The stale smell of tobacco wafted through the air as his intimidating figure approached me.
A passing thought whispered in my mind upon registering the odor: somehow, the scent smelled familiar.
Polite exchanges of greetings were ignored when he promptly took a seat on the opposite sofa; leaving my offer for a handshake hanging. As he eased into the seat, he glanced at my name tag and asked, “You’re… Ms. Zhang?”
A look of surprise washed over my features at the baffling question, “Oh no, I’m not,” I hurriedly answered, “My name is Xia Zhi; you may call me Xia. The journalist who was supposed to interview you was sent to a business trip, so I took his place instead.”
With that said, I stole a careful glance at his face.
My eyes wandered to his form and assessed the regal posture he sported, lingering on to the confidence oozing from him in tidal waves. Indeed, this kind of sophistication would be expected from the famous businessman, Sang Qi.
The Sang family was a clan infested with people of elite standing. Many members had served as senior officials in the government; the elder generation was specifically recognized as important people of great influence. Sang Qi and his brother had followed the steps of their bloodline and had later founded the Dayu Group. It was already anticipated that the company would soon grow into a large domestic enterprise, but no one had foreseen its fast progress to the top in just a few years span of time.
In addition to that, Sang Qi was still a very young man that was said to be in his late twenties.
An individual of his background would certainly have countless of stories that were worthy of making the headlines.
However, Zhang’s question list was empty, superficial and full of blatant flattery. A waste and a disappointment, really, when more intriguing inquiries could have been made for the esteemed man.
On the other hand, Mr. Sang was also arguably handsome in appearance. He was as cute as a movie star, if not more dazzling than most. Perhaps, it was a shocking fact to concur, knowing that it was almost unfair how he had such admirable features and wealth to back him up too. Although, something was telling me that this was not the first time I had seen this man up close.
The trance I was unconsciously in brought a slight huff of annoyance to be heard from the interviewee. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the table to wake me up, “Ms. Xia? My eyes are up here.”
I blinked, almost flushing in deep embarrassment upon having caught staring. I cleared my throat to regain my bearings and met his stare as I asked, “Not to be rude, but have we met before? You look very familiar to me.”
Mr. Sang grew rigid and answered with a sneer, “I've been on a lot of interviews lately. Maybe that’s where your déjà vu came?”
His cold gaze seemed to signify that he had taken my query as an attempt to flirt. I could not blame him, really. He had probably faced lots of intricate ploys in the past by gold diggers who often hit on wealthy men. Nevertheless, it did not stop the bitterness of being accused to cause irritation to bubble inside my stomach. I was not the least bit interested in materialism, and did not have any plans of surrendering to the petty ideal in the near future.
Sighing internally and shrugging it off to maintain a calm composure, I proceeded to go over the questions again. It would be likely that I watched other interviews about him before, as he had implied. It was a fitting explanation to the familiarity I felt, so I no longer chose to pay any attention to the nagging feeling in my chest.
So, without further ado, I turned on my recording pen and began the interview.
It went well—in accordance to the strict flow of the draft, at least. The process was smooth, although a little insipid.
The dull atmosphere almost came to an end as I started nearing the last segment when the phone in my bag rang.
I froze, my thoughts going a mile a minute as the worry I had pushed into the back of my mind came spiraling out of control. My reason snapped, and much to Sang Qi’s shock, I dropped the document in favor of looking inside my handbag in a desperate plea to answer the much awaited call. Tears brimmed at the corners of my eyes upon the immense relief I felt at reading the name displayed on the screen. It was Ho Cong.
I had been looking for him for twenty-four hours, and now, he finally got in touch.
Much like a hypnotized victim, I left the holding room in a daze with no explanation given to my respondent. The glare drilling at my back for my rudeness did not even warrant a glance behind me; rushed steps only forced me to head straight out of the office to answer the phone.
As the line went through, an onslaught of questions poured out from my anxious mouth, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer my calls?”
“Zhi,” his soft, calming voice said, “you’ve called?”
“I asked first. Where have you been?”
"I was on a business trip and left yesterday in a hurry, so I didn't have time to tell you about my itinerary."
I gripped my phone tightly and closed my eyes in hopes of having some semblance left of my sanity, and after a long exhale, I decided to let it go, “Very well, then.” I had more important questions to ask him, and I could no longer tolerate mute responses for it, “Another question. What exactly happened to me the night I accompanied you to the business dinner a month and a half ago?”
“H-how could I know? A month and a half is a long time.” He stammered, trying to steer off from the topic, “Zhi, I need to go. I’ve got works to do.”
“Wait!” I clenched my teeth and shouted, fury finally drowning me in its cruel embrace as I called him by his full name, “Ho Cong! Why did I wake up in the hotel?! Why weren't you there with me? And why didn't you take me home when I was drunk?”
“As a matter of fact, Zhi, I explained it to you last time,” he retaliated, “Just when I placed you in bed, I received a call from my boss. I was asked to do overtime at the company so I had to go. I finished around midnight to early morning, and I would’ve gone back to the hotel but I didn’t want to wake you up.”
Trembling fingers started to lose its strength, my faltering grip on the gadget shaking in time with my quivering words, “So you didn’t have sex with me that night?”
“Of course not, I swear,” he said.
I laughed out loud manically. If that were the case, then why was I pregnant? Had some ancient Greek deity entered my dream and impregnated me? Was I some sick, twisted version of modern-day catholic Mary?
“I see,” I answered with a nod, still chuckling in a near deranged manner. “So, since you didn’t have sex with me that night, whose child is this? Who impregnated me?”
The steadiness had returned and was apparent in the intonations of my voice.
I was probably the only pregnant woman in the world who even asked her husband whose child she was bearing!
“Zhi,” coldness flowed through my veins at the realization that he did not sound the least bit mortified at the situation. He had been preparing for the question.
“Wait till I return, then I’ll tell you everything.”
A sob made past my lips in an instant, releasing the dam of built-up hysterics inside as I wailed from where I was at the back of the stairs, “Fuck you, Ho Cong! Get your ass here and tell me everything already!”
And, here we were once again, with my outburst proving to be of futile effort in arriving at a resolution as the busy signal from Ho Cong’s line ended the call. Like always, Ho Cong hung up faster than anything else he could ever manage.
He did everything so slowly, but every time something bad happened, he would be the first one to run away without fail.
I took a deep, stabilizing breath, and felt a dull pain in my chest.
I clutched my shirt to quiet the erratic beating of my heart. As I moved up the steps sluggishly, my throbbing head caught a glimpse of a tall figure walking into the elevator. I stopped, dread spreading all over my limbs at the view of Mr. Sang leaving.
“Mr. Sang! Mr. Sang! Wait!” I rushed to follow him; running to the elevator door, just as the metal gates slowly closed in front of me.
I pounded on the steel in despair, but Sang Qi’s handsome, indifferent face only levelled me with a blank stare.
Taking a quick look at the level indicator, I prepared to pursue him up to the floor where he arrived.
A burly hand stopped me on my tracks, belonging to a man who appears to be a secretary, "Ms. Xia, you’re not allowed to go up."
“Please let me through! I took a call just now because it was urgent! It’s all misunderstanding!” I begged, latching on to his arm in pressing need.
"Doesn’t matter. Mr. Sang has asked me to tell you that you were the least professional reporter he had ever met."
Crestfallen, my hands fell limply to my sides, ‘But he hasn’t seen me at my best yet,’ a foolish wish murmured deep down.
Years ago, I was sent to an investigation on?illegal?cooking oil. I went undercover as a food store owner, and braved the awful smell by following other peddlers to the refining factory for two whole weeks. It was a dangerous mission that required me to perform flawlessly, and yet an interview was enough judgment to brand me as incompetent?
“I’m really sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to be offensive, but that phone call was an emergency and I had to answer it. I’m sorry for every inconvenience I’ve caused. If Mr. Sang is not available now, we can reschedule it instead.”
"Mr. Sang doesn’t have much time to waste." The secretary rejected, while handing me the copy of the question list I had left in the reception room. “Let me get this straight, too. Mr. Sang doesn’t want to be interviewed by a journalist who was using other people’s drafts.”
The tone of finality marked his exit. He entered the elevator without so much as a glimpse back, and all I could manage was a resigned sigh at the disheartening sight.
An interview was the simplest task to be done in the journalism world, and I had devastatingly failed it.
When I returned to the magazine office, another disturbing news welcomed my fatigued self. Tang inclined his head towards me from where he sat and pityingly remarked, "Be careful, the chief editor was looking for you. I heard that you didn't complete the interview and as a consequence, the Dayu Group sent a complaint to the headquarters. The chief editor’s really about to blow up now.”
With no possible escape to be made,?I?grit my teeth in defiance and prepared myself for the worst as I?walked into the chief editor’s office. Tang was right. The chief editor was furious; threateningly apparent, on his?toupee?that had dropped off to reveal his?bald head.
And every journalist who had seen him in his hairless state had been fired.
I did not dare to sit down. My weak legs strained to keep my poise as my timid voice apprehended him, “Sir, you were looking for me?”
He fumed, not having the gall to even answer me with his cheeks reddening in unrestrained ferocity. Careful not to make another sound to set him off, I opted to stare at his forehead in silence.
After a few, tense minutes, he finally broke the ice, “Xia, you may now go to the personnel department. You have formalities to go through!”
I winced, the impending doom sinking in my frightened core before I chose to feign ignorance, “What formalities?”
“Exit procedures! What else?!” The chief editor roared, causing me to pale significantly.
“Sir, I—I’m sorry! But it was just a phone call! It shouldn’t have been so serious!” I exclaimed, trying to defend myself.?I admit that it was wrong for me to answer my phone in the middle of an interview, but was not being fired for that a little too much?
“You idiot! Not serious?! Are you new here? Is this your first day as a journalist? Do you know how influential Mr. Sang Qi is?” A vehement hand slammed down on the desk, jarring me, “Don’t you have any idea how hard it was to make his appointment? The HQ went through a lot to get this chance! But what you have done? The powerful Mr. Sang even made a complaint to the headquarters!” He ridiculed, pointing an accusing finger to my shrinking form to get his point across, “Ms. Xia, I’m merely the chief editor of a local branch. Don’t you think I have no other choice but to fire you?!”
His screams rang in my ears as he pounded on the wooden table.?If only I had more concern to spare other than for myself, the sheer force behind his blows would have made me worry that he would end up breaking it apart.
Looking down, I instinctively wrapped my arms over my abdomen in protection.
It was in a woman’s nature to protect her child, after all. Even though I feared the baby’s birth, I was still its mother.
I?stepped back from the chaotic scene and bit my lips in distress, “Sir, anger is bad for your health. You must know that it’s not your fault; people tend to be irritable when autumn comes. Let me make a cup of herbal?tea for you.”
I tried to stir the subject away and headed for the small counter of refreshments when the chief editor stopped me. He sighed, and with a hoarse throat, he said, “I’m sorry, Xia Zhi. You have to go. I know you’ve been working for us since graduation. Three years isn’t a short time, and I would’ve kept you, but I can’t. I simply can’t.”
His bald head mimicked a bald egg dyed in light pink. Veins perturbed on it, pulsing with his heavy pants to declare his obvious exasperation and slight regret.