When Jacky arrived at Uncle Ben’s noodle stall with Sonia and Sam, he could see Ehlo, Angela, Wallace, Cyndi, Chen Yi, Achel, Johnny, and Bianca standing under the tree to the far left. He scanned the place to find out what was wrong but had no clue and wouldn’t want to bother his uncle who was tending to customers so he walked over to the others standing under the tree.
“What’s with the standing around?” Jacky asked.
“Uncle Ben said he wants to let history repeat itself,” Wallace said.
Jacky wrinkled his face.
“We’re coming to his house like last year, remember?”
Jacky nodded at last. He turned around and gave the view another quick scan as Sonia joined in with the others, striking up a conversation with Angela and Bianca. “Qiao and Ming Dao not here yet?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Wallace said casually.
Jacky wondered why Wallace sounded passive. Was Ehlo’s mood rubbing off on him in regard to what they’d found out the other night? He scolded himself for being paranoid again.
“Maybe we should call them and tell them to drive straight to the place and not come here at all,” Chen Yi suggested. “After all, traffic is inevitable.”
“Good idea,” Ehlo agreed.
Chen Yi quickly fished out his cell phone to call Qiao Qiao.
“How long do we have to wait?” Jacky asked, turning to Ehlo.
“Just another fifteen minutes,” Ehlo replied.
“Who else is coming?”
“I hope you didn’t invite Tang Feng too.”
“He’s not that special.”
“You know what he said earlier?”
“We watched the segment twice already.”
“No, you guys didn’t pay attention enough.”
Jacky turned his full attention to Ehlo.
“He said he wanted Wallace to give up Cyndi.”
“He was just testing him.”
“Sure he was.”
“Don’t believe me?”
“Sacrificing love for career.”
“If he agreed, I would’ve strangled him there and then.”
Cyndi had been staring at Wallace the whole time since she heard of Ehlo and Jacky’s conversation. Wallace caught her staring at him a second later.
“What’s wrong, Miss Wang?” Wallace asked, swinging their linked hands back and forth.
Cyndi shook her head.
“Don’t listen to Ehlo. He’s exaggerating.”
“It was in the segment though.”
Wallace shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Tang Feng was just distracting us from our purpose.”
“All right,” Chen Yi announced at last, snapping his phone shut. “They’re meeting us at Uncle Ben’s. It’s better for them since they’re stuck in traffic at the moment. Don’t have to go all the way here. Qiao’ll probably turn out somewhere.”
“Great then,” Ehlo said.
Jacky looked at his watch again.
“What’s wrong, Young Master Chu?” Sonia asked, seeing Jacky’s passive expression.
Jacky attempted to smile. “Nothing, Miss Sui.”
“Are you guys ever going to let it out?” Bianca asked. “I thought we agreed on no more secrets.”
“What?” Ehlo asked, turning to Jacky instead of Bianca. “What did you say to her?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“It was my fault,” Johnny said. “Sort of but I didn’t say anything.”
“What is it then?” Sonia asked, tugging on Jacky’s arm for a reply.
“I can’t say it,” Jacky said, looking into Sonia’s eyes.
“What are you guys mumbling about?” Chen Yi asked, turning to them. Then he could see Sam getting uncomfortable. “Anyone?”
“Nothing,” Jacky said. “Talk later.”
Chen Yi shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever, man.”
They ended up waiting for more than the time Uncle Ben had blurted out. But somehow, they didn’t mind. Since they had already solved their main obstacle. Like last time, they helped Uncle Ben pack before getting into their cars and heading toward his house at the edge of civilization.
“What are we celebrating this time?” Tony asked as soon as he stepped past the black gate in front.
“It always has to be something?” Chen Yi asked back.
“Come on now,” Tony said, gesturing his hand. “Why would you guys suddenly visit this place if you didn’t succeed in persuading Tang Feng? Or do you want to bring your morbid face here so Uncle Ben could see it too?”
“He’s got a point,” Esther agreed.
“You’re wearing matching outfits!” Achel exclaimed. “How cute!”
Chen Yi turned to Achel, wrinkling his face. “They’re different colors, Idiot.” He hit Achel’s head lightly. “Honestly, girls.”
“Are you bullying my sister again?” Angela asked, walking up to them. “And why aren’t we helping?”
“We just got here,” Tony told her with a smile. “And I’m trying to grill him for answers without letting Uncle Ben hear it.”
“I wouldn’t bully Xiao Yu,” Chen Yi answered about the same time as Tony, sliding a hand around Achel’s shoulders.
“Uhuh,” Angela said, still eyeing Chen Yi suspiciously. She then turned to Tony. “Don’t worry. I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Is it raining outside?” Ehlo asked, joining them also.
“Very funny,” Tony said, his hands returning to his raincoat pockets.
They walked back toward the house instead of loitering around the gate.
“I thought you guys got lost,” Jacky teased when he saw them coming.
“You and Ehlo are just so…” Tony began.
“What?” Ehlo asked. “We should join the circus?”
“Since we’re done with the arrangements, what now?” Chen Yi asked. “Who will cook this time around?”
“How about switching around from last time?” Jacky suggested.
“But we still have to keep Qiao out of the kitchen,” Ehlo reminded them.
“Hey!” Qiao Qiao protested.
The others turned around to see her wrinkled face. She had been inside with Ming Dao to help Uncle Ben and Aunt June put their equipment away. She just managed to come out in time to hear Ehlo’s words.
“It sucks,” Ehlo continued, his teasing smile still present. “But we can’t all be chefs, right?”
“Don’t worry,” Jacky said. “I’ll cover for her.”
“Sounds good then.”
“I’m out on this one,” Tony said.
“Too much of a challenge?” Ehlo teased.
Tony smiled. “I got good news for us so I think it’s fair that I get excused from hard labor.”
“Very funny,” Ehlo said. “Cooking is hard labor? How many servants do you have in your house then?”
“Four,” Tony replied crisply without thinking. “And a housekeeper.”
“I bet your house has some too.”
“We only have one housekeeper, not like someone.”
Tony suddenly turned to the others.
“One,” Jacky said. “Sharon’s a good housekeeper though.”
“No, wait,” Sam said suddenly.
“What?” Jacky asked, turning to him.
“I thought you said your housekeeper is Dale.”
The others turned to Jacky for an explanation.
“Dale is the Huang’s housekeeper.”
“But you said that one time when your Mom called that Dale told you…”
“Dale and Sharon are married,” Ehlo explained. “It doesn’t matter how information gets around, but they’re that good in keeping us informed.”
“Enough talking,” Ehlo said, gesturing his hands. “If we keep debating this, we’re going to go hungry.”
The others smiled at Ehlo’s impatience. But they must agree with him about time. The chefs took their places and began preparing their dishes while the rest of them sat around in front and stared at the sky again like last time. Chen Yi ended up helping Achel since he didn’t feel like sitting around and gawking at the night sky alone.
For some strange reason, when they settled down at the table to eat finally, the seating was somewhat similar to last time’s, except that Chen Yi and Achel had moved to Jacky’s side of the table, forcing Johnny and Sam to the other side instead.
“Since we’re all here and are all eating now,” Ehlo said. “Could you please tell us what’s the big news, Mr. Sun?”
Tony didn’t reply. He just pulled out a folder hidden in his raincoat and handed it to Ehlo.
“Whoa!” Ehlo called out as soon as he glimpsed the content.
The others turned to look at Ehlo.
“Watch!” Ehlo said, pulling a magazine out from the folder and waved it in front of the others.
Wallace was the first to grab it away from Ehlo since Ehlo was making him dizzy. He could see a picture of the agency at its current state for the cover image and a side picture at the left corner of Orchids Agency at its previous state.
“A masterpiece ruined by the poisonous tongues of the so-called high-class society,” Wallace read aloud. “A creation paved with good intentions got twisted by blind minds.” Wallace stopped reading and turned to look at Tony. “I like this reporter’s choice of words.”
“One of my best,” Tony said, smiling.
“You switched tactics then?” Ehlo asked.
Tony nodded. “I was too occupied with my major project at the company that I became foolish. Not to brag, but I have more power than all the Zhaos combined. So why would I need to go beg them to help us undo the damage? This will clarify some of the rumors of the place and even bring in some publicity. Might be just curiosity at first but it will help us in the long run.” He gestured his hand in the general direction. “What about you guys?”
“We conned him into agreeing with us,” Ehlo announced proudly.
“Wallace pretended to present this repetitive idea at first with restoring the agency with the whole matchmaking business. Then he pretended to switch target when Tang Feng wasn’t impressed. Tang Feng fell into our trap although he did say that a gift shop is not that much different from other places anyway.”
“We’re signing the agreement on Monday,” Wallace continued. “But I will bring an official plan for him also, considering I already have it draft out but just pretended that it was a last-minute plan. Since you got the publicity part covered for us, we’re good for the opening.”
“Want more ADs then?” Tony asked. “I’ll save some space for you.”
“How about a follow-up article about the place?”
Tony nodded. “Not bad.”
“You have a magazine place?” Sam asked from the other side of the table, shocked.
“It’s the current trends,” Tony said, turning to Sam. “Those businesses like to invest in some kind of media coverage place for more exposure or the like. I like having my own more.”
“That’s a great opportunity for more exposure of your company though.”
Tony shook his head. “I’m not using it for my company. It’s more as a department of our company but for creative minds. It helps out those new college grads big time since they would learn both about journalism and business operations.”
Tony nodded. “So…I guess after that’s done, we can all eat now?”
“You’ll bet,” Ehlo seconded.
Actually, they’d been eating and listening to Tony and Ehlo’s recounts of what happened. But now that Tony said it, they ended up eating more than talking. In fact, they ended up carrying side conversations of their own.
“Hey,” Ehlo said suddenly from across the table.
“What?” Tony asked, turning to Ehlo again.
Ehlo smiled. “Want to watch the segment? It’s way more interesting than my recounts to you.”
Tony waved a hand toward Ehlo. “Make me a copy of it.”
“How in the world did Tang Feng figure out that Tony would use this tactic though?” Qiao Qiao asked suddenly.
“He must know Tony’s background,” Jacky explained.
Qiao Qiao wrinkled her face. “That makes him scary, doesn’t it?”
“He’s just knowledgeable,” Wallace corrected her.
“But it wouldn’t be that weird. I mean he’s our senior after all, right?”
“Bragging about your school’s honor?” Ehlo teased.
“What about employment then?” Angela asked suddenly.
“What?” Wallace asked, turning to her.
“I mean since you thought of it, you’ll be around to make sure your plan works. What about the others?”
“It’s up to them,” Wallace said.
“What about Alyssa?” Sonia asked.
“What about her?”
“Are you guys going to rescue her too?” Bianca asked.
“It’s their family problem, we can’t budge in and tell them what to do,” Jacky said.
“What about your problem, Young Master Chu?” Angela reminded him.
“That’s different because I accepted your help but Alyssa is another story…”
“Would that article affect Alyssa?” Bianca asked, turning to the others. “Will it cause her trouble since you guys…”
Tony shook his head. “If you read the whole article, you’ll know it never implied directly toward any parties. It was just saying how rumors could cause so much damage.”
“I like this phrase,” Chen Yi said from across the table, pointing at the magazine. “It takes years to build a respectable reputation but it will only take a little drop of rumor to shatter all the hard-earned efforts.”
Wallace was done with the article earlier and had put it aside so Chen Yi had taken it up to read.
“Even if it’s not implying anything,” Bianca continued with her original apprehension. “Doesn’t it make it harder on Alyssa?”
“I’ll go meet up with the Zhao later and tell them it’s all my work, not anyone’s fault,” Tony said.
“Don’t trust me?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Have some faith in him,” Ehlo reassured Bianca. “If he hasn’t had all bases covered, would he pull that move?”
Bianca didn’t say anything more. She went back to eating instead.
“Do you think Valerie’s still mad at us?” Angela asked, twirling her chopsticks in her hand.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Ehlo said. “It’s not like we didn’t appreciate her help, but I must agree with Tang Feng that she underestimated her enemy.”
“Sadly to say but she could only handle situations involving brainless girls,” Wallace joined in.
“She’s clever though,” Angela said, feeling like defending their friend.
“We’re not saying she isn’t, Miss Chang,” Wallace said. “It’s just that Tang Feng’s too unpredictable. Our plan wasn’t that good either but because we were playing on his weakness with his confidence that we had nothing, so we were able to win over him.”
“It’s all right,” Ehlo said, taking Angela’s hand into his. “If there’s anything going on next time, we’ll ask her for help, okay?”
“Huang Yu Rong!” The others exclaimed, including Angela herself and excluding Uncle Ben and Aunt June.
“You’re trying to curse us!” The others said in unison.
“Was just trying to reassure her,” Ehlo said defensively. “And I thought you guys aren’t superstitious.”
Angela glared at Ehlo. “Seriously.”
Although she said that, but Angela became cheerful and talkative again for the rest of the dinner. She knew that Ehlo did it on purpose–for others to yell at him–to cheer her up so she couldn’t stay mad at the others for not trusting Valerie enough.
After dinner, contrary to their usual loitering habit, they separated into small groups and left after saying goodbye to Uncle Ben and Aunt June.
“What’s the big secret here?” Bianca asked. “Can you guys tell us now?”
“What are you talking about?” Ehlo asked, coming back after locking the door.
Bianca shrugged. “I don’t know either but I know it has something to do with Qiao.”
“Was it the same one that we talked about last week?” Ehlo asked, eyeing his roommates suspiciously.
“What’s going on?” Cyndi asked, feeling the heaviness of the atmosphere enveloping them all.
Sonia didn’t say anything but turned to look at Jacky.
“You told them?” Angela asked, turning to Ehlo.
“She knows?” Bianca jumped in. “And we don’t?”
“What is this?” Ehlo shot back. “You’re the three musketeers? So if one knows, the others have to know too?”
“Guys,” Wallace interfered. “Let’s stop it.”
“I let it slipped earlier,” Johnny said quietly. “Sorry.”
“What did you say?” Ehlo asked, turning to him.
“I told Qiao that she’d chosen a lonely road.”
“Huh?” Ehlo did not mean for it to come out that lame but he couldn’t help it.
“When you guys were walking together earlier when we were leaving East Shore Café,” Johnny explained.
“Qiao was tagging behind you. So I let it out by accident when Qiao finds it strange that Ehlo and Chen Yi are getting along so well.”
“So she knows now?” Ehlo asked, wrinkling his face.
“Of course not. I just let that one line slip.”
“Wait, how did Angela know then?” Bianca jumped in again.
Ehlo turned to look at his roommates and then at Angela. “Should we tell them?”
“Might as well,” Jacky said. “I mean it’s not going to get out of this room again, right?”
“You tell me.” He gestured his hand. “It’s at a higher stake than we thought.”
Angela turned to him. “What are you talking about? I mean it would hurt Xiao Yu and…”
Ehlo shook his head.
“What?” Angela urged, looking at the other guys as well.
Ehlo turned to Jacky. “I can’t keep repeating everything. Can you guys…”
Jacky nodded. “Let’s sit down first.”
They were actually standing around in the living room.
“Okay,” Jacky said casually as the others piled onto sofas or chairs by the coffee table.
When they were all settled down, Ehlo and Angela took turns telling the others of what they discovered last week. Though Ehlo claimed to be worn out, but he felt like he needed to input what he’d saw. After they were done, Bianca was the first to speak up.
“Wait a minute,” She said, holding a hand up.
“What?” Angela asked, turning to her.
“That means…” Bianca turned to exchange a look with the guys.
“What?” Angela repeated, feeling anxious.
“You have no idea,” Ehlo mumbled.
Angela turned to him, not offended since she sensed his troubled mood, but she was just confused. “What do you mean?”
Ehlo let out a sigh and turned to Jacky.
“It turns out…” Jacky hesitated, licking his lips.
“What?” Angela urged, scanning their faces.
“Qiao pulled a fast one on them,” Johnny said finally, feeling like he needed to do his part in helping Jacky and Ehlo.
Angela turned to Johnny. “What?”
Jacky and Johnny took turns telling them of what happened. Ehlo also contributed some parts of how he ended up knowing as well. Even Bianca helped.
Angela realized that Wallace wasn’t surprised upon hearing all of these but just looked tired. She turned to him. “So you knew this?”
Wallace shook his head. “I just learned about it several weeks ago when Jacky and Ehlo were talking in the kitchen.”
Angela ran her hands through her hair. “This is turning into a mess.”
“Now you know why we didn’t want to tell you.”
“Lucky for us Chen Yi has Xiao Yu now,” Wallace pointed out.
Jacky nodded. “We have to wait for Qiao to move on now. I think she already has.”
Although Sonia didn’t say anything, there were traces of sadness on her face.
“We shouldn’t be sad over this,” Jacky said, slipping a hand around Sonia’s shoulders. “It’s over now. Just let it go.”
“And don’t tell anyone,” Ehlo said. “I mean it for real this time. If it gets out, there will be major damage control to be done.”
While they were talking, Cyndi had been so quiet that they hadn’t realized but now that they stopped a moment to reflect on the matter, Wallace noticed it.
“What’s wrong?” Wallace asked, placing a hand on her forehead.
“I’m fine,” Cyndi said, grabbing a hold of his hand and bringing it away from her face.
“You don’t look fine,” Wallace pressed.
“It’s just that it’s just a shame that all these misunderstandings and…” She stopped herself and turned to Angela. “I didn’t mean to say that Xiao Yu…”
Angela put a hand up to stop Cyndi. “Don’t worry about it. I know how it must have felt. I would’ve doubted Chen Yi if I heard about this before, but now that I see how much he cares for Xiao Yu, I’m convinced.”
“Let’s not think about this anymore,” Johnny said, wanting to dissolve all the morbid vibe from the atmosphere.
“We might be thinking too much and taking it too seriously. Things will be okay. They’re younger than us but they’re grownups, right?”
The others nodded in agreement, their faces not showing traces of such worries anymore.
“What are we going to do now?” Wallace asked the others.
“Wii re-match,” Ehlo blurted out, remembering of their last failed attempt.
“Mahjong marathon,” Angela called out.
“We could do both,” Jacky said. “I meant there are enough of us.”
“You guys have too much time,” Johnny said, getting up from his seat. “I have an early shoot tomorrow.”
“That’s only one down,” Ehlo said. “So Huo and I will do a re-match while the rest of you play mahjong, happy? You even have a spare person in case you want to rest in the upcoming round.”
“Sounds good then,” Jacky said, nodding his head.
So instead of dispersing like they usually would, they ended up playing games for the rest of the night. It was possibly because they still wanted to let the secret dissolve from the atmosphere. And maybe they just want to spend a free night after all those senseless worrying to enjoy themselves and celebrate only within their group. So with the exception of Johnny, the rest stayed up and played mahjong. Ehlo and Wallace only spent like an hour playing the Wii game that they did not finish the last time around. They took breaks in between battles to restore their energy before continuing and were able to defeat their strongest enemy, finishing the game. That was how they ended up joining in the mahjong game, taking turns filling in for the others.
© Thursday, October 8th, 2009
Posted: Saturday, February 12th, 2011