This is an early draft posted on September 22, 2016.
The taxi coasted to its stop in front of the Nanjing No. 1 Leather Goods Factory. Gao Peng paid up and got out, nearly tripping into his door as he scrambled around to hold the other. Xie Ankai emerged with ease, thin metal briefcase in hand and creases still sharp in his trousers. Having forgotten to send his suit to the dry cleaner, Gao Peng gave a few token swats to the rumples left over from his rushed ironing job.
Xie Ankai took a slow and roundabout strut, crunching gravel under his wingtips. His gaze swept over No. 1’s panorama of rectangular buildings – the squat office tower, the adjacent warehouse, the low-slung plant emitting a faint wheeze from its rusted exhaust vents. Gao Peng had practiced his grand introductions, memorized a few options in case he happened to forget any. Now they all rang silly and false as he imagined them aloud, and he stalled for a perceptible moment before resigning himself to filler.
Xie Ankai finished. “So this is the prize.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to keep it for yourself.”
“It’s been a good fifteen years. A long fifteen years.” And the last few much longer than the rest.
“Then what’s one more if it’s still up and running?” Xie Ankai made a sweeping gesture. “Stay. Hold onto this place. See where it takes you.”
“Straight to retirement, I hope.”
“It will. Give it some time. Give those prevailing winds a chance to blow back around in your favor.” Xie Ankai spoke with the surety that used to keep Gao Peng at the mahjong table for one more game, one more go, one more chance at revenge on whichever lucky bastard had drained his pockets last week. “You’re not thinking to cash out before the big win, now, are you?”
“I’m not thinking to go bust on the next round.”
They had commiserated throughout their tenure at the Nanjing Iron and Steel Works, stuck in middle management without the Party connections required to break the red ceiling into executive quarters. Gao Peng had jumped on No. 1 Leather when the state sold it off during a frenzy of privatization. It had been a staid and reliable operation, smooth sailing until it somehow took on water. Costs kept rising despite all attempts to cut them, closing in on profits that had long since started to dwindle.
Xie Ankai had gone south to Guangzhou and into an investment group keen on absorbing such enterprises. Gao Peng had thought to make him an appointment when he inevitably came back broken in a month or a year or five. As the letters trickled in over the ensuing years, a ticker tape of news articles answered with vague and unfalsifiable claims of No. 1 Leather’s prosperity, Gao Peng came to think he should have skipped town himself.
“This is a nice lot.” Xie Ankai nodded. “Good size, good location, and it still has room to build.“
“Good price per square meter, too. Land is money, especially around here.” If a buyer were desperate for this odd tract when real estate valuation ran high. Gao Peng had given up on the stars aligning thusly after months of failed competition with state-sponsored development zones and cheaper land in the periphery.
“How about your operations?”
“How about them? I trust you went over the numbers I sent.” A full inventory of equipment and a year of production statistics, with a quantity doubled every so often. Gao Peng had cut back on the padding after a prospect sent a children’s book of myths in response to his portfolio.
“I did.” Xie Ankai patted his briefcase. “But I’m sure the whole is worth more than that.”
“It very well could be. I’ve never been the best at appraisals.”
“Good thing I’m a specialist, no?”
Gao Peng led them into the plant, trying to seem casually unrushed rather than on the march to his own funeral. He never understood what buyers wanted to see, nor did he manage to deliver. His last prospect had witnessed the lines all churning away on a large order. Gao Peng expected him to be impressed with such productivity. Instead the guest excused himself without comment or followup.
The factory floor was slow, the workers drifting without urgency. Xie Ankai observed in silence, and Gao Peng imagined him comparing the scene with his numbers and coming up short. He thought up some numbers of his own – some avalanche of bags purportedly slated for next week – but also thought Xie Ankai might extend his trip to spectate.
“It seems we missed the excitement.”
Xie Ankai laughed. “Does the excitement ever stop?”
“No, no, of course not. But it does ease up now and then.”
“Such as when someone is hoping to see it?”
“Such as when an order is out the door early.” After a grasping moment – “And the next one’s waiting on a supply shipment.”
“That new machinery really pulls its weight, doesn’t it?”
“And then some.”
Some time ago, Gao Peng had replaced his equipment in an attempt to inject fortune into his enterprise. All this got him was another loan to pay off. He had ordered the machines to be polished before any visits, and he listed last year’s model in his inventory. The going prices thereof had already depreciated by half. But they still beat scrap, which was more than he could say for their actual value.
Xie Ankai’s comments were few and brief as they visited the crammed and jumbled warehouse – Buried treasure – and headed into the main office building – Solid construction. Substantial. Nothing like the fried tofu I’m used to seeing. Can we can call this pressed? It was equal parts relief and concern. Gao Peng had been running out of replies to euphemistic praise, ways to sell himself without unseemly boasting. But praise showed some effort of evaluation, some interest in seeing more – some optimism for this millstone being cut loose at last.
Up in the executive suite, Gao Peng made tea for them both. Xie Ankai sipped his slowly as he paced the room, briefcase still secure in his other hand.
“You never know, do you?”
Gao Peng drank, allowing him to continue. He certainly didn’t, nor did he trust himself to guess the intended angle of conversation.
Xie Ankai continued. “A big exporter could call tomorrow morning.”
“Their order could be too much for my tight schedule.”
“Your other orders could go out early.”
“Not early enough to make room for such a large one.”
“That exporter could contract No. 1 Leather as their exclusive supplier.”
“I could break my back for them and have half my goods rejected.”
The words hung between them as they finished their tea. Gao Peng poured a refill, nearly spilling in his effort to maintain a steady hand. Xie Ankai studied his cup momentarily before draining it in one long and measured swallow.
“I could get some use out of a luggage factory.” Xie Ankai placed his briefcase on the desk, popped it open, extracted paperwork. “And I could kick in some extra for the old friend who was kind enough to sell it to me.”
Gao Peng read the contract slowly, delaying his view of the final numbers. His only offer to date had been a pittance, walked out on when he tried to argue it up into a mere loss. He braced himself for more of the same – or worse from a man who had surely wrung harder bargains from those with more to give.
The sum nearly knocked Gao Peng from his chair. He hoped the sale would finance a cruise down the Yangtze, white tile over his smoke-stained walls, replacements for appliances that perhaps worked halfway when kicked hard enough. Instead he saw an escape from his worn and ramshackle bachelordom. A house in some gleaming development freshly sprouted up in the countryside. A relaxed trip to Hong Kong in search of treasure with which to furnish it. A different woman whenever he felt especially alone – or perhaps two on special occasions. A hit to Xie Ankai’s employer, but they could well afford to eat it.
Gao Peng unearthed a bottle of liquor and a pair of fine porcelain cups, purchased two years prior to toast No. 1 Leather’s sale. The bottle had remained sealed, even through his growing temptation to uncork it as the months stretched on with no such prospect in sight.
Two pours, two nods, two raised drinks.
“To finishing up and getting back out on the town for a proper celebration.” Gao Peng settled into his chair. “Shall we do the honors?”
Gao Peng unlocked his center desk drawer and reached for the brocade box nestled in the left rear corner. Past the junkyard of bent paperclips and ballpoint pens running on empty, his fingertips brushed nothing but bare wood.
“There’s no problem, now, is there?”
“No, not at all.”
The chops of No. 1 Leather were locked up by default and kept tight in hand on the select occasions requiring their stamp. Gao Peng’s memory of desk topography had faded over the months since he last opened a new customer account. But his corporate credentials were unfailingly secured in this drawer, and his pulse pounded as the perimeter sweep continued on to a full and unproductive circle.
“I should have made myself a note before I got into the baijiu. I moved the chops to a strongbox.” Gao Peng displayed his keyring in a shrug of surrender. “And left the key at home.”
“I can stay another night. Let’s finish this tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Gao Peng nodded fervently. “Tomorrow.”
Gao Peng slumped over his blotter, clutching his sparse halo of remaining hair. He hollered for his assistant as if that would summon her back to the empty desk outside. Of course Sun Saifei had disappeared for lunch as he went out for the same, avoiding any inconvenient questions about who might have sneaked past while she was off perfuming herself or redoing her makeup or whatever else she got up to when he didn’t have any paperwork to offload.
The phone chimed, jolting Gao Peng out of his stupor with a photo from nephew Tao in supply management. The chops, accompanied by a caption in case the picture failed to speak loudly enough.
LOOKING FOR THIS?
Gao Peng stormed out of his suite and down the hall to the office he had put the kid up in, repayment for his father’s help in securing funds for the factory purchase. Give him a favor, give him a spot in that supply division everyone was trying to finagle their way into, get nothing but grief in return. Just a suggestion, Uncle. This is an interesting article, Uncle. Louis Vuitton saw a twenty percent jump in production after rearranging their lines, Uncle.
As if they had an impossible foreign name and equally nonsensical price tag. As if Gao Peng owed an ear to some upstart with funny ideas of his place from being put in charge of operations in an electronics enterprise down in Dongguan. That venture had gone bust like so many of its brethren, and its southern boomtown stink had followed nephew Tao back home and only continued to fester. It was well past due for a fumigation – familial relations notwithstanding.
The office door, normally cracked, sat open and inviting. Nephew Tao lounged in his pneumatic desk chair, calmly pecking away on his computer. “I assume I don’t need to explain.”
“You damn well better.” Gao Peng closed the door behind him, rejecting a momentary urge to slam it. “Or you can expect to explain yourself in court.”
Nephew Tao reached behind his desk for a pair of binders. “Name your date.”
The first contained the true corporate books, the raw sewage of numbers creatively edited for presentation to tax authorities and potential buyers. The second was a report enumerating every such liberty taken on the previous year of tax returns.
Gao Peng snatched the binders off the desk. Nephew Tao gave him a dismissive wave.
“Go ahead. These are copies. The originals are stored offsite. Along with the chops, of course, which really should have been there in the first place.” Nephew Tao leaned back in his chair. “Or perhaps not, because this move of mine wouldn’t have been possible.”
“This move. This move. This coup.” Gao Peng laughed. “You stole my company. You humiliated me in front of my guest. My friend. My last chance to squeeze any profit out of this place.”
“If I wanted to humiliate you, I would have led the tour. I am the owner, after all.”
“You’re a thief.”
“Then I’m in good company.” Nephew Tao opened an account ledger, made a show of flipping through pages. “Unless some fifteen years of pension withholdings got lost on their way to social security.”
“Those went into the factory.” And to himself as a reward for his cleverness. Gao Peng gave silent thanks for his foresight of maintaining a personal savings account.
“Oh, right. Five years ago.” Nephew Tao pulled out a single sheet of paper. “New sewing machines and a one percent raise? I’m not sure that adds up.”
“Of course it does. The dogs get their due.” That raise had done its job, shut up the rumors from the factory floor threatening to explode into riot. It was a gift. A boon. More than any of those drones deserved for their simple task of following orders.
“On time and in full?”
Nephew Tao brought out a thick orange binder – LABOR AND PAYROLL VIOLATIONS. Gao Peng began to reach for it before remembering to spare himself further embarrassment.
Gao Peng faithfully paid his administrative fees to Jiangsu province, inoculation from inspectors jerking him around to justify their employment. Tax discrepancies could be blamed on the accountant – factory troubles on the plant manager. Both at once kicked the issue right back onto his own corporate head. His domain. His rules. His weight of paperwork crushing any seeds of doubt he might think to sow before a judge.
“Wait until your father hears about this.”
“About the results of his investment? He’ll have some questions for you.” Nephew Tao began to make a phone call. “I’ll put you on speaker.”
Gao Peng had been backing toward the door. He bumped into the jamb, turned, and scurried off before the touch tones finished their slow and mocking melody.