Gan Qing hastily skimmed through the letter and when she reached that point, her gaze suddenly froze and she shot up. "I finally know what it was that I had felt was wrong the whole time."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "You're just reading a letter, why do you keep going into shock?"
Gan Qing ignored him. She picked up her phone and called Zhang Meizhen. The other person's phone might have run out of battery and switched off automatically—the call did not go through. Her heart tightened, "Do you have President Yang's number?"
Yu Lanchuan opened his contact list and found Yang Yifan's number. He passed his phone to her, "Why?"
"Qiao-Qiao." While waiting for Yang Yifan to pick up the call, Gan Qing quickly explained to Yu Lanchuan, "Ever since she came to Yanning, she had been working at the pet store at the building entrance. She had never moved places and had been keeping watch on Old Sect Leader Yang the whole time."
Yang Ping's location was unknown. Back then, even Wei Huan and the others couldn't find him. She was a young orphan girl, she would know that depending on herself alone would be even more impossible. Meanwhile, Wei Huan and Zhu Cong had both obviously determined that Elder Yang had taken some underhanded actions before to protect his son. In that case, following this line of thought, Elder Yang and Yang Ping—this pair of father and son—would definitely have contact with each other. As long as she kept watch on Elder Yang, she would definitely find Yang Ping one day.
Gan Qing asked, "Was she really only keeping watch?"
Yu Lanchuan frowned. "Old Yang being implicated in this matter is only the deduction of two dead people, right?"
"I know but Qiao-Qiao doesn't know. If by any chance…" Gan Qing said, "What's going on, why is President Yang not picking up?"
"Thank you. Then, I will come again tomorrow to complete the discharge paperwork." Yang Yifan chatted with the nurse while checking the ward for personal valuables and stuffing them into a large bag. She couldn't carry it with one hand and had no choice but to use both hands. Her phone was stuffed into a little pouch hanging from her wrist. "Just a couple of days in the hospital and the old man has so many things here."
Yang Yifan had been on long leave for the past few days. There wasn't any urgent business at the company either, and she responded to calls and messages all together in one go. She had set her phone on silent mode to avoid disturbing the other patients in the hospital.
Gan Qing called her three times in succession but did not get through. "Do you have Yan Hao's contact?"
"Uhh yes, it's… Search for 'Backyard Ostrich.'"
Gan Qing, "..."
"I just…" Yu Lanchuan explained drily, "think that this kid does things by charging blindly ahead, his body is tall and imposing while his brain is miniscule, he can run pretty quick but can't really fly, so…"
"Did you make a remark for me?" Gan Qing asked as she searched. She had just asked when she immediately regretted it and raised a hand to cut him off. "Never mind. You don't have to answer. It's definitely nothing good, I don't want to know…"
Yu Lanchuan mumbled, "Fiery Cloud."
He didn't open his mouth when he spoke, and his voice was low and unclear. Even with Gan Qing's hearing ability that could hear a person's phone conversation through a wall, she only heard some vague sounds that almost sounded like "make out."
Distracted, Gan Qing said, "You're so secretly passionate under that icy exterior that you have to be so unrestrained?"
Yu Lanchuan completely did not know where this female hoodlum's mind had leaped off to. He stared at her in utter puzzlement. His two naturally sharp and keen eyes looked very lost, very like he was childishly asking for attention. Gan Qing tsk-ed. She tilted her head to hold the phone in place, kissed her own fingers and then pressed them to Yu Lanchuan's face, pushing him lightly to the side. "All right, enough. Why isn't this one picking up his phone either… He even declined! Little Master Yu, what kind of luck do you have with people?"
Yu Lanchuan held his face. He didn't know what to say.
Yan Hao could have his head chopped off and his body bleeding but he would never dare pick up a call. Fortunately, he still had enough sense to send a question mark in a WeChat message after rejecting the call.
Gan Qing didn't have the time to quibble and quickly sent him a voice message. "Do me a favour. Go next door and look for Qiao-Qiao. Tell her I have something urgent."
The lights on the second floor of the pet store were switched off. Qiao-Qiao seemed to already be sleeping. Yan Hao pressed the doorbell twice—no response. He thought that it wouldn't really be proper of him to directly jump up to the second floor and knock on a young lady's bedroom window but he also didn't dare call Gan Qing to ask her what was the matter. Hence, he wrung his hands and paced anxiously and irresolutely around the pet store three times.
Right then, his ears twitched. He heard a strange noise coming from inside the shop.
Yan Hao leaned against the display window, peeking in through the gaps of the blinds. There were cat kennels in the pet store, each space separated from one another by plexiglass. Every night, Qiao-Qiao would put the cats inside and carefully count the number. After making sure they have ample food and water, she would lock the door. But today, for some unknown reason, the always meticulous Qiao-Qiao had surprisingly overlooked one cat.
The little cat was locked out of the kennels and didn't have food or water. It was scratching the door in a panic and wailing mournfully, startling all the other animals in the pet store. The cats and dogs all howled along with it and the noise was even spreading beyond the walls, yet Qiao-Qiao, who looked after the shop, was not responding.
Something was wrong!
Yan Hao leaped back abruptly. He jumped and pulled himself up to the window ledge on the second floor. "Qiao-Qiao? Qiao-Qiao!"
The window was opened a crack but there was no response even after he called out a few times. Yan Hao gritted his teeth, broke off a twig and reached the twig in to push the curtains aside. The room was empty, the bed neatly made. The owner didn't seem to have even come up at all.
"Qiao-Qiao's missing." Yu Lanchuan received Yan Hao's message and couldn't be bothered anymore about his half-numb face. "Wait, don't panic yet. She's stayed at the pet store for so long and has seen Old Yang coming in and out every day but nothing happened, right? Aren't you being a little too sensitive?"
Gan Qing grabbed a box of blades from the drawer. "The peace and harmony was because Yang Ping hadn't shown his face yet. She didn't dare alert the enemy."
"How do you know that she'll definitely do something to Old Yang?"
"When she mentioned Old Yang at the end, there was something not right with the look in her eyes." Gan Qing paused, then continued in a low voice. "...I'm very familiar with that look."
Yu Lanchuan grabbed her shoulder.
"She is not the past you, understand?" Yu Lanchuan said each word slowly. "The matter right now has nothing to do with you in the first place. Back then, both you and Wei Huan were innocents dragged into it. The enmity the two of you should resolve has already been resolved, and the debt you should pay has already been paid. Right now, no matter what happens, it has nothing to do with you. You are helping out due to friendship; if you watch without doing anything, it is your rightful role. It is no longer the feudalistic society now. The stuff about children bearing the debts of the parents no longer applies."
Gan Qing looked at him in surprise.
Yu Lanchuan said solemnly, "If you trust me, then leave everything to me. I will think of something."
Let me protect you.
Gan Qing paused. She rubbed her nose with her finger, then lowered her head and smiled.
"I am being serious here, I'm not joking with you," Yu Lanchuan said.
"I know." Gan Qing patted his hand that was on her shoulder. "Little Master Yu, I appreciate the offer."
Yu Lanchuan's brows swiftly drew together but he saw her take a couple of steps toward the door, then stand there and turn back to look at him. "No wonder you were single until your current age. You hold nothing back at all from the very start. You'll spoil a person rotten this way, and it won't last long."
Yu Lanchuan's eyes widened. Gan Qing wrapped her coat around herself and hurried downstairs.
While waiting for the cab at the hospital entrance, Yang Yifan finally saw the string of missed calls from Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan.
"Little Master Yu," she called back and asked, "what's the matter?"
"Where are you?" Yu Lanchuan skipped right past the formalities. "If you haven't left the hospital yet, stay where you are for now. Wait for us to go over and pick you up."
Yang Yifan was puzzled. She didn't understand what kind of jianghu extravagance this was now. "There… there's no need for such a grand ceremony, is there? The Qing dynasty was already toppled 200 years ago."
Yu Lanchuan said, "I'll explain later. Basically, don't leave yet! Find somewhere with lots of people and wait for us."
"But my grandpa has already left first," Yang Yifan said in confusion. "I was packing up just now, that's why I'm leaving after them."
Yu Yan received the news and hurried over in a police car. When he got down, from far he saw Yu Lanchuan walking out of No. 110 Courtyard. He dashed over, "Master Lan, should I get someone to track her phone location?"
Yu Lanchuan, "Yes, hurry-"
Before he could finish speaking, Yan Hao ran up to him, panting in broken gasps. "Her… Her phone's here."
In the middle of the night, they got the boss of the pet store to come over and open the door. They found that Qiao-Qiao had not taken her personal belongings. Her phone was placed right behind the counter. The lock screen was a white background with red words that said: I'm sorry.
She even used a photo editing app to add a pair of drooping teddy bear ears on top.
Yu Yan said, "...This gremlin kid!"
"It's okay, don't panic yet. The cab Old Yang is in was booked by Director Yang on a ride-hailing app and the location can be tracked. I'll ask her to send it over," Yu Lanchuan said. "Old Yu, you drive. I'll go over with you and wait for them. Everyone else, look for Zhu Qiao! Yan Hao, call Boss Jiang and the rest here to keep watch nearby. On the off chance that she really wants to do something to Elder Yang and doesn't have the opportunity while he's in the cab, she's very likely to be lying in wait somewhere nearby."
Yan Hao made a noise of assent and ran off.
Along with the warmth of spring and the blooming of the flowers, the Old People Exercise Group that hung out at the downstairs of No. 110 started to become lively. The moment they saw that something was happening, they poured out like a swarm of bees. After a while, they left the place and scattered in all directions to ask around, each of them holding a photo of Qiao-Qiao.
Han Dongsheng had been recently entrusted with the task of taking care of Elder Yang's home while the old man was hospitalised. When he heard the news, he rushed to the sixth floor, entering with the spare key and switching on the lights. "I'll keep an eye here. If she comes, I'll find a way to keep her here."
All the lights in the sides and the corners of No. 110 that were usually not switched on were now all turned up to the brightest setting. From far, Gan Qing turned back for a look and the courtyard was so bright it was disturbing the neighbourhood a little. She was so dazzled she had to shield her eyes with her hand. For a moment, she had an illusion that the whole world was looking for a lost little girl.
And dragging her back up from the depths of a swamp.
"Drive forward," Yu Lanchuan said, staring at his phone.
"Why are we still moving forward?" Yu Yan asked. "Is the cab they're taking an ox-cart? It's been five minutes and they haven't moved. Ai, is there a lag on the tracking? Don't just stare at your phone, look at the cars on the road too. If we pass by them…"
Yu Lanchuan interrupted him. "Stop!"
They saw a cab stopped on the opposite side of the road. The driver was leaning against the door and smoking, looking completely unruffled. Yu Yan swept the car lights over and realised that the car plate number corresponded with the one Old Yang was taking.
"It broke down, I'm waiting for someone to come and tow it." The driver flicked the ashes resignedly. "A buddy of mine picked up my customers on his way… I don't know which road they took. There was also another customer in my buddy's car so he would definitely prioritise them. You guys wait a minute, let me ask…"
"Hey! Didn't you just pick up two customers from me just now… Yes, yes, that old couple. Where are you guys? Huh, what? They got down halfway?"
Yu Yan, "..."
He touched the Anti Mercury Retrograde charm hanging from his keyring and faintly felt that Teacher Meng-Meng was not very effective tonight.
"Where did they get down… oh." The driver turned around and said to the two of them, "The intersection of Yongchun Road."
Yu Yan and Yu Lanchuan exchanged looks, their gazes rather heavy. They got into the police car. The accelerator was pressed to the floor and the car leaped out like it was whipped.
"Over thirty years ago, the intersection of Yongchun road was an industrial zone. The old factory that caught fire back then was located right there." Yu Yan caught Yu Lanchuan's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Why are you surprised? The higher-ups have given their orders to strictly investigate this so-called Travellers' Sect and to gather all kinds of information related to them. Furthermore, the real cause of Old Madam Lin's death still doesn't have a conclusion yet, I still remember this matter! Alliance Leader, do you have any internal gossip from the martial arts world to share?"
Yu Lanchuan didn't make any sound. The street lights shone into the car, casting a heavy shadow on his features.
All the information they had now came from Wei Huan's monologue in that letter of his that was like a will.
Yu Lanchuan didn't believe it. If Wei Huan was reincarnated, he would be a primary school student now. Yu Lanchuan didn't know what his character was like and a one-sided story did not prove anything. Even if Wei Huan held true to the saying "A person on their deathbed speaks from the heart," this killer who went on a wild goose chase around the world might not have accurately guessed the truth.
Old Sect Leader Yang was greatly respected and had high morals, and his conduct was there to be seen by anyone with eyes. Compared to other people's judgement, Yu Lanchuan trusted his own eyes more. Old Yang wielded the mighty power of the Beggars' Sect in his hands. If he really was so selfish, he would have made his fortune long ago like Wang Jiusheng. An old man who collected scraps and brought them home when he was free, would he be involved in a case of murdering people to silence them?
But… if he was really innocent, why would he go to the address of that old terrible case in the middle of the night?
Furthermore, as Wei Huan said, if Old Yang didn't know anything, why would he oust Yang Ping from the sect without even giving a proper reason?
Along with the expansion of the city, the old industrial zone was demolished and subsequently rebuilt a long time ago. The intersection of Yongchun Road had long since been transformed from how it was over thirty years ago. The small factory had turned into a tall building, taking the shape of a newly built residential area. On the west side far away from the main road, there was even a park. At this hour, the people taking after-dinner walks had all gone home and the bustling park had quieted down, the sound of stray cats meowing starting to emerge from the bushes.
Yu Yan stopped the car at the entrance to the park and used his phone to check the location. "The old factory that caught on fire back then was located right in the park. Is it here? I… Should I take a police baton or something with me? Hey, Master Lan! Wait!"
While he was speaking, Yu Lanchuan was already taking the lead to charge in.
Right in the middle of the park was a manmade lake. A stone bridge spanned across it and large willow trees were already growing lushly on the banks. The reflection of the moon floated on the surface of the water, scattering into many layers with the ripples, resembling fragments of gold.
Zhang Meizhen helped Old Sect Leader Yang to sit on a bench beside the lake. "I heard that back when they remodeled this place, they found someone to study the fengshui. With this lake, the ghosts of those who died unjust deaths can be subdued."
Old Yang had grown old. After this round of hospitalisation, his life force seemed to have been sucked away by something and only a thin layer of his former vitality was left. He followed Zhang Meizhen's gaze and squinted at the lake surface.
"Actually, there was already news that this area was going to be demolished back then. At that time, there were people who said that they would rebuild a new factory while others said that the government had expropriated the land to build a tall building… Back then, who would have thought that this place would turn into a public park?" Zhang Meizhen rubbed the side of her head. "And who would have thought that the two of us would go our separate ways because of what would happen here? Ai, I've heard about Yang Ping. You've cut off ties with him for nearly twenty years now and… things are already what they are now, you should be more open-minded."
Old Yang twisted his head around and patted the back of her hand, giving her a smile.
Zhang Meizhen suddenly sensed something wrong. She stood up. "It's late at night but instead of going home, you insist on getting down from the cab. I don't know what's going on in your mind… Fine, you've seen this place and you've sat here, there's nothing else, is there? Let's go. Don't catch a cold and make yourself fall sick. Do you really take yourself as a twenty-year old lad?"
"The person I'm waiting for isn't here yet," Old Yang said softly. "You should leave first. I'll sit here for a while more."
"Who are you waiting for?"
She had just barely finished speaking when she heard footsteps. Very light but not concealed.
Zhang Meizhen turned her head abruptly and saw a ghost-like girl.
"You're that…" Zhang Meizhen hesitated a while. Everyday, she stayed indoors during the day and came out at night, and wouldn't go to the pet store without a reason. For a moment, she only felt that the girl in front of her looked familiar and didn't connect her to the attacker who challenged Yang Ping alone.
A chorus of frog croaks suddenly came from the manmade lake. A fishy odour rose from the mud beside the water. Qiao-Qiao—Zhu Qiao stood still a few steps away, her small face unconcealed, so pale that it seemed to have absorbed all the surrounding light. Her dark and heavy gaze passed over Zhang Meizhen to land on Elder Yang.
Elder Yang slowly stood up.
He had changed his walking stick and it was no longer the green bamboo staff that was already handed in to the police, nor was it the hardwood stick his granddaughter had bought. It was a plastic walking stick with four feet that left four little holes when it was planted on the ground. If the finely crafted cane could be said to have the style of an olden gentleman, then this type of "walking clothes rack" completely exuded an aged and decrepit feel.
The sound of Old Sect Leader Yang's breathing grew heavier, the pair of lungs in his chest becoming like old bellows. With a voice that had more spirit than strength, he said, "I didn't think that Zhu Cong's child would be so big now."
Zhang Meizhen's face changed. Subconsciously, she reached out a hand to block before Old Sect Leader Yang. She was rather nervous. She had been taking care of him in the hospital so naturally, she couldn't carry any lethal weapons on her. The only thing remotely metal that she had was her house key.
Qiao-Qiao took a step forward. Zhang Meizhen grabbed Old Yang's arm and took a step back, using the bench as a barrier.
Decades ago, one of these two had been among the Five Supremes, deeply respected and highly moral, while the other was the North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect with inexhaustible tricks and methods. A lift of their hands could strike panic in the hearts of others.
Who would have thought that when they were old, a seventeen or eighteen-year old girl could make them quake in their shoes with her slightest move.
It proved that when you turned your head back and looked back on the years past, it was not only rights and wrongs or fame and profit that had turned meaningless.
The ways of mortals are ever renewed;
The days come and go, forming past and present.
Elder Yang tugged his arm out and waved Zhang Meizhen off. His heart calm and his temper even, he looked at Qiao-Qiao and said, "When my granddaughter was on the phone with someone in the afternoon, I happened to overhear a little. I heard that you're fine now and have just been released from the police station. At that time, I thought that it was time this child came to find me."
Qiao-Qiao took out a phone and typed a few words, then had the text reader speak for her. "You waited for me here on purpose?"
Elder Yang replied in a gentle voice, "There are lots of people and many prying eyes at No. 110 and it's not convenient to speak there. Just now, we shared a cab with someone and passed by this place and I suddenly thought that I should get down and have a look. If you were following me, this would be a good place to talk… Don't worry, I didn't tell anyone. Meizhen's phone had also ran out of battery earlier on, right?"
Zhang Meizhen, "..."
She had wanted to play a trick and scare the other person into running away but before she could brew her plan, her old muddle-headed team member had already spoiled it.
Elder Yang sighed. "Girl, what is your name?"
"I see, Zhu Qiao… why don't you come over and have a seat while we talk?" Elder Yang beckoned her while he himself let out a shaky exhale. "I can't stand on my feet anymore."
Qiao-Qiao didn't go over. A complicated expression flashed across her face. She liked small animals and her nature was one that cared for the weak. When she met a large baddie like Yang Ping, she could still bare her fangs and claws to pit herself against him but when faced with these two old people in front of her that the passing years have forced to the edge of a precipice, she was rather at a loss. She could only clench her teeth and force herself to maintain a fierce look on her small face, and used the cold robotic voice to say, "What do you have to say?"
Elder Yang fell silent for a while. "In my life, I valued my reputation more than anything while internally, I was a complete mess. My mouth was full of grand words of virtues and morals, I had always believed myself to be a saint and didn't want to be a human. So in these ninety years, the moment I encountered something that tested my character, there has never been a single time that I passed the test. I made mistakes again and again. During the time my wife was with me, she never had a comfortable day in her life, while my son is a total disaster. My loved one and I wasted half a century, missing our chance in this lifetime. Beggars' Sect declined day by day in my hands, its remaining years uncertain."
Startled, Zhang Meizhen lowered her head to look at him.
Elder Yang squinted his eyes, looking towards the surface of the lake. "I've always lectured other people like a teacher, taking every chance I get to educate the younger generation. I told them that their hearts must be calm and their tempers even, and that they shouldn't be blinded by superficial worldly matters. In actual fact, the later generations are more aware than I am. I am the one whose eyes are blinded by worldly matters."
Qiao-Qiao gritted her teeth. Her phone coldly played a question. "Sect Leader Yang, I'll only ask you one thing. Eighteen years ago, why did you drive Yang Ping out of Beggars' Sect?"
The stone path in the park curved and twisted. At every step, the view was about the same. In the pitch darkness, Yu Lanchuan and Yu Yan shone their flashlights and wandered around like headless flies. As they wandered, Yu Lanchuan briefly explained Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect old and new enmities to Yu Yan.
After listening, Yu Yan was silent for a long while before finally saying regretfully, "Even though Beggars' Sect had helped us quite a bit not long ago… it is still better to suppress it."
Yu Lanchuan pulled down the screen on his phone to update their location, ignoring him.
Yu Yan continued to share his opinion. "I realised that for many things, when they have developed to the final stage, what remains is definitely not an intangible cultural heritage but the dregs of feudalism… Look, your group of people can't protect and defend the country, nor can you jump onto roofs and walk on walls. Even if you become a martial arts instructor, the sense of aesthetics is lacking. A good and fine traditional culture, yet it adds no value at all to society. All the teachings are lost and no longer passed down, and all that remains are the two major classic themes of traditional wuxia fiction: one is fighting for power and might to become the big boss; the other is fighting to obtain secret skills using any means, fair or foul. As the saying goes, when you've chewed the sweet sugarcane to the end, all that's left is dross."
"..." Yu Lanchuan didn't continue the topic. He suddenly said, "Old Sect Leader Yang is indeed rather old-fashioned. It is exactly because he has too many bottom lines and principles that he has had few days of peace in his life. Wei Huan said that he killed people to silence them. Objectively, I don't think it's possible. However… what Yang Ping has done, was he aware of them?"
Did he know that his only son, Yang Ping, had once set up his fellow sect members and had many lives on his hands, all for the sake of his personal interests?
Yu Yan let out a bitter laugh and said, "Master Lan, the two of us went to school together since young and I was always the one copying your answers. You're so smart, why are you asking me?"
When he clearly knew that Yang Ping's sins could not be forgiven, would the deeply respected and highly virtuous Old Sect Leader Yang still cover up everything for the sake of preserving his son's life?
Next to the lake, Zhang Meizhen spoke before Elder Yang. "It was because Yang Ping happened to be operating the elevator at No. 110 at that time and when I moved there, I set him off. That brat is a little mad in the head. At home, he caused such a ruckus that his wife and child didn't dare come home. Even when he was outside, he said a few times behind my back that he would not let me live past the year. He even wanted to break into my home with a lethal weapon…"
"Meizhen," Old Yang interrupted her softly. "All those things did indeed happen but they are not the root cause."
One of Zhang Meizhen's eyes twitched.
"No one understands a son more than his father. Over thirty years ago, there was a huge fire here that destroyed quite a few of my brothers' families and also burned me badly," Old Yang said. "After the incident, Yang Ping came to me in private a few times. Every time, he pretended to be full of grief and anger, forcing me to give my brothers an explanation. I knew that he must have had a hand in the matter. But I didn't dare investigate further."
On the back of Qiao-Qiao's hand that was holding the phone, blue veins protruded.
"Your grandfather also didn't dare to," Old Sect Leader Yang said. "Back then, all of them unanimously made Travellers' Sect their target. The crowd was agitated and ignored all the suspicious points in this matter… For example, there were so many people, how were they all kidnapped without anyone knowing? Your grandfather had always been respectful and introverted, and he also didn't drink that day. If he was so greatly resentful, he should come and talk to me privately. Why did he not tell me anything and directly made things so difficult at the Martial Arts General Assembly?"
Zhang Meizhen understood his hidden meaning. She lowered her head to look at Old Yang in disbelief.
"It was because from the very start, this matter was a play they directed and acted out themselves for the purpose of forcing me to draw a clear boundary between us and Travellers' Sect. They didn't expect things to go wrong halfway. The play turned to reality and became a tragedy…"
Qiao-Qiao spoke through her phone. "You're lying!"
Old Sect Leader Yang said calmly, "How would I dare to stand here and lie? This is a huge joke that the Beggars' Sect themselves cooked up!"
Zhang Meizhen said, "You… Over thirty years ago, you already…"
"This matter involved two of Beggars' Sect's Nine Pouch Elders, more than ten core members and half of everything Beggars' Sect had. It was already such a tragedy, how could I dare tear down that layer of paper screen? I knew that there were demons and monsters inside but I only dared to deceive everyone and myself, brushing another layer of paste over the paper screen and pretending that everything was fine. Meizhen, back then, I told you that I was a coward… I was speaking the truth."
Zhang Meizhen could not say anything.
"That night when Yang Ping broke into your home carrying a lethal weapon, you happened to be out. Yu-dage took action to catch him and sent him to me. He said that something had gone amiss in Yang Ping's own martial arts training and that there were signs of him going out of control. He told me to keep a tight watch. That was when I finally knew that he had learned demonic skills from somewhere. I was flustered and panicked at that time and locked him up, and accidentally intercepted a letter someone sent to him." Elder Yang rubbed the head of his walking stick repeatedly. "It was a letter asking for help. The first page said, 'Zhu Cong will soon find out about us and he even has a killer from Wan Mu Chun with him. What should we do?'"
"When I saw the letter, it was like my world exploded. What I hadn't dared thought too closely about back then, the things I saw in my nightmares, all became reality. Yang Ping… was mad and demented! I went to find him and interrogated him about what happened."
At that time, Yang Ping had said to him with a scoff, "What are you saying, Dad? Didn't you already guess all this years ago? And now you're pretending to be simple-minded."
Yang Qing's face was pale. He had no way to refute.
"All right, fine. Since you've always been free of guilt and kept in the dark, and you're only now 'shocked' by the truth, you can just beat me to death now," Yang Ping said nonchalantly. Then, he gave him a strange smile. "Wait a minute, surely you won't send me to the police station to turn myself in, will you? Sect Leader, if we were to talk about this matter from the very beginning, then things won't be so easily explained. Back then, only one old man Zhu died, a large group of them are still alive! Right now, these people are taking their pension and each and every one of them are deeply respected in the sect. Their disciples and grand-disciples all think that they lost their families because of Beggars' Sect and that they have sacrificed too much. They want nothing more than to volunteer themselves to be their filial children and grandchildren, to worship them as ancestors. If you expose the truth, they will be too ashamed to live."
The almost a hundred years old Sect Leader Yang lifted his head to look into the distant hazy darkness. "But I… only have this one son after all."
Zhang Meizhen turned her head to the side, tears covering her face.
Ever since he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, Yang Ping had been by his father's side. Yang Qing had raised him all on his own.
Yang Qing had always felt that he owed his son too much. From the very start, he had not been able to give him a normal family. During the years when he was growing both in body and mind, he, the father, was "taken down." He had dragged down Yang Ping along with him and made him suffer. His body did not grow and his mind also became twisted.
Yu Lanchuan and Yu Yan finally made their way there following the GPS. From far, they saw those three people either sitting or standing. Things seemed peaceful and they breathed out in relief.
Yu Yan walked over. "Elder Yang, you guys…"
Before he could finish calling out to them, he heard Yang Qing mutter, "I couldn't bear to do it. I am really… sorry to all of you."
Even though they were already mentally prepared, Yu Lanchuan and Yu Yan still came to a sudden pause on the spot.
Qiao-Qiao suddenly let out a roar. There was a cold light in her mouth aiming right at the back of Yang Qing's head. Zhang Meizhen caught sight of it out of the corner of her eye but it was too late.
Right at that moment, there was a clanging sound in midair. A razor blade collided with the thin needle that had shot out of Qiao-Qiao's mouth. Knocked off its course, the thin needle brushed past the wooden bench and fell to the ground. Almost at the same time, Yu Lanchuan caught Qiao-Qiao by her arm.
Qiao-Qiao wasn't done shooting the thin needles from her mouth. She turned and shot at him. Yu Lanchuan swiftly dodged to the side and the needle brushed past his nose bridge, nearly breaking skin. Then, Qiao-Qiao took out a dagger from somewhere and slashed ruthlessly at his hand that was holding her. After forcing him back, she shot two thin needles in quick succession.
Yu Yan threw his police baton to him. "Catch!"
Yu Lanchuan avoided being pierced until he was a hedgehog and smashed the baton towards the knife in Qiao-Qiao's hand. Qiao-Qiao knew that she could not defeat him. Her eyes red enough to bleed, she loaded her last needle. Right at that moment, a small gust of wind attacked her from the back. Before she could turn around, someone grabbed her throat from behind and forced her head up.
Yu Lanchuan's baton smashed onto her knife. The hand around her throat slipped into her mouth. Qiao-Qiao bit down viciously but that hand seemed to not feel pain at all and removed the hidden weapon in her mouth without allowing any resistance.
 "When you turned your head back and looked back on the years past, it was not only the rights and wrongs or the fame and profit that had turned to meaningless." From the poem 《临江仙·滚滚长江逝水》(translated and shortened as "Immortals by the River") by the Ming dynasty poet Yang Shen and is about how the triumphs and failures of the heroes only last for a short while.
 "The ways of mortals are ever renewed; The days come and go, forming past and present." From the poem 《与诸子登岘首》("Climbing Mount Xian with Friends" by the Tang dynasty poet Meng Haoran.
The mechanism in her mouth was forcefully pried out. Qiao-Qiao's tooth broke and she involuntarily loosened her jaw. The dagger also fell out of her hand. Yu Lanchuan's police baton swiftly tapped her ulnar nerves on both arms. At the same time, the person cupping her mouth from behind pushed her knees and used their height to press her down to the ground.
Qiao-Qiao having good qinggong was just because her body was small and her bones light, giving her a natural advantage. At seventeen or eighteen years of age, her body had yet to fully grow and she couldn't be considered a proper adult. The little bit of martial arts she had learned from her mother when she was young could only scare an ordinary and defenseless person.
She did not have fifteen years of fundamental training in the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang, nor did she have the three-cun-and-two-fen Paoding Jieniu that had risen from the ashes.
She didn't even have brute force.
And yet, even when pushed until she was kneeling on one knee, she fought as ferociously as before, shaking howls that didn't sound human coming from her throat, like a deer on the grass plains that had its throat torn away by a fierce beast.
Was "I only have this one son" a reason?
He was a murderer. So many lives of the old and the young, the womenfolk and the children, were lost in his hands. So many people had their families destroyed because of him. The resentful ghosts were still suppressed beneath the lake!
"Have you gone mad? Calm down!"
"Qiao-Qiao, shh, listen to me. What did I tell you before, you're only seventeen years old…"
"Hey, I've a pair of handcuffs here."
Qiao-Qiao was surrounded by noise and clamour. There was someone rebuking her and there was also someone trying to awaken her rational mind in a gentle voice. Multiple limbs pressed her to the ground like they were catching a dangerous wild animal, all the while thinking that they were protecting her.
But I'm not crazy, the girl thought. Her long hair fell forward, seeming to float all around, turning her vision hazy.
If this deeply respected and highly virtuous Old Sect Leader Yang hadn't turned a blind eye to the truth thirty-six years ago for the sake of his so-called "prestige," her uncle and her grandfather wouldn't have died. Her parents would grow up in Yanning under the care of their family. Her childhood wouldn't have those narrow and cramped village streets, or that grudge engraved onto her bones and carved into her heart in that dark little room with no hope of justice.
If he hadn't protected Yang Ping eighteen years ago when he obtained conclusive evidence, the resentment from this old unresolved case would have been resolved long ago. Her father wouldn't have wasted half his life on revenge and wouldn't have died without a complete body in the flour factory.
He said he would return home and live out his life in peace.
They always had the phrase "You're only seventeen years old" hanging on their lips, as though she lived this seventeen years old of hers in good fortune that she did not know how to appreciate, as though her future prospects were bright and boundless.
But she was not a university entrance exam candidate nervously picking her field of study. She did not have wide open roads before her. In the village where she grew up, she no longer had family or friends. In her drifting existence in Yanning, she only had a corner in the upper floor of the pet store to call home. A house cat could live for over ten years; when they were one or two years old, they were still kittens full of spirit and vigour. But for the stray cats that slept in cardboard boxes, one or two years might be the upper limit of their lifespan.
Could the single line "I couldn't bear to do it, I'm sorry" drive her away?
What right did he have!
Yang Qing took a step forward and said softly, "Girl, the soil has nearly buried me to the top of my head. Any day now, I might cross over even if the King of Hell doesn't summon me. But you're still young!"
All Qiao-Qiao's ten fingers dug deep into the grass-covered earth.
Yes, the soil was already reaching the top of his head. But what right did he have to die peacefully of old age in his sleep?
Right then, someone struck the back of her neck. Qiao-Qiao's vision blacked out and she finally stopped moving, her head hanging slack.
Gan Qing finally let out a relieved breath. She took out her bloody fingers and carelessly wiped them on her body, then stumbled half a step to sit on the damp ground in the park. Holding the small mechanism between her fingers, she took a look, then tossed it over to Yu Yan who had run over. "Careful, there are still needles inside."
Yu Yan let out a noise of assent. "Teacher Meng-Meng, your-"
Before he could say the word "hand," he watched in shock as Yu Lanchuan knelt on the ground and took her injured hand. He inspected it all over nervously, saw that the injuries were superficial, and only then took out a tissue from his pocket and carefully cleaned it. At the same time, with a very crossed face, he said sarcastically, "Why is your esteemed sect's skill called Paoding Jieniu? You should change the name to 'The Amazing Take Out 10,000 of Your Enemy by Sacrificing 8,000 of Your Own and Stand Right in the Line of Fire' skill."
Gan Qing let out a soft hiss of pain. The mercilessly nagging Yu Lanchuan immediately gentled his movements, his brows furrowed, his hands so careful he seemed to be doing restoration work on an ancient palace.
Yu Yan rubbed his nose and didn't go forward. He turned to look at the two elderly people by the lake. Yang Qing and Zhang Meizhen were about a meter apart. Both of Yang Qing's hands were gripping his walking stick, his head lowered in silence. Even if one were to be severe and say that he had been protecting a criminal, eighteen years had passed. The statute of limitations had passed long ago.
But human speech was just so limited. Other than "I'm sorry", there was nothing he could say.
"Let's go, I'll call another car." Yu Yan clutched at his own short hair in exasperation. "Everyone, if there's anything, we can talk after going back. Let's not sit here."
The tumultuous weekend was finally over. In the blink of an eye, the even more tumultuous workweek was here.
Yu Lanchuan had an observation that he didn't know whether was correct or not: the rush hour on every Monday morning was when the roads were the most congested, which made him sometimes suspect that there were some workplaces that only had one day of work in a week.
The debts and enmity, sentiment and grudges faintly enshrouding No. 110 Courtyard was scared off at once by the agitated blaring of the vehicle horns. Those who took the bus hurried to catch the bus, those who took the subway hurried to catch the trains. The school gates of the primary school and kindergarten outside the east and west gates of the courtyard were like the pond after a rain, the chorus of frog croaks carrying far. In front of the jianbing stalls that opened regardless of wind and storm were again lines about a kilometer long.
"Give me your phone." Early in the morning, Yu Lanchuan knocked on Gan Qing's door and shared the locations for both their phones.
Gan Qing swallowed a mouthful of soy milk and mumbled a question, "Wha—?"
"I'll see where you are. Just wait for food delivery in the afternoon," Yu Lanchuan said quickly. "Don't touch water. Since you're injured, don't eat at Old Meng's roadside stall that uses illegally recycled oil. I'm leaving!"
Yu Lanchuan's words were still in the air but his feet had already moved ten meters away. His former direct supervisor had retired due to illness. At the moment, his department was being supervised by another department's vice-director while Yu Lanchuan was managing the main tasks. Not only did this not affect the company's day-to-day operations, it also saved on management costs. At the start, Yu Lanchuan hadn't said anything. If there was work, he took it and he also did not reject additional tasks. He was prepared to "seize the throne" at the critical juncture. At the same time, he had contacted a few headhunters and was prepared to change jobs if he failed to take the throne. He planned to pay off his house loan in five or six years, as much as possible gaining financial independence before he had elderly and young ones to take care of. And that was because he had secretly included that unreliable and capricious person next door in his plans.
That woman Gan Qing was evidently not the type to settle down peacefully. If he didn't plan for the long term, they would end up like his parents and encounter short-term mundane problems sooner or later. He didn't want to tie the wild horse up in his house so he could only think of a way to strive for a piece of the grassy plain.
Otherwise, how could he so confidently say those boastful words, "Leave it to me"?
Before Gan Qing could say anything, he had already disappeared from sight.
"...If Boss Meng hears you, he will scratch your eyes out."
She leaned against the doorframe, seeming to be deep in thought as she slowly stuffed the remaining few dumplings into her mouth. Speaking of which, it was strange. In the past, she had "coincidentally" bumped into Yu Lanchuan every morning but had never thought much of it. This was the first time she was getting a sense of how busy an elite city worker was from the view of his back. Yu Lanchuan had just left his house but he was already making phone calls at the elevator lobby. He seemed to be instructing his subordinates to prepare some kind of data, his speech was fast and the words he used concise, saving on punctuation wherever possible. And just like that, with time and work chasing his heels, he was brought downstairs by the elevator, leaving only the lingering sound of the heels of his leather shoes knocking against the ground.
No matter what kind of nonsense and bullshit problems there were, they seemed to only take up a small bit of his internal storage. He always had his own fixed principles. Even if he would also sometimes be exhausted, his head would sometimes ache and his face would sometimes turn cold from how emotionally drained he was, he seemed to always have a type of calm lifeforce. He knew what he should do, what he could do.
No matter what he faced, his eyes never wavered. And that included the future.
Liu Zhongqi came out yawning from next door and gave her a curious look. "Why are you looking into the distance from here?"
"Looking at the mortal world."
Liu Zhongqi had to admit defeat. A big swindler who did not forget to practise being mysterious even outside of work hours would definitely become the most famous witch of her generation in the future.
Gan Qing smiled at him, then turned to go back in.
Zhang Meizhen had spent an entire night smoking in her own room. The moment she opened the door, the smoke rolled out like the special effects for the Southern Heavenly Gates. She stared at the breakfast Gan Qing had left for her on the dining table and spaced out for a while, then saw that her tenant was dressed up neatly as usual, prepared to leave the house to go to work.
What was different was that she had an English-Chinese dictionary wedged under her banged-up arm.
It was as thick as a brick—fit to be a stepping stone to success.
Zhang Meizhen's eyes fell on that dictionary. The moment before Gan Qing stepped out of the door, she suddenly opened her mouth to say, "What happened over thirty years ago should have come to a conclusion long ago."
Gan Qing was stunned for a moment. She turned back to look at Zhang Meizhen.
"Old Yang pretended to be muddle-headed when he was well aware of the truth. As for me, I thought I was above all those material things. Back then, I thought that I had suffered greatly both emotionally and mentally, that the injustice I suffered was greater than anyone else. I didn't want to bear any responsibility at all and decided that I might as well leave everything behind to bring it all to an end. I let the position of North Branch Master fall into the hands of someone like Wang Jiusheng for nothing," Zhang Meizhen said in a low voice. "It's time for us old fools to give the younger generation an explanation. Give us some time. Jianghu people have jianghu ways."
Jianghu people would always have jianghu ways, because jianghu itself was made up of debts and enmity, sentiment and grudges.
The nursing home in the west of Yanning City had a decent environment. There was a long flower-lined path in the garden and from far, the clear and bright spring light seemed to overflow from it. Walking near, one would realise that beneath the vibrant canopy were eyes blurry from age, the gazes turning around half a beat late, heavy with the dust of the mortal world and nothing left in the world to live for, aimlessly watching the coming and going of all living things.
Zhang Meizhen was not willing to stay among the pack of elderly. She strode quickly along the path and came to an activity room beside a large hall in a building.
In the activity room, there was the stuttering sound of piano accompaniment. The university student doing volunteer work might have been assigned to the post at the last minute, his fingers were stuck together without any gaps in between and bustling about busily on the keys. This young man was aware that his skills were lacking. His face and ears were red, and he didn't dare lift his head to look at other people. The singing and the accompaniment were at odds with each other.
More than ten elderly people were seated on plastic chairs scattered sparsely around the room, each of them holding a music score in their hands, singing together but each in their own key. The singing and the accompaniment were heading in different directions, neither interfering with the other, both sides running in parallel in great liveliness.
Among them, the loudest one was an old man who was near the door. His black shirt was tightly buttoned up to his neck and there was a patch on the elbow. He was sitting perfectly straight up and when he opened his mouth, he sang as though there was no one around him, setting his own pitch.
Suddenly, like there were eyes on the back of his head, this black-shirted old man twisted his head around and looked at Zhang Meizhen who was waiting by the back door.
Zhang Meizhen nodded at him.
The black-shirted old man gritted his teeth, then stood up and walked out.
The moment the "pitch-setter" left, the singing voices in the activity room instantly became like a dandelion blown by a gust of wind, scattering to all directions. The university student playing the accompaniment felt his ears getting confused and suspected himself to have gone deaf amidst the braying of the pack of donkeys.
The black-shirted old man closed the door behind him, shutting out the noise. He curled his hands into fists, gripping them behind his back, and asked Zhang Meizhen coldly, "You? What are you here for?"
Zhang Meizhen knew that she didn't have any small talk to make with the other person, so she went straight to the point. "Old Song, I am here on behalf of Yang Qing."
The black-shirted old man snorted a laugh. "Here on behalf of the Old Sect Leader? Who do you think you are? You sure have no shame."
Zheng Meizhen said, "Yang Qing asked me to come here and chat with you about what happened over thirty years ago-"
Zhang Meizhen continued to say, "Your old mother and wife were both in that fire…"
When the black-shirted old man heard this, he suddenly flushed with anger. "Go! Get out!"
Interrupted once again, Zhang Meizhen pursed her lips and fell into silence. The piano in the activity room let out a plonk. The singing and the accompaniment that were tormenting each other both came to a stop in unison, and the surroundings turned quiet at once.
The black-shirted man turned and left.
"Yang Qing said," Zhang Meizhen opened her mouth and said in a mild voice behind him, "that it's been thirty-six years now. We are all people who will soon be buried. Before we leave, we should stop lying to ourselves and to others, and clear all these matters up."
The black-shirted man paused.
"Keeping everything in your heart, bringing up neither the bad nor the good, doesn't it make you feel terrible?" Zhang Meizhen said. "When we go down to the Yellow Springs, we should do so freely and happily. If you have a belly full of stifled thoughts, you'll sink to the bottom."
The black-shirted old man slowly lifted a hand and clutched at the patch on his elbow.
"The last day of this month." Zhang Meizhen picked up her handbag. "No. 110 Courtyard. Please come. Yang Qing has something to say."
Done speaking, she started walking to leave, her pumps knocking crisply against the floor.
"Hey… you," the black-shirted old man suddenly called out to her. He seemed to have called her something but his words were too indistinct and other than himself, no one had heard what he said clearly. "Is everyone going?"
Zhang Meizhen said, "I don't know. In any case, I'm just notifying everyone in turn."
"...Is everyone well?"
"Some are still vigorous, some can't hold on much longer," Zhang Meizhen answered. "Everyone is mostly living on their own. After that incident, hardly anyone started a family again."
The black-shirted man's throat twitched faintly.
"But that's nothing." Zhang Meizhen gave him a barely discernible smile. "At the end of the journey, who isn't left on their own? I'm leaving now, take care of yourself."
Light shone through the entrance of the corridor. When Zhang Meizhen finished speaking, she walked in that direction. The edges of her figure turned hazy in the light, leaving only a silhouette that faintly resembled her graceful and charming appearance when she was young.
At the same time, traffic in the main thoroughfare in the suburbs in the northwest of Yanning had just cleared.
The northern side of the road was a dense residential area. Looking out far, all that could be seen were bald and bare high-rises. In the day, the residents congregated in the various types of transportations on the roads, surging into the city like the high tide. At night, they again flowed back like the low tide and climbed into the rooms in the ants' nest high-rises to sleep. Because there were many people but few roads, compounded by the fact that most people headed in the same direction, the main thoroughfare was frequently congested until it became a carpark.
The scenery on the southern side was different. It was said that there were plans for that area but it hadn't been demolished yet. The environment was somewhere in between a village and a small town. Even though it was not to the point that they had dirt roads, due to many years of disrepair, the surface of the roads were as bumpy as mountain ridges. The curbs on both sides were uneven and the small space squeezed out by the small shops by the road was only enough for a small car to just barely scrape through.
At the end of the street was a small three-storey building. The first floor was a supermarket and above it was a mottled signboard that said "Cardroom." One must enter the supermarket and go through a small door that seemed to lead to the storeroom before they could go upstairs. Non-locals wouldn't be able to find the door at all. From the supermarket to the cardroom, everything looked lonely and desolate, like it was on the verge of shutting down.
The third floor was a completely different story.
The third floor did not have a signboard and even the curtains were closed. To outsiders, this was the workers' dormitory. Between the second and the third floors, there was a metal gate with a passcode lock and the raucous voices upstairs could be heard from the corridor. If one entered, they would see the lights switched on in the dark room, day and night indistinguishable, the air heavy with smoke. Inside were three mahjong tables, one card table, and another one for playing dice. The mahjong tables and the card tables were full; latecomers could only either come forward to watch the battle while staking a leg at the dice table, or gather in small groups to drink and chat.
This was an illegal gambling den.
The metal gate creaked open, followed by light footsteps. Someone had come up. The frenzied gamblers at the tables did not notice and no one turned their heads to look. After coming in, the person did not say anything and quietly found a plastic stool in a corner to sit and watch them play mahjong.
When the attendant in charge of pouring drinks came over, he looked curiously at this customer who had a hood over their head. He could not see the face but he was sure it would be an unfamiliar one because this person was holding a book in their hands. Not one of those pornographic or vulgar publications; it seemed to be a serious and proper book. There was even a paper with notes written on it wedged between the pages. Amidst the crisp sounds of the mahjong tiles being shuffled, the person had their legs crossed and was scribbling with a pen as though there was no one around them.
The attendant who poured drinks here could on average meet a few deranged or mentally unstable people here every day but this was the first time he was seeing such an unusual deranged person. He walked over and asked, "This table just started a new round, you'll have to wait a long while. Why don't you have a look around at other games, or perhaps you would like to have something to drink?"
The strange customer holding a book looked up. "A bottle of mineral water."
The attendant, "..."
The customer looked past the attendant at the gambler who had his back to them and said, "Or something else would be fine too. I won't touch the drinks here. If it isn't appropriate for me to just sit here, I'll buy a bottle of any drink and leave it here. Anything's fine as long as it meets the minimum charge. Don't disturb me."
Her voice wasn't high but her pronunciation was unusually clear. Her words seemed like a "blockhead," yet her tone was slippery like a jianghu veteran.
The attendant sensed that these words were not said to him and followed her gaze to look over. He saw a scruffy middle-aged man at the mahjong table suddenly stiffen his back and slowly turn around, looking at this mysterious customer like he had seen a ghost.
The attendant let out a laugh. "Ma-ge, she's here for you?"
"Ma-ge" was a regular. He lived right nearby and would bring people along to play every three or five days. The pack of people under him were all his hidden backups, going around and cheating, purposely targeting those who had made their fortune from demolition compensations.
This table seemed to be a game of random match-ups but in actual fact, other than the target fat sheep, the other players were all Ma-ge's men. Their method was to first feed tiles to the fat sheep and let him have some losses and some wins. His wins would be big while the losses would be small. They would feed him until he had an addiction; then, other than playing mahjong, they would also treat him to meals and have fun together, laying the groundwork for two months. When the groundwork was nearly done and they were practically sworn brothers, and the demolition compensation was about to be paid, they would gather the net and set a trap to swindle him until his entire fortune was lost and also make him take out a high interest loan on top of that.
Ma-ge lifted a hand like half his body was paralysed. "You…"
"I was released." The customer—Gan Qing—stuffed her book back into her bag. She walked around Ma-ge, a smile that was not quite a smile on her face, and came to stand behind the bearded "fat sheep." She bent down and looked at his tiles, then turned over the stack of won money in his corner of the table.
The "fat sheep" was puzzled. "Hey, what are you doing?"
Gan Qing rolled up the money and pushed them into the fat sheep's chest pocket. She patted his shoulder and jutted her chin at the other two players, indicating that he should take a look. These two had been pretending not to know anyone there but now, they exposed themselves and were standing behind Ma-ge.
Gan Qing said, "Mr. Millionaire, they're setting a trap for you, can you still not see it? Quit when you're ahead; otherwise, you'll take the wrong step."
The "fat sheep" stared blankly. Then, his face changed and he quickly gathered his things and ran off without looking back.
The attendant felt that the atmosphere was not right. However, this person had come on her own and was also a woman. If she was here specially to create trouble, then she was being a little too gutsy. He couldn't be sure if she had called the police and was afraid that if he called more people here, they would end up all being caught in the net. Hence, he quickly gave an eye signal to the people watching the scene.
"No need to fuss," Gan Qing said. "Ma-ge and I were neighbours in the past. I'm just here to talk about the old times with him. It's private business."
Ma-ge kept his voice low and said, "Don't… Let's not talk here in someone else's space. We'll go outside."
Gan Qing seemed to let out a low laugh. She raised a hand and pulled her hood and a small blade glinted between her fingers. Cold sweat appeared on the corners of Ma-ge's forehead. Ten years ago, the person in front of him still had the air of a student. When she found him at a nightclub, she had not been willing to drink what was served there and had frankly told the attendant to give her a bottle of any drink that was enough to meet the minimum charge.
Later on, he heard that she killed someone.
Ma-ge had always remembered that young girl that appeared painfully immature, yet could make a person's blood run cold. When he heard those familiar words just now, his hair stood on end.
Ma-ge brought her to an open-air breakfast stall. He looked furtively left and right; seeing that there were people coming and going on the main road, he seemed to gain a sense of security. He lit a cigarette and took a long inhale. "How did you find me?"
"The residents of Mudpool Backlane were relocated here after the demolition," Gan Qing said. "Anyone who wants to find you only needs to ask around. You're doing pretty well, Ma-ge. Back then, you gambled and had a pile of debts on your head but in a flash, you've turned into the person running the game. What do they call this? An industrial upgrade?"
Ma-ge nervously dug his fingers into the corner of the table and stammered, "But I… I've done nothing wrong to you, I even helped you…"
Ma-ge was a ruffian who had stayed in Mudpool Backlane before there was a crackdown on the place. He had done every possible thing that fell under the purview of being a ruffian and was also an irredeemable gambler. Not only did he not get beaten to death by the debt-collectors, he even joined the other camp, and it was all due to his ruffian skills of slipping into any crack like a loach. He was especially good at networking and getting information.
Back then, when Gan Qing was looking for Wei Huan for revenge, it was through none other than this person that she had entered the dark underground world.
"I know." Gan Qing cut him off without much care. "I'm here today to ask you something."
Ma-ge looked at her nervously.
The smile on Gan Qing's face disappeared. "How did you find Wei Huan back then?"
Wei Huan's tracks were as indistinct as mist. Wei Xiao had pursued his unfilial disciple for many years but still failed to find his whereabouts. Why had he been able to locate him immediately?
And at that time, why had Wei Huan coincidentally appear in Yanning?
Ma-ge said, "He came from out of town and didn't have a place to stay. He only had fake I.D.s on him so of course he wouldn't dare stay in proper guest houses. He could only stay in those illegal places that turn a blind eye to these things. A buddy of mine was working as an attendant there and coincidentally-"
Gan Qing interrupted, "Your buddy was working as an attendant in an illegal hotel. Was he part of Travellers' Sect?"
Ma-ge was stuck for words. He forgot to put his cigarette in his mouth and was just neurotically flicking the ashes without a pause. "W-What sect? This is not the underworld…"
Gan Qing's fingers brushed lightly against the tabletop. A sliver of wood shaving was carved up by something sharp, curling into a circle beside her fingers.
Ma-ge recalled the rumours about "three cun and two fen" and started cold-sweating even more.
"I'm going to ask you another question. Think carefully before you answer, Ma-ge." Gan Qing rubbed the surface of the table until there was a tooth-aching sound. She lowered her eyes and blew off the wood shavings on her fingertips, a sinister half-smile once again on her face like she was there to demand his life. "Back then, was it me who first went to look for you to buy information, or was it those shop-keeping good friends of yours who first informed you and purposely let you hold that piece of information and wait for me?"
"On the opposite side of the road, Taiping District, Building No. 4, Unit 303. That's where your family settled down. After your wife divorced you, she took your child with her and divided up this unit with you. Mother and son are still staying here," Gan Qing said softly. "You're usually swindling and cheating others. Afraid that other people would look for you to cause trouble, like a wily rabbit with three burrows, you sometimes stay at the street-facing shop at Building No. 13 and sometimes switch between the few gambling dens hidden at the rural tourism places in the outskirts… None of them are hard to find."
Gan Qing reached out a finger and brushed lightly against the side of his head. Her fingertips seemed to have touched him, and also seemed to have not. Like a viper flicking its tongue as it slithered past.
Gan Qing kept her voice low. "If you feel that it's not convenient to talk here, why don't you take me to your house and we'll talk there?"
"Someone told me to say those things," Ma-ge blurted out involuntarily. Trembling, he dug out his phone from his pocket and opened up the contact list. "This person, a-and also this one…"
Before he could finish speaking, police sirens suddenly sounded. Ma-ge trembled in shock and looked around in a fluster. He saw a pack of police emerge from somewhere and charged into the gambling den masquerading as a cardroom, swift and without warning, raiding the place in just a few efficient minutes.
Ma-ge twisted his head around in alarm and realised that the female ghost seated opposite him just now had vanished. Only a few identical carved notches were left on the tabletop, each one measuring three cun and two fen long. He stared at these blade marks for a few seconds, then leaped up with a jolt and charged towards the police cars. "I surrender! Captain, arrest me. I surrender! Someone wants to kill me!"
Ma-ge clung to the police for protection, tears and snot running down his face, crying and pleading to be allowed into the group of people implicated in the crackdown. Even though the neighbourhood police were in a dilemma, they felt unable to turn down the request from a member of the public who wanted to improve himself, hence they readily invited him into the police car along with the rest and took him away.
Ma-ge let out a huge breath of relief, feeling that he was temporarily in a safe zone. As for his wife and kid outside, he couldn't take care of them for the time being and could only pray for their wellbeing.
He didn't see that the "female ghost" that had scared him into pissing his pants just now was in the last police car.
...and someone had caught her and was wiping her hands.
"What are you spraying on my hands? Hey… wait a minute, you're just wiping it directly on my hands? Isn't it sticky?"
His face grumpy, Yu Lanchuan squirted the hand sanitiser on Gan Qing's hands, then threw the entire box into her bag. "It's alcohol-based. Disinfectant. Is it sticky?"
Gan Qing wriggled her fingers. The hand sanitiser very quickly took effect and her hands felt very cool and refreshed.
Without waiting for her reply, Yu Lanchuan shot her a verbal jab. "Not as sticky as your hand. When you villains say your lines, you just have to do something with your hands, don't you? Will you forget your lines if you don't have any actions accompanying it? You touch everything! You… What are you doing!"
Before he could finish speaking, Gan Qing's hand that appeared and disappeared like an elusive ghost suddenly reached out. There was no space to dodge in the narrow space of the car; her hand landed right on Yu Lanchuan and withdrew after just a light touch, leaving only the lingering scent of the hand sanitiser on his ear.
The hairs on the back of Yu Lanchuan's neck stood up and he nearly hunched his shoulders up.
"Isn't that so?" Gan Qing said, full of self-assurance. "We witches from the demonic and unorthodox sects are lecherous and love touching people's faces. Is it against the law, Officer Yu?"
Yu Yan was driving and looking at the road ahead with an impassive face, pretending that he was an A.I. He replied in a flat and serious tone. "According to the relevant laws and policies, the search results cannot be displayed."
"Which word is a sensitive word?" Gan Qing asked.
"All of them." Yu Yan's gaze shot out of the rearview mirror. "In front of a bachelor, even the way the two of you breathe causes disharmony. May I trouble you to be more mindful of your manners?"
Gan Qing asked, "Why don't I give you a charm for good luck in romance?"
"Your charms stopped working long ago," Yu Yan said in a melancholic tone. "Teacher Meng-Meng, ever since you descended to the mortal realm, your magical powers are becoming less and less effective."
While speaking, he took another look at Gan Qing. After knowing her for so long, Yu Yan felt that her temperament was actually very easy-going and could be said to be a match for his own ability to put up with being humiliated for the sake of the important things—to endure Yu Lanchuan, some flexibility in handling things was necessary. She was good at talking and had a sense of humour, and didn't like to stand out too much in a crowd. Like most young people, she never had enough money to spend but was also very open-minded about how broke she was and didn't give off a sense of being stingy and miserly. She was an ordinary woman whose personality was easier to get along with than the average person. When she smiled, her eyes were clear with quite a touch of the tranquility that came from years gone by. She didn't seem to have anything at all to do with all those "jianghu enmity" and whatnot.
But there were a few seconds every now and then—the times when she revealed the blade between her fingers—when she would reveal a nature that didn't seem to belong to the current times. It gave others a whiff of that old and wild and ever-changing jianghu air, and only then would they sense, all of a sudden, that she came from another world, that she was just passing through, that she walked a path that was different from theirs.
There actually wasn't anything nice to touch on that "Ma-ge's" forlorn donkey face. Yu Lanchuan was neither fussy about cleanliness nor was he a vinegar jar of jealousy, so naturally, he wouldn't be angry just because her hand was itchy and she had touched an irredeemable gambler's face. It was just that when Gan Qing led them to the underground gambling den just now so easily and familiarly, that feeling she gave out—of a drifting existence, interspersed with the stench of blood—felt too distant. It gave others an illusion: she happened to be passing by, happened to have a bit of interaction with them and was sitting down for a cup of tea, but they will have to go their separate ways in the end.
Yu Yan sighed internally and thought, Yu Lanchuan has fallen head over heels.
And this pit he had fallen into was even quite a bumpy one.
"Teacher Meng-Meng," Yu Yan said. "That person we caught just now, how much would he know?"
"Quite a lot. This person has wide connections." Gan Qing thought for a while, then said, "He may look unassuming but just look at how he has swindled so many people until they lost their entire fortune, yet the victims all did not dare make a police report."
"Yeah, why is that?" Yu Yan asked.
Gan Qing said, "If they make a police report, they could keep their money. If the police act fast, they might even catch this Ma fellow. But he's not alone, there are still the high-interest loan lenders behind him, as well as many professional ruffians that you can not even begin to imagine."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "For example, Travellers' Sect?"
"Yeah. There might even be people from the Xu clan. They can just send a few people to cause a disturbance every three or five days and the average person wouldn't be able to bear it. Which is more important, the safety of your whole family including the elderly and the children, or money?" Gan Qing paused. "We take the chance now while he's scared to cut off his communications with the outside world and who knows, we might be able to dig quite a bit of info out of him. If we do it well, we can even go fishing with this lure."
Yu Yan frowned, "Will he cooperate?"
The corners of Gan Qing's mouth again stretched out in that smile that made a person tremble in fear. "He will. He's only a middleman. If he explains everything clearly to the police, he might even get lenient treatment. He gets nothing by keeping secrets. No one believes that he can keep his mouth shut anyway. When the time comes that the police aren't protecting him and no one in his pack of friends gives a damn about him, I will still pay him a visit."
"He… He's that afraid of you?"
Gan Qing's eyes curved. She didn't say anything.
"I don't know what it's like, all right, so I'm going to say something as an outsider. Don't get angry after you hear it," Yu Yan said. "Teacher Meng-Meng, to be honest, there are times when I don't feel that you're extraordinarily powerful. Of course, when it comes to weak scholars like me, you definitely can knock down eight of me in one go without breaking a sweat but compared to those we know who are trained in martial arts… and also those people that we have arrested, I don't think you are capable of taking them out in a one hit K.O."
She played her tricks in the middle of the night and slipped away from the bald man; in the end, she also slipped away from her shoe and had to hop back home.
Even chasing after Yan Hao gave her a stitch and a stomach upset, and she didn't even catch him.
Of course, these people were considered friends and she hadn't used her "true strength."
But every time she used her "true strength," she ended in a very wrecked state. Whether it was against Paradise's Xu clan people or against Yang Ping, her victory had come at a very high cost. Until now, the cast on her arm had yet to be removed.
Yu Yan said, "I feel that when they hear the name Wan Mu Chun, their reaction is about the same as hearing the name Little Li Flying Dagger. It's like their necks would get snapped the moment they saw you. Isn't it a little exaggerated?"
"It has always been so." Gan Qing let out a laugh, not at all bothered. She said very good-naturedly, "When my shifu taught me all those years ago, he wasn't very serious. My foundation is not good. Furthermore, I'm naturally right-handed and I changed to using my left hand by force, it's already good enough that I can open gaps between my fingers. It's entirely by relying on my ancestors' influence to scare people that I can still make my way around out there."
Yu Lanchuan lifted his eyes and shot a barb at Yu Yan across the space. "Don't talk so much when you don't know anything, you're showing your ignorance."
Yu Yan quickly corrected his attitude. "Ai, all right, Alliance Leader. You're the boss."
Yu Lanchuan didn't look at Gan Qing but he kept her within sight of his peripheral view. He said mildly, "But Wan Mu Chun isn't the type to fight competitive matches with others."
The spring blossoms were so tender they could not even withstand a single blow, the spring grass short and small. Every year, the ice on the river was tossed between sudden cold and warmth in the nights between seasons. A mere suggestion of green overlaid the willows on the banks, yet this delicate strength was everywhere, making the biting cold finally yield a total defeat and disappear without a trace.
For generations, the sect of Wan Mu Chun only had a single heir. Their numbers were few, their strength limited. Yet, every generation would always do something unexpected. Every time the edge of their blade touched a spot, it would never come away empty. From Mr. Chun to Wei Huan and further on to Gan Qing, this reputation had never fallen, and a mere three words were the nightmare lurking in the dark and sinister ravine.
Yu Yan heard him trail off halfway and say no more, so he asked, "I know, so?"
Yu Lanchuan didn't say anything anymore—however, that was Wan Mu Chun, not Gan Qing.
Wan Mu Chun was everywhere but Gan Qing was only one person. Even Wei Xiao, all those years ago, had only dared to change his name to Wei Changsheng and avoid the eyes and ears of others, and only then could he have a peaceful life for a few years.
If Gan Qing followed the conventional route and lived her life like an ordinary person, to those people who were desperately terrified of Wan Mu Chun, she was a live target. The Xu clan people who marketed health supplements everywhere had withdrawn from Yanning for the moment and Wang Jiusheng had also fled the country but these were all temporary. Once the storm was over and they could free their hands, they would definitely get rid of her for peace of mind.
If Gan Qing carried on Wan Mu Chun's legendary "blade of nightmare" and continued to hang above the heads of others, she could not stay for long at No. 110.
Only that which can not be fathomed has no gaps for others to exploit. It was only a matter of time before she carried on her ancestors' fate of living a wandering existence.
When Yu Lanchuan's thoughts reached this point, his chest felt as though it was filled with icy water, his heart sinking uncontrollably to the bottom.
Speaking of this matter, it could entirely be blamed on Wei Xiao.
Mr. Chun borrowed the force rallying the country in the post-liberation years and took the opportunity to wash his hands of the past. His descendants were completely able to live low-key lives; the one who should cook could cook, the one who should study could study. Wan Mu Chun would slowly fade out of the people's awareness, fading into obscurity like the countless sects lost to history.
But when Wei Xiao was young and making his way into the world for the first time, he insisted on wanting Wan Mu Chun to surpass its past during his time and just could not bear to bury this three-cun-and-two-fen blade. To harbour talent is to attract misfortune; in the end, he was embroiled in resentment and enmity, and could not withdraw himself.
"By the way," Seeing that he was being ignored, Yu Yan just had to touch on a sore spot, "Gan Qing, we've caught so many of Travellers' Sect people and right now, because of that rotten business of Yang Ping being suspected of taking drugs and committing murder, as well as Zhu Qiao's unsuccesful murder attempt, the old cases are also being dragged out. If we continue this line of investigation, I'm not sure how many people we will need to investigate. If, by chance, we can't scoop up the whole lot in one go, with how high-profile you've been recently, will they take revenge on you?"
Gan Qing shrugged, not at all bothered. "My front door is always open. I welcome them."
Yu Yan and Yu Lanchuan spoke almost in unison, "This is not a joke!"
Gan Qing laughed. Without waiting for Yu Lanchuan's expression to change, she suddenly looked up and said softly, "Do you guys know what 'beating the grass to alert the snake' means?"
A small blade was wedged between the fingers of her left hand. Just like the other day when she had demonstrated the coin trick to the intellectually-disabled teenager at the noodle shop, the blade flipped nimbly between the gaps of her fingers. The way she did it made the extremely sharp edge stick close to her flesh, the cold light gathering into a single thread, a sight that was rather hair-rising...
Sometime in the evening, at the breakfast stall where Gan Qing and "Ma-ge" had sat down for a chat, a few men sat at the table where the two of them had sat.
"Here you go." The boss brought over the greasy menu. His eyes swept around his surroundings, then he bent down and said in a low voice, "A woman exposed Ma Laoliu at the place this morning. He was brought out in front of everyone. That woman was quite tall and her hood covered more than half her face. The marks on the table were left by her."
After hearing that, the men took out a string and a ruler, and carefully measured the marks left on the table. "The same length, three cun and two fen."
"The cross-section is level, each cut reaching the bottom… What kind of knife was it?"
"I didn't see," the stall owner said softly. "I only saw her reach her hand out and scrape randomly on the table. Ma Laoliu nearly pissed his pants when he saw it."
"Then it should be a blade between her fingers," one of the men said. "Wei Xiao's supreme skill."
"Ma Laoliu ain't any kind of tough guy but I'm not afraid if he confesses to the police," another man said. He reached out and tapped on the marks on the table. "I'm afraid of this one."
"This is someone who could kill Wei Huan at seventeen years old."
"Fortunately, she's right here in Yanning now and has a fixed address."
The few of them exchanged looks. The stall owner kept his voice low. "Our President Wang's opinion is that we shouldn't let the night be long and fraught with dreams."
 "The night is long and fraught with dreams" 夜长梦多 is a pretty common phrase that means that when something is dragged out, things may change for the worse.
"Star Dreams is really not open. I think I saw their official account say yesterday that Teacher Meng-Meng has resigned and that the boss is currently looking for a new consultant. I even thought that it was an April Fool's joke."
"What? Teacher Meng-Meng has resigned? I saw that she updated her WeChat Moments yesterday, she translated that astrological chart analysis or something. Does this mean that she won't be updating anymore in the future? No… why did even the guide I'm following do this to me?"
"Tianyi Crayfish is also under renovation. What's wrong with this Boss Meng? It's almost peak season and he wants to renovate. I think he wants to close the business this year. Sigh… shit, fuck your grandpa! Does this road belong to your family? Can't you look where you're going?"
Two female delinquents from No. 13 High cycled through the narrow alleys of Mudpool Backlane, chatting as they biked. The girl in front was just turning her head back to speak to her companion when a cowering middle-aged man suddenly charged into the street. Her bike's handlebar swayed, nearly hitting him as they passed each other, and she broke out into a loud cursing.
The man silently retreated to the side of the road. He didn't retort and let the girl pass by, her curses ringing out in the street. His face grave, he glanced at the tightly shut Star Dreams and Tianyi Crayfish, then took out a phone from his pocket.
"She might be running away… Not sure, that Meng Tianyi has also gone off somewhere. Only a little student from out of town is left at the shop, he doesn't know a damn thing… What now?"
The person on the other end said something.
The man looked warily around him as he spoke softly, "But she's staying at Zhang… Branch Master Zhang's place… I know that Zhang has already cut off all ties with us but she's still…"
The other person interrupted him.
The man lowered his head. "Them? Are you sure… All right then."
That night, at one in the morning, a low-profile unlicensed cab stopped at the entrance of the alley at the south side of No. 110 Courtyard. The cab driver was none other than the middle-aged man who had gone to scout out Star Dreams.
The car had just come to a stop when two men dressed in black who seemed to be the passengers got down from the cab. One was middle-aged, the one a little younger.
The center of the middle-aged man's face was curved in like he had been punched in the face. His cheeks were squarish and his chin sharp, and he seemed to be gnashing his teeth. He looked extremely fierce.
He waved at the driver. "Thanks. If you're scared later, you don't need to wait for us. You can just avoid the CCTVs and leave."
The driver wound down the window and smiled nervously. "We Travellers' Sect have always done small businesses like being drivers and boatmen since ancient times. We really…"
"I know you guys from Travellers' Sect are cowards. Don't worry, when we Chun division do our work, we won't drag you guys in." The middle-aged man dressed in black spat with no regard for manners. The tip of his foot rubbed into the phlegm he spat out and he nodded at his companion. The two of them wandered around the area for a while. Then, sticking close to the wall, one ahead of the other, they climbed over at the corner where the covered bicycle racks were in No. 110 Courtyard.
A person dressed as a janitor was waiting for them there.
The "janitor's" attitude was even more subservient than the cab driver, bowing and scraping as he welcomed them. "I've been waiting for both of you here for a long time."
"Xu Lin." The middle-aged black-clad man pointed at himself, then at the young man next to him. "My disciple. I wasn't here last year. The few juniors of our Chun division were all taken down by this courtyard. I was wondering what kind of dragon was hidden here, so it turns out to be the renegade from Wan Mu Chun. I have purposely come here today to get an explanation. I thank my Travellers' Sect brothers for sending word."
The "janitor" tapped on his phone to light up the screen and showed the two of them the photos inside—they had all been taken secretly, and were all photos of Gan Qing.
"She went out once today and came back around one in the afternoon. I've been keeping watch here the whole time. She hasn't been down. The lights in Unit 1003 came on at seven in the evening. A food delivery worker went up to deliver food to her."
Xu Lin asked, "Is there anyone else inside the house? I heard that she's renting and that the owner is related to your Travellers' Sect?"
The "janitor" answered, "Yes. I'll be honest with you guys, the owner is the former North Branch Master of our Travellers' Sect, Zhang Meizhen. Later on, because of some personal matters, she cut off ties with us. We have already helped to lure this person away. I saw her leave, she called a cab at the entrance."
Xu Lin nodded. "What time did she turn off the lights?"
"10.30. She turns them off at 10.30 every day. She should be sleeping like the dead now."
After hearing that, the man who called himself Xu Lin walked towards the building stairs. At the same time, he beckoned and the young man behind him took out a face mask from his pocket and pulled on a hood, covering his face. He climbed up a pipe at a corner of the building of No. 110. These two people took different routes, their movements well coordinated.
The "janitor" waited for the two of them to leave before stealthily slipping out of No. 110 Courtyard.
The cab driver who brought them there just now poked his head out furtively from the mouth of a small lane. The "janitor" peeled off his outer garment and stuffed it carelessly into a trash can, then squeezed into the car.
The driver asked, "Have the two Xu clan idiots gone in?"
"Yeah." The fake janitor nodded. "Back then, for the sake of getting the Xu clan's resources, Wei Huan sold out his sect's skills to Xu Zhao and that's how the Chun division came about. Now, this bunch of jokers with their sloppy and slapdash martial arts are running back to say that Wan Mu Chun's true descendant is a renegade. Isn't this fun?"
"It would be even more fun if they start fighting. These Xu fellows are having a grand time expanding their cult in the remote spots in the mountains. They treat Yanning as their own backyard." The driver stepped lightly on the accelerator, driving the car away. "That Wan Mu Chun didn't go to Mudpool today, she must have sensed something. We don't have enough people now. Thanks to this crackdown, our brothers have either been taken away or are in hiding and don't dare to come out. President Wang should want to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. If we let her escape and hide for eight to ten years, where would we go to find her? She's a time bomb."
The fake janitor asked, "Can those two do it?"
"That Wan Mu Chun upstairs only has one arm." The driver wound down the window and lit a cigarette. "One arm versus four arms, what do you think?"
"After, she's the true descendant…"
"This thing called martial arts, when you've learned it, it's the real thing. All this rubbish about true descendants and fake descendants." The driver blew out a puff of smoke. "If they hadn't extracted everything about Paoding Jieniu from him, would the Xu clan people be so ready to betray Wei Huan back then? Just wait and see, there'll be a good fight."
The corridor at one in the morning was quiet and tranquil. The middle-aged black-clad man, Xu Lin, slowly approached 1003 and stood there, as silent and unmoving as a statue. A while later, his phone vibrated and he knew that his disciple was already in position outside the window. He took out his equipment from his pocket and started to pick the lock.
Next door, Yu Lanchuan was not yet asleep and was in the study reviewing a contract. Suddenly, he looked up, his eyes staring right at the front door.
The new type of locks weren't as easy to pick as the ones in the past. Xu Lin curled his body in, making his movements as light as possible. One door away, Yu Lanchuan took out a golf club from behind the door, his other hand already on the door knob.
Right at that moment, his hand that was ready to pull the door open was seized by someone behind him!
Outside the window of 1003, Xu Lin's disciple was suspended outside the tenth floor window like a spider. He extended a small rod, carefully avoided the window frame and quietly lifted a corner of the not-very-thick curtains, then peered inside.
In the small bedroom, the bed faced the window. The person on the bed was fast asleep and motionless, her mid-length hair spread out on the pillow. She was completely unaware that her own front door had already been pried open by someone. The black-clad man outside the window used a tool to fix his position and dug out a crossbow from his backpack—it was exactly the same as the one used by the person Gan Qing had encountered in the unlicensed guest house back when she was following Xiang Xiaoman. The tip of the bolt was aimed right at the person on the bed.
At the front door, Xu Lin made a final light twist and the door slid open without a sound. A waft of home fragrance blasted him right in the face, heavy enough to make him gag. Xu Lin subconsciously held his breath. A crossbow in his left hand and a dagger in his right, he verified that there was no one in the room before heading towards the second bedroom where the door was opened a crack.
The door was opened about two inches. Xu Lin probably didn't have Vitamin A deficiency, his night vision was very good. His gaze shot out like two beams of searchlights and he took in the sight of his target and his accomplice on guard outside the window. Then, he gave the door a violent push. The instant the door burst open, his left hand unleashed an arrow that directly pierced the target on the bed with a muffled thump. He was close on its heels, his hand gripping his dagger tightly, ready to deliver a fatal blow to his opponent.
Right then, Xu Lin's ears caught a soft whistling sound—something was shooting towards him. He instinctively bent down to dodge. The blanket on the bed was pulled off abruptly from the bottom and a black figure charged towards him.
Xu Lin was not surprised. If Wan Mu Chun could be killed so easily, he, the master, wouldn't have to take action himself. He immediately struck a pose and prepared to pit his Paoding Jieniu against the opponent's. At the same time, the crossbow lying in wait outside the window saw its opportunity and let fly a bolt.
The master and student were working in perfect coordination and could be said to be like the slogan One Red Heart Preparing Two Outcomes. Both the overt and the covert attacks proceeded in parallel.
Wan Mu Chun had defended against one side but not against the bolt sneaking up behind her. Before she reached Xu Lin, the bolt shot her down and she fell near the corner of the bed.
Xu Lin smiled.
Approached suddenly from the back, Yu Lanchuan's hair stood on end. On the back of his hand that was gripping the golf club, his veins pulsed. He steadied his elbow and lowered his shoulder, the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang's Calm Lake form already in his hands. He was ready to stretch his body and slash the sneak attacker behind him into two halves.
Then, in the instant that he was about to swing the golf club, someone meow-ed into his ear.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
The golf club hit his own leg.
He turned around in shock and anger. Gan Qing, who had infiltrated his house at some unknown time, took a couple of nimble steps back and said softly, "Little Master Yu, please have mercy. One swing from you can send me right into the hole."
After speaking, her eyes slid downwards to land on Yu Lanchuan's chest. The collar of his pajamas was wide in the first place and in his own home, Yu Lanchuan had only carelessly fastened two buttons, one of which had even popped open just now. His chest and waist could be seen, the lines sharp and clear, and the faint light in the room even shrouded him in just the right amount of shadow.
"After more than ten years, it's now a sight to sit up and take notice of," Gan Qing said.
Yu Lanchuan clutched the front of his clothes and pointed the golf club at her. "When did you come in? How did you come in? What kind of immoral thing are you doing in the middle of the night… What's going on at your place?"
Next door, Xu Lin's smile froze before it could unfurl. First, his hair stood on end, then he noticed a problem—the falling sound was wrong!
A grown human falling to the floor wouldn't land so lightly!
Xu Lin took a sudden step forward and tore the bed sheet off the black figure. His eyes were greeted by the sight of a plush toy, a wig stuck on its head and a bolster tied to its body.
The plush toy locked eyes with him, a wide smile on its face. Its hands were also holding a wooden sign that was inquiring very artistically: On what do you build your life?
It turned out that this plush toy that came with a lousy motivational inscription had fishing lines tied to its limbs. At a glance, the way the lines were tied seemed a little similar to marionettes and was a very confusing sight but upon closer inspection, that was not the case. According to legend, there was a kind of mechanism in the past that was usually hidden underwater or buried in shallow ground. Once touched, thousands of thin and pliable metal threads would fly out. Because there was enough force and the metal was thin enough, the immense pressure could cut gold and jade like threads cutting the soft yams. Here, one end of the fishing lines were tied to the door. When Xu Lin wanted to catch the target off guard and threw open the door violently, the lines pulled the plush toy on the bed up and made it act out a section from A Chinese Ghost Story.
Outside the window, the little disciple could hear that the noise from inside didn't sound right. He pried open the curtains with the crossbow. Moonlight flooded the room, gathering on the slack fishing lines scattered around the room like a net ready to be drawn.
A chill suddenly crept up Xu Lin's spine. Right at that moment, he finally noticed with the help of the moonlight that other than the toy on the bed, this small bedroom was basically a vacant room. The bed sheet and the curtains seemed to have just been washed. The wardrobe was half opened, the inside empty. Personal belongings like mugs and chargers were nowhere to be found, and even the bedside lamp was not plugged in.
This was obviously an unoccupied room.
Then, what was up with Travellers' Sect? That stuff about "She went out at this time, came back at this time, and even called for food delivery" had sounded like the truth.
For a moment, the lost and confused master-and-student pair—one inside the room, the other outside—were silent and immobile, their eyes landing in unison on the plush toy holding the sign, staring as though they were observing a moment of silence and self-reflection.
After a while, Xu Lin finally moved forward cautiously. From far, he nudged the plush toy with the crossbow. The toy flipped over and a sticky note that was not attached firmly fell from its back. One large word was written on it: Idiot.
Xu Lin's pupils contracted. "Run!"
But it was already too late.
He had barely finished speaking when there was a sudden explosion of police sirens downstairs.
Right now, Xu Lin no longer had the time to think carefully about what was happening. He and his lizard disciple outside the window both turned and fled.
One of them climbed outside the window, the other dashed towards the corridor.
The disciple didn't have time to remove the crossbow he had fixed on the window. Seeing that quite a number of police cars had arrived downstairs, all he could do was to set his limbs scrabbling desperately to climb to the side. He planned to find a shadowy spot where he could climb to the ground and jump over the wall to escape.
His soul that had been startled by that plush toy just now had yet to calm down and his palms were covered with sweat. As he climbed, he looked to the ground, afraid that the car lights would shine on him. Suddenly, a soft, warm glow fell on his body and a peculiar feeling crawled up his back. Half a beat late, he looked up and locked eyes with the person in the enclosed balcony next door.
Just like him, that person was wearing a face mask. Half their face was hidden and only a pair of curved smiling eyes were exposed. One hand held a golf club, the other hand was propping their head up. Who knew how long they had been watching him.
The big lizard disciple was shocked until he nearly got a heart attack. His hands and legs were numb as wood. The golf club swiftly extended out the window, slamming mercilessly on his fingers. The ten fingers were connected to one's heart; this move was completely lacking in morals. The big lizard nearly cried from the pain. He stretched his neck up and opened his mouth, swallowing his anguished shriek together with his snot and tears, and climbed upwards while crying.
Meanwhile, the golf club was not giving him any chances. Without waiting for him to climb up, the second swing spun towards him, steadily and accurately and ruthlessly smashing on the back of his knees. The big lizard climbing upwards fell directly to the ground without a sound.
Right then, a large metal hook was thrown out of the eighth floor, hooking right into the big lizard's belt. On the eighth floor, Han Dongsheng's veins bulged through the thick layer of fat on his arms. The rope was let out quickly, pulling the big lizard to a stop the second before he landed on the ground.
The big lizard's belt broke with a snap. He crashed head first onto the roof of a police car and under the dumbstruck stares of a few police officers, his black underpants and half a snowy-white butt was exposed.
His shifu, Xu Lin, fled in an even more hair-rising way. No. 110 was a small building and the layout was also very simple. Other than the elevator, there were only two stairwells. Once the people at the bottom blocked those exits, he was completely cornered.
Xu Lin's eyes and ears were sharp. He had just reached the sixth floor when he heard the sound of footsteps running up. Right after that, the police officers' voices echoed in the narrow stairwell.
"Watch the corridor and stairwells at both ends!"
"The person who made the report said that this duo are from the same gang as the two groups of evil cult members we caught previously. They are very dangerous and there is a high chance that they have weapons on them. Everyone, be careful!"
"Keep an eye on the roof and the windows. Last time, they escaped by climbing the building!"
"His accomplice has already been caught!"
"There's one more. Male, around forty years old, has parted hair!"
The police officers did not suffer from calcium deficiency and running to the sixth floor was just a matter of a couple of minutes. In his panic, Xu Lin ran to the public corridor on the sixth floor and immediately saw the rubbish chute at the end of the corridor. Only the old buildings from the past had this kind of rubbish chute—every floor had a rectangular opening that when opened, trash could be thrown directly into it; the chute connected to the dumpster downstairs and was cleared by the property management on a regular basis.
There was a small lock on the opening of the rubbish chute. Without thinking too much, Xu Lin wrenched it off with brute force.
Logically, this chute could not fit a fully-grown adult human but after some snapping sounds emitted from Xu Lin's body, he unexpectedly became smaller in size just like that—this man had the legendary Bone Shrinking Skill! Like an invalid with half his body paralysed, he twisted and stuffed himself inside, then gritted his teeth as he pushed his bones back into place. Holding a small flashlight in his mouth, he climbed down the rubbish chute.
The opening to the rubbish chute closed with a bang. The unit near the rubbish chute was occupied by an old man who had to go to the bathroom frequently. He had woken up at night and heard the noise and pushed open the window that opened onto the corridor to take a look. He rubbed his eyes, only half awake. "Who's that playing with the rubbish chute in the middle of the night? It was sealed off that year where there was SARS."
Xu Lin climbed all the way to the bottom in the dark and sat on the ground. He stared in dismay at the large locked metal gate at the chute opening, his nose catching a whiff of the "lingering perfume" from '03.
"The one that fell down has been safely caught. The older one is very experienced and should be able to escape." Gan Qing cupped her hands in a martial arts salute at Han Dongsheng on the eighth floor who had assisted them. She took out a paper napkin from her pocket and carefully wiped Yu Lanchuan's golf club, then tossed it to him. "When you have time, you should change your window. This old-fashioned window of yours opens immediately with just a nudge from the outside."
Yu Lanchuan had never done anything to his granduncle's apartment because when he moved in, his only intention was to save one year of rent. He had never thought of staying at this "old, rundown and small" place for long and even less did he think he would pick up a Gan Qing here.
He didn't reply and just studied her with his brows furrowed.
Gan Qing typically dressed very simply. The clothes she bought were bought together with her groceries at the supermarket. They usually didn't fit very well, so they were all of the loose and wide style. Her mid-length hair was always unbound and unstyled, covering more than half her face. Her face did not have makeup on it and because she was tall, she lowered her head slightly when she walked among the crowd. She did not stand out at all.
Right now, she had a face mask on and was wearing a tight-fitting black outfit, as well as a pair of sneakers that made no sound when it landed on the floor. Her hair was all tied up, only a few stray bangs fell onto her face from the corners of her forehead, accentuating her eyes and a small section of her high nose bridge. Her eyes gleamed as brightly as a pair of blades. One of her hands was in her pocket. She leaned against the window, the very picture of neatness and efficiency, a sword ready to be unsheathed at any moment.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "What's with that getup?"
Gan Qing stared blankly, then laughed. "My old clothes. I basically stopped growing after I hit seventeen. My clothes from then fit better than the ones I bought just yesterday."
The shoes were good shoes, light and well-fitted. If she wore these clothes to go out now, they also wouldn't appear too out-of-fashion.
After all, Wei Xiao had never treated her lightly the way she did to herself. When she was young, the food she ate and the clothes she wore, even if they weren't any sort of branded or luxurious goods, were all the best he could get within the limits of his abilities. He had taken care of this girl he had picked up like he was raising a pampered little flower, in silence yet with utmost care, unwilling to let her know the cruel story of her past.
"Little Master Yu, I might have to leave right away for quite some time."
"You're leaving now?"
The two of them spoke almost in unison. Their voices overlapped and they both closed their mouths, again almost in unison.
"Didn't we talk about this already?" Gan Qing was the first to speak. "To draw out Wang Jiusheng, we need to take the chance now when he doesn't have enough people to go around and make him so scared that he can't even sleep. Old Sect Leader Yang wants to give his brothers in the past an explanation; I, too, want to give my sect an explanation."
Yu Lanchuan said in a low voice, "I didn't think it would be so soon."
"Wang Jiusheng is overseas and the situation here is beyond his control. He hasn't planned anything and is afraid that he won't be able to find me if I escape, which will make him feel unsafe for the rest of his life. Hence, he's making his move in a haste and is practically shouting at the Xu clan people that he's 'borrowing a knife to commit murder.' It's not on the same level as when he plotted the downfall of Beggars' Sect and my shifu. It proves that Wang Jiusheng is really driven to desperate straits this time," Gan Qing said. "It's a good thing. After this, I'll still need to count on you guys to work with me."
Yu Lanchuan nodded absent-mindedly. "Then…"
What about… after you have given your explanation?
He was thinking, if these deep grudges and old matters could really be brought to a conclusion, could Gan Qing, who became Wan Mu Chun again, still come back? Could she still appear openly before everyone, without having to hide?
Even though it was not the right time to talk about it now, Yu Lanchuan had always looked three steps ahead for every one step he took. On this, his heart was as clear as a mirror.
"Nothing." Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up and said with a calm face, "What did you decide on with Sect Leader Yang and the rest? Tell me about it. Do you guys have a chat group? Invite me in."
"Sect Leader Yang and Meizhen-jie are contacting the old members of Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect. I see that Meizhen-jie is contacting the scapegoats and victims' families one by one, maybe they want to gather everyone together to hash it out. Wang Jiusheng has people working for him inside Travellers' Sect; when he finds out about this, he'll definitely think that Meizhen-jie is taking the chance to usurp his position and will surely come back to the country then. They are in the light while I'm in the dark; I'll take the chance to fish him out," Gan Qing said briefly. Before Yu Lanchuan could furrow his brows at this crude and rough plan, she added, "What chat group? Sect Leader Yang is so old now and doesn't know how to use smartphones at all. Furthermore, I also won't contact them. Good and evil are two different paths, and the grudge of many years between Yang Ping and Wei Xiao is also wedged in the middle. Isn't it awkward enough as it is?"
Yu Lanchuan was shocked. "Operation guidelines, backup plans, gathering the crew… you guys have none of these?"
Gan Qing thought for a while and could only answer with, "We have a tacit agreement."
"What you guys have is madness!" Yu Lanchuan was going out of his mind. He caught hold of her. "I know you guys are unreliable but I never thought it was this bad!"
"Shh—" Gan Qing quickly reached out to lower his volume, then sighed. "Little Master Yu, you've held the position of alliance leader for quite some time now, why do you still sound like a blockhead the moment you open your mouth? When you make your way in jianghu, can you put everything clearly in words? Everyone acts according to the tacit agreement."
"And that's how, thirty years ago, Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect's 'tacit agreement' turned a power struggle into a criminal case with multiple lives lost!"
That was indeed true. For a moment, Gan Qing was at a loss for words.
"Let me do the overall planning this time, you guys don't have to face each other and feel awkward." Seeing that Gan Qing was about to say something, Yu Lanchuan waved to cut her off. "I really don't understand people like you guys. You guys think that those things of yours are out-dated now, yet you're always letting those out-dated things dictate your actions. Don't you think you're being in conflict with yourselves?"
Gan Qing smiled in resignation. "Little Master Yu, not everyone has high academic qualifications like you. Not everyone has studied abroad and can adapt to modern times."
"But I also do not think that some olden things are out-dated." Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses and shifted his gaze away. "Even though you guys sometimes use methods that are inappropriate, the kind of eternal freedom you guys have and that fearlessness that would never settle for something less can make others envious."
Gan Qing was stunned.
Yu Lanchuan continued to add a very annoying line. "I'm just saying it as it is. Don't think I'm praising you."
Gan Qing's eyes met his and she said suddenly, "I wanted to quietly come in and rest awhile just now. I didn't think you would still be awake… Is your work that tiring?"
There seemed to be a rock weighing on Yu Lanchuan's heart. He said listlessly, "Sometimes."
Gan Qing sighed. "How much money do you need to earn for it to be enough? Must you live your life squeezing ten yuan out of five yuan? You're… really not easy to support."
It sounded like advice, and also like a farewell. Yu Lanchuan faintly detected something ominous in those words and looked up in a panic. Before he could see her face clearly, Gan Qing suddenly reached her hand past him and took out an old textbook on interpretation from the bookshelf on his enclosed balcony.
"Lend me this for a few days," Gan Qing said. "I need to learn some skills that can earn money."
For a moment, Yu Lanchuan couldn't react. He stared blankly as Gan Qing took his book and shot him a smile, then left through the front door of his home.
After a full minute, he finally regained his senses and realised what she meant. His heart jolted and he turned to chase after her.
But Gan Qing had already vanished.
There was a small seam at the side of the metal door of the rubbish chute through which sounds from outside could slip in. Trapped in the "historical remains," Xu Lin stuck close to that seam, holding his breath and focusing his attention as he got a handle on what was happening outside.
His disciple had really been caught. He heard a man shout, "Take this one away first... You guys should give him something to cover up. Everyone else, continue to search. Xiao-Yu, if you don't have anything else, you should follow them back for now. If we can't catch our target, you're responsible for preparing the materials to declare him a wanted criminal."
Xu Lin gripped his fists so tightly there was a sound.
All these years, life was getting harder and harder in the big city. Just a moment of carelessness and they would be reported and arrested. Didn't Paradise get overturned completely just last year? They could only keep changing their area of operations to various small places. Xu Lin felt that he would soon be going to the old and poor marginal regions to join the elections and become the village secretary!
Because of this trend, the quality of disciples and followers they recruited were naturally also getting more and more worrying.
Xu Lin boasted that he had obtained the true teachings of Wan Mu Chun. Wan Mu Chun's martial arts weren't the same type as those where a person shattered rocks with their chests, it was entirely about technique. Without some ingenuity, one would not be able to master it. For example, in his group of disciples that Gan Qing had defeated singlehandedly, each of them was a dumb as a donkey and even had to first draw lines as a draft before putting their knives to work. At a glance, one would think that they wanted to tattoo a large azure dragon on the person's neck.
There were only a handful of disciples that Xu Lin would not be ashamed to bring out. The ones that could work with him in tacit understanding, who could assist him with sneak attacks, were as rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns, only one among the tens of thousands.
Now, great. His feather and horn were broken just like that!
No matter how he thought about it, it was making him lose his head. Right at that moment, a woman's voice carried over from far away. "...Yes, that's my home."
One of his eyes twitched. Zhang Meizhen!
"...I don't know. I have a tenant living there… maybe she offended someone."
"Today? Today, a few old friends whom I have not been in contact with for a long time suddenly came over to look for me and said that there would be people coming tonight… Fortunately, those people were all non-locals, they're not familiar with Yanning so they used their cabs... The person who passed the message? I can say who it is… it's just that… the cab they drive isn't a proper licensed one. Will I cause trouble for them if I say it?"
"My tenant said that she can resolve it herself and asked me to go out for a while to avoid the trouble. She guaranteed that there will be no issues and even settled the rent in advance and prepared to move out. I was afraid that something would happen to her since she's just a young woman so I called the police… You guys didn't see her either? Oh, then it looks like she escaped in time. It's good for her to stay low. There are all sorts of people nowadays."
On Xu Lin's neck, a thick vein was pounding fiercely.
That explained everything.
He thought, the reason why Travellers' Sect could solemnly swear that Zhang Meizhen wasn't there was entirely because she knew what was going on and had left on purpose. All that intelligence about Wan Mu Chun getting food delivery at such-and-such time had entirely been made up by those few Travellers' Sect ruffians!
In total, Gan Qing had made her move twice. Once was when she followed Xiang Xiaoman and overthrew the Xu clan's Chun division that had been operating in Yanning. The other time, she pursued them to the rural tourism chalet where Paradise conducted their illegal cult preaching. Both times, she couldn't really be considered to have exposed herself because after the incidents, those people who could tell where she came from were all arrested by the police. Furthermore, the news about Wan Mu Chun being in Yanning had clearly come from Travellers' Sect!
Travellers' Sect, that bunch of shit-stirrers, stuck their heads into this business and worked for both sides. Wang Jiusheng truly embodied the saying "having a single unique skill is better than having thousands of common ones." He could depend on "dragging others into the mud to cover his own ass and borrowing a knife to commit murder" to survive his entire life.
Borrowing Beggars' Sect to tear down Zhang Meizhen, borrowing Yang Ping to be his own shield, borrowing Wan Mu Chun's blade to make Wei Huan and his own sect destroy each other, and even plot to have Yang Ping kill Wei Xiao with his own hands.
And now, Wei Xiao's disciple had crawled out of hell to take revenge. Coincidentally, Travellers' Sect's might was weak, so without even thinking, Wang Jiusheng was directly pushing their Xu clan forward.
Wang. Jiu. Sheng!
The police searched the area fruitlessly for over two hours before finally dispersing. Xu Lin squatted until both his legs were numb but at last he had what he wanted. He climbed back up the rubbish chute and under the cover of the predawn darkness, he slipped out again through the sixth floor and melted silently into the night.
The incense smell on his body from 1003 seemed to have latched on to his very bones, lingering around him, refusing to let him go. Even after half a night in the rubbish chute, it had not dissipated the least bit. Unfortunately, Xu Lin's nose was already numb now and he did not notice it.
Just like that, emitting a fragrant scent and cursing Wang Jiusheng, he ran back to look for his accomplices.
The criminal police Miao Feng entered the interrogation room. Inside, Yang Ping heard someone coming in but showed no reaction and just sat there without even looking up. A thin layer of skin wrapped over his bones, the bluish veins appearing to be floating on the skin. His eyes were sunken, looking like a pair of wrinkled jujubes that even appeared rather chewy.
Other criminals had a pair of handcuffs on them. Yang Ping was more special. After he was discharged from the hospital, he had forced open one pair of steel handcuffs. He was truly a dangerous person and hence, he obtained preferential treatment and was under multiple layers of locks.
Captain Miao had met Yang Qing and Yang Yifan before. Of the two of them, one had an elegance and poise beyond ordinary mortals, the other had an extraordinary aura. No matter how he tried, he could not imagine how a person like this could be wedged between the two generations of grandfather and granddaughter.
"I heard that you refuse to cooperate with the investigation, do not admit to taking drugs, and also do not admit to committing murder?"
Yang Ping rotated his eyeballs towards him for a while, then let out a cold smile that showed his yellowed teeth. "What drug did I take, did the lab test say? Who did I kill, do you guys have proof?"
Captain Miao replied without changing his expression, "Indeed we do."
Yang Ping was stunned.
"Your old friend, Tian Zhanpeng, and more than ten other people have collectively identified you as being involved in the death of a person called Wei Changsheng, also formerly known as Wei Xiao. Their confessions have already been through repeated verifications." As Captain Miao spoke, he took out a file from under his arm. "We also gathered these things."
As he spoke, he slid out the items in the file. They were none other than the stack of mysterious photos Gan Qing had once received.
Yang Ping sat up abruptly. "What's this?"
Who took these photos?
Yang Ping widened a pair of eyes that resembled ping-pong balls. Those people whom he had dragged into the matter to be his witnesses were all in the photos. They were living their lives peacefully and wouldn't betray themselves for no reason. In that case… who else knew about what happened at Mudpool Backlane?
"This was given to us by a public-spirited member of the public. I, too, would like to know," Captain Miao leaned his body forward slightly. "What are these? Oh, speaking of these mysterious photos, there's another very interesting thing. Those friends of yours who identified you all think that these photos were taken by you."
"Because they also received a letter. We got our hands on it too." Captain Miao smiled. "Would you like to know what was written in it? How about I read it out to you?"
Yang Ping sat in a daze for a while. Suddenly, his eye twitched like it was spasming. "Wang. Jiu. Sheng!"
On a small holiday island in the Pacific Ocean, Wang Jiusheng startled awake. Black spots appeared in his vision and he hurriedly fumbled his way to the bedside table, grabbing some pills and throwing them into his mouth along with the half glass of water that remained from before he went to sleep. Done, he pushed his pillow aside and fell back with his neck stretched out. He lay down like a corpse gone cold, staring stiffly at the ceiling, groaning as he waited for his heart palpitations to pass.
He was taking more and more sleeping pills, and they were becoming more and more ineffective. When it was time to dream, he still dreamed. It was just that his mind was fuzzy in his dreams and he forgot them the moment he opened his eyes. The only thing that remained was that kind of feeling like his chest was being flattened by someone sitting on it.
One side of the hotel room had large floor-to-ceiling glass windows. A swimming pool was connected outside. When the night wind blew, the shadowy trees swayed and from where he was lying in the room, he could hear the sound of the distant waves. But these fine and dense static noises did not bring him any peace. The moment Wang Jiusheng closed his eyes, he felt that his surroundings were filled with whispers, like the empty room was crowded with humans.
Those who died deserved deaths, those who died unjust deaths, those whose spirits still lingered.
Suddenly, his phone rang. Wang Jiusheng startled and grabbed it. "Hello?"
The number he had been using had already been discontinued and was left behind in China. Only a few of his trusted people knew his new number and it was used to control the situation in Yanning.
Wang Jiusheng had lived through a crackdown once. In the 80s, during the time when they clashed with Beggars' Sect and people died in a fire, there was a round of severe unrest in Travellers' Sect. But when the storm was over, wasn't he still able to summon wind and rain as he wished? Not only had he usurped Zhang Meizhen's position, he had even taken the chance to wash his sect clean of their dirty past and had his own business. He had climbed to his current position step by step.
Fortune and disaster were two sides of the same coin, no one could dictate them. Wang Jiusheng had been through so many great storms in his life and every incident had seemed to be an opportunity for him.
He believed that this time would be no different.
He initially wanted to leave temporarily to stay out of the storm and hadn't gone far, planning to return to China once things calmed down a little. But who would have thought that not only was the storm showing no signs of abating, it was even getting bigger. His people dropped out of contact one by one and now, the number of people who knew this phone number was getting fewer. It made Wang Jiusheng feel a kind of terror like he had been abandoned on the island and he was almost hoping for someone to call him.
"President Wang," the voice on the phone said urgently, "she's starting to take action with her Red Bat Token."
"Zhang Meizhen. Recently, our people were taken away by the police every other day to be investigated. The areas where our cabs work all have police squatting there, the shops everywhere are having their licenses checked and the ones without licenses are sealed off immediately. There are quite a lot of rumours going around the sect. People are saying that your wife and children moved out of the country long ago and that you're definitely not planning to come back or planning to care about whether we live or die. Zhang Meizhen took the chance to contact a bunch of the sect's old fools in other parts of the country. They are discussing throwing you out of Travellers' Sect."
In the past thirty years, Wang Jiusheng had always thought of Travellers' Sect as his private property. For a moment, he could not comprehend that line "throwing you out of Travellers' Sect."
He asked like he was dreaming, "What?"
"It's true. Right now, everyone's alarmed and worried. Quite a few people are swaying. The old hag even contacted Beggars' Sect Yang Qing. That little brat from the Yu family sent out an Alliance Leader's Command to gather everyone at the end of the month. He said it's to straighten out the over thirty years of feuding between the two sects. That's right… they even found a bunch of lawyers from somewhere, saying that they want to check our accounts and to check… check your accounts. They also said that you have hidden the truth about Futongda for so many years. It's clearly our Travellers' Sect property but now it bears the surname Wang…"
Wang Jiusheng shot up like a revived corpse.
"When are you coming back? If you don't show yourself, our brothers really won't know whose surname to follow, North Branch Master!"
Wang Jiusheng's heart rate that was slowing down under the effects of drugs started to pound wildly again. He sucked in a breath of cold air in shock and thought that he understood everything now. That old hag who was fated to bring disaster to everyone around her had lived alone for so many years. Why had she suddenly wanted to get a tenant? How could it be such a coincidence, the tenant she got was none other than the Wan Mu Chun disciple who had been freed from prison?
After all this fuss, it turned out that they were waiting for him.
It was all a sinister plot.
Wang Jiusheng was thinking that she had purposely used Wan Mu Chun as bait to lure him into the trap, colluded with Beggars' Sect's Yang Qing and forced him to leave the country to dodge the disaster, all for the sake of seizing the fruits of his more than thirty years of sweat and blood.
"What about that Wan Mu Chun?" Wang Jiusheng asked. "The thing I told you guys to do, is it done?"
The other side of the call was silent for a while. "Yes, this is the second thing I was just about to tell you. It should… be done."
Wang Jiusheng said angrily, "What do you mean 'should'!"
"I didn't see it with my own eyes. That day, two people from the Xu clan went. One escaped while the other fell into the police's hands. Our brother who got in touch with them can't be contacted now. Just think about it, if they did not succeed, why would the police go there for no reason?"
"What's going on with the police? Any news from the Xu clan?"
"President Wang, the news from them is that just barely after you used them as a knife to eliminate Wan Mu Chun, you called the police on them. In the future, they will never again exist in harmony with you."
"Bullshit. What the fuck does the police have to do with me…"
When he said that, his voice suddenly paused. Wang Jiusheng lifted his head. "What did you say just now? Is that exactly what the Xu clan said? Saying that I used them… to eliminate Wan Mu Chun."
After hearing that, Wang Jiusheng fell into a long silence. He stood up and walked to the full-length window, pushing the curtains open and looking out into the beach in the distance.
To be safe, he knew that he should be more prudent and not return to China at this point when the storm was the fiercest. He had made a point of being prudent throughout his life, of making his kill in a single strike.
Zhang Meizhen was the former North Branch Master. Thirty years after all that matter of right and wrong, there were still old fools in Travellers' Sect who acknowledged her. The people Wang Jiusheng could contact now were getting fewer. This time, for the sake of eliminating Wan Mu Chun completely, he had acted in haste and incurred dissatisfaction from that group of shit-stirrers from the Xu clan… Was he going to have to stay on this little rundown island, alone and helpless, and watch someone seize the fruits of his life's blood and sweat while he was unable to do anything?
His subordinate on the other end of the call fell into silence with him, then stammered, "President Wang, to be honest with you… there are economic crime investigators coming to Futongda everyday. I don't even dare go to the office recently. What should we do? Everyone's waiting for your instructions…"
Wang Jiusheng closed his eyes.
Even if he never returned to China again for the rest of his life and handed over all those things submissively to Zhang Meizhen, his overseas assets were enough for him to live out his old age without worries.
Then, why should he?
The ruckus this time was so large. Travellers' Sect was a joke of a thing, here today and gone tomorrow. Who knew what would happen to it in the future? If he was magnanimous this one time, he might be able to escape from trouble just in time.
He thought, When a person has had their moment of glory and has once been powerful enough to summon wind and rain, what else do they lack in their life?
Wang Jiusheng's eyes snapped open. "Book a flight for me. I'm going back."
However, greed was a terminal illness without hope or cure.
In a small two-storey house in the outskirts of Yanning, Xu Lin's back was soaked through with cold sweat. Downstairs, his accomplices were asleep and dead to the world but he didn't dare make a single noise.
Moonlight shone through the window. The barely visible fishing lines twisted and wound around him, trapping him in a small spot. The most lethal one was stretched right across his throat. It felt as though this joke of a thing would slit his throat even if all he did was swallow his saliva.
Other than that, there was also a razor blade at the side of his neck.
"Did you think that Paoding Jieniu is merely about drawing a curve with a little knife? Who taught you that? The barrier to entry to the profession of killers is not that low, you know, dage." The person holding his life in their hands sniffed his body and fished his phone out of his hands. "Can you really not smell it yourself?"
Xu Lin moved his eyes in terror, not daring to make a sound.
"However, I do need to thank you for 'eliminating' me." Gan Qing thought for a while, then slowly lifted the razor blade. "In the first place, it was Travellers' Sect's Wang Jiusheng that made use of you guys. We'll trick him into coming back and I'll help you guys vent your anger on him, how about that?"
Xu Lin was just about to feel relieved. "You…"
Before he could finish speaking, there was a pain on the back of his neck. His vision darkened and he fell towards the fishing lines.
Shit. A final thought flashed past Xu Lin's mind. I'm going to be cut up into eight pieces!
And then, those fishing lines turned out to be only hanging loosely. The instant Xu Lin fell on them, they bent limply around him, wrapping him like a spindle.
From downstairs came the sound of the door being slammed open. "Police! Someone reported that you guys are hiding wanted criminals!"
"Boo." Gan Qing slipped nimbly out the window.
She passed through the streets of the suburb that were bustling yet strangely giving off a touch of desolation, and got on the last bus of the day that had stopped right at that moment. She pushed up the cap that was hiding her face, fished out her phone, and sent a WeChat sticker that said: Ok.
The other party replied in seconds: Explain.
Gan Qing, "..."
She again pushed up the brim of the cap that had fallen down. Seeing that there was no one around her, she connected her earphones and replied softly with a voice message. "Xu Lin was taken away. I was the one who called the police. I didn't injure anyone and I'm also uninjured. I didn't show my face. The tactic I used was to give him a scare… Right now, the Xu clan knows that they were used by Wang Jiusheng. He no longer has this ally."
Yu Lanchuan's voice sounded in the earphones. "Got it. What did you eat this afternoon?"
Gan Qing was dumbstruck. She thought that there must be something wrong with her earphones. "What?"
"What did you eat this afternoon?" Yu Lanchuan repeated. "Where did you sleep yesterday night?"
Gan Qing said in resignation, "Do I even have to ask for instructions and make reports on what I ate and drank and where I slept, Alliance Leader?"
"Nonsense. If you end up giving yourself stomach problems, doesn't that count as an injury? You might as well get stabbed, the recovery is faster!" Yu Lanchuan pressed for an answer. "Hurry up and answer!"
"Don't rush me, let me think…"
"Inability to remember what you ate in the afternoon is one of the signs of early stage dementia. You're already at this point and you still haven't prepared old-age insurance for yourself! Still being so wild!"
Gan Qing rested her head against the window. The swaying beams of the street lights wandered back and forth in the bus, and amidst the rocking, they seemed to vaguely condense into the feeling of serenity and tranquility of the long years of a wandering existence.
While the various parties were stirring restlessly, the end of the month was almost here.
No. 3 High organised a spring trip for Year 1 and Year 2 students. Those who didn't want to join only had to get a parent's or a guardian's signature and they didn't have to go. In this kind of situation, Yu Lanchuan would always sign the form in advance and leave it to Liu Zhongqi to decide whether or not to hand it in.
"Ge," Carrying a glass of milk, Liu Zhongqi chased after Yu Lanchuan and asked, "today's the deadline for registration. Aren't you going to sign for me?"
Yu Lanchuan paused in the middle of putting on his tie and said nonchalantly, "I advise you to go. Year 2's spring trip is basically the last group activity in your high school life. If you want to go next year, you won't have the chance anymore."
"It's not that. I just feel that it's a bit strange. Ge, are you purposely making me go elsewhere to stay for a couple of days?"
Yu Lanchuan's gaze shifted from the dressing mirror to glance at Liu Zhongqi.
"Oh, am I thinking too much… I keep feeling that the atmosphere in this courtyard here has been a little strange recently." The high school student who didn't bother himself with outside matters ran a hand through his hair and said rather as though to himself, "Maybe it's because Grandpa Yang is ill. No one is organising the morning exercise team and they just straggle around every day. I feel like the courtyard is no longer lively. There's no one next door too… By the way, is that big swindler on a trip? The last time I forgot my keys, I knocked on the door but no one answered."
Yu Lanchuan's eyelids dropped. "I'll change it to a fingerprint lock these couple of days."
Liu Zhongqi was startled. When they moved in, Yu Lanchuan had acted like he did not plan to stay there for long. All the furnishings in the house were the ones originally there. The few added items were basically those household items that the internet said could magically transform a rented place into a home.
"If there is anything else that needs to be changed, write them all down in a list and give it to me. When you're on summer vacation, I'll tidy up this place." Yu Lanchuan picked up his bag and prepared to leave for work as usual. When he reached the front door, he suddenly paused and asked Liu Zhongqi, "Do you still want to learn swordplay?"
Liu Zhongqi's eyes gleamed. "Yes!"
Yu Lanchuan studied him carefully with an odd gaze and asked, "What's good about learning swordplay? There won't be swords for you to use in the future."
Back then, the old Yu Huaide had asked him the same thing.
The teenage Yu Lanchuan had answered seriously, "Without a sword, I can use a stick in its place. Without a stick, I can still use my fists. After I learn swordplay, no matter what I encounter outside in the future, I won't feel completely powerless anymore."
The old Yu Huaide let out a laugh upon hearing that and told him, "How could there be something so wonderful, boy."
Liu Zhongqi stared blankly, then mumbled very honestly, "I just… want to learn. Why does it have to be useful? Then, what use is trigonometry and fill-in-the-blanks exercises? But we still have to sit exams for those so many times. If I learn swordplay, when I listen to wuxia stories in the future it'll feel even more real… Can that be considered a reason?"
Even if one studied a mountain of books, it did not guarantee a good life.
Learning a powerful skill that was unmatched in the world could not do that, earning a fortune could not do that, even having power and a high status could not do that.
"Sure. This use is not insignificant." Yu Lanchuan waved at him. "We'll wait until after your gaokao next year. I'm going to work."
Last winter, the Martial Arts General Assembly was organised like a mass arranged dating. Those who participated had all come in high spirits for the sole purpose of joining the excitement. They had brought their own snacks and drinks, and had come to see Old Alliance Leader Yu's grandson. A few days before, there were already people who had purposely hurried here from out of town. For the week before and after the event, there was an endless stream of visitors coming to Old Sect Leader Yang's home.
Who would have known that in less than a year's time, when Yanning had just started to recover from the harsh seasons and the spring blossoms were just starting to blossom, the affairs of the human realm had already turned completely upside down, a few cycles of the new replacing the old already passed.
This time, the small courtyard of No. 110 was silent and still. But when the last day of the month arrived, the people seemed to emerge from the ground, filling the space before anyone realised it. To Yu Lanchuan, those who came were mostly unfamiliar faces and there were barely any young people.
Old Sect Leader Yang entered on time. His hands were no longer holding the Dog Beating Staff. He sat in a wheelchair, Zhang Meizhen was pushing him.
Yu Lanchuan went over to greet him. Old Yang strained to lift his heavy eyelids, the age spots there a lot more prominent now, and smiled tiredly at him.
Yan Hao sent him a message: We're in the last row.
When Yu Lanchuan turned around, Yan Hao waved at him. Qiao-Qiao was sitting beside him, a baseball cap on her head. She had probably just come out of detention for a second time. She had gotten considerably thinner and her face was no longer bright and lively, and she looked like she had grown a few years older. Worried about the girl's mental state, Yu Lanchuan rolled his sleeves up and sat down on her other side.
"The few people behind Meizhen-jie can all be considered Travellers' Sect's people." Han Dongsheng came over and explained in a soft voice. "Meizhen-jie and Wang Jiusheng are actually not called 'Sect Leader,' they're called 'North Branch Master.' This is because Travellers' Sect is divided into a few sections. Other than the section here, there are also the ones in the south and in the west. They are basically made up of different groups. It's something like the 'wufu,' the division of near and far family relatives into five degrees of genealogical distance. Everyone minds their own business and they don't interfere with one another. This time, it's probably because there's a major announcement that they came to bear witness. Out of the four main sect elders of Beggars' Sect, three are held at the police station now. The ones here today are people I don't know… I heard that they retired a long time ago."
Han Dongsheng glanced at Qiao-Qiao. "...They all lost family members to that fire. I don't know where Old Yang found them."
Qiao-Qiao gripped her fists tightly.
Right then, Zhang Meizhen bent down and said something to Old Yang, then walked by herself to the barebones stage. She picked up the microphone and aimed it at the stereo system. A loud drone reverberated throughout the place, interrupting everyone's whispered conversations.
"It's me, the former North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect, Zhang Meizhen." Zhang Meizhen's gaze swept around the area, smile creases appearing on her bright red lips. "There are a lot of old friends here that I've not met for many years. I never thought that we would have the chance to gather everyone again."
Before she could finish her opening remarks, from below, someone called out in a sinister tone, "We, too, never thought that you would still have the nerve to stand here and talk. Zhang Meizhen, back then, for the sake of an outsider man, you put the sect on a fire to burn. How many of Travellers' Sect brothers have you harmed? Meanwhile, you dusted off your ass and just left like that. You didn't even care about whether we lived or died. What kind of shitty North Branch Master are you? Isn't Travellers' Sect just a tool for you to flaunt your status? Why, are your looks failing now so you can't hang on to that man taking advantage of you, or is it because Yang Qing isn't enough anymore that you finally remember us now, slut?"
After he spoke, burbling laughter rose from all around. There was an indescribable sense of vulgarity and obscenity in the air.
This kind of laughter was like a "background track" that would never fall out of fashion. As long as there was a woman standing in front of a crowd, as long as she was not a pure and saintly woman or a simple and down-to-earth mother, this track could be used.
"Who signed the Alliance Leader's Command? Little Master Yu? You gathered so many people here, just to make us listen to a hen clucking?"
"Zhang Meizhen, no matter how much lipstick you put on, your teeth are already falling out. If you have any shame left, you should cover up that old face of yours."
"Where's Little Master Yu? Come out and say something."
"Little Master Yu, you're still young. You shouldn't get the habit of worshipping every fart from an old lady, haha…"
Their words grew increasingly unpleasant. Yan Hao and Han Dongsheng both turned towards Yu Lanchuan."
Han Dongsheng said, "Little Master Yu, I still have a few friends. I'll get them to-"
"Can you tell?" Yu Lanchuan fished out his phone and texted Yu Yan. "Wang Jiusheng's back in the country."
Yan Hao looked at Zhang Meizhen on the stage. At the age of over seventy, her lipstick could no longer hide the sagging corners of her lips and the face powder trapped in her wrinkles stood out starkly under the bright lights. She was like the withered flower on a dried-out stick. "But… th-they are really too much."
After sending the text, Yu Lanchuan's eyes wandered around the perimeter of the area. Someone exchanged looks with him. Yu Lanchuan gave the person a slight nod and thought distractedly, Is Gan Qing here? Where is she hiding?
He said casually to Yan Hao, "What kind of storm has Zhang Meizhen not seen before? Would she care about a small scene like this?"
"Hah." Zhang Meizhen laughed. "I heard that just a few days ago, you people wanted nothing more than to bury your heads in the sand. Why, now that the one backing you people up has returned, you are confident again? Wang Jiusheng, if you can show your face openly just once in your life and come out to say a few things, then I'll say you're at least worth a little something."
"Are you worthy of speaking to our North Branch Master?"
Zhang Meizhen said, "Your North Branch Master keeps dogs but doesn't spay them. They shit all over the place, drool and hump table legs everyday, and all they can see with their eyes is a slut. Any passerby can call the police to check his dog license, isn't that right, Comrade Police?" Zhang Meizhen said.
Han Dongsheng snapped his head around to look at Yu Lanchuan.
"Why are you looking at me? This event has approval from the authorities." Yu Lanchuan put his phone away. "Otherwise, I wouldn't sign the Alliance Leader's Command for you guys."
Han Dongsheng, "..."
All at once, the place turned pin drop silent.
"I gathered everyone here today because of a few matters. Since someone is accusing me of not caring about whether my 'brothers' in Travellers' Sect lived or died back then, I have something to say too. Back then, those who were imprisoned had solid evidence proving their crime. They were involved in kidnapping and indirectly caused the deaths of those people. By the laws of any country, they would be jailed. Everyone, what do you think I should have done to show my care for them? Organise a jailbreak or bribe the public security officials for them?"
Her words were too sensitive. When she uttered the phrase "Comrade Officer" just now, many of them already became nervous. They suspect that Zhang Meizhen did not have any good intentions and wanted to use the mockery to set up a trap for them. For a moment, no one answered her.
"The people I didn't do anything for, did Wang Jiusheng do something? It's been thirty-six years. They've long since been freed. Those who took part in what happened back then, are any of them still alive now? Stand up and share with us."
A voice came from a corner. "He didn't."
Everyone turned their heads in unison to see a thin and small man stand up. His hair was greasy and streaked with gray at his temples, and he wore an ill-hitting outer garment that was stained all over with engine oil. Standing in the middle of the crowd, he swallowed, discomfited and flinching as he slowly rose.
"I… I'm Ruan Xiaoshan. Thirty-six years ago, because of this matter… I was imprisoned for seven years."
Right after that, another three to four people stood up silently. There were both men and women, all of them bearing the ashamed look characteristic of those who had been in prison. They stood in a row, their hands together like there were still handcuffs on them. Zhang Meizhen and Yang Qing had unexpectedly gathered the victims' families and the perpetrators together!
Qiao-Qiao shook and wanted to stand up. Yu Lanchuan and Yan Hao forced her back in her seat with a hand each.
At the same time, someone in a corner quietly took out their phone and swiftly typed out a message and sent it. A few seconds later, the phone showed that the message had failed to be sent.
The person finally realised that at some point, there was no longer any mobile signal in the event hall.
This person was one of those who had jeered at Zhang Meizhen. He wore a grey-coloured short-sleeved shirt. When he realised that there was no signal there, for some reason, he had an ominous feeling. He quietly went closer to the window, trying to find some signal. At the same time, he kept an ear out for what Zhang Meizhen and the others were saying.
He heard Zhang Meizhen ask, "You're saying that Wang Jiusheng has never done anything for you guys?"
"After I came out of prison, I once thought of looking for my old brothers but they have all become rich and are all 'directors.' I couldn't contact them… The ones running errands below them are all from the younger generation and I don't know them." The person who called himself Ruan Xiaoshan kept fiddling with his clothes, keeping his hands and eyes occupied, not daring to look towards Beggars' Sect. His mouth moved. "Because of a moment's impulse, because of my poor understanding of the law, and because I only knew to care about the so-called 'jianghu loyalty,' I was not able to fully consider the consequences of my actions and even caused such a disaster, harming others and myself…"
This long spiel came out in a single breath, smoothly without a hitch. It could be seen that during his reform period in prison, he had done not a small amount of reporting on his thoughts. Throughout his seven years prison term, his tongue had gone through hundreds and thousands of rounds of training, and had gained muscle memory from all that.
While Zhang Meizhen was still stunned, he had already he had finished reciting the two main points of "regretting past deeds" and "deep grief of repentance," his words coming out at a steady and uniform beat, and was just about to enter a higher theme—the part about looking forward to the future.
Zhang Meizhen quickly interrupted his report on his thoughts. "What are you doing for a living now?"
Ruan Xiaoshan gave her a lost look. He stood where he was and thought for a while. He seemed unable to come up with any kind of valid conclusion to sum up his life and could only say vaguely, "I help out… here and there, I guess. And people give me some pocket money."
"In that kidnapping case back then, were you the leader?" Zhang Meizhen asked him.
Ruan Xiaoshan lowered his head and stared at the tips of his shoes. He nodded, there was nothing left in his life to live for, this was a question he had answered too many times.
Zhang Meizhen raised a pointed eyebrow and asked a loaded question, "Think carefully, was it you yourself who wanted to go? Did anyone instruct you? Did anyone urge you to?"
In the corner, the grey-shirted man failed to send his message for the third time. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he was starting to be anxious. He happened to hear Zhang Meizhen's words and couldn't help opening his mouth. "Zhang Meizhen, what do you mean by that? Who are you trying to implicate with what happened thirty-six years ago?"
"I only want to bring this feud to a complete conclusion," Zhang Meizhen replied mildly. "Back then, our two sides were so busy making a racket over this matter that we didn't have the time to sit down and discuss the hows and whys together. Everyone should have calmed down by now, right? It's time to lay this matter out clearly so that we don't carry it to our graves."
Upon hearing that, Ruan Xiaoshan fell to his knees with a thud. The few people behind him followed suit and knelt too, like they were doing so reflexively. Ruan Xiaoshan shuffled forward a few steps on his knees and faced Yang Qing, tears in his voice as he said, "I'm sorry to you all… I only wanted to give you all a scare, I never thought people would die… I never thought…"
Behind Yang Qing, a row of elderly were seated sparsely. A single glance was all it took to see the thick and heavy lethargy. After being tormented by hatred and guilt for over thirty years, these family members of the victims did not even have the strength to smack the table and rise in anger. Right now, they were only listening to the perpetrator's howling, numb and silent. A few pairs of eyes were fixed on Ruan Xiaoshan. No one said a word.
"Sect Leader Yang," Zhang Meizhen turned to Yang Qing and said, "back then, I watched these kids grow up. For what they did wrong back then, those who should be jailed have served their jail term, those whose lives should be ruined have had their lives ruined. Until now, they still don't know how that fire started. They were wrong but their crimes were not so severe that they should die, am I right?"
Sect Leader Yang's hand rested on the plastic walking stick. His eyes fell slightly shut.
"But in this matter, there should be someone paying with their life." As Zhang Meizhen spoke, she glanced at the door like her words were meant for someone some distance away. She asked Ruan Xiaoshan, "Stand up and talk. Back then, why did you guys want to kidnap those people? What were you thinking?"
Pulling his two rather stiff legs up, Ruan Xiaoshan climbed to his feet with some difficulty. "At that time, I… was barely twenty-one. I was a delivery boy at a restaurant in a guest house. At the restaurant… there was a server, a young boy, small and thin and also not a local. There were always people bullying him. I helped him a couple of times before, so that boy really looked up to me. He felt that I knew a lot of people, that I was amazing, that I knew the ways of the world. He kept pestering me, wanting to join Travellers' Sect."
At that point, Ruan Xiaoshan's expression was rather distracted, as though he didn't feel that it was real, as though his memories did not belong to him. Back then, had he been someone important? Had there been someone who looked up to him? Had there been a time when he was so spirited?
Zhang Meizhen asked softly, "And then?"
"That day, I went to that shop and when the boss was taking inventory, the boy came over and said secretly to me…" Ruan Xiaoshan looked towards the victims' families behind Old Yang, his eyes shifty and evasive, moving back and forth a few times before he finally saw some familiar traces in those aged faces. Finally, his eyes fell on the leftmost person—the "Old Song" that Zhang Meizhen had found by going to the retirement home herself. Ruan Xiaoshan stared at him and mumbled, "I already said it back then… They kept asking me and I kept saying the same thing, but no one believed me…"
Old Song slowly stood up. "Which guest house was it?"
"It's called… Ping'an Road Guesthouse."
"Ping'an Road." The corner of Old Song's eyes twitched slightly. There was a rather strange smile on his face. "Sect Leader Yang, back then, Yang Ping had a falling out with you. He left his wife and newborn at home and walked away without a word. Didn't you find out where he was staying? It was none other than Ping'an Road Guesthouse. All of us knew, we just didn't tell you. The two of you had deep feelings for each other and insisted on bringing the two sects together. No matter what other people thought, Elder Zhu and I were panicking internally. We went to Ping'an Guesthouse to look for Yang Ping for drinks, and also discussed how to put this thing to a stop… We never thought that the walls had ears and that a little mole from Travellers' Sect overheard us."
Ruan Xiaoshan said, "That younger brother of mine said that he heard you guys plotting to fabricate a kidnapping to drive a wedge between both sides and force Old Sect Leader Yang and Travellers' Sect to have a falling out… After hearing that, I found out which room Yang Ping was staying in and climbed to his window to monitor him. I heard him contacting other people and in a short time, I understood how they were planning to carry it out and where they were going to keep those people."
Before he could finish speaking, a buzz went through the entire place. Those who were hearing about what happened behind the scenes for the first time were completely in chaos.
Ruan Xiaoshan's eyes reddened. Ignoring everyone, he curled up where he was and said as though to himself, "I was so good to that young boy. What did this thing have to do with him? Why did he have to eavesdrop? If he heard them, fine, but why did he have to tell me? Wasn't he just causing trouble for me…"
The grey-shirted man stuck to the side of the wall and slipped out through the back door under the cover of the chaos. Once outside, his phone had a signal again, but it kept breaking off and reconnecting. He cursed in a low voice, and ran to the other side of the road.
Once he crossed the road, the signal bars were full.
The grey-shirted man found a secluded corner and hid himself there. He made a call. "Hello, President Wang. They called the police and even blocked off the mobile signal in the place. I couldn't even send messages just now… That old demoness dug out the scapegoats from over thirty years ago from who knows where—Ruan Xiaoshan, do you remember him? That guy who led the kidnapping. He's gone silly from prison. The old demoness keeps digging traps for him, leading him to say that there was someone behind him giving him instructions. I think she wants him to drag you into the matter."
"Are they using the police to bolster their courage and make me too scared to show my face?" On the other end of the call, Wang Jiusheng laughed. "This Zhang Meizhen, all her life she's acted like she's the boss. She seems a hero among women, full of aggression, but in actual fact, she's foolish and naive, like she has never grown up. Even if she bribes those few fools and accuses me right there and then of pulling the strings behind the scenes, can the police arrest me? It's been thirty-six years. Those little officers that she called to fill up the space weren't even born yet at that time."
"Exactly!" Grey Shirt saw his chance and immediately sucked up to him. "She must know that once you come back and show your face, her turn on the stage is over."
Wang Jiusheng was used to listening to bootlickers. He turned a deaf ear to him and lit a cigarette for himself.
He knew what Zhang Meizhen was thinking. Back then, due to a moment's carelessness, she plunged into confusion and submissively handed over the position of North Branch Master to him. At that time, both Travellers' Sect and Beggars' Sect were affected by the crackdown on illegal societies and were severely shaken. The people involved on both sides either lost their loved ones or went into prison. He, Wang Jiusheng, was the sole winner. After so many years, even a donkey would have realised what that meant. It appeared that Zhang Meizhen wanted to take advantage when Travellers' Sect was going through yet another internal strife and Wang Jiusheng was forced to leave the country to bring the old case to light and set things straight.
Her preparations were quite complete too. She had even somehow managed to invite Beggars' Sect to put on a performance with her.
But did this foolish old woman really know what her gentlemanly Yang-dage had done?
Grey Shirt asked, "President Wang, what should we do now? Will you be coming over?"
"No. Let them act on stage as much as they want, I won't be going up to act like a monkey," Wang Jiusheng said. "Wait ten minutes. I'll get someone to send something to you."
Grey Shirt received instructions from Wang Jiusheng and gained a boost to his confidence. He put his phone away and went to a nearby supermarket to buy cigarettes, then stood by the roadside and leisurely blew out clouds of smoke.
Right now, spring was waning, the season changing to early summer, and there were hints of summer heat in the air. The scholar trees everywhere in Yanning filled the view with flowers, their dense leaves blocking the sunshine—and also blocking prying eyes. On the large scholar tree behind Grey Shirt, Gan Qing quietly laid low at the treetop, hiding herself under the cover of the leaves rustling in the wind. She took out a Malteser from her pocket and threw it into her mouth. The chocolate was a little melted, leaving sticky stains on her fingers which she casually wiped on the tree.
At the event hall, the perpetrator Ruan Xiaoshan had at first been suppressing his choked-up emotions but after a while, he could not hold back anymore and started to bawl like a child. The atmosphere in the hall was exceptionally strange. The perpetrators and the victims' families looked at each other but no one seemed to want to take revenge on the other side. Instead, they seemed a little like they wanted to cry their hearts out.
Thirty-six years. Even the strongest spirit of loyalty had been scattered by the wind. When recalling those bitter years spanning half their lives, what had been in those years? What had they strived for? What kind of life had they lived?
How absurd everything was!
Even three dogs gathered together would snap at each other to sort out their ranks; power struggles existed everywhere and the ones that were more tragic and more absurd than this were too many to be counted. It was just because the old jianghu was already buried by mountains and carried away by the rivers, the jianghu customs and loyalty already becoming the dregs of feudalism, that the things they care to fight over were—in the eyes of their descendants—merely them having nothing better to do with their time. Hence, other than the absurdity of the situation, it was also especially comical.
Yan Hao sneaked a glance at Qiao-Qiao. The little mute girl seemed to have turned into a statue standing far from what was happening, watching all those people wipe out the debts and enmity between them.
He shivered. His neck shrank back and his shoulders hunched up. He felt that his social anxiety was getting worse.
When they were done crying, Zhang Meizhen, who had been watching like a bystander the whole time, again signalled to everyone to quiet down and asked Ruan Xiaoshan, "Are you still in contact with that brother of yours who worked at the guest house? What is he doing?"
Ruan Xiaoshan's reaction was a couple of beats slower than it had been just now. After a while, he finally shook his head and stammered, "Later on, I didn't see him again. I heard that he entered Travellers' Sect. I guess someone else must have introduced him… He should be at Futongda now. He changed his name and went to be a vice president at a branch somewhere in another part of the country. I thought of looking for him before but I couldn't contact him. When I finally got his number, his calls were taken by his secretary."
"I see." Zhang Meizhen narrowed her eyes slightly. "Among you, there are those whose wives and children left you, and those whose families were destroyed and lives lost. After everything was over, no one obtained any benefits. It looks like only two people achieved anything—one of them is Wang Jiusheng who 'stepped up at a moment of crisis' and took over as the North Branch Master; the other one is the eavesdropping little server who, at the start, was a rural migrant who was bullied every day but transformed in a flash and is now a person of power."
"What do you mean by that?" Old Song asked, his eyes red.
"Nothing," Zhang Meizhen said. "I just want to know, the three of you back then—you, Elder Zhu and Yang Ping—might not have been skilled experts but you were not deaf, right? A little server who can neither fly in the air nor drill into the ground eavesdropping outside for so long, and none of you three knew about it?"
Old Song was stunned.
Zhang Meizhen turned towards Ruan Xiaoshan. "What happened after you eavesdropped?"
"They planned to first find a guest house to stay the night, then rent cars to go out of town for a trip. I found a few brothers and we hid ourselves in advance at the place I overheard them saying. Halfway through, we launched a sneak attack, knocking them unconscious and taking them away. At that time, we had a bit to drink and we hadn't thought of what to do with them. So we just found a place to lock them up and waited to see… to see how Beggars' Sect would react the next day."
"Only the few of you knew about that old factory?" Zhang Meizhen asked.
Ruan Xiaoshan shook his head. "No, North Branch… Wang Jiusheng also knew."
"How did Wang Jiusheng know?"
"One of the brothers working for him told him," Ruan Xiaoshan mumbled. "He has wide connections."
Zhang Meizhen laughed. "Indeed. I'm impatient and bad-tempered, and spend every waking second only thinking about being in love. I didn't have any plans for the sect's future either. That's why, whenever you guys had any problems, you all went to Elder Wang for help, am I right?"
Ruan Xiaoshan looked warily at her and said, "He hurried there to advise us to let them go. He brought alcohol with him and patiently persuaded us and drank with us for half the night. In the end, he convinced us. We definitely had to let them go, otherwise, what could we do? They were all either old people or children. No matter how angry we were, it's not like we could hit them or kill them. But Beggars' Sect did something so disgusting, we weren't content with letting them off just like that. We wanted to wait and see when they would realise they had lost their people, and when they were panicked and desperate, we would come out again and force them to admit what they had done before returning the hostages to them. I.. at that time, I really hadn't thought too much and I didn't take the hostages seriously either. Everyone had too much to drink so we left one person to keep watch while the rest of us went back to sleep."
"I think this explains it." Zhang Meizhen straightened up. Her eyes swept across the Travellers' Sect crowd behind her. "Everyone, on a usual day, no one would go to that old factory. It didn't burn earlier, it didn't burn later, it just had to catch fire on the day there was a roomful of people trapped inside. Other than these few people who fell into the trap themselves, Wang Jiusheng alone knew about this… Ah, that's right, he also plied the people keeping watch there with alcohol. After the incident, he was not implicated at all and even soared to success… Aren't you wondering what kind of act he's putting on? He alone holds such a large corporation like Futongda in his hands and who knows how many villas he has in Yanning. Is it unreasonable of me to want to check his accounts?"
"Of course it's unreasonable." Someone pushed open the back door. Grey Shirt, who had slipped out to look for a mobile signal just now, swaggered in and held up an envelope smugly. "Everyone, back then, this Zhang woman already wanted to kneel down and fawn over Beggars' Sect but she didn't succeed. Now she wants to take the chance while our North Branch Master is away to hug Yang Qing's thigh, and is back to stir up trouble, slandering our North Branch Master by accusing him of murder and arson. Zhang Meizhen, Yang Qing, take a good look, who on earth was the one who committed murder and arson!"
Outside the hall, the Travellers' Sect disciple who delivered the letter to Grey Shirt angled his head and listened for a few seconds. He looked around him and seeing that no one was paying him any attention, he slipped back into a minivan, humming a tune and preparing to retreat in victory. He didn't notice that someone had slipped silently into the back of the van.
Gan Qing stayed close to the back of the backseat to conceal herself. She unlocked her phone and shared her real-time location.