He Zhichu stopped in his tracks. His almond-shaped eyes flashed. "Gu Nianzhi, you have a lunch meeting at noon. Have you forgotten about it?"
Gu Nianzhi jerked her head up in surprise. "I have a lunch meeting? Why didn't anyone tell me about it?"
"I'm telling you about it now. Got a problem with that?" He Zhichu's voice had dipped below freezing point, to match his frosty attitude. "If you have so much time on your hands, you should be thinking about how to improve your professional work, instead of going around buying breakfast for other people. Who's he to you, anyway? He has a wife waiting for him, back in the Empirehave you considered what this might look like to her? You're not some errand girl."
Gu Nianzhi bit her lip. She was not an errand girl, and He Zhichu was right: Brother Huang was a married man. She had to tread carefully.
She let go of He Zhichu's sleeve, feeling a little panicked. "Professor He, I didn't really mean anything by that. His wife will understand, right? It was just breakfast"
He Zhichu's long, dark lashes lowered over his shimmering, almond-shaped eyes. "You bought breakfast for Little Huang, but not for anyone else. What do you think that looks like?"
"Oh" Gu Nianzhi let out a long sigh. She was reminded of her time as a C University student: Mei Xiawen had bought her breakfast every day, and he had bought it only for her and no one else. That had been enough for all her schoolmates to figure out that Mei Xiawen was trying to woo her.
She had to admit that her actions were extremely misleading.
But she wanted to get closer to Brother Huang; buying breakfast for him had seemed like a good way to earn brownie points with him.
"What do I do? I don't want his wife to get the wrong idea" Gu Nianzhi walked away with her head in her hands, leaving He Zhichu behind her in the hallway.
He Zhichu put his hands in the pockets of his black dress pants, unable to believe that Gu Nianzhi had abandoned him in the hallway, just like that.
He turned to look in the direction of the Speaker of the Senate's office, and then turned back around to look at the girl who was now walking away with slumped, dejected shoulders. He looked up at the corridor ceiling, and finally made up his mind. He darted forwards, caught up with Gu Nianzhi, and said, a little stiffly, "If you don't want Little Huang's wife to get the wrong idea, you should buy breakfast for a few other people, too. That way, his wife won't think there's anything strange about it, even if she finds out."
Gu Nianzhi stopped. Her dark, inky eyes twinkled with joy. "You're right! Professor He, you always know what to do, you're so experienced. I'll do just that. I'll go buy breakfast for the others, right this minute." With that, she immediately made a beeline for the breakfast corner in the restaurant.
He Zhichu followed after her. He coughed and said nonchalantly, "I don't have first-hand experience, I'm just drawing logical conclusions from my observations of human nature. Anyway, this is your lucky dayI haven't had my breakfast yet, so here's your chance to buy me breakfast."
Gu Nianzhi turned and gave He Zhichu an odd look. "But I thought you don't eat breakfast? You drink red wine in the morning, and that's it That's what I heard from my classmate, anyway."
He Zhichu looked icy daggers at her. He could practically feel the roots of his teeth smarting as he sneered, "Is this the time to be Miss Smarty Pants? Weren't you just talking about how important breakfast is? You told Little Huang to eat breakfast to stay healthy, and somehow that doesn't apply to me? Well, that certainly says a lot about what Little Huang means to you."
Gu Nianzhi felt like getting down on her knees and dashing her head upon the floorshe was never going to clear her name, at this rate. She quickly turned and dashed into the restaurant. "Five English breakfasts, to go!"
A chef in a tall white hat packed five breakfast boxes for her as the cashier punched out a receipt. "That will be 75 dollars."
Gu Nianzhi got out her wallet. To her dismay, there was only a little over $50 in it.
She did not have an American credit card, and she had not been allowed to bring any of the Huaxia credit cards Huo Shaoheng had given her to the United States. She had to get her daily allowance from Zhao Liangze.
$50 was usually enough to get her through the day, but it was evidently not enough to cover unexpected expenses like this one.
Gu Nianzhi's small, delicate face was now red with embarrassment. She stammered, "C-C-Can can I just take three?"
"No. These are all made to order. If you don't want them, who's going to pay for them?" The black lady manning the cashier arrogantly shot down her request to "return" the food.
"Then I" Gu Nianzhi turned and looked at He Zhichu with wide, pleading eyes. "Professor He, can you lend me some money?"
He Zhichu was annoyed, but by this time he was already past the point of caring. He could not summon the energy to get mad at her.
All he had wanted was for Gu Nianzhi to treat him to breakfastand now he had to pay for it himself
He pulled out his Black Card and slid it over the counter, his expression entirely deadpan.
The cashier was instantly courteous and attentive. She smiled widely at He Zhichu. "Thank you, Mr. He."
After swiping the card, Gu Nianzhi grabbed the five breakfast boxes and walked out of the restaurant with He Zhichu. She handed one of the breakfast boxes to him. "Your breakfast, Professor He."
He Zhichu pursed his lips as he took the box from her. He said, with his usual frosty voice, "This doesn't count, because now I'm the one buying everyone breakfast. If you want to clear your name, you'll have to buy everyone breakfast againwith your own money." With that, he turned and left.
Gu Nianzhi pouted as she carried the remaining breakfast boxes to the Committee of Appropriations. She left them on the front deskMary's deskand batted her eyelashes at her. "Mary, I bought breakfast for everyone."
Mary's face broke into a wide grin. She happily shared the breakfast boxes with her other colleagues.
Gu Nianzhi went into her office and sat quietly in her chair for a moment. Finally, she turned on her computer and logged into her account to check whether she had any work lined up for the day.
The Committee of Appropriations internal system showed that there were no appropriations bills awaiting approval or registration.
After a moment's deliberation, she navigated to the archives to look up the appropriations bills that had already been approved and uploaded into the system.
She remembered the dates Zhao Liangze had given her the day before, and decided to start with the records for the last three months.
Zhao Liangze's hints had pointed her in the right direction; Gu Nianzhi quickly discovered that the US Congress had passed an appropriations bill for the US Navy two months ago.
It was an astronomical amount of money.
Interesting. Very interesting.
Gu Nianzhi suddenly understood what He Zhichu had meant.
He was right: this was the most important department in the US Congress.
It was possible to put the pieces together into a complete picture, just by tracking the source and flow of the government funds.
The US Congress approved a large number of government projects every year. There were so many projects, the members of Congress sometimes lost track of them themselves.
But not every project was carried through.
The Committee of Appropriations was the only place in US Congress where you could see which of the projects that had been approved were actually legitimate, and which ones were simply smoke and mirrors, designed to mislead and deceive.
To put it another way, it did not matter if you had entire libraries of paperwork or the most convincing of speeches and verbal promises on tapethey did not actually prove anything. The flow of money, on the other hand, never lied.
Gu Nianzhi felt like an explorer who had accidentally stumbled upon a new continent. She spent the entire morning cooped up in her office, diligently looking through the historical funding records.
She was so engrossed in her work she almost jumped out of her skin when her phone rang. It was He Zhichu.
She took the call, her eyes still glued to her computer screen. "Professor He? What is it?"
"Lunch meeting. Have you forgotten?" He Zhichu's icy voice sounded over her phone.
Gu Nianzhi gave a quick "Oh" in reply, and hastily logged out of the system. She shut down her computer, grabbed her backpack, and walked out of the Committee of Appropriations office.
"I'll wait for you in front of the steps," said He Zhichu, and promptly hung up.
Gu Nianzhi walked outside and saw a black, shiny Rolls-Royce waiting in the open space before the long flight of steps leading to the Capitol Building.
Was this his car?
Gu Nianzhi looked aroundthis was the only car in the vicinity.
This was supposed to be a no-stopping, no-parking zone.
He Zhichu poked his head out of the rear window. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Gu Nianzhi hurried over to the car. She opened the rear door and sat in the back.
"Drive." He Zhichu commanded the chauffeur up front.
Gu Nianzhi was reminded of a joke: anyone who owned a Rolls-Royce had to have a chauffeur; they could not drive the car themselves, because everyone automatically assumed the person behind the wheel was a chauffeur
She ducked her head as she tried desperately not to laugh.
He Zhichu saw her laugh; all the unhappiness and resentment that had been piling up within him immediately vanished, like mist before a morning sun. He smiled in response.
The car stopped before a French restaurant. He Zhichu led her inside.
The restaurant was famous for its sky-high pricesand He Zhichu had actually reserved a private room!
In America, it was rare for a restaurantany restaurantto have private rooms.
Gu Nianzhi sat down, happy to be dining in such a classy restaurant. She waited and waited, but no one else showed up. When the waiters began to serve lunch, she knew something was wrong.
"Professor He, isn't this supposed to be a lunch meeting? Where's everyone?" She looked doubtfully at the door to the private room.
"Everyone's here." He Zhichu picked up his knife and fork. He cut up his medium steak and poured the gravy over it.
Realization dawned upon Gu Nianzhi. "So it's just the two of us? How is this a lunch meeting?" she muttered as she cut up her crab-cake and slowly ate it.
"What, two people can't have a meeting now?" He Zhichu slid his wine glass over to Gu Nianzhi without looking up. "Pour me some of that red wine."
Gu Nianzhi reached for the bottle of red wine on the table and poured him a small glass of wine.
"Today's lunch meeting is about what you've been doing at work lately. I heard you've been spending most of your time hanging out at the other offices?" He Zhichu rattled off a list of everything Gu Nianzhi had done in the past several days.
Gu Nianzhi broke out in a cold sweat. So there were spies lurking around her, reporting her every move to He Zhichu
"I'll stop slacking off and be more professional about my work in the future," said Gu Nianzhi sheepishly. She did not argue with He Zhichu. Suddenly, she remembered she had caught a glimpse of the "tip of the iceberg" through the Committee of Appropriations' internal system, and added, smiling, "I think I know what you meant."
"What are you talking about?"
"You once told me that the Committee of Appropriations is the most important department in Congress." Gu Nianzhi poured another small glass of wine for He Zhichu. "You were right. I have a theory, and I'm in the middle of confirming it."
"Oh? Let's hear it." He Zhichu had not expected Gu Nianzhi to catch on so quickly. He lifted his glass and looked over the rim at Gu Nianzhi as he took a sip of red wine.
Gu Nianzhi shook her head. "No, not yet. I'll tell you when I'm a hundred percent sure."
"All right," He Zhichu slowly wiped his mouth with a napkin, "but don't take too long, or you won't be getting your birthday party."
"Huh? Oh, right" Gu Nianzhi nodded. She had almost forgotten about the deal. "I won't disappoint you, Professor He!"
While He Zhichu and Gu Nianzhi were having lunch, Zhao Liangze was in the middle of a video call with Huo Shaoheng.
After concluding his report, there was a brief pause as Zhao Liangze steeled himself to say: "Sir, I showed the data to Nianzhi."
Huo Shaoheng's expression did not change, but Zhao Liangze suddenly felt a chill run down his spine. He felt as though a ferocious, bloodthirsty beast were staring at him.
"Sir" Zhao Liangze said tentatively, his voice trembling. "I I Did I do something wrong?"
"Little Ze, you know very well that Nianzhi has a photographic memory. She remembers everything she sees. You showed her the dataand you expect me to say you did the right thing?" Huo Shaoheng was irritated, but he could not put his finger on the source of his annoyance. He jerked his hand away from the mouse, pulled out a cigarette, and began to smoke in front of his computer. He took a long drag on his cigarette; the ensuing cloud of lingering smoke obscured his face.
Zhao Liangze ducked his head, not daring to meet Huo Shaoheng's eyes. He stammered, "I-I-I I just wanted to find out the truth, as quickly as possible."
"That's no excuse. You shouldn't have shown it to her, period." Huo Shaoheng moved his cigarette to his left hand as he grabbed hold of the mouse and opened another file.
This was another set of data, a record of abnormal fluctuations in the magnetic field.
This particular document had been created six years ago.
This set of data from six years ago more or less matched the new set of data Huo Shaoheng and his men had just discovered.
The coordinates recorded in the old file were those for a certain street in C City of the Huaxia Empire.
On that day, a serious car accident had occurred on that street. Huo Shaoheng, who had been on bodyguard duty for the scientist examining the magnetic field, had rescued a 12-year-old girl from a burning car.
The girl was Gu Nianzhi.
"The fluctuations in the magnetic field from the downtown area six years ago align with the recent anomalies in the Gulf of Aden. Did you honestly think it was a good idea to let Nianzhi know about this?" Huo Shaoheng's grip on his mouse tightened. He had to restrain himself from crushing the mouse entirely.
"Unless I'm completely off base, both sets of data matching up like this is definitely not a coincidence, and my gut feeling tells me Nianzhi has something to do with all this, somehow. We've gotten nowhere with our investigationsmaybe it's time to give her a free hand and see what she turns up." Zhao Liangze summoned his courage and looked Huo Shaoheng squarely in the eyes as he said, "You agreed to let Nianzhi come to America because you wanted to explore new possibilities, right? You wanted to see whether the people from her past will start coming out of the woodworks."
To put it bluntly, Gu Nianzhi was acting as their bait.
They would never be able to catch a fish with an empty hook.
Huo Shaoheng's deep, dark eyes were inscrutable. He was silent for a long moment as he considered what Zhao Liangze had said. Finally, he admitted that Zhao Liangze was right and gave him an implicit go-ahead by saying: "Remember to report to me as soon as you find anything." With that, he ended the video call and walked to the balcony with his cigarette in hand. He gazed at the mountains in the distance, lost in his thoughts.
It was the middle of the night. The Special Ops military base in C City was enveloped in total darkness. The only flicker of light came from the cigarette between his fingers; it pulsed uncertainly, mirroring the uneasy feeling welling within him.
Gu Nianzhi finished her "lunch meeting" and returned to the Capitol Building in He Zhichu's car.
He Zhichu did not get out of the car. He turned his head to look at her as he handed her a credit card. "Take it. I won't be around for the next few days, I have some other things to attend to. Remember to send me your daily reports, I'll be checking my mailbox for them every day."
"I'll send my reports," said Gu Nianzhi dejectedly. She tried to return the credit card to He Zhichu. "Professor He, I can't just take your credit card."
He Zhichu's voice was cold. "I give all my graduate students their own cards. The university pays for them."
Gu Nianzhi was forced to accept He Zhichu's credit card. She hastily shoved it into her backpack.
She returned to the Capitol Building with a heavy heart, and went to find Brother Huang.
Brother Huang saw her come into his office. He asked anxiously: "Where have you been? Do you still want to have lunch?"
"Yes, of course, I'm starving." He Zhichu had just left, and Gu Nianzhi was pretty sure no one else knew about her "lunch meeting" with him.
Brother Huang took her to the small restaurant in the Capitol Building for lunch.
The restaurant was crowded; it was lunch time, after all.
Gu Nianzhi ordered a vegetable juice. She found a table in a corner and sat down with Brother Huang.
Brother Huang stared incredulously at her vegetable juice. "That's your lunch?! You can't be serious! Don't worry about the expenses, I always buy lunch with my credit card. We don't have to pay for it!"
Gu Nianzhi was surprised. "You have a credit card, Brother Huang? Why don't I know about it?"
He Zhichu had just given her a credit card, but Brother Huang had evidently received his much, much earlier.
"Oh, Miss Wen said there were a few issues when she tried to apply for your card. She's still working it out with the bank," Brother Huang hastily explained. "You can use mine, it's all the same, anyway. So do you want to get something else to eat?"