained over the general noise and bustle around them.
Petra looked around, taking in as much detail as she could. She was one of the few Europeans in a dining-room filled with the dinner crowd. "I have been to other communist countries, but they are very different from this," Petra observed.
Quin shrugged. "There are realities within realities in China. The massacre at Tien An Men Square taught both sides a hard lesson. The students learned that the days of the Red Guard, the student army that Mao had formed and then lost control of, were over and that youth was not going to run the country through fear again. The leaders of China learned that they couldn't prevent change. But face is everything. Change had to happen without seeming to happen. Communism still very much exists at an administrative level but in everyday life, free enterprise is the real reality."
"Have things changed that much, or has the government simply turned a blind eye to minor infringements of communist doctrine?" Petra asked, after waiting for Quin to order dinner in rapid Mandarin.
"Things are changing, they have to. Once education, housing, and health care were paid for by the government; now the young people are expected to cover these costs. They can only do so if they are allowed to make money. Capitalism is everywhere but does not have official approval. As long as the people do not threaten those in power with their actions, it will be ignored. They have even recently introduced lotteries in China."
Petra looked seriously into Quin's eyes. "And if the leaders do feel threatened by the rapid change, we get another Tien An Men Square?"
Quin shrugged and sighed. "That is always a possibility. The Great March and Cultural Revolution changed life only superficially. Mao and his followers lived in the Forbidden City as the Emperors before them. Their whims became law just as the Emperors'. In a country that houses one quarter of the world's population, life is cheap no matter what people believe on a philosophical level. China is a five thousand year old mediaeval culture. The communist revolution rolled over the land as just one more tide of events. The old China went on."
Their meal arrived then and the conversation ended as Quin explained what each appetizing plate of food placed on the circular platform in the centre of the table was. It could be spun to bring the various dishes into reach. The food at this restaurant was typical of the hot, spicy food of the southern areas of China, Quin explained. It had been Mao's favourite.
They ate quietly, Quin being an attentive hostess in the Chinese style. She picked delectable pieces from the serving plates with her chop sticks and placed them on Petra's plate to eat. Petra managed her chop sticks with reasonable accuracy if considerable awkwardness and found herself enjoying the company of the interesting woman beside her.
The floor show was a mixture of dance and song, showing off the various costumes, folk dances and music of each region of China. Quin did not seem interested in the beautiful coloured silks and the interesting music played in the minor keys favoured by Eastern composers. Her quiet asides to Petra were about the culture and the symbolism behind each element.
For her part, Petra was just as fascinated by her dinner companion as she was by the show. Quin Venizelos was far more than just a brilliant engineer. Her knowledge about the culture she lived in was amazing. Petra wondered if this European woman, raised by a twist of fate in an oriental family, saw herself as European or Chinese. Whatever her cultural reality, Quin Venizelos was a power-house of talent and drive. Petra could see more clearly now why her father had concerns. Having Quin as a regional director of the company was a little like holding a tiger by the tail. It gave you a lot of power, but if your hand slipped that power could very easily be turned against you.
After the dinner show, Quin walked Petra down Gold Street, one of the main shopping areas of Beijing. Again there was no sign that this was a communist country under strict government control. The streets were crowded by shoppers and the stores offered the latest in European designs and technology. Billboards on roof tops advertized Calvin Klein, Nike, and other popular manufactures mixed in with the rare sign promoting communism and the worker.
Petra was surprised to see a total lack of military personnel and only the occasional police office walking about, armed with just a wooden billy. "I thought there would be a stronger show of force," Petra thought out loud.
Quin shrugged. "There is very little street crime in China. The West does not always get the right idea from sensational media coverage. What happened in Tien An Men Square was brutal. Hundreds were killed or arrested. One Chinese announcer I know, kept reporting what she was seeing on Chinese television so that the people would know the truth even though she knew that one of the dead was her own brother. It was a brave act but there is another side to the story."
Petra was shocked. "I don't call that sensational! I call it murder."
"That is because you don't understand China. What happened that night in Tien An Men Square is nothing to what happened during the Cultural Revolution. In those days, Mao thought he could use the energy and focus of the young to bring about cultural change in the old. But he very soon lost control of the Red Guard. They were not student heroes, they were punk gangs.
"The present government saw the student protests as a threat to their authority. They remembered how the Red Guard had got out of Mao's control. They didn't want that to happen again. They felt the students had to learn that they were never going to be a political force again. Their role in the new China is to study, get good jobs and move China forward."
Petra came to a stop in the crowded street and looked at Quin in disbelief, while around them a sea of humanity swirled by. "I can't believe you are defending an act of total brutality!"
"I am not," responded Quin in surprise. "I am trying to explain how China functions. Let me try to explain in European terms. The Jesuits, in spreading Christianity to countries like Japan and China, would argue that the small lie is acceptable in the promotion of the greater truth. In China, you could say that the single life is expendable for the greater good."
Petra frowned and shook her head. "I could never accept that ideology."
Quin smiled knowingly. "It is not for you to accept or for me. This is China. We are simply observers in a world that is not ours. Come, we'll go down Silver Street here and it will take us back to our hotel."
Petra fell into step with the taller woman beside her but stubbornly refused to let go of the topic.
"Surely, people have a duty to promote human rights and freedoms."
Quin shrugged. "That is not my job. Mine is to win contracts and see that the company gets the job done well, on time, and at a profit." They walked up the steps of The Palace Hotel and a footman ran forward to hold the door open for them. In silence, they entered the elevator and headed up to their suite, Petra carefully mulling over what Quin had said.
"A night cap?" Quin asked, once they were in their rooms.
"Yes,"agreed Petra, as she sat down on the leather couch, kicked off her shoes and wrapped her feet under her. "A Baileys, if they have any." How would her father have reacted? Certainly he would have agreed that what came first and foremost was the company's goals. Still, she know that Kurt Vossler would not so totally reject human rights issues. Is this the sort of person to head Vossler Engineering? How would she deal with union issues?
Quin poured Petra her drink and a tomato juice for herself. She hadn't done very well tonight. She should have stayed clear of China's complex history; westerners just could not understand. She needed to be more careful. "Your drink," she said, allowing her fingers to touch Petra's as the glass changed hands. Petra was a very beautiful woman. Perhaps she could make points on a physical level.
The touch of Quin's finger's against her own sent tingles of excitement to places that Petra thought dead. This evening was really testing her current world view. Quin Venizelos had an animal magnetism about her that made her both charismatic and scary. Petra found herself wondering what it would be like to sleep with this woman and then quickly swept the idea from her mind in shock. If you want to know, Petra, ask the many who have already passed through her bed, she warned herself.
"Why did you pick the field of sociology?" Quin asked in her straight forward manner. "In this age of economic wars, the arts and social sciences are not seen as significant areas of study."
Petra laughed. "Spoken with a true business bias. Aggressive business practices are important, especially at a time when developing countries are fighting for a piece of the pie. But the bottom line is that business is only money. It is not culture and never will be. To have a decent society, you must foster the arts and social sciences. The pendulum will swing back to a more humane society as people realize that money is not a god, just a means to an end."
"Money and power are everything,"stated Quin as she took a sip of her own drink, letting her eyes drift over Petra's form.
Quin had emphasized the word power and the many meanings behind the word had sent a clear message to Petra. Inwardly, her body squirmed with the seeds of desire. Outwardly, she met Quin's eyes. "They are false gods. Eventually, Rhodes, Rockefeller, Gates, they all stopped and realized that the accumulation of wealth was meaningless, it is what you do with it that is important. We don't remember the rich for their wealth but for the monuments of art and enlightenment that they leave behind: The Nobel Prize, Rhodes scholarships, the Carnegie libraries, the Rockefeller Institute. Things that matter. Culture."
"They only happened because of money and power," Quin argued, enjoying the intellectual and sexual tension growing between them.
"Yes, money and power are important tools. But occasionally society loses track of the fact that that is all they are, tools. Business is not the be all and end all, it is just one element in the foundation of a good society. Whenever any one of those elements is allowed to dominate, then society starts to rot from within."
Quin shrugged. "I grew up in poverty. A Vossler scholarship and apprenticeship made it possible for me to escape. I think I'd rather believe in the tools of business than the arts and social sciences."
"Then you should be thankful that my father realized that money and power was not enough and invested his money in scholarships and apprenticeship programs for the young,"countered Petra.
"It was good business. His scholarships bought talent and loyalty," Quin responded, claiming a point in their debate.
"Is that why you stay with Vossler?"Petra asked, feeling that she was getting behind the strong facade that was Quin Venizelos.
"Partly," Quin answered vaguely. "Another drink?"
Petra shook her head and, placing her glass in the table, she swung her legs down and stood. "No thanks. I think I'll catch up on some much-needed sleep. Good night, Quin. Thank you for a most interesting evening."
"Good night, Petra. It has been a pleasure."
For a long time, Quin sat mulling over the events and conversation of the evening. It had been a long time since she had been truly attracted to someone but she had to admit that Petra Vossler was not only a challenge but an appealing one. Two days and I'll have her in my bed, she calculated, a confident smile curling her lip before she sipped from her drink.
Petra found that the sleep she needed did not come easily. For sometime she lay awake, thinking over the conversation she had with Quin and wondering what the next few weeks in the woman's company would be like. She touched her heart with her finger tips. Val, are you there, Honey? You remember when you made me promise to always leave my heart open if anything happened to you? I don't think I can do that. When I think of leaving your memory behind and moving on, tears fill my eyes. You were my partner and no other could ever come close to the love I feel for you. I love you, Val. Good night from China.
The following day, Quin took Petra to Tien An Men Square. They stood in the centre of the vast enclosure while the tall engineer gave Petra some background information. "This is the largest square in the world. It can hold over a million people. This monument we are standing beside is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to remember those who fought gallantly during the war and the Great March. But it has deeper significance because in the time of Imperial China this spot was believed to be the navel of the world."
Petra looked around her and then up at the towering needle of the tomb of the unknown soldier. Standing in the centre of this vast space, she began to have a feel for the size of the stage on which the human history of China has been played.
Quin was still very much focussed on her role as tour guide. "To the right of the square is the museum, to the left the government buildings. It is difficult to get the scale of these buildings inside this huge space, but the banquet hall alone inside there can sit five thousand. Behind us is the mausoleum where Mao's body is kept and ahead of us is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the entrance way to the Forbidden City, which is not a city at all, but the private residence of the Emperors of China."
Petra looked at the long line of Chinese already waiting to enter the mausoleum to pay their respects to Mao. "With the changes in leadership and the denouncing of the Gang of Four is Mao still seen as a hero?
Quin looked across the square at the quiet line that waited to see the preserved remains of China's communist revolutionary. "Moa's policies are open to question and criticism today, but he will always be known as the leader who threw off the shackles of the west and made China great. He will always be a hero of the people."
Petra nodded. No country could be comfortable living under the shadow of another's culture. Governments, monuments, ideologies and trends come and go but the last thing a race gives up is its culture.
"Are you ready to go see the Forbidden City?" Quin asked, chaffing at the inactivity.
Petra nodded, then added, "It is hard to believe that the massacre happened here."
Quin turned and pointed. "The tank came across the square to where we are standing now. The students tried to get away by climbing the monument to the Unknown Soldier. The only time you see soldiers here now, other than ceremonial guards, is on the date of the student protest. Then the square is closed and there is a heavy military presence here. The government wants to make sure that another very public display of repression never happens again."
Quin turned without another word and started across the square to buy their entrance tickets to the Forbidden City. Petra took one more look around. She said a silent prayer for those who had died or were in prison still, and turned to follow. China was a much bigger concept than Petra had realized.
The Forbidden City, Quin explained, had been started in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty but the place had not been finished until 1644. It had nine hundred and ninety-nine rooms, nine being a number associated with good fortune. The grounds consisted of a series of towering gates: Great Heavenly Harmony, Middle Harmony, and Heavenly Purity. Each gate led into areas more private than the one previously. At the far end of the Forbidden City was the Emperor's private gardens, Heavenly Tranquillity.
It had taken them three hours to walk through just the main sections of the Forbidden City, marvelling at the beautifully carved marble and wood, the complex glazes on the vases and the grand scale of the bronze pots and statues. Quin explained that at one time the Emperor had thousands of people working on staff. Even the last Emperor had over seven hundred to care for him.
By the time that they had made their way to the Garden of Heavenly Tranquillity, Petra was feeling light headed and kind of sick. The day had been oppressively hot and humid and Petra was still adjusting to the time change. Quin had stopped to take a swig from her water bottle when she noted that Petra had gone suddenly pale. She reached out immediately and offered the shorter woman support. "Hey, are you okay?"
The world circled a few times and then by sheer willpower Petra brought it back into focus. "Yeah, I'm okay. Too much heat I think and a bit of jet lag too."
Quin noted that Petra's water bottle was empty and she offered the sociologist her own. Petra hesitated only a split second and then gratefully drank from the bottle that Quin had just used. There was the faintest taste of Quin's lipstick still on the rim of the bottle. It made Petra remember other times, happier times when she and Val would go for long walks. Quickly, she blinked back tears.
More concerned than ever now, Quin took Petra's arm and led her through the shade of the garden to a quiet bench where they could sit. "I am sorry. I should have been more considerate. The temperature today is predicted to hit a high of 112 degrees Fahrenheit. I am so used to the heat that I forgot that you would find it very difficult." As she talked she poured some water onto a tissue and offered it to Petra to wipe her face. So far she wasn't making any points in entertaining the boss's daughter.
"Thanks. One hundred and twelve! My God! Is this usual?" Petra laughed weakly, trying not to show how rough she was feeling.
"In the summer, yes. China is a land of extremes. Listen, you take a little break here. I just need to go and see about a few things. I'll be right back," Quin suddenly announced getting up and striding off without waiting for an answer.
Petra watched her go, impressed by her cool energy despite the stifling heat. Petra sighed; so far she had not represented Vossler Engineering very well. First, I get into a disagreement with Quin over human rights and then I nearly faint in to the woman's arms. Damn. She closed her eyes and leaned back, enjoying the cool breeze through the Emperor's four hundred year old cedars while she could.
Her mind drifted from one thought to the next. She had fitted neatly under the crook of Quin's arm. The engineer had felt muscular and cool. It had been a nice sensation to have physical contact in her life again. How different Quin was from Val. Short, wiry Val, who was always laughing and filled with nervous energy.
Petra opened her eyes and sat up straight. What was she doing, comparing her father's regional manager with her late partner? She must have a touch of sunstroke to be allowing her mind to wander down a path like that.
It was a good half hour before Quin returned and Petra was feeling somewhat better. "I have arranged a private tea room for us. The tea will cool and refresh you. Are you ready? It is not a very long walk."
Petra got up immediately and smiled. "I am fine now,"she stated, although she was still feeling slightly sick and dizzy. Quin took her arm and set a slower pace over to the tea house. It was crowded with tourists but Quin and Petra were met by the petite manager, who led them to a small room open on one side to a shady garden and lined on the other three walls with sandal wood. The delicate spicy smell was soothing as was the cool breeze that rustled through the trees.
They sat on the floor beside a beautiful piece of twisted cedar wood. Large and highly polished, it acted as a tea table. The heavy knots became mountains and the course grain rivers over an undulating landscape of wood. Petra made up her mind to try to buy such a table and ship it back home.
Petra selected tea from one of the many wicker and bark containers that clustered near by. Each one was woven with different handles and patterns and were not just functional but works of art.
"There are hundreds of types and blends of tea in China. Each one has a specific taste and properties. Huang Qui, the woman who raised me as her own, insists that I drink a lot of green tea because it is good for controlling the fire in the liver."
"There is something wrong with your liver?" Petra asked in concern, while she watched Quin spooning loose tea onto rice paper with an ancient wood scoop.
"Not in the western sense of medicine but in the east they believe that there must be a balance between the Yin and Yang forces for the body to be healthy. I have way too much Yang and that makes my liver hot. A hot liver makes you quick tempered." Carefully, Quin used a delicate bamboo knife to sort the dried leaves on the rice paper so that the fine grained ones went into the clay tea pot first and the thicker twigs later. The heavier leaves would prevent the smaller pieces form rising and flowing into the tea cups when the tea was poured.
"Are you bad tempered?" Petra asked, as she watched in fascination as Quin took hot water and poured it from a foot or so above the pot in a circular pattern, first warming the outside clay and then letting the water run down the sides into the pot. The teapot sat on a high point of the thick table and the water spilt and splashed down, swirling along the grains of the wood like a spring thaw to disappear down a drain cleverly hidden in one corner of the landscape.
"I can be, if I don't drink my tea,"Quin joked. "I am warming the clay and wetting the dry leaves to maximize the flavour. The water for a good cup of Chinese tea should be between 80-85 degrees. The water is allowed to flow down the sides to the leaves so that the leaves are not mixed together or bruised." Quin now poured the water off the leaves and let it run again as torrents over the table world. She then added fresh hot water, letting it fall in a gentle circulating stream first on the outside of the pot and then closer so that the water filled the pot and overflowed down the sides. This washed away small leaves that might have been flushed out.
Into tall, narrow clay cups the shape and size of pill bottles, she poured the brewed tea, moving the flow from the spout back and forth between the cups so an equal quantity of tea filled each cup. "Now you take this small cup that looks like a little bowl and place it upside down on top of the one containing the tea," Quin instructed and Petra took the two cups and mimicked her instructor's actions.
"You turn it over now so that the tall cup with the tea in it sits upside down in the smaller cup. Before you lift the tall cup out to release the tea into the drinking cup, you must turn the tall cup three times for health, for good fortune and for long life. Now lift the tall cup out and let the tea drain into your drinking cup." Petra followed the directions and set the tall cup aside, holding her small, bowl-shaped drinking cup in her fingers.
"This is called bitter-sweet tea. When you taste it, it will seem very bitter to you although thirst quenching." Petra sipped her tea and couldn't help but pull a face, for the tea was indeed bitter. Quin laughed and settled back to drink her own tea, looking out over the cool garden beside them. Petra followed suit and was surprised that the bitter drink did settle her tummy and made her feel less dehydrated.
After a quiet time of reflection, Quin helped Petra up to leave and handed her back her water bottle, now freshly filled with cold water. "Try the water," Quin smiled.
Petra did so and gasped in surprise. The water tasted sweet like pop. "That's the sweet part of bitter-sweet tea. When you drink water after you have the tea it will taste very sweet. The effect lasts about twenty minutes."
Petra looked at Quin with interested eyes. She found herself very attracted to this intelligent woman with the complex heritage. She wondered what went on behind the perfectly controlled facade. Surely that hot liver of Quin's must stir up hot passions too. "Thanks," was all she voiced of her thoughts.
"If you need to rest, we could go back to the hotel,"Quin suggested politely.
Petra laughed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. "No way am I going to wimp out! I'm here to see China!" The engineer smiled her approval, and they left the Forbidden City to take a cab to a local restaurant. Quin had planned an afternoon that would be less demanding than their morning, for the heat of the afternoon was oven hot.
They ate again the spicy soup, vegetable and meat dishes, sitting in a room with rosewood furniture and rice paper walls. Then Quin surprised Petra by renting a pedicab to drive them around some of the back streets of old China. A pedicab was a rickshaw attached to a bicycle frame. Quin explained that it was not only a pleasant way to travel on a hot day but it allowed them to get down old, narrow streets where even the small modern cars could not go.
It was a wonderful experience and Petra got to see a side of China that she would not have normally seen. At one point, they stopped to visit a woman who was an old school friend of Huang Qui, Quin's step-mother. The homes were in pods of six to eight with a small courtyard in between. The exterior walls were windowless and a thick wood door in an archway allowed the families to close themselves off from the narrow street.
The home they visited was small but clean. It consisted of a tiny kitchen, living-room and bedroom. The furniture was typical of most European homes. In the bedroom there was a double bed and wall console and in the living-room was a modern wrap around sofa, television and a wall air conditioner. Quin explained that the home was owned by the government and that Wang Li and her husband rented. That was unusual. Most people leased their land from the government and owned their homes now, but Wang Lu was a police officer and so he was able to rent.
Wang Li proudly showed off her home to the European visitor and Quin chatted away happily to her step-mother's friend in Cantonese, translating the main points of the conversation to Petra as she did so. "Wang Li tells me that her daughter, Zheng, is working as a teacher in a nearby pre-school. Would you like to visit there?"
The sociologist was more than willing to see yet another element of communist China. They climbed into the pedicab and their driver wheeled them several blocks over to the school compound. Again the single story school was built in a square and was reached by entering through sturdy double doors in the wall. The school compound was small and shaded by two trees. The class rooms were very basic with old but sturdy wood tables and chairs for the students. It was snack time and each pre-schooler sat quietly at their seat eating a peach.
Zheng proudly showed off her classroom. A worn blackboard, a few hand made exercise charts and an old world map were the main teaching aids. At the back of each classroom was a cloak area with a toilet and large porcelain sink. "Yes, parents pay to send their children to the pre-school. The parents must work and schooling is important. They are happy to pay although it costs them a lot of money," Zheng answered Petra's questions through Quin's interpretation.
"Ask Zheng how she would handle a child who was misbehaving?" Petra asked, amazed at how well behaved and polite the small children were. Zheng looked surprised at the question and answered Quin after some thought.
Quin smiled and translated for Petra. "Zheng said that the children are behaved because they know that their parents would want them to be. She said if she ever had a problem then she would take the child aside and talk to him or her and tell him or her that they must act properly."
Petra shook her head in disbelief. She thought about North American students and how they skipped classes, made excuses for not doing their work, and blamed the teachers when they didn't get good marks. They had everything in the way of opportunities and resources and so many of them simply didn't care. These Chinese children would have to make do with anything they could find to get the education they so desperately wanted. It didn't seem fair.
Saying their good byes, they climbed back into their pedicab and took the shady road that led along the moat of the Forbidden City. Here the Chinese people relaxed in small groups. Some played Mahjong or card games, others talked or swam illegally in the moat water, some found a quiet, shady place and just slept. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Quin in the pedicab, Petra felt she was as close as she could possibly be to seeing the real China.
Quin paid their driver well for his services and then hailed a cab to take them back to the hotel. "I hope you will bill my father for any out of pocket expenses, Quin,"Petra stated.
"Of course,"came the blunt reply, as they headed down the hall to their suite. "I don't think I quite understand what your role with Vossler Engineering is?" Quin dared to inquire as she slipped in their security card to unlock the door.
Petra considered evading this question and then decided to be as honest as she could. "As well as sitting on the Board of Directors for Vossler Engineering, I am an advisor to the personnel department and evaluate the work performance of all senior administration."
Quin, half way across the room, stopped dead in her tracks and span around. "I'm being evaluated?"
"On being a tour guide?" Quin snapped, her anger close to the surface.
"No, on how you deal with people and your knowledge of the division you head. Are you still going to make a play for me?" Petra asked, smiling cheekily.
Quin's jaw dropped and then closed with a snap. "I'd be a damn fool to do that under the circumstances. Tell me, would you have let me know I was under the company's scrutiny if I hadn't asked?"
"Eventually, yes. Neither my father nor I play dirty with our employees," Petra stated, although she felt a little uncomfortable in doing so, for Quin had no idea really what this was all about. She walked past Quin and dropped her bag on a chair. Looking back at the engineer who was still rooted to the spot she asked, "Drink?"
Quin's eyes snapped up and then sparkled with challenge. A lazy smile crossed her face and she sat down and crossed her legs. "Thanks,"she responded dryly. "A tomato juice and I might make that pass after all."
Petra smirked. "Would that be tomato juice straight up or would you like it over ice?"
"Oh straight up, I can handle my fruits," Quin teased.
Petra poured a tomato juice for Quin and a Coke for herself and carried them over to the sofa. She gave Quin her drink and then curled up in the other corner. "I am not available."
Blue eyes targeted her own over her glass. "I didn't know that."
A blush crept up Petra's neck. "I lived with the same woman for many years. Val died three years ago in a car accident."
"I'm sorry. Can I ask you a question?" Quin asked, quietly.
"You can. I don't know if I will give you an answer though,"Petra responded, looking moodily into her glass.
"I don't think I have ever been in love. Infatuated now and again but not really in love. I am not even sure I know what it means to be in love," Quin mused, draping her arm over the back of the couch gracefully.
"It is more than an attraction. It is as though the person is the other half of you. You are simply meant to be together," Petra stated, tears welling in her eyes.
Quin was amazed at the intensity of the answer and impressed with Petra's courage in giving it so openly. "Do you think that a person can only really love once?
"I think so. Val made me promise that if any thing was to happen to her, that I would leave my heart open to love. It was as if she knew that she would die young..." Petra swallowed hard and fought back tears. "I just can't imagine myself ever wanting to be with anyone else or replacing Val's memory in my life."
Quin nodded, then put her empty glass down and stood. "Val was a very lucky woman to have found someone so loyal. I suggest a nap. If you are up to it, we will go to a dinner show tonight and you can get a taste for China's folk operas."
"I would like that," Petra answered, fighting back her emotions. Quin nodded, looked like she was going to say something, changed her mind and walked out.
The evening went well. They walked to a nearby hotel and had dinner before watching a Chinese Opera. Petra thought it was a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan only with a Chinese flair. The costumes were beautiful, the juggling, acrobatics, and dancing superb and the skits funny. One was about a woman escaping a nunnery to follower her lover down the river by boat. The funny interplay between the naive woman and the good-natured but silly boatman needed no translation but Quin gave a running commentary anyway. The second musical was a story taken from the famous legends collectively called "Journey to the West". It was the story about how the immortal Monkey King escaped the fires of the furnace to defeat the local king.
Later, as they took a cab back to the hotel, Petra asked about the book. "It is based around a true story of a Chinese monk who walked to the west, India actually, to bring back Buddhist scrolls to China. We will be going to the Wild Goose Pagoda that houses those sacred scrolls. But the book "Journey to the West"is really a series of myths about the Monkey King who eats some of the fruit in heaven and becomes immortal. The Monkey King is just always in trouble and in the novel he travels with the monk to protect him on his quest. There are children's stories about the Monkey King but the true adult version of "Journey to the West"comes in three volumes."
"I'd like to read it,"Petra said.
"I will look for an English translation,"Quin promised, pleased that Petra Vossler was taking such an interest in the folklore of China.
They said their good nights a bit awkwardly. Petra showered and lay for a long time thinking about Val and the exotic and breathtaking images of Beijing that she had seen today. There was so much to recall after only one day in this amazing culture. Val would have loved being here. Why hadn't they travelled more?
Quin worked at her laptop and then soaked in a hot bath, scraping her body clean with a coarse sea sponge. In bed, she lay awake for a long time thinking over the day and weighing her performance. Why was Kurt Vossler having her evaluated? Had she made a mistake? Was he preparing the way for a successor? Quin was pretty sure it would be Schumann. He had the experience and although not imaginative, he would show steady and reliable leadership.
It hardly mattered. When Kurt Vossler left, so would Quin. She'd had several good offers recently and had only stayed on because Vossler didn't interfere in the way she ran the Far East division and because she felt she owed him for giving her a start.
Then there was the conversation that she'd had with Petra. What would it be like to be loved in that way by someone? Quin imagined that it would be kind of scary and wonderful all rolled into one. Was she capable of that kind of profound love? She wasn't sure. What she did know was that she felt a real disappointment that having an affair with Petra Vossler was not an option.
She would have to be far more careful than she had been so far. Quin had the feeling that, no matter how good her performance level and the yearly profits coming out of her division, Petra Vossler's report could make or break her. She didn't like that feeling.
Continued - Part 2
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