"Aren’t all the bottles on that wine rack a gift?” Xiaotao quipped. “Your friend probably tore off the label and told you it’s not available on the market just to please you. Do you really believe that?"
"Your Uncle Mu gave me this wine bottle. Would he lie to me?" argued Mr. Huang.
I stood up and offered to pour the wine before the old man could get started. Mr. Huang returned to his seat, raised his glass and motioned for us to try the wine. Upon taking a sip, I found the wine soft and mellow, the delicate flavors lightly caressing the taste buds.
Even so, I only drank half a glass.
As he spoke, Mr. Huang served himself some salad. However, after several bites, his expression turned ugly. "Dad, what's wrong?" Xiaotao stood up in consternation.
Mr. Huang spat his food and angrily fiddled around with it using his fork. Unsure of what to make out of his actions, Xiaotao and I exchanged a look of perplexity.
"Mrs. Zhang! Mrs. Zhang!" he shouted.
The housekeeper entered the dining hall and waited for his instructions. "Who made the salad? Get me the chef!" roared Mr. Huang.
As soon as the housekeeper left, Mr. Huang wiped his mouth with a napkin and apologized, "Please excuse me. I almost never lose my temper with my staff. But this is too much, too much!"
"Dad, was there sand in your food?" Xiaotao wondered out loud.
Mr. Huang shook his head, "Doesn’t matter if it was sand or even a dead insect! But this tastes revolting! I don't know what the hell they put in there! Xiao Song, I hope you didn’t eat this salad?"
Despite having tasted the salad, I shook my head in a daze. In fact, the salad tasted delicious. It had celery, baby tomatoes, red cabbage and diced ham.
With panic written all over his face, the chef walked in, completely unaware of what his mistake might be.
Smoldering under his stony expression, Mr. Huang pushed the plate over and told the chef to taste the salad. Upon taking a bite, the chef looked aggrieved, "Sir, it tastes fine."
"Fine?" Mr. Huang exploded in anger, "I think you should go to the hospital to get your tongue and nose checked. Can't you taste how disgusting it is? You know I have important guests today, yet this is what you serve. Tell me, what are your intentions for doing so?"
Furrowing his eyebrows, the chef couldn’t understand what was wrong. Xiaotao stared in apparent confusion while I stirred the salad with my fork. "Mr. Huang, how long have you been a vegetarian?"
The old man sighed, "It's been three months now."
"I’ve heard that vegetarians can’t stand the smell of meat after going meatless for too long. Could it be the diced ham that’s making you nauseous?" I suggested.
After a moment’s contemplation, Mr. Huang shook his head, "That’s impossible!"
"The old man has been strange of late,” interjected the chef. “The last time I cooked him steak, he complained of the smell as well!”
Mr. Huang slammed the table, "Excuses! That steak you made reeked so bad! God knows what you did with it!"
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Three months ago!" answered the chef.
Three months ago? What a coincidence...
Forking up a piece of diced ham, Xiaotao and I carefully tasted it and exchanged a meaningful look. This was authentic Jinhua ham that tasted as delicious as reputed.
Xiaotao suddenly spat the bite she took. "The meat has been kept for too long. Remove this and make sure you’re careful in the future. Don't you know that my dad is a vegetarian?"
"I’m sorry, it’s all my fault,” the chef awkwardly touched his toque. “I’m so used to preparing it this way in the restaurant."
I was well aware of Xiaotao’s intentions. Despite suspecting there was something wrong with Mr. Huang's health, she didn’t want to alarm him, hence the pretence. In the spirit of collusion, I too spat out my ham. With that, Mr. Huang told the chef he could go, indicating the end of the matter.
After lunch, Mr. Huang returned to his usual affable self as he shared Xiaotao's childhood photo album with me. Little Xiaotao was so cute I had to wonder how she grew into such a… sexy and charming young lady.
"Oh, my gosh! How can you show him photos of me still sucking from a milk bottle?" cried Xiaotao.
"What's wrong with this? Xiao Song will be part of the family in the future," chuckled Mr. Huang.
Xiaotao's cheeks colored from embarrassment, "It's too early to say that!" Then, she approached Mr. Huang, asking gently, "Dad, how have you been recently?"
"Great. I went out golfing with my friends two days ago."
"Do you feel any discomfort?" she added.
"No, my health has been great. I’ve always done my annual physical examination without fail. Why do you suddenly ask?"
Though concerned about the incident at the dinner table, Xiaotao wasn’t quite sure what questions to ask, so I said, "Mr. Huang, why don’t I check your pulse?"
"So you have studied Chinese medicine as well!” he laughed. “That’s really good. Most young people today don’t know much about Chinese medicine."
Placing my fingers on his outstretched wrist, I read his pulse.
"How is he?" asked Xiaotao.
There was definitely something wrong with Mr. Huang’s taste buds. I originally attributed the cause to his gallbladder, but could find nothing out of the ordinary from his pulse. Contrary to my suspicions, the old man was as fit as a fiddle.
"You’re in great condition but you do have yang hyperactivity in the liver. So my advice is not to be overexcited or angry."
"You do have some skill,” praised Mr. Huang. “My doctor said the same thing and advised me not to lose my temper. Alas, the company's affairs are such a headache!"
I turned to Xiaotao, discreetly shaking my head. Unwilling to put the matter to rest, Xiaotao reached for the beef jerky on the coffee table instead, but I quickly grabbed her hand. Since we already knew the symptoms, there was no need to test him again.
We left the old man’s apartment at around four in the afternoon. "Your father's symptoms shouldn’t be of any huge concern. I'll go back and check my medical books."
"I can’t help but worry,” sighed Xiaotao. “Thank you."
Right then, the ringing of her cell phone interrupted our conversation. A while later, she said, "They need me down at a station for a case. I’ll drop you off on my way there."
"Do you think I managed to impress your dad?" I asked as soon as we got into the car.
"I was just wondering when you’d ask me the question,” laughed Xiaotao. “Don't worry, my dad isn’t a hypocritical sort of person. He really likes you."
"Yes, I’ve passed the challenge!" I said, patting my chest.
"Since you’ve visited my family, doesn’t that make us an official couple?” Xiaotao fixed her flirtatious gaze at me. “Yet you’ve not expressed your feelings for me."
"Um..." My cheeks turned crimson as I met Xiaotao's eager eyes. After a considerable amount of time, I gathered enough courage to say, "Xiaotao, I like..."
Xiaotao placed her finger on my lips and teased, "It’s a little unromantic to be confessing your feelings for me in the car, isn’t it? I would prefer a more formal venue."
"There you go again, teasing me!" I chuckled.
Xiaotao suddenly leaned in and kissed me on the lips. "Are you happy with the compensation?" she smiled.
As soon as I returned to the store, Dali gathered around me, excited for gossip. "How was today? Did it go smoothly? Did Mr. Huang threaten to sever his relationship with Xiaotao?"
"I’m sorry to let you down. It went very well," I said, throwing him a playful punch.
Dali feigned disappointment, "How boring of him to accept you just like that. Damn, you’ll soon be the son-in-law of the richest man in Nanjiang City. It’s just like a dream! I demand you buy me dinner! If you don’t, I'll have to end our friendship."
What about being the richest man's son-in-law? The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. In my opinion, Xiaotao and Mr. Huang were in fact people from two different worlds who just happened to share the same blood.
My successful visit put me in a good mood so I waved my hand and offered, "Alright, I’ll treat you to Qianlixiang wonton..."
"You stingy bastard!" accused Dali.
I deliberately paused, "The steakhouse across the street then!"
 Jinhua ham is a type of dry-cured ham named after the city of Jinhua, where it is produced.