Book 1: Loss of Direction
Mudpool Backlane was not a street; it was an area made up of a maze of tiny alleys and lanes that were as uneven as a dog's teeth. Originally, it was called "Little Pool," the reason being the ground in this area was low-lying so once it rained, water would collect there. The corners of the walls at the side of the streets were all covered with slippery moss and sometimes, there would even be a bit of the fishy and stale smell of condensation damp.
In the past, this was a place where hoodlums gathered. People from burglary rings, swindling rings, child traffickers… There were all sorts and the variety was endless. Rumour had it that the police had even once, in the middle of the night, extracted a group of cross-province murderers from this place. All the locals knew to make a detour around this area. Hence, Little Pool gained the nickname of "Mudpool."
Yet, fifteen years had gone by. Smartphones were already widespread and IC payphones had left the stage of history. Mudpool, the well-known "hoodlums' nest," also became much "clearer" after repeated crackdowns.
Of the arrogant and uncontrollable old hoodlums from those times, some had died, some had made their fortune, some had fled far away, and some had gone to sing Prison Tears.
There were also some who survived to middle age and had looked around them in confusion, their hands empty without a thing to their name, and hence, kept their heads down and lived a normal life.
The current Mudpool Backlane was still disorderly. Illegal peddlers set up their stalls wherever they wished and there were occasional cases of drunken brawling but on the whole, it was still very peaceful. Once it was summer, after six in the evening every day, this place would turn into an open-air skewers district. Chili peppers and cumin danced in the air where they were carried by the wind, the jianghu united by the thirteen spices, the smoke and fire of everyday life that tasted of "harmony brings prosperity" rising to the fore.
A glass door kept out the smell of mala crayfish from next door. The fifteen-year old teenager, Liu Zhongqi, sat crookedly on a plastic chair, his back to the glass door. He was holding up his phone and posting a question on a forum: What should a person do if they have a dumb girlfriend who uses 'Guide to Astrology' as their life principle?
Very quickly, someone bored online answered him: I don't know. I don't have a girlfriend, I only have a pair of old parents who eat supplements like eating rice. Why don't we switch?
Liu Zhongqi put down his phone. Tiny wisps of irritation were emitting from his every orifice. His girlfriend, Bai Yue, had already been chatting with the tiny accessories shop's "astrologer" for ten minutes.
"Someone who doesn't understand might think that you don't pay attention to the tiny details and that you don't think of anything but that's not the case. There's a part of you that's very driven. Once you're serious, you will have a prideful sense of 'Either I don't do it at all or I do it well.'" The so-called "astrologer" was actually just a female swindler who deceived others. Her voice had a trace of a smoker's rasp and a not overly exaggerated Gang-Tai accent. Her voice seemed to hang in the air without falling to the ground, and sounded mysterious to the ear. "You are a girl born under the protection of the first of the zodiacs. I see a bright flame burning in your chest."
This line shocked Liu Zhongqi into trembling. He thought. Miss Charlatan, are you thinking of eating grilled chicken hearts?
"This flame is your most fundamental source of energy." The astrologer pointed at Bai Yue's chest and added, "But fire is not easy to control. If it burns too fiercely, a person could easily become impatient and impetuous, and act carelessly without thought. When it comes to relationships with others, there are times when you are overly straightforward and speak without thinking, and you frequently regret saying the wrong things when you think about it later, am I right?"
"Yes, yes, yes, I'm a rather direct person!" Bai Yue said.
Liu Zhongqi rolled his eyes. Just you wait. The next step is she'll get you to buy something.
The astrologer started to bait the ignorant girl. "Then, have you ever thought of changing yourself?"
Liu Zhongqi thought, Here it comes!
"I have!" Bai Yue, this female schoolmate of his whose brain had failed to evolve, not only took the bait but even swallowed the lure. "Do you think I should buy a birthstone set, including the bracelet and the necklace? Would it help?"
Liu Zhongqi, "..."
The fools of the current era were unexpectedly gullible to this extent!
Liu Zhongqi was a student of No. 3 High School in the city. It was currently the summer holidays. When school started, he would enter Year 2 of senior high. No. 3 and Mudpool Backlane were in the same administrative district and were barely three kilometers apart. It took less than twenty minutes to cycle over.
To the good children of this key high school, Mudpool was a place that the school and their parents repeatedly forbade them from going to. Hence, this became the sightseeing spot where they sought excitement. Coming here once in a while, eating a kilogram of crayfish, gaming for a bit at an underground internet cafe or buying a couple of pirated books—with that, they would feel as though they had gotten a taste of the underworld. With the help of this little rebellion that was unique to the adolescent phase, they released some of their academic pressure.
Liu Zhongqi had been dragged out by his girlfriend to "go on an adventure."
The two of them had first been thoroughly smoked by the smoky and hazy air at an internet cafe. Then, the street of open-air skewer stalls made them choke until their nostrils were blackened. When their hearts and lungs had suffered enough damage, they unexpectedly found this accessories shop called Star Dreams.
Not only was this shop not smelly, it even had a bunch of aromatherapy candles burning. The faint light made the accessories that had been obtained wholesale from who-knew-where looked like they were worth something and there was even an "astrologer" dressed up like a bohemian who chatted with them.
With just a few words, the "astrologer" had completely swayed Bai Yue. She wanted to buy this, and wanted to buy that; and not only did she want to be a foolish big spender, she also did not forget her boyfriend. "Liu Zhongqi, your birthday is at the end of August, right? How about I buy something Virgo for you, and we'll have a matching couple set!"
"I'll pass," Liu Zhongqi answered carelessly. "If I'm feeling rash from too much internal heat, I'll just drink some cooling herbal remedy."
Princess Bai Yue immediately became upset. "Why are you such a mood killer?"
Liu Zhongqi crossed his arms over his chest and said with a scoff. "I'm not killing the mood, I'm killing ignorance. Bai Yue my friend, let me analyse the situation for you right here and show how you were deceived. The moment you entered, she knew right away that you were born in April. Why? Because you were leaping in front of that pile of birthstones, pointing at the nonsense for those born in April, and saying 'This is mine' three times in a row."
"How did she know that you're an Aries and not a Taurus? Jiejie, it's because of that Aries hair clip on the top of the head that you don't use."
"How did she describe your personality so accurately? Because there's something called the Barnum Effect[note], and also because she knew that you believe in astrology. As long as she rattled off the Aries personality traits from Baidu Baike, you would feel that she controls fate in her hands."
"Also, how did she know that you're a straightforward person?" Liu Zhongqi wrapped up his speech with a line that showed off how cool he was. "Because all idiots are like that. It's not hard to guess."
This cool young man, having entered the "young love vanguard" for merely two months, returned in full glory to the ranks of sad singles.
"If you don't go after her, you won't have a girlfriend tomorrow." The swindling astrologer's mental state was very stable. She listened to the entire argument with a smile on her face and wasn't angry even though the sale had gone bust. Slowly, she kept away all the little accessories Bai Yue had taken out to see just now.
Liu Zhongqi glanced at her crossly. "You should worry about your own business."
"Doing business depends on fate. Today was not fated to be," the astrologer said calmly. She passed him a name card. "If you have any difficulties in the future, you can contact me. Scan the code and add me on WeChat."
"Scan the code and add me on WeChat" exposed her a little because it was too mundane. Her Gang-Tai accent was gone.
The staunch materialist Liu Zhongqi was just about to reply with a scathing comment when he heard her unhurriedly add another line. "Regardless of whether you want to seek consultation on academics or relationships, the first three times are free of charge. You can also ask about family relationships, for example… what to do if you have an older brother or sister that you don't get along with."
Liu Zhongqi looked up abruptly. "Do you know me?" he asked warily.
"I don't." The astrologer's eyes curved in a smile. "Aren't you very familiar with my methods? Make a guess, how did I know?"
She was very tall and very fair—but it wasn't the kind of dewy and delicate fairness that beautiful girls had. Instead, it seemed to be the kind of paleness that resulted from not seeing the sun all year round. It emitted a coldness and didn't have much luster. At her temples, a few purplish-blue veins could be seen. She was wearing a long skirt that was completely black, and her long hair covered half her face. She wore extravagant accessories and she looked very thin, as though a gust of wind could blow her up to the sky.
Based solely on her appearance, this woman totally had the looks of someone in the arcane arts. She could be said to be perfectly suited to con others.
She stuffed her name card into Liu Zhongqi's hand and gracefully gave him a slight bow. "I welcome your next visit."
For unknown reasons, Liu Zhongqi accepted the name card. After walking a few meters away from the shop, he felt that there must be something wrong with him but at the same time, he couldn't help holding the name card up for a look.
Who knew if the name was real or fake.
Liu Zhongqi turned back. The light at the entrance of Star Dreams was already lit up. Dim and tranquil, it had quite a bit of a mysterious air.
Right at that moment, the people in the small alley suddenly started to become agitated. Everyone was pushing and shoving, all of them crowding to the sides of the lane. Liu Zhongqi was pushed by someone into a corner. He looked up angrily and noticed that a wide empty space had been cleared in the middle of the street. At the side, someone was whispering excitedly, "Here they come, here they come."
Immediately after that, there was a loud sound. A few chairs were smashed onto the ground. Four to five young punks burst out of a nearby skewers shop like a tornado, their mouths full of curses and obscenities. With bared teeth and flexed claws, they tangled together in a close brawl. In an instant, only their arms and legs could be seen flying around wildly and no one could tell who was on whose side.
The crowd surrounding them was excited and spirited. One of them wasn't satisfied with just watching the show on the sidelines and even hollered, "Wooo yeahhh— Awesome!"
Liu Zhongqi, "..."
These scums of society!
It was a beautiful day of summer holiday. Yet, instead of staying at home to do a couple more maths papers, he was wandering around this place. There really was something wrong with him!
Impatient and agitated, Liu Zhongqi tried to squeeze his way out. "Excuse me…"
Just when he was about to "escape," an old lady was shoved by someone and fell out of the crowd. The old lady's hair was already completely white and her back was so stooped it was like a cooked prawn and she held a cane in her hand. The people around her seemed to be blind, their eyes all glued to the place where the unruly youths were brawling. No one came to help her up.
She didn't fall gently. The old lady struggled a long while on the ground and still could not stand up. She cried out in anguish and at the same time, reached her hands out towards the nearby Liu Zhongqi to plead for help.
Liu Zhongqi was momentarily stunned. He hurried over to help but right then, a hand grabbed his bare arm.
The hand was so cold it made him shiver a little. The fingers were slender and long, but the second and third fingers seem to have an unnatural curve. He couldn't tell if they had been injured before or if it was just that they were thin. Basically, it made one think of the dried branches extending over a lone tombstone in a desolate area.
Liu Zhongqi turned his head and was astonished to find that the person grabbing him was the swindling astrologer.
The astrologer lowered her voice and dropped her Gang-Tai accent, saying quickly, "Young man, I see a shadow on your Life Palace. Something bad will happen. It's better if you don't meddle in other people's business and hurry home."
What was this—western astrology and traditional face-reading, these two types of nonsense could even overlap?
Liu Zhongqi thought. What the hell?
This modern-day upstanding young man fought free of her hand. Completely ignoring this jianghu swindler, he followed the footsteps of the paragon Senior Lei Feng and headed towards the old lady.
...Then, very quickly, the young man received a session of "real world re-education."
The topic was: Ignore your elders and misfortune will come free of charge.
The eager-to-help Liu Zhongqi helped up the old lady who had been pushed to the ground and also helped her retrieve her cane. He heard the old lady rap her own waist and say that her house wasn't far away, so Liu Zhongqi immediately supported her by the arm without any misgivings. He escorted her all the way to squeeze out of the rowdy Mudpool Backlane.
By the time he realised something was wrong, the old lady had led him to a deserted blind alley. Three large hoodlums who had been lying in wait surrounded him on all sides.
The old lady who was all pitiful just now plopped down onto the ground, crossed her legs with a domineering attitude, and yelled vigorously, "It's this kid! He was the one who pushed me and broke my leg!"
The author has something to say:
[note] The Barnum Effect states that people easily believe that a broad and sweeping personality description is especially tailored to them. Despite the fact that such descriptions are very vague, they still believe that it reflects their innate characteristics, even if they are actually not at all the type of person described — Barnum-Forer.
 Prison Tears (铁窗泪 "Tie Chuang Lei") - lit. "iron bars tears." This song was composed by Chi Zhiqiang to describe his experience of being in prison. It is from the "prison rock" genre which was popular in the 1980s.
 Mala (麻辣) is a hot and numbing flavour made from Sichuan peppercorns, chili peppers and other spices.
 Gang-Tai accent (港台腔) - Gangtai refers to popular music artists and songs from Taiwan and Hong Kong. "Gang-Tai accent" is used to describe the way they speak and is generally characterised to be soft and sweet.
 Lei Feng (雷锋). From wikipedia: Lei Feng was a soldier in the People's Liberation Army who was the object of several major propaganda campaigns in China. [...] Lei was portrayed as a model citizen, and the masses were encouraged to emulate his selflessness, modesty, and devotion to Mao.
A row of multi-purpose vehicles were stopped by the roadside. A plump person got down from the first car. With small, quick steps, he solicitously opened the door for the person sitting at the back. "It's right here. You can see that there are newly built roads all around this place. The land up ahead that has been fenced off is the very place that I would like to bring you to see today. It's a very good project! Typically, my band of brothers would just let go of something we have to when we're short of capital but we really couldn't bear to. Right now, as long as we can get the starting capital and set up a project, we can immediately get a loan. In the future, we can just lie down and-"
The person in charge from the investment company who had gotten down from the car was supposedly a vice president. He was around forty years of age and he had a polite and reserved smile. He cut off the plump man lightly. "Director Wang, we have seen your feasibility report and building plans, you don't have to repeat them. Lanchuan, come here and see."
The plump man laughed along, his gaze falling on the young man who had just exited the car.
He saw that this person was tall and slender, and had a dignified manner. He wore a light grey shirt and there was a pair of thin metal-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Who knew what the degree on the glasses was; in any case, the lenses looked very thin. Not only were the lenses thin, his lips were also thin, his nose narrow and straight, and his lower jaw seemed to have been chiseled—even his eyelids seem to be thinner than other people's. Because he was tall, he lowered his eyes a little when looking at others and his gaze that seeped out of the corners of his eyes seemed to carry a hint of a half smile.
The plump man swallowed. It was like the aura of "This one is still the King of Cool" emanating from this person had given him a blow at the waist and he intuitively felt that this person did not have good intentions.
"Yu Lanchuan. The 'lan' means 'orchid,' as in 'a gentleman is like an orchid.' The 'chuan' means 'river,' as in 'all rivers run into the sea.' He is the person in charge of our risk management department." The vice president of the investment company pointed at Yu Lanchuan and said half-jokingly to the plump man. "He may look young but this person holds the imperial sword in his hands. Our big boss is cautious. In the whole company, the one with the most power is the risk management department. We can spend the whole day doing business outside but none of it is as useful as a single report from this little master."
The plump man quickly mustered his spirits and dialled up his boot-licking skills. "Director Yu, young and overflowing with talent!"
The King of Cool… Director Yu locked the tablet he was holding and nodded at the plump man. As though he treasured his words like gold, he only said, "Hello."
"I'm not sure how much Director Yu knows about this piece of land of ours," the plump man said as he rubbed his hands together. "In recent years, our city, Yanning, has been developing too quickly. More than a decade ago, this place was entirely a wasteland but now such places in the city are running out. I-"
"I don't know much, so I came to take a look." Right at the moment when the plump man took a breath and prepared to launch into a long speech, Yu Lanchuan interrupted him, making him choke. "In the past, this place wasn't a wasteland. It was a landfill."
The plump man's eyes wavered. Then, he very quickly picked up the conversation. "Hey, so you do know! I was just about to say it but haven't gotten the chance to—the advantage of this project is that it is on top of a landfill! It is a transformation of the landfill, this… landfill reclamation thing now has a very mature technology. After crushing the trash into extremely tiny pieces and pressing it down, it is very stable. It is also good for the surrounding environment. Good for the country and good for the people, the government is very supportive of it! The developers are preparing to use this as a highlight and it should be able to get some support in the form of official policies-"
"Surely not, Director Wang," Yu Lanchuan said mildly. "I remember that this place was specially for handling domestic waste and the smell was exceptionally strong. As far as I know, a lot of liquids and toxic matter will leach into the soil. The decomposition period for some things is very long and it will affect the quality of the soil. Based on your plan, won't there be problems with the foundation?"
The plump man was obviously dumbstruck. He started to avoid the serious topics and focus on the lighter issues. "There… There definitely won't be any problems. My friend has already set up his project company and the plan has been reviewed by professionals. Regarding the technology, I can guarantee it, you don't have to worry about that. Right now, our main problem is still the capital-"
Yu Lanchuan lowered his head and smiled, and said politely, "Who doesn't have that problem? There's a cash crunch this year and everyone has trouble with capital. That's why we need to be even more careful, isn't that so?"
"That, that is…" The plump man followed behind him. Outwardly, he was nodding eagerly and bending over to accommodate but when other people were not looking, he directed a piercing cold gaze at Yu Lanchuan's back, sincerely praying that he would be struck by lightning.
Who would have thought that right at that moment, Yu Lanchuan suddenly twisted his head around, as though he had eyes on his back, and met the plump man's gaze before the latter could look away. "Director Wang, you seem to have something you want to say to me?"
The plump man quivered. Immediately, there was sweat on his head.
Fortunately, someone from the investment company cut in with a joke. "Our Lanchuan has a special ability. When someone stares at him, he can sense it right away. Isn't it amazing? Director Wang probably doesn't like us greasy middle-aged old men and was looking only at the fresh young meat just now."
The plump man forced himself to laugh along. After that, he didn't dare speak carelessly for the rest of the way.
The whole group efficiently completed the inspection of the land. Seven multi-purpose vehicles left the development zone and headed towards the skyscraper forest of the central business district.
"I won't write a report on this matter. It doesn't have the value we discussed previously." Back at the office, Yu Lanchuan stuffed the tablet into the driver's hand and spoke to the vice president who was leading the team as they walked. "That Wang guy is not reliable, he's a ruffian. My guess is that he will first tell the developer, 'I have a good project, it's just that I can't get all the necessary requirements at the moment. I will provide the start-up capital. You guys go with an asset-light strategy—you just need to send a team, give it a name and help me set up operations. There is no risk at all to you. Let's all earn money together.' Then, he'll tell the investor, 'The developer is an established name and their projects have always been very steady. This time, even if their source of capital cuts off, they won't let go of this piece of fatty meat. Luckily, they are short of money, so we have a chance to get a bowl from this pot of soup. We can't miss this opportunity.' After deceiving both sides, when the capital's in place and the project is set up, he can turn on his heels and disappear. Without spending a single cent, he swindles everyone."
"That mouth of yours." The vice president leading the team smiled, then looked at him meaningfully. "Ruffians have their uses. After all, it was Director Li's friend who introduced him. Even if it's just to give face to Director Li, we still have to make this trip. When it comes to work—for the sake of giving face to our colleagues and because that's how the world works—there are times when we have to sacrifice a bit of our precious time and do some useless tasks. It's normal."
Yu Lanchuan smiled. He did not answer.
Right now, there were rumours that the big boss wanted to retire. There were no ripples in the corporation yet but the few vice presidents in the company were already battling like chickens in a cockfight. Every day, they sabotaged each other and all of them wanted to wield the risk management department like a large blade to slay demons. As this busy blade, Yu Lanchuan was right at the center of the carnage and he had not had a weekend off for an entire month.
He angled his body to the side and helped his colleagues hold the elevator door open. "I still need to discuss some things with other people in the meeting room. Everyone, please go up first."
"Thank you for your hard work, Director Yu."
"It's the capable ones who have the most work."
The elevator door closed. Yu Lanchuan dropped his smile and his face turned impassive as he headed towards the meeting room. His assistant who had long since been waiting by the meeting room door caught up with him and passed him a cup of coffee and a stack of papers. Yu Lanchuan's eyes swept across the stack and he passed it back to her. "I don't have time to read it. Just tell me what it says."
The young assistant was well-trained. In a low voice, she immediately explained the contents of the papers in a systematic manner right beside his ear. Yu Lanchuan listened without speaking. Every now and then, someone passed by and nodded at him in greeting. On the brightly gleaming marble floor, these immaculately groomed men and women bustled to and fro in a hurry.
According to society stereotypes, those whose hair was like a bird's nest on their head, whose face gleamed with oil, who depended on meal deliveries to survive every day, must be poor and sorrowful. They were simply eating and waiting for death, and were doomed to be failures that had been eliminated from the race. On the other hand, those who wore bespoke western-style suits, who swaggered across the CBD every day with their phones in their hands, must be the elites of the city. They had a promising future, with a battalion of flatterers hanging on to them.
However, the 'wretched hermit' could be the owner of a demolished building and held in their hands a few houses. They might be living happy days of lying down and waiting to collect rent.
Meanwhile, the 'city elite' could be a slave to their house loan who had nothing left by the end of the month. The perfume they used were all samples. At the end of every month, they faced the danger of being unable to eat. They worked overtime every day, and then were stabbed in the heart by the articles such as "Sudden death due to overwork" shared on large social media accounts.
Nothing was constant in the world. Nothing was certain.
For example, Yu Lanchuan, who had an exceptionally aloof image and aura, was exactly one of those splendid yet disheartened "city elites."
On a Friday evening in the peak of summer, Yu Lanchuan, who had already spent the whole day working tirelessly, held on to his last breath and endured a four-hour video conference. It was so noisy that his head was buzzing. Amidst the cold wind from the central air conditioning that could make a person shiver, he returned to his own office, closed the door, and sprawled on the chair. A pile of emails had again accumulated in his inbox, waiting to be read and reviewed. He didn't want to open even a single one; he only wanted to go home and lie down like a corpse.
When going through his emails, he saw an email from the previous day that was marked unread. His eyes skimmed past the subject and his heart sank even more—that was the reminder from the bank to pay his credit card bill.
Yu Lanchuan downed the remaining half of a mug of hot tea. With the help of this little bit of warmth, he finally opened his own personal "financial planner."
"Daily planner", "financial planner" and "fitness planner"—all together, these three belonged to "the standards of the elite." Not a single one could be left out. These orderly planners were like a safety net, as though if one could contain their life in them, they would then be able to control the rhythm and avoid being trampled.
And, on Mr. Yu's financial planner, the item that stood out the most was "house loan."
A house was a modern-day young person's Demon-Revealing Mirror.
Before they bought a house, each young person felt like they were standing above the crowd and that they could one day reach the sky and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the godly Marshal Tian Peng.
After buying a house, these "deities" would one-by-one descend to the mortal world, fall into a pigsty and become filthy and grimy Er-shixiong.
Due to certain reasons, Yu Lanchuan bought a house at the start of the year. When he was viewing properties, he was first blinded by the dilapidated houses in the urban area that fulfilled the trifecta of old, rundown and small. Then, he nearly lost his way in the faraway suburbs of Yanning. At the start, he had been very confused. How was it that in a city full of apartment buildings with thousands of houses, not a single one was for people to live in?
Later on, he found that the answer laid with him. He understood this problem could not be blamed on market supply; he could only blame himself for being poor and picky.
In the end, after making a lot of compromises, he finally settled on a place he could make do with in all aspects. He spent his entire fortune on the deposit and became a glorious slave to his house loan.
The monthly loan payment was nearly 20,000. The term was thirty years.
The longest prison term was only twenty-five years.
Banks were more vicious than prisons.
On top of that, what was even more outrageous was that there was one more year to go before this "luxury home" that had made him penniless would be handed to him. Within this year, he still had to pay his house loan and also pay another 7,000 plus for the rental.
Other than that, his other big expenses for the week were the 8,500 parking fee for the second half of the year, two portions of "wedding tax" worth 2,000, and his superior's mother who just had to have her funeral at this time…
Yu Lanchuan faced his screen and spaced out. He let out a long breath and touched his waist, feeling that his kidney was trembling in fear from its precarious situation.
Right at that moment, his phone rang. The caller ID was "Salted Fish."
Salted Fish's real name was Yu Yan. He was Yu Lanchuan's primary school friend. Back then, the class teacher's standard Mandarin wasn't very good and didn't differentiate between the two Yu's, and had always joked that the two of them were biological brothers. As time went by, the two boys with completely different personalities and temperaments somehow got along and became childhood friends.
Yu Yan's dream since he was young was to become a true salted fish, ambitionless and idle. Unexpectedly, things did not go as he wished—perhaps someone with a dream wasn't suited to become a salted fish. In summary, due to various reasons and circumstances, he became a police officer. Even if the matters under his jurisdiction were all minor and petty issues, he was frequently so busy he had no time to breath. It had been quite a while since he last disturbed Yu Lanchuan.
"Speak if you have something to say, get lost if you don't." With his childhood friend, Yu Lanchuan had never had the image of an idol. He decisively peeled off his pretensions and revealed his true evil nature. Half-dead, he snapped out a few words. "No drinks, no meet-ups, no going anywhere."
Officer Yu quickly said, "Wait a minute, Master Lan, your younger brother is with me."
"Oh." Hearing that, Yu Lanchuan pinched the bridge of his nose, his face expressionless. "I have a very good discount on younger brothers. 10,000 for one, no bargaining. Transfer the money to my account and from now on, he's your younger brother."
"Stop joking. He's not at my house, he's at my workplace. The police station!"
Yu Lanchuan paused. He snorted. "What did he do?"
Yu Yan very justifiably chastised him, "You asshole, what kind of big brother are you? Can you not be the littlest bit optimistic? He's a good kid, eager and ready to help others. He was supporting an old lady but the old lady turned out to be a porcelain scammer. If a passerby hadn't called the police in time, he would nearly have been beaten up by a few hoodlums. Stop talking rubbish, come over quickly!"
"That is good?" Yu Lanchuan raised a brow. "That's what you call dim-witted."
Yu Yan, "..."
"Also, didn't you say 'nearly'? So it means he wasn't beaten up. I still have some things to take care of. Let him wait there for a while." Yu Lanchuan capped his pen. "Feed him some food. I'll pay you back later."
"Hey, you scumbag, you-"
Scumbag Yu had already hung up.
 King of Cool, 逼王 - An example of a "King of Cool" is Sakamoto from 'Sakamoto desu ga?' Basically, someone who is perceived (by others and themself) to be cool but does a lot of ridiculous things to maintain that image.
I couldn't avoid doing so in the translation, but the vice president isn't actually explaining the meaning of Yu Lanchuan's name here. What he's doing is specifying which characters are used to write Yu Lanchuan's name and Yu Lanchuan could have been named that for different reasons.
 "Marshal Tian Peng" and "Er-shixiong" are both referring to Zhu Baijie from Journey to the West. Originally a god, he was banished to earth and was reincarnated as a man-eating pig-monster. In Journey to the West, he is Tang Sanzang's second disciple, hence "Er-shixiong" (which literally means "second senior brother").
 It is customary to give a sum of money to the grieving family at funerals. It is also customary to give a sum of money to relatives, friends or acquaintances who are getting married, the "wedding tax" mentioned here.
 Porcelain scam 碰瓷 - Also known as pengci. Lit. means "bumping porcelain." It's a scam where the scammers purposely place fragile porcelain in a spot where it's easily knocked over, and they would demand compensation when that happens. Also applies to scams where scammers feign accidents or injuries to demand compensation.
"Eat up." Police Officer Yu Yan pushed the Coke and burger over to the teenager.
Their police station had a rule that stated that unless there was a reason, the police on duty were not allowed to call for meal deliveries. They were afraid it would give a bad image. This little bit of food was something Yu Yan had run half a kilometer to buy back and he was sweating all over from the exertion.
The teenager took the food without looking at Yu Yan, his eyes looking away in embarrassment. He raised his hand and wiped his face with the back of his hand. There was a small scrape on his cheekbone. Sweat had gotten into it and it was both hurt and itched.
Yu Yan got an antibacterial wet wipe from a female colleague and tossed it to him. While facing the cold air blowing from the air-conditioner, he lectured. "When helping others, you need to first assess your own abilities. Didn't your teacher teach you? Oh, you followed her just because she asked you to. Young Liu Zhongqi, if you're so obedient, then why didn't you stay at home and do your homework during this beautiful summer vacation? Your brother is working overtime every day so there's no one to manage you, is that it?"
Those words somehow touched a nerve in the delicate heart of this teenager who was in the springtime of his youth. Halfway through unwrapping the burger, the boy's face darkened.
Yu Lanchuan's surname was Yu while his younger brother's surname was Liu because the two brothers had the same mother but different fathers.
When Yu Lanchuan was ten years old, due to incompatible views on life, his parents divorced on amicable terms. Yu Lanchuan went with his mother. A year later, his mother married his stepfather.
But this was not a tragic story of a child suffering in the hands of their stepparent. As far as Yu Yan was aware of, Yu Lanchuan's parents still had a pretty good relationship after their divorce. They even felt apologetic to their child and, the stepfather included, had given him even more care and affection. Double the affection from one person means six times the affection in total from the three people. The heavy weight of their affection nearly smothered Yu Lanchuan and he had been so annoyed by the adults every day that he wanted to run away from home.
When his younger brother was born, Yu Lanchuan was already in high school. Hence, using "the baby is disturbing his studies" as an excuse, he stayed at the school dorms to seek peace and quiet. His grandfather who had died young had a biological older brother whom Yu Lanchuan should address as Granduncle. This granduncle was an old bachelor who lived by himself. At that time, the old man stayed not far from Yu Lanchuan's high school and during his holidays, he often used the excuse of "accompanying grandpa" to avoid going home.
This Master Lan was born cold-hearted. On top of that, he stayed at home for barely a few days in a year, so he really did not have much affection for this younger brother that he had gotten at a bargain.
Then, not long ago, Yu Lanchuan's mother received an invitation from an overseas laboratory. This old madam had a fiery fighting spirit; as long as she still breathed, the fight was not over. She made the brazen decision to lead her family to battle the U.S. However, she first had to settle down overseas and it was still unknown how many years she would stay there. Her younger son had just entered senior high and was the perfect example of a student who heavily emphasized the sciences. His English was not good enough so the family decided to let him remain in the country to attend school and to reconsider the matter later after looking at his results.
To Yu Lanchuan, this was basically an unexpected disaster falling on his head. Since his stepfather followed his mother everywhere, the two of them had flown off together and he became this little annoyance's temporary keeper… no, temporary guardian.
"I'm not saying that you did wrong." Yu Yan saw that the teenager looked pitiful and he softened his tone. "It's… No matter what, having the intention to help others is good and should be praised, right? I've just called your brother, he's coming to pick you up soon. Eat some food first to stave off the hunger. Do you want ice-cream?"
Liu Zhongqi crumpled the burger wrapper into a ball and pretended to be unbothered as he said, "No need. I can take the subway home myself. Anyway, my brother doesn't want to come pick me up at all."
"He has to come even if he doesn't want to," the righteous Officer Yu blurted out. After that, he realised that he had misspoken and quickly tried to make things right. "No, what I meant is, how could he not want to come? Your brother may look cold-hearted and his mouth may be terrible, but that's the normal emotional state of those cubicle monkeys who work overtime like dogs. He still cares for you…"
Liu Zhongqi glanced at him. Officer Yu, who was speaking blindly with his eyes wide open, felt his conscience hurting and could not continue making things up.
"My brother is not cold-hearted and his mouth is not terrible." After staying silent for a while, the teenager spoke with his head lowered. "He has never scolded me and has never argued with me. He only gives me red packets."
Yu Yan, "..."
"When I was top ten in my year for my final exam, he sent me a red packet; when I cleaned the house so that he would think better of me, he sent me another red packet; when I fought with my schoolmate from the basketball team and was made to write a self-reflection essay, the self-reflection had to be signed by a guardian—he signed without even looking at it, and sent me a red packet." Liu Zhongqi took a vicious bite of the burger. "If I commit murder or arson one day, he will probably also send me a red packet and then ask me to take a cab to turn myself in."
Upon hearing that, Officer Yu clamped his mouth shut. Not only was he not sympathising with the boy at all, he was even a little envious.
Liu Zhongqi said, "My brother is an automatic red packet dispenser."
"Child, you may not understand what I'm saying to you now." Yu Yan picked his words carefully. "When you're older, you will understand. Love is an illusion, red packets are the only true evidence that he is good to you."
Even though his words of consolation were vulgar, they came from the bottom of his heart. However, the sulky chuuni teenager was not listening. He tore into the burger, gnashing his teeth and fuming with rage.
"All right, I won't say anymore if you don't want to listen." Yu Yan waited until he had eaten quite a bit before beginning his questions. "Let us talk about serious matters. Describe for me those people who demanded money from you. In total, how many of them were there?"
"Four. One old lady and three men. Among the three men, one was bald, another had a scar on his face, and the other one was slightly disabled. He walked with a heavy limp."
"How old are they? Could you tell where their accents are from?"
"I don't know. In any case, they aren't locals. The few men should be in their thirties. The old lady… I'm not sure. At first, she looked thin and small, her hair was all white and she was hunched over. I thought she might be seventy or eighty years old." Liu Zhongqi recalled and his face had an expression of confusion. "But when you guys came, she escaped by jumping over the wall. An old lady around seventy or eighty years old… wouldn't be able to do that, right?"
At Mudpool Backlane, there were a lot of narrow alleys that even a three-wheeled cart wouldn't be able to enter. Hence, at that time, the police car could only be stopped at the intersection, about two hundred meters away from where the porcelain scam was taking place.
Because of this two hundred meters, by the time the police had hurried over, the scammers had jumped over the wall and escaped.
Yu Yan had examined the blind alley's wall. It was three meters tall and the surface was very smooth. There were basically no spots that could act as hand grips to help with climbing. There was only half a footprint on the wall, barely distinct. If Yu Yan hadn't seen a flash of the last person disappearing over the wall, he might suspect that someone had made a fake police report.
Yu Yan secretly wrote the words 'Ask Master Lan' in his notebook, then asked further, "When they stopped you, what did they say?"
"They said that I bumped into the old lady and made her fall, and wanted me to pay compensation."
Liu Zhongqi's sneakers and school bag were not cheap. One could tell that this kid's family was decently well-off and that his allowance and New Year's lucky money would not be little. But for a boy who was still a minor, his family typically would not let him handle a large amount of cash, so asking for 1,000 was just right. This group had quite a lot of experience with porcelain scams. One look and they could estimate how much this kid could hand over freely.
A half-grown kid, foolish and stubborn, couldn't handle being frightened and yet didn't want to lose face—when they were bullied outside, they would usually be too embarrassed to tell their family. They were all fat lambs of excellent quality that made a person want to slaughter them over and over again.
Yu Yan nodded.
Liu Zhongqi continued speaking. "I said, 'Why don't you guys go rob someone' and that bald guy said, 'What, you think we're discussing a business transaction here?' I said that I didn't have that much cash. They grabbed my bag and found out that my wallet really didn't have that much cash, so they took my student ID and told me to go home and prepare the money. Two days later, they will go to my school to get the money… I wanted to call the police but they noticed it and wanted to grab my phone. But you guys came right at that moment so they didn't manage to snatch it."
The kid was very earnest. He kept trying to act like an adult but his act was not up to par and there was a bit of foolishness in his words. Yu Yan felt that the kid and his scumbag-yet-elite brother didn't seem to have been born by the same mother.
Yu Yan stifled his smile as he listened. As he kept his smile in, he heard something not quite right. "Hold on, from the time these people surrounded you until they grabbed your phone, how much time passed?"
Liu Zhongqi gave him a look of confusion. "Not long. We only exchanged a few words… Maybe two or three minutes. Why?"
Police Officer Yu frowned and exchanged a look with his colleague beside him. The anonymous caller who made the police report had said that they saw a few hoodlums surrounding a student and getting physical. They didn't know what was happening and had asked the police to send some people to have a look.
But the question was, the roads of Mudpool Backlane were very difficult to navigate. This was especially true during summer when the narrow lanes were packed with people. The length of time from being dispatched until they reached the place where the incident happened was definitely longer than two or three minutes.
Which was to say, the person who called the police had known where the group of scammers would take action even before Liu Zhongqi was surrounded.
How did they know?
Yu Yan continued asking, "When they asked you for money, was there anyone nearby?"
Liu Zhongqi shook his head. "...I didn't notice anyone."
"Then, do you know who would help you call the police?" Yu Yan asked. "Think carefully. When you left with the old lady, did anyone notice?"
Liu Zhongqi stared blankly. Unconsciously, his fingers rubbed against the namecard that was curling up at the edges in his pocket. "There was indeed… someone. At that time, she even pulled me back, but I'm not sure…"
One hour later, the serious-and-important Yu Lanchuan finally took his own sweet time to arrive. When he entered, he seemed in a rush. His pretense was quite good, as though the one who had acted so full of himself over the phone was a dog.
"You even dare help an old lady, do you think our family is made of money?" Yu Lanchuan drove his 'picked up at a bargain' younger brother home. Throughout the whole journey, he didn't rebuke Liu Zhongqi, nor did he comfort him. When they reached home, he made fun of him with a careless remark, then shooed him off to get some rest. "You must have been scared today. Take a shower and go to bed earlier. I'm going to talk to your Yu-ge."
Liu Zhongqi dawdled as he made a noise of assent. He furtively shot Yu Lanchuan a look, as though he was waiting for something.
Yu Lanchuan saw his little look and sighed inwardly. He took his phone out of his pocket. "All right, I'll send you a red packet to calm your nerves."
Liu Zhongqi's face immediately darkened. Without a word, he turned and left, and even slammed his room door shut.
Yu Lanchuan was a little startled. "Kids these days with their chuuni syndrome don't even want money anymore?"
By chance, Yu Yan was passing his shift over to his colleague. He lived not far from the place Yu Lanchuan was renting, so he got a ride home with them and conveniently came to spend some time at his childhood friend's place. Seeing what happened, he immediately thickened his face and came close. "If he doesn't want the money, I want it. Ge, do you still need a younger brother? Or, I can be your son."
Yu Lanchuan took out a soft drink from the fridge and tossed it to him. "I haven't even collected the money from you for the ride."
Yu Yan slumped back against the sofa. "Confucius said that 'An orchid grows in the deep valley, a gentleman's path is moral and righteous'—Master Lan, what happened to not coveting wealth?"
"If I don't covet wealth, what should I covet? You? Move over." Yu Lanchuan kicked Yu Yan's legs and dragged out the robotic vacuum that was lying dead under the sofa to charge it. "If I could squeeze the time out, I would have gone and be a DiDi driver. Don't you know that your daddy has a house loan now? Not only are you being unfilial, you're even stretching your hand out to ask for money."
"Then why don't you go back home to stay? Your mother is not here, there won't be anyone to bother you," Yu Yan said. "Renting is so expensive."
"It's far." Yu Lanchuan sighed. "Out of the ten most congested roads during the morning peak hour, I have to pass through three."
He remembered when he had first graduated, the morning peak hour started at seven in the morning. Now, it had shifted earlier to half past six. In two years time, these people could give up on sleeping.
Yu Lanchuan had gone back to stay for two days and felt that he wasn't going home to sleep. He was totally just going home to sign his attendance and it was even a waste of petrol.
Yu Yan thought a while and shook his head. "We destitute people who take the subway can't understand the sufferings of the rich."
Yu Lanchuan pointed at the front door. "Get lost if there's nothing else."
Yu Yan became serious. "Let me talk to you about what happened to your younger brother today."
"Make it brief." Half-listening, Yu Lanchuan took off his glasses and put them under the faucet for a wash. He said absent-mindedly, "After being taken advantage of a few times, he would learn to be smart in the future. Suffering losses is also gaining real world experience."
"I suspect that this group of porcelain scammers are people from your side," Yu Yan said. "There isn't anyone coming for you recently, is there?"
Yu Lanchuan paused. "Hm?"
Yu Yan said, "I saw it with my own eyes. A three-meter high wall—with just one strike, the person disappeared."
"What's so strange about jumping over the wall? You're making a fuss over nothing." Yu Lanchuan tsk-ed at him crossly and shook off the water from his glasses. He wiped them with the corner of his shirt. "If an adult man trained for a while, it's very normal for him to be able to reach three meters with one jump. Haven't you seen the armed forces do military drills for going up walls? Even the senior high school kids in the parkour clubs can demonstrate a five-second wall jump for you."
"So you're saying that there's a group of parkour fans running porcelain scams in our city-"
Yu Lanchuan cut him off impatiently. "I'm giving you an example by saying that those who do parkour can climb walls, I'm not saying that everyone who climbs walls is doing parkour. Old Fish, will you ever learn how to write the word 'logic' in your life?"
Yu Yan waved his hand patiently. "Ai, you become irritable the moment you meet someone foolish. Being irritable only harms your own liver. Furthermore, in this world, the foolish have strength in numbers and power. When you get angry with me all on your own, don't you feel powerless? Be more zen, be calmer. Handsome, don't forget that you're an expert in maintaining good health."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Unexpectedly, he could not refute.
Yu Yan said, "But your younger brother said that in this group, there was an old lady whose hair was completely white. She's around 1.5 meters tall. An old lady jumping over a wall barehanded, that's strange, isn't it? Of course, clever people like you will say that she might be in disguise-"
Before Officer Yu could finish talking, Yu Lanchuan had already picked up his car key and was walking to the front door to change his shoes. "Let's go."
Yu Yan said, "Huh? You're really going with me? I haven't finish analysing, if it was a disguise-"
"If I want to disguise you as an old lady such that the disguise would hold up even in close proximity, that would require a bone-shrinking technique." Yu Lanchuan recalled that "Be more zen" comment and forcibly swallowed the word "idiot." "Hurry up, I still need to review reports tonight."
Half an hour later, the two of them reached the blind alley.
"Right here." Yu Yan pointed it out to him. "When I came, that person was standing at this spot by the wall. There's still half a footprint there. The blind alley has walls on three sides. If he had jumped over the wall at the back, I can still understand. But he had jumped over from this side."
Yu Yan looked back and compared. Between the two walls facing each other on the narrow alley, there was just enough space for a person to stretch out their arms. "There's just not enough space for the approach to jump… What the hell!"
Before he could finish speaking, he saw Yu Lanchuan suddenly dash forward from beside him. In just two steps, he reached the opposite wall. He leaped and pulled himself up lightly with one hand on top of the wall, his whole body suddenly curling up in the air. The tip of his foot touched the wall and he used the force to push himself up.
At the same time, Yu Yan heard a tearing sound. A small item bounced off his face.
Yu Yan quickly switched on his flashlight and swept it around. He saw Director Yu crouching on top of the wall with a complicated look on his face, his hand clutching the front of his shirt. His movement had been too large. His shirt was torn.
On the ground, a seashell button rolled around.
"Wanton." Yu Yan covered his face and said. "Young hero, continue being wanton!"
Yu Lanchuan said, "...Shut up."
The author has something to say:
A monthly house loan payment of twenty thousand is not enough for a loan of seven million =口=
 Red packets (红包 hóngbāo) are traditionally given during festive occasions like Chinese New Year, weddings, etc. It's literally money put into a red packet, often printed with auspicious sayings or images. Nowadays, red packets can be given out via apps and its usage has expanded a lot—they are also given out for store promotions, for long comments on jj… for anything, really.
 Chuuni 中二 - basically means embarrassing teenager behaviour where one acts like they're more ~deep~ and edgy than other people.
 An orchid grows in the deep valley, a gentleman's path is moral and righteous
The full version of the quote is 芝兰生於深林，不以无人而不芳；君子修道立德，不谓困厄而改节 - basically it compares a gentleman's way of remaining righteous and moral even in face of difficulties with an orchid blooming in the deep valley even if there's no one to appreciate it.
Around nine p.m. at night, it was time for Star Dreams to close shop for the day.
Gan Qing washed off the makeup on her face and removed the light-coloured contact lenses, blinking furiously a couple of times. She stuck five fingers into her hair and took off the waterfall-like wig, revealing a mass of hair that was neither long nor short. It fell to her chin, messy and sticking out at odd angles after being pressed down by the wig.
Then, she kicked off her stilettos and stuffed them under the counter. Her feet bare, she fished out a pair of plastic slippers and slipped them on. She took off her long skirt; inside, she was wearing a basketball jersey and a pair of long shorts. She stretched, feeling like her body had been set free once again.
From a bohemian-style "astrologer," she had been set free to become a very down-to-earth village girl.
The village girl picked up the teapot and poured the remaining tea into a flower pot. She refilled it with cold water, drank two gulps directly from the spout, then poked her head out in the direction of the next door Tianyi Crayfish and hollered, "Uncle Meng, is there anything to eat?"
The boss of Tianyi Crayfish, Meng Tianyi, answered, "What do you want to eat? Help yourself to the rice and I'll cook a dish for you."
"I want to eat grilled chicken hearts!"
"Hey, can skewers be a proper meal?"
"But I want to eat grilled chicken hearts." Gan Qing switched off the lights and locked the door. "I've been thinking of it for an entire afternoon. I even accidentally messed up my lines when a customer came. Give me a kilogram of mala crayfish too."
Right now, even her voice and accent had changed completely. It was no longer floaty and it didn't feel distant—it sounded lazy.
"Greedy thing. You don't eat proper meals and only eat snacks." Meng Tianyi sighed. "All right, wait a bit."
At this hour, there weren't so many people on the streets. The hot and humid night wind bundled up the oil and smoke from the large wok, blasting her right in the face. Gan Qing inhaled and felt very content. The corners of her mouth automatically revealed a hint of a smile.
Other than when she was pretending to be mysterious to deceive others, she was always smiling. When there was someone around, she would smile at them. When there was no one around, she would be happy with herself for no reason.
There was a sudden gust of wind in the stifling hot night in the peak of summer. The oil sizzling out from the hefty skewers, the stars gradually rising in the heavy canopy of the night, the crooked and twisted dirty little alleys… In her eyes, these magnificent views of the living world were all incomparably beautiful, and were worth pausing a while to savour.
The skewers and the crayfish were ready very quickly. Boss Meng was afraid that the food would be too heaty and also mixed a cold dish for her. Gan Qing found a table to sit and sprinkled chili powder on the food herself. She seemed a little clumsy; her hand trembled and too much powder poured out. But she didn't care. A careless flick and she bit into the food while breathing through her mouth from the heat. All her focus was on chewing, her eating posture making it seem like she was eating at a Michelin 3-star.
Meng Tianyi took care of the last batch of customers, then wiped his hands clean on his apron and brought two bottles of ice-cold beer over.
Gan Qing took a bottle and clinked it against his, then drank directly from the bottle. She downed almost half the bottle in one gulp. The sweat from the spicy food nearly all dissipated and she burped a mouthful of cold air in satisfaction. "Mm, there's a sweet aftertaste. It's good."
Meng Tianyi watched her eat and drink, and his own gluttony was nearly drawn out. He couldn't help taking a large gulp but when the beer was in his mouth and he carefully savoured the taste, it was still the horse piss taste of cheap beer. It hadn't turned into the nectar of the gods. "Gan'er, don't sell those lousy necklaces tomorrow. Come and advertise for me. You just need to sit here and drink, and I can sell three times more beer."
"You call the shots." Gan Qing's eyes curved into a smile which she directed at him. "Anyway, they're both your own businesses."
The small shop Star Dreams was actually opened by Meng Tianyi's relative. The storefront also belonged to the family. The boss opened an astrologer account online for the purpose of marketing, posted some mysterious and long-winded posts, and sold things like protection charms and fortune-changing beads on Taobao. Later on, they realised that it was better to do business online, so they focused on becoming an Internet celebrity. They didn't have time to manage the shop and were pretty indifferent to the shop's business, and had hired Gan Qing to take care of it.
Every one or two months, Gan Qing would follow the boss's instructions and go to the wholesale market for small merchandise to replenish the stock. She would fill a bag with small accessories that cost just over ten yuan for half a kilogram. When she came back, she would select the prettier ones to put in the display cases, use the spotlights to make them look dazzling, and wait for foolish big spenders to come and buy.
Every day, she opened the shop and did business from ten in the morning. She put on the wig and coloured lenses, changed into her "work uniform," and began her performance for the day. At night, after the sky had turned dark, she closed the shop according to her mood. Meng Tianyi took care of her meals. She was satisfied with this job because Uncle Meng's culinary skills were good and he even let her pick the dishes.
"I took a look at your accounts yesterday. The business for this month is not bad. You should ask your boss to give you a bonus," Meng Tianyi said.
"Summer is good for business. Winter will probably be bad." Gan Qing pinched the tiny claws on one of the crayfish and used them to give Uncle Meng a bow with clasped hands. "If you say there will be a bonus, I'll believe you. I'm short of money. Recently, I heard that my rent is going to be increased and I've been on tenterhooks for half a month."
"How much is your rent?" Meng Tianyi asked.
"Six hundred a month." Gan Qing's crayfish peeling technique was very polished. She gave it a couple of cracking squeezes, then with a pull and a tug, the whole piece of crayfish meat left its shell perfectly. She pinched the swaying crayfish meat and dragged it through the sesame sauce in the saucer. Fragrant with the mala flavour and the freshness of the meat, the one kilogram of crayfish was downed with beer, and in just a short while, the bottom of the plate could be seen. It was evident that she was a veteran glutton.
Gan Qing huffed a laugh. "Would it be so cheap? It's one bed."
"You really can get by with so little." Meng Tianyi's mouth stretched into a smile. Then, he said, "Let Uncle tell you something—I have a second aunt who is seventy-three years old. She has been widowed for over forty years. In the past, she stayed with my older brother. Now, my older brother has passed away and his wife took their kid and remarried. The old lady is alone now."
Gan Qing paused. "My condolences."
"It was last year. He died of old-age illness, it's nothing much." Meng Tianyi continued talking, "Everyone had discussed the matter and wanted her to move in with someone else but she was not willing to. She said that she has her own home and won't go to someone else's. Even though the old lady is still spirited and healthy, she's already at such an advanced age. Her home is a small two-bedroom. She stays in one room, the other one is empty. I want to look for a reliable person to accompany her. The old lady can take care of her own daily needs and you don't need to worry about house chores either. During the day, you can do what you need to do. You just need to accompany her when you go back at night. If there are tasks like changing light bulbs or climbing ladders, you can give a hand. If there's any medical emergency at night, help her call 120 and inform her relatives and friends. The rental can just be a token amount—we'll go with your current amount and it won't increase in the future."
Gan Qing listened and thought it was a brilliant thing. She said, "I definitely won't have a problem. Where does the old lady stay?"
"Rongxian Street," Meng Tianyi said. "No. 110 Courtyard."
Gan Qing first let out an oh. A few seconds later, she recalled something. Her hand slipped and broke off the crayfish tail. "It's… that Rongxian Street?"
"You don't know but that place it's not the same as the past anymore. Especially in the recent two years. House prices increased sharply and a lot of people sold off their homes when the price was high. Only a few of the old inhabitants are still there," Boss Meng quickly said in a low voice. "Furthermore, even if it's the old inhabitants, they don't know that you're… Why, don't you trust your Uncle Meng?"
"How could I not?" Gan Qing came back to herself and evaded Boss Meng's gaze. She lowered her head and smiled. "It's just… not very convenient. I know that you mean well. Furthermore, I heard that that area is now a school district. The rental for just a bedroom starts from three thousand. I would be taking too much advantage of you."
"Ai, what are you saying?"
Gan Qing slipped the last crayfish into her mouth, gathered the eating utensils efficiently, and even wiped the table. "If the old lady needs me for anything, just let me know. I'll come anytime you ask me to. I don't have other matters anyway. But let's not talk about moving in. I just paid the rent for half a year and they won't refund me. I'll lose too much if I move out now. If there's nothing else, I'm wrapping up work for the day and leaving now!"
"Excuse me." Right then, a man's voice cut in. "This lady here, may I ask if you work at this shop?"
Gan Qing and Meng Tianyi turned around and saw that a policeman had walked up to the entrance of Dream of Stars. He had close-cropped hair and a pair of smiling eyes. He was quite fair and had a cheerful appearance. Even with his uniform, he didn't have much of a fearsome presence. He belonged to the type of police officer that people who were not locals would take one look at and want to go to him to ask for directions.
But Boss Meng unconsciously stood up and, perhaps intentionally or perhaps not, used his round and stout body to shield Gan Qing. Smiling widely, he asked, "This is my nephew's shop. He's not here at the moment. May I know… if something's the matter? We have a license. If you would like to have a look at it, I can bring it out for you."
The policeman's eyes skipped past him and landed on Gan Qing.
Boss Meng quickly said, "Oh, this is the cashier that our family hired. She's not a local girl. She came to Yanning barely a few months ago and isn't familiar with anything. If there's anything, you can just ask me."
Gan Qing didn't say a word. She stood quietly in the corner, like she was part of the decor. The oil-stained lamp above the stall at the side of the street emitted a dim light that fell on her. Barely half her face could be seen, and the light made her complexion look like that of old porcelain, and her eyes were looking meekly down.
"Don't be nervous," the policeman smiled gently. With both hands, he handed over his identification. "I've also just been transferred to this area recently. In the future, if you have any difficulties, you can look for me anytime."
Meng Tianyi didn't dare take the identification. Smiling all the while, his eyes quickly swept across the identification. Oh, this policeman's name was Yu Yan.
"It's like this. This evening, there was an unsuccessfully blackmail and extortion attempt nearby here. The victim was tricked and led away right here," Yu Yan said amiably to Gan Qing. "The victim said that the jiejie from this shop saw it happen and even pulled him back. Unfortunately, he didn't listen to her advice. Was that what happened? I don't have other intentions, I just want to understand the situation."
Gan Qing pressed her lips together and gave him a quick smile. Before she could say anything, her eyes slid to the side. It was like she was a little scared of strangers.
But for some unknown reason, Yu Yan felt that something was incongruous; yet, he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Luckily, a warm-hearted member of the public made a report in time and because of that, we made it there in time," Yu Yan said. "If I may make a bold guess, was it you who called the police?"
Boss Meng quickly said, "How is that possible-"
"Yeah." Gan Qing said.
The two of them spoke almost in unison. The fast-talking Boss Meng was so dumbstruck he was like a human stick.
Gan Qing quickly glanced at him, then explained softly. "Not many people use payphones nowadays. They'll find out immediately once they investigate."
"Oh." Boss Meng looked at her awkwardly, then looked at the policeman. "I… Well… There were a lot of customers in the afternoon. I didn't notice what was happening outside."
"It's not the first time that group of people did something like that. Usually, they trick someone to the little blind alley at the back and run away once they have extorted the money. I've bumped into them doing that before and roughly know where they will make their move," Gan Qing said softly. "Whenever I bump into them, I take a detour to avoid trouble and I don't tell anyone. Today, the child had just left my shop. That's why I did a bit more. We don't dare interfere in those people's business."
Yu Yan was briefly stunned. This lady seemed to know what he wanted to ask. In just a few words, she had cleared herself completely. His intuition told him that even if he asked further, he would probably not get any answers.
As he expected, Gan Qing started to answer "I don't know" to every question.
"Have they always been operating near this area?"
"I don't know."
"When they escape by jumping over the wall of the back lane, in which direction would they usually run off to?"
"I'm not sure."
"What about the previous victim? Do you recall any special characteristics?"
"I don't really remember anymore."
Yu Yan, "..."
Gan Qing's eyes swept around the area. Even though it was already very late, the people having supper at the nearby stalls hadn't completely left. A policeman in uniform standing here was attracting eyes from all directions. She seemed to be rather vexed and said softly, "I really don't know anything. If I had known that a phone call would summon you here, I wouldn't poke my nose into other people's business."
Boss Meng followed up, "That's right. Comrade Officer, people like us who operate small businesses can try to run away but can't escape in the end. These hoodlums ran away right after committing the crime and can't be caught. If they found out about this and come to trouble us in the future, who could bear it? Please spare us."
"Hoodlums that even Boss Meng is scared of can't be ordinary hoodlums, can they?" Right then, a sound came from the door of the car that was stopped at the intersection not far away. Yu Lanchuan got down from the car unhurriedly.
Because his shirt was torn, he decided that he might as well loosen all the buttons and pull it half out of his pants, with one half hanging loosely. When he moved, a sliver of skin from his chest down to the pit of his belly drifted in and out of sight. For the sake of fitting in with this wild image, he had even taken off his glasses and messed up his hair. One hand in his pocket, he walked over with a cold expression on his face.
The honest and upstanding police officer Yu Yan was extremely embarrassed because he felt that his companion was like a posterboy for a nightclub.
...The type that sold pleasures of the flesh and not pleasures of the mind.
As a young woman, when meeting a young man who had his chest on full display in the middle of the street, Gan Qing couldn't help going with the norm and taking an extra peek. After peeking, she felt that with that chest and that waist, there was nothing wrong at all with flaunting that body.
It was just that… in this rundown place where illegally recycled oil and ash from the stoves filled the air, was there a need to try so hard to look fashionable?
"When I was young, I met you once at Rongxian Street." Yu Lanchuan lowered his head, his eyes sweeping across Boss Meng's hands. Boss Meng's hands were very thick and had some oil stains from years of working behind the stove. However, the skin was very fine and smooth, gleaming like jade, and really didn't look like a pair of hands that belonged to a middle-aged man. In the face of Boss Meng's confused look, Yu Lanchuan introduced himself in a vague manner, "My surname is Yu."
Meng Tianyi and Gan Qing's faces simultaneously blanked out for a second.
"Oh, it's you!" Meng Tianyi straightened his back that had been slightly bent all the while, then lowered his voice. "You… Please come in and have a seat."
After saying that, he waved to the side. Purposely not looking at Gan Qing, he pretended to shoo her off very casually. "Gan'er, this has nothing more to do with you. Go home, be careful on your way back."
The moment Yu Lanchuan spoke, Gan Qing had taken half a step back, retreating from the light. Her presence that was already very weak disappeared almost completely.
Hearing Boss Meng's words, she nodded like a lost spirit, then turned to leave without a word.
Yu Lanchuan initially did not take note of her. Out of habit, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and happened to see an unclear side silhouette. His heart suddenly skipped a beat and he called out without thinking. "Hold on."
Gan Qing seemed to be startled by him. She stood there stiffly, then turned around cautiously and asked, "Are you talking to me?"
The wide-opened eyes were full of panic and insecurity. Her shoulders were very tense and she was shaking like a frightened wild rabbit.
Yu Lanchuan could see her face clearly now and disappointment suddenly flooded him. The memory bubbling up in his heart dissipated swiftly.
"It's nothing." His expression became placid and he said with the politeness of a stranger. "The one who was cornered by them today was my younger brother. I want to thank you."
Gan Qing stammered a reply. "Y-You're welcome."
Yu Lanchuan exhaled through his nose and thought. Where did this village bumpkin come from? She can't even speak properly.
His little bit of patience still had to be reserved to entertain the bosses that pay his salary and he had no patience for this kind of slow and awkward people. He nodded reservedly and then no longer bothered himself with this passerby, striding into Tianyi Crayfish.
Gan Qing thought. He's so key-ed up and tense. Someone must have torn down the Yu clan's ancestral tomb for a madman to appear in their family.
Her head lowered, she walked away with hurried steps, like an insignificant shadow.
The alleys of Mudpool Backlane were like a maze. At this hour, other than the street with the open-air skewers shops, everywhere else had turned quiet and desolate. Even the night wind blowing past seemed to slow down and thicken. The streetlights that had not been maintained for years lit up according to their moods, and there were still some that emitted flashes of light. When a person walked there, if their footsteps were just a little bit heavy, there would be an echo.
It was quite terrifying.
Perhaps she was scared of walking alone at night; Gan Qing purposely dragged her slippers along the ground and even hummed a song.
When she reached a spot where the light was well behind her, a shadowy figure emerged from the lane she had just passed. If Liu Zhongqi was there, he would recognise him as one of the three men who extorted him, the bald one.
The bald man glared viciously at Gan Qing's back for a while, then moved his legs to go after her. He was a burly man, nearly 1.9 meters tall. Yet, when he walked, his footsteps were silent.
Gan Qing didn't notice anything and followed the turn in the alley. On the quiet lane, there was only the sound of someone walking in plastic slippers and a rather raspy female voice singing. "Even though my hair had turned white after crossing the hill..."
The bald man tightened his jaw a little and his footsteps quickened. He curled his hands into fists, his muscles and veins bulging out on his arms.
"Chattering on and on, time waits not for my sorrow…"
The bald man charged aggressively past the intersection. Then, his feet came to an abrupt halt. In front of him was a blind alley covered in darkness. Other than an abandoned public bike, there was nothing else.
Where was she?
Right then, the slapping sound of plastic slippers could be heard again. The sound was coming from behind him!
"Before I could see the greatness that I desire…"
The bald man turned around abruptly and saw the meddlesome "cashier" stroll past from an intersection behind him. Her hands were in her pockets and she was too lazy to even lift her legs. She swayed unsteadily as she walked, and was not sparing him even a single glance.
Since there was no one nearby, the bald man decided that he might as well not bother hiding and shouted, "Stand there!"
After shouting, he stretched out his long legs and chased Gan Qing. The bald man charged towards the intersection, taking at most five or six steps, and reached in a flash. But in just a blink of the eye, the woman had disappeared into thin air again.
"I first lost myself —"
The song skirted on the verge of being offkey, echoing in the small alley until it was coming from all directions. A thin film of cold sweat appeared on the bald man's back. "Where are you from? Stop fooling around!"
With this shout, the sound of the singing and the footsteps disappeared at the same time. For a moment, only the low murmur of the night wind remained all around him, rustling and furtive.
The bald man's heartbeat began to quicken. Unconsciously, he bent his knees and raised his arms, both hands guarding his head. He held his breath and looked around warily.
Suddenly, an indescribable shiver ran through his body. Right on its heels came an unnatural gust of wind, directly closing in on his temples. The bald man realised with a fright that he could neither dodge nor block in time. There was a stab of pain on his temple and a buzzing sound went off in his head. He thought, I'm dead.
But the expected scene of his skull being cracked open and his blood spurting out did not happen. The bald man was stunned for a while before finally realising that even the skin on his scalp was not broken. Confused, he reached up to touch all over—his head was still sitting steadily on his neck.
It was as though a little pebble had been caught in the wind just now, and had coincidentally hit his face.
The bald man searched blindly for a while in the little alley like a headless fly but didn't spot even a single footprint. He was steadying his breathing when the phone in his pocket rang. He fumbled it out for a look and his voice fell a full octave, sounding almost gentle. "Hello, Shiniang... Me? I'm at the alley where we were this afternoon. I happen to see the police… What did you say?"
After taking the call, he couldn't be bothered with Gan Qing anymore and ran off in a hurry.
The bald man left Mudpool Backlane and passed two crossroads. He ran until his head was covered in sweat and charged into a McDonald's.
The employee who was cleaning the tables was frightened by this fiendish-looking burly man and retreated hurriedly, eyes wide. The bald man didn't bother with picking a fight; his eyes quickly swept around the place and he headed towards a table in the corner. The old lady and the other two men who had run a porcelain scam on a minor that evening were sitting in a corner. The three of them had ordered a small packet of fries. No one was eating, it seemed to be just for show. At their feet was a luggage bag that was bulging at the seams.
The bald man panted as he reached his companions. "Didn't we already pay the money? How can they just say they're not letting us stay anymore? How can there be such a thing? I'm going to look for them!"
"They have refunded us the money." The scarred-face man beside him greeted him with a 'Shixiong' and continued speaking, "They have no choice. There was a sudden inspection today. The landlord also didn't know what happened but they don't dare rent out the place anymore."
The bald man was just about to speak when the old lady suddenly lifted her head and looked at him. "Who did you meet?"
The bald man stared blankly. "Huh? Oh, it was some dumb waitress from a tiny shop. She was the one who poked her nose into other people's business today and called the police. I wanted to catch her and teach her a lesson."
The old lady asked, "Did you catch her?"
"Uhh… I didn't… It was already dark and I'm not as familiar with the place as she is. I lost her halfway through. She got lucky-"
Before he could finish speaking, the old lady suddenly leaned her body and reached out to wipe her fingers against the bald man's temple. There was a faint stain. Looking closely, it seemed to be the ash from a skewers stall.
The bald man saw her fingers clearly and quivered, his body covered in cold sweat.
"Someone who can scratch a line on your head is someone who can crack it open. They just didn't want to pick a fight with you today." The old lady sat back down slowly and sighed. "Do you know which street and which shop that person is from?"
The bald man said in a low voice, "I know. It's the street where all the shops sell skewers."
The old lady nodded. "Since she didn't harm you today, it means that other than what happens on her doorstep, she won't bother with things that don't concern her. You just need to avoid her place next time."
The bald man grumbled discontentedly, "A village bumpkin-"
"Enough!" The old lady raised her voice a little and cut him off. "What did I tell you at home? Yanning is a place with hidden dragons and crouching tigers. Hide when you bump into people like us, don't think that you're so mighty. Frog in the well!"
The bald man didn't dare say anymore. The other two men also followed suit and lowered their heads as they listened to her scolding.
The small table quieted down for the moment. The eight eyes on these four people fell on the fries on the table. The fries had gone completely cold, the oil that seeped out had turned the paper packet translucent. No one touched them and they lied there all alone. By their side were a few packets of ketchup that had been sucked dry, lying messily on the table like dead bodies.
After a while, the scarred-face man broke the silence. "Shiniang, we can't just stay here and wait. If there's really nothing we can do, how about staying at a guesthouse today?"
The disabled man at the side who had stayed silent the whole time said in a stifled tone, "Shiniang can stay in a guesthouse. We three can make do with staying outdoors for a night. It's not cold in summer anyway."
The old lady seemed to be thinking of something. She reached out to grab the small bundle by her side. Who knew what she was thinking; after a while, she sighed and shook her head.
Meanwhile, Gan Qing had also returned to her "home."
She was walking even slower, her steps dragging even more. This was because when she was avoiding that bald man, she had run a bit too hastily and the plastic strap on her left slipper had nearly broken off with barely half a centimeter still attached. She was afraid that once she lifted her leg, she would have to hop back on one leg.
From far she saw the familiar street lights at the entrance of her home and only then did she let out a relieved sigh. She decided to go back and borrow a pair of slippers from her roommate and make do for a couple of days.
She was currently staying at an illegal group rental house. Partitions divided the house into eight small rooms. Each room had a bunk bed and two inhabitants. Most of her housemates were female. Everyone had agreed not to smoke in the communal spaces and no one didn't flush the toilet, so it could still be considered clean. As for the girl staying in the bunk above hers who stayed in during the day and went out at night, that was a small issue. Gan Qing was someone who could sleep in the space under a bridge and didn't mind this little bit of disturbance.
In summary, she felt that her little nest was cheap, clean and near her workplace. Everything was good, great quality at a bargain price.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, things that were great quality at a bargain price often came with other problems—for example, being illegal.
Hence, on this day, Gan Qing hummed the song Hill all the way home and found that her "home" was gone.
A group of people were gathered outside the building, carrying their pots and pans. Gan Qing found her roommate among them. The roommate produced a pair of slippers and gave it to her, and also told her that the City of Yanning had started a new round of crackdowns on group rentals recently. The place they were renting had been sealed off and they were to move out immediately. They were not allowed to stay the night.
Hence, this group of people—whether it was the 'owl' who stayed in during the day and went out at night or the "lark" who was early to rise and early to bed—they were all turned out on the streets.
Fifteen minutes later, Gan Qing had rescued her own meagre possessions and was squatting on the road curb, holding a corn on the cob. The corn was also given to her by her night owl roommate. It tasted quite sweet.
The milky white streetlights stood in a line behind her. The slender poles fanning out looked like a swan taking flight, spreading along both sides of the wide road, rising and falling gently, linking together the shimmering lights from the thousands of homes in the city.
On this night, it was truly a curious coincidence.
The ones who ran the porcelain scam and the one who meddled in the affair, the one who overestimated his abilities and the one who hid herself deep without revealing anything, they all reached the same destination via different routes. In a cloud of gloom and anxiety, they were all pondering where they could go to stay the night.
 越过山丘，虽然已白了头 - Even though my hair had turned white after crossing the hill
This is from the song 山丘 "Hill" by Jonathan Lee. The lyrics are about looking back on a life of fights and regrets.
Yu Lanchuan dropped Yu Yan off on his way back. By the time he reached home, it was nearly ten at night. The door to the little brat's room stayed closed; maybe he was asleep or maybe he was still sulking.
Yu Lanchuan couldn't be bothered to deal with him. He kept thinking that when he was at that age, he was already much more matured.
He looked at his own shirt in the full-length mirror, his heart hurting like it was sliced with a knife. If only a few buttons had popped off, he could still sew them back on. But on the area over his chest, there was a finger length tear along the fabric grain. With his sewing skills, there was definitely no way to salvage it.
Why did you have to show off? Yu Lanchuan, who regularly reflected on his actions, faced the mirror and interrogated himself with a grave face. Even if you're so cool that you break the universe, is it worth doing that in front of a salted fish? Can it pay for one round of dry cleaning? You really have nothing better to do!
Perhaps to complement Master Lan's "royal self-recrimination," especially the last line, his stomach let out a long and winding growl.
It was only then that Yu Lanchuan realised that he hadn't had the time to eat dinner. Listlessly, he took off his torn shirt and handily stuffed it into a trash bag, then dug out his phone to call for food delivery.
The mobile payments were linked to his bank card. Once he paid, he received an automatic reminder of his bank account balance. Face-to-face with the balance amount that popped out, Yu Lanchuan didn't dare take a closer look. He only glanced at it, and his heart and stomach immediately turned ice-cold.
And so, he miserly picked up his torn shirt again, planning to cut it up to use as wiping cloths.
Of course, he wouldn't save much this way. But "being frugal" itself was like an anesthetic; it could numb a person's psychology just a little to the pain of being poor.
Mudpool Backlane's Boss Meng knew his granduncle. In honour of that old man, Boss Meng had told him some honest truths.
Apparently, that group of porcelain scammers were not locals. They knew some barehanded martial arts and the old lady was the most powerful among them. They had come to Yanning and used some unconventional jianghu techniques to cheat and swindle their way everywhere. They purposely targeted young people who obviously looked like "soft persimmons" that yielded easily once pressed.
In recent years, personal safety education was conducted in a way that was more practical. Everyone understood that their own lives were more important than money. Up to now, all their victims had been quite cooperative; once they saw that something was wrong, they would meekly accept their bad luck. One party handed over their money while the other party released their victim. It could be considered peaceful and harmonious, and they had not done anything that resulted in physical fighting.
The old denizens of Mudpool Backlane preferred to avoid unnecessary trouble whenever possible, so no one had spoken up.
Boss Meng had added Yu Yan on WeChat and agreed to report any clues he might find later on to this police comrade at any time. For the moment, this was all that could be done for this matter.
He still had to wait another half an hour for the food delivery. Yu Lanchuan turned on his laptop and prepared to work.
After this little excursion, more than ten unread items had popped up in his WeChat and his email. This world seemed to be transparent, everything visible, and everyone bound to a data terminal without a single thread on their body. Every kind of information bombarded them twenty-four hours a day without a second's pause, making it such that even if there was no static noise right beside their ears, they would still feel that life was very cacophonous.
His mind straying endlessly far, Yu Lanchuan thought that the ancient times were much better. All the great heroes went into seclusion for any reason at all, hiding themselves in some random nook in the mountains, and no one could find them.
...But that said — one couldn't bring their phones with them when going into seclusion so that meant no calling for food delivery. That was also a problem.
Facing the reports that he would have to spend the night reviewing, he spaced out for a while. His mind was like a theatre stage and his heart could not calm down, so he got up and changed into loose-fitting workout clothes, then went to the balcony for a couple of rounds of bare-handed martial arts practice.
This martial arts style had seven forms and was adapted from swordplay techniques — his balcony was too small and he couldn't properly practise the sword. His swordsmanship had been personally taught to him by his granduncle, step by meticulous step. It was called the Seven Secret Arts of the Han Jiang and it stressed on "An abundance of honesty; with moderateness and openness," requiring one to have the bearing of a gentleman.
In the past, Granduncle had always grumbled that "Chinese martial arts is wide-ranging and profound. It's a shame that not much is passed down." Yu Lanchuan had never mulled over how much knowledge had been lost; he had always treated the Seven Secret Sword Arts as a workout technique to keep in shape. Whenever he felt agitated or weary, whenever he felt unwell anywhere whether in heart or in body, he would go through the forms a couple of times. After sweating it out, he would always feel better.
When Granduncle was around fifteen or sixteen years old, the Japanese invaded and he had joined the anti-Japanese association formed by civilians. He had fought on the battlefield and was wounded by shrapnel from exploding artillery shells. Since then, he lost the ability to have children and thus, treated the single descendent his younger brother had as his own. The old man's body was robust; every year, he told other people that he was still young, only sixty-nine years old. Even after being in his "sixties" for more than a decade, there had actually been people who still believed him.
He lived his later years in a very carefree manner. His retirement fund in hand, he drove his rundown off-road vehicle on a self-drive tour everywhere. Whenever he felt that a place was good, he would stay there for a period of time. In recent years, his whereabouts had been increasingly unclear. None of his close friends could locate him. It was nearly two years since Yu Lanchuan last saw him.
Granduncle had wide connections and dared to take on problems. In his whole life, he had been public-spirited. Anyone who came from far to ask for help, regardless of whether he knew them or not, he would not mind the trouble. If that old man was in Yanning right now, he would find that group of porcelain scammers even if he had to dig a meter into the ground, and he would see if they were bad by nature or if they had encountered some kind of difficulty.
Yu Lanchuan had spent his entire youth growing up by the old man's side. During the few years when he was the most chuuni, he had hoped to grow up to become someone like that old man. Head touching the sky, feet on the ground, half a bowl of erguotou raised in a toast to all corners of the world, sleeves billowing in the wind, and nothing in the world that he could not handle.
But ideals and reality were hundreds and thousands of light years apart. Just look at all the university students that were failing advanced mathematics until they no longer wanted to live — when they were young, how many of them had said that they wanted to be scientists when they grow up?
Yu Lanchuan's chuuni period came and went like the wind. After he recovered from this "sickness," he lived a conventional life of sitting for the university entrance exams, going abroad to study, then getting promoted at work and having his salary increased. By the time he came back to himself, he had already spent a good number of years galloping at top speed on this path that went counter to his ideals.
When this trifling thing called "ideals" was too far away, it would automatically collapse into a fantastical daydream.
Furthermore, how could he be like the old man?
It was totally impractical.
After all, the old man had a pension and also did not have a house loan.
After two rounds of practice, his whole body seemed to have lightened by two pounds. Yu Lanchuan pushed open the windows on the balcony and leaned against the window frame to let the wind dry his sweat.
Maybe it was going to rain. An earthy smell was slowly rising in the air, damp and moist.
Back in that year when the old man taught him, on one hand it was to play with him and on the other hand, it was because the old man was afraid that prolonged sitting would be bad for the body so he teased Yu Lanchuan into getting up and exercising his limbs. The old man didn't count on training him into anything noteworthy because Yu Lanchuan didn't seem like a person with persistence. In addition, The Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang didn't seem to suit his aura. Which of the eight words "An abundance of honesty; with moderateness and openness," punctuation included, was in any way related to Director Yu? In any case, Granduncle couldn't tell.
Who would have thought that once he started training, he would train for fifteen years.
Right then, his phone rang. Yu Lanchuan thought his food was here and picked up without thinking.
"Hello? May I know if this is Mr. Yu, Yu Lanchuan?"
Yu Lanchuan said, "Yeah, just come up. I'll open the door for you."
For some reason, the other person paused a while, then said an "I'm sorry" before continuing to ask, "May I ask if Mr. Yu Huaide is your relative?"
Yu Lanchuan stared blankly. His chest tightened for no reason — Yu Huaide was his granduncle.
"He's my grandfather. What's the matter?"
"Um… Sir, please accept my condolences."
At the end of last year, the old Mr. Yu Huaide had gone to Sichuan. There was a saying about the place, "Enter not when young, leave not when old." When the old man got there, he fell in love with the place and decided to stay there for a long time. For half a year, he enjoyed himself thoroughly in Sichuan, roaming east and west, enjoying the flavours of the region. Then, he felt that he had played enough and it was about time, so he looked for a valley with beautiful scenery. He went there and snapped a few photos, then put his will and his belongings into his camera bag. He sat down beside a creek, took off his shoes, dipped his feet into the clear waters of the creek, rested a while, and just like that, he departed from this life. Three days later, a few self-driving tourists finally found him.
He lived like a legend, and also died like one.
Yu Lanchuan put down his phone, his mind blank. For a moment, he could not regain his wits.
Right then, the muffled sound of thunder came from far away, rumbling as it rolled near. The wind rose on its heels and in just a flash, the heavy rain that could not be contained poured down without warning.
Gan Qing and her night owl roommate dashed into the subway station at the last second and were lucky not to be drenched like drowned rats.
The night owl roommate had run until she was sweating all over. Tendrils of long hair stuck to her face and she panted like she was recovering from a huge shock.
Gan Qing didn't usually take the subway — it was more expensive than the bus. Once they entered, she quickly analysed the route map on the wall. The night owl roommate had contacted a friend and was taking Gan Qing along to seek shelter. The friend's house was a bit far out, they had to go across the city. They had to take the subway, and even change lines.
Gan Qing deciphered the route map and said, "We have to move fast or we might not make it to the last train when we change lines. You-"
Before she could finish speaking, the night owl roommate let out a loud wail and started sobbing. Gan Qing was startled by this sudden flurry of noise and turned to look at her in surprise.
The girl's sobs were as sudden as the thunderstorm outside. There was no buffer time; from the get-go, she wailed until she forgot herself.
"Why am I so unlucky… Why the fuck won't they let me stay there… Why the fuck did they cut my pay! Why the fuck is it raining! Why the fuck am I on my period—!"
There was an echo in the subway station that took the word "period" and strengthened it until it was as mighty as the mountains and the rivers. The commuters going home late straggled past them, some lifting their heads to glance at them, some hurrying past with earphones stuffed in their ears, all of them not the least bit concerned.
Gan Qing asked, "Why don't I… help you… get some hot water?"
The night owl roommate held her stomach and squatted down. The large bag holding her belongings was thrown down at her feet. She had too many things and the zipper was pushed slightly open, revealing a dog plush toy from a claw machine. She glanced at it from the corner of her eye and tugged it out. Like she was venting her feelings, she hurled it to the ground and nearly tripped a passerby.
Gan Qing quickly apologised to the person and ran over in her slippers to pick up the little dog. She had just put it back when the night owl roommate pulled it out again, and again sent it flying. "Why aren't you letting me throw it! It's mine, I want to throw it!"
Gan Qing, "..."
She was out of patience.
For a while, she stood helplessly by the side, hands on her hips. Then, she walked over to a vending machine, dug out a few coins and bought a bottled hot drink. She patted her night owl roommate on the head and twisted open the cap on the bottle for her. "Here."
The night owl roommate choked on her sobs. She lifted her eyes from her knees and looked at Gan Qing, hiccuped, then reached out a hand and took the bottle sluggishly.
Gan Qing helped her carry her luggage. "Don't curl up. Stand up and walk around or your stomach will hurt."
The night owl roommate's ferocious sobbing died down. After a while, she sniffed and straggled to her feet.
"All right, don't cry anymore," Gan Qing said, calm and even. "See, even if it's raining, the two of us didn't get caught in it. Such a heavy rain won't last long. It should have stopped by the time we get out of the subway, so how are we unlucky? You even have such a considerate friend who's willing to take us in in the middle of the night. Is she your ex-schoolmate?"
The night owl roommate said, "No, she's my ex-boyfriend's ex-girlfriend."
Gan Qing, "..."
The night owl roommate continued to say, "My ex was a scumbag."
Gan Qing said, "...I can tell."
The night owl roommate took a sulky gulp of the hot drink, "You're much nicer than my ex."
Gan Qing vaguely sensed that those words were a compliment. Complimented in such a way that she had no way to reply, she could only sigh. "Let's go."
In the following week, Gan Qing slept on the floor of someone else's home while searching for a room everywhere.
The months of July and August every year was the peak season for rentals. The large batch of students newly graduated from universities needed a lodging place. On top of that, there was a not insignificant number of people like Gan Qing who had been thrown out and they were all looking for a cheap place to stay. For a moment, demand was high in the market and rental prices soared. Sometimes, after searching online for a long while, she would finally find one with a price that was still acceptable but once she called them, it would either have already been rented out or the landlord would want to increase the rent at the last minute.
And then, after one week, her night owl roommate finally could not persevere anymore. She left the coupons she had saved and the dog plushie with Gan Qing, and planned to return to her parents' house.
Once the night owl roommate left, Gan Qing felt that it wasn't appropriate for her to continue staying with the "ex-girlfriend" for free.
She closed the shop and got off work earlier, and went over to Tianyi Crayfish to help carry two crates of beer. She paced around a couple of times with nothing to do before finally walking over to the back kitchen in hesitation. "Uncle Meng… Previously, you said you were looking for someone to take care of the old lady, have you found a suitable person?"
At the same time this was happening, Yu Lanchuan finished taking care of matters after his granduncle's passing and returned to Yanning with the old man's ashes.
After getting off the airplane, he got a cab and told the driver, "Driver, go to Rongxian Street, No. 110 Courtyard."
He first needed to take the old man home.
The author has something to say:
About the skin on a person's hand being fine and gleaming like jade, it came from a rumour I've heard before. Apparently, when a Xing Yi Quan master's skills reach a certain level, the skin and flesh on their hands will become extremely fine and smooth. I don't know whether it's true or not, I've never practised Xing Yi Quan. In any case, we MMA practitioners' hands are quite rough.
Besides that, the entire setting in this story is something I came up with blindly, don't take it as a substitute for real life combat martial arts centers and martial arts schools.
 Enter not when young, leave not when old - 少不入川，老不出蜀
This saying refers to the charms of Sichuan. One should not go there when young, lest they enjoy themselves so much that they never want to leave and work hard to be successful. Whereas the old would not want to leave the place because they naturally would want to spend their remaining days in comfort.
No. 110 Courtyard on Rongxian Street should actually be considered a small residential neighbourhood. It was just that the small neighbourhood only had one building, hence the name.
In the past, it was a public housing built by a work unit. The construction of the building preserved a special characteristic of old public housings from the past: shadow on the north, light from the south. Every floor had a narrow public corridor running along the northern side from the east to the west, while on the southern side was a row of ten apartments sitting side-by-side. Everyone shared one elevator. Later on, after the work unit was gone, the public housing also went through a "housing reform." Via the residents' voluntary purchase of the apartments, it became a housing property that could be bought and sold in the market.
The building was constructed in 1990. The babies born after '90 were already losing hair in large amounts, so there was naturally a limit to how fresh and beautiful the buildings that were the same age as them could be. The walls were mottled, and from the rusty railings to the narrow stairs, there was nothing that didn't show the sign of old age.
But even though the building was rather old, the environment in that little neighbourhood was pretty good. It was sparsely populated and tranquil, and after twenty years, the trees had also grown verdant. Walking into the courtyard in summer, a person would feel that it was cooler than the outside by five degrees. The location was also good, barely two stops away from the CBD or less than twenty minutes' walk. The large gate on the neighbourhood's west side directly faced a bilingual kindergarten. Fifty meters out of the large gate on the east side, there was a decent public primary school that had moved there a few years ago. Hence, this place could be considered a "school district residence." Most ordinary folk wouldn't be able to afford it.
Right now, among those staying in this courtyard were the nouveau riche who bought the apartments with cash for the sake of the school district admission quota, the wealthy who paid tens of thousands in rent every month just so that it was more convenient for their children to attend kindergarten, and also the "natives" of the courtyard who only had two little rooms left after they lost their jobs when the work unit was restructured. People from all walks of life made up the whole place.
Parked at the courtyard were luxury cars that cost millions and also little Santanas that looked like they were about to reach scrappage age. However, there were typically no parking spaces in this kind of old and tiny neighbourhood, so regardless of whether they were luxury cars or rundown cars, they all had to be stuffed into whichever nook and cranny that could be found. All the wheels were united in having a small wooden board to shield them from dog urine.
When Yu Lanchuan reached the place, someone happened to be moving in. There was a small electric car charging via a power cord connected to the reception office at the entrance blocking the road and the moving van from the movers was stuck at the gate, unable to enter.
"Whose car is it at the entrance? Please move it!" The moving van's driver whistled and shouted. After shouting for a long while, no one answered so he got down from the van and unleashed his voice. "Red colour! Four wheels! There are words on the car, 'Traditional Acupuncture and Moxibustion Therapy, Burial Clothes, Flower Wreaths Discount,' whose is it? Whose flower wreaths are on discount? Move your car!"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
It was truly a one-stop service provider.
He couldn't be bothered to squeeze past the baking hot moving van so he stopped at the entrance to wait for them to move away.
This was a place he had spent a lot of time at when he was young. Right after the entrance of the courtyard were two rows of scholar trees, with a lane for walking in the middle. At this time, the flowers of the scholar trees had long since withered away and only the overlapping layers of leaves remained. The fiery midsummer sunshine was blocked by those leaves, leaving just a few stray fragments of light to fall to the ground. The branches of the old scholar trees contorted into gnarly, twisted knots. A slightly damp air emanated from the rich greenery, carrying a touch of the tranquil solitude of being free from the worries of the mortal world.
In a flash, ten years had passed. The building had grown old, the old residents were gone, and the trees had also grown tall.
Granduncle had lived for nearly a century. He was also someone who didn't walk the conventional path and was an old man who easily dropped out of contact. As his relative, Yu Lanchuan was actually already mentally prepared and he couldn't say that he was grieving deeply now. It was just that when he was standing here with the old man's ashes, he suddenly had a feeling that the people had changed while the material things had not. It was like an era had disappeared into the air while he was not paying attention.
The old man did not leave many possessions behind. Other than the rundown car that was practically scrap metal, he only left some daily necessities and his camera. In his will, he asked Yu Lanchuan to develop the few photos which were to be the old man's final masterpieces, and also stated that everything in his bag was to be left to Yu Lanchuan.
Other than his will, the bag also contained two small booklets. One of them was the manual for the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang swordplay; Yu Lanchuan was already thoroughly familiar with it. The other one was something he had not seen before. The will stated that it was the heirloom of the Han Jiang Sect. The old man himself was the 136th sect leader and he intended to pass it on to Yu Lanchuan, making him the 137th leader.
However, the old man indicated that it was fine whether or not he wanted to take up the mantle. Han Jiang Sword Sect did not have any disciples anyway.
The contents of the "sect heirloom" was mainly divided into three sections: Sect Rules, Way of Cultivation and Sect-Exclusive Ancient Teachings. They had all been passed down since ancient times.
In total, there were twenty sect rules, all written in classical language in the traditional writing. Yu Lanchuan had attended a business school at university and had studied abroad after that. He had downed a bellyful of western writings and his classical Chinese was just at high school level, and he felt dizzy with just one look. He skimmed through the whole thing until the end and finally found a handwritten line in simplified writing. It was the old man's handwriting.
The old man knew his level and had purposely written an annotation. The annotation was very plain: Anyone who can fulfil the twenty sect rules is a saint. There's no need to study them closely. We mere mortals only need to follow the country's laws and regulations and adhere to society's customs.
The Way of Cultivation section summarised the understanding gained by the generations of sect leaders from their practice and study of martial arts. Each one of them had differing skill levels and the "legacy" they left behind also took on many different forms and shapes. Some were long and complicated secret chants while some were stick figures stretching out their arms and kicking their legs.
For this section, the old man wrote his annotation at the beginning and the annotation had a "the heart as broad as the sky and earth are wide" feel to it: I guess you probably won't understand this. If you don't understand, then take your time. If you still don't understand after taking your time, then just let it be.
The last section was Sect-Exclusive Ancient Teachings. Yu Lanchuan had heard of this before. According to legend, in ancient times, a number of sects had their own exclusive medicinal prescriptions, treatments for injuries, ways to regulate inner breathing, detoxification methods—all sorts of things, all of them mysterious. They were not passed down to outsiders and were considered a part of the sect's teachings that were passed down from generation to generation. These were things like the Life Giving Pill or Wound Healing Pill found in wuxia stories.
Yu Lanchuan flipped to the last section out of curiosity, wanting to see what kind of secrets that could not be spread that his sect had. In the end, he found that the old man had covered those pages with ink and even wrote in large red letters: These nonsense are unscientific. Go to the hospital if you're sick.
It was followed by three exclamation marks.
The 137th sect leader held this quality heirloom in his hands, evaluated it, and felt that the remaining days of his sect… would be nothing more than this.
The owner of the electric car took his own sweet time to finally arrive. The driver of the moving van was starting to grumble discontentedly. The sound of people talking called back Yu Lanchuan's attention and he looked up with a rather complicated expression at the small eleven stories high building.
Among the things the old man left behind, the most important and the most troublesome to take care of was none other than this apartment.
The old man's home was on the tenth floor. It was a small unit with two bedrooms, with approximately seventy square meters of floor space. Just now, Yu Lanchuan had enquired at the real estate agency at the intersection—the market price of a house like this was 8.5 million yuan, excluding tax.
This amount was enough to make any member of the salaried class faint.
The old Yu Huaide had never gotten married and didn't have children of his own. From young, he and his younger brother—Yu Lanchuan's biological grandfather—grew up depending on each other for survival. Yu Lanchuan's grandparents had passed away one after another a few years ago. His family members were few; both he and his father were only childs.
Yu Lanchuan's father, Yu Jianhua, had had enough of the shackles of marriage and family life. After getting divorced with much difficulty, he was like a little bird flying free of its cage and was now a staunch believer in singlehood. When Granduncle passed away, Yu Jianhua had hurried over to see the body and helped to take care of some matters, then left with a flourish of his sleeves. As for the assets left behind, his father had said, "You're the only one left in our family in this generation anyway. Anything we have will be yours in the future. Deal with them as you see fit."
Hence, this apartment, theoretically, should have fallen into his hands.
In the same world, millions of house loan slaves had dreamed the same dream.
...And it nearly came true for him.
Unfortunately, this was not the second half of the story of Jane Eyre because, in his will, the old man also said that this apartment could not be left to the descendants of his family.
Back in the year of the housing reform, a resident had to pay 50,000 yuan to gain the rights to the property. Even though that amount now might seem like they were getting the house practically for free, 50,000 was a number that was not small to many people twenty years ago.
The old man was a bachelor and had always saved little while spending a lot. Don't talk about 50,000, he could not even produce 5,000. The money for buying the house was collectively gathered by all his friends from his far-ranging connections who heard of his difficulty.
The old man's relationships with other people were too good, the number of people he had helped too many, and who knew how many people had helped him gather the money. There were some who were embarrassed by how little they had and could only contribute thirty or fifty yuan. They didn't feel that it was appropriate to leave their name and didn't plan to ask him to pay them back.
Later on, before the old man could straighten out who were the people he should pay back, the economy and the housing prices in the country took off together. In the second year, the small 50,000 yuan apartment doubled in price. After that, before everyone's dumbstruck eyes, it flew to the sky like it was on a rocket.
If someone were to come and dispute that 50,000 now, it would reflect badly on them.
Hence, the old Yu Huaide said that even though this apartment was under his name, it could not be considered his personal property. He would definitely not sell it off and if any of his friends in the martial arts world faced troubles and came to Yanning, they could all come to this place.
Which was to say, this school district residence that was so close to carrying the surname Yu was the Martial Arts Alliance's Yanning Management Office.
Once Yu Lanchuan thought of this matter, his heart started bleeding. These whimsical jokers, couldn't they look for some suburb in an outskirt district or county to set up their management office!
Right when he was grieving internally with a cold expression on the outside, a gust of wind blew suddenly from behind him, hitting the back of his head. Yu Lanchuan was still immersed in his thoughts thousands of miles away and, without engaging his brain, his body automatically slid a step away. At the same time, he stood at an angle and jabbed backwards with his elbow. A plastic walking stick slid along his elbow like a swimming fish, following the shift in his center of gravity to sweep below his ribs. Using his hand, arm and shoulder as a sword, in a blink of the eye, Yu Lanchuan single-handedly exchanged over ten moves with that plastic walking stick that seemed to want to stick itself to his body. It was only when the walking stick nearly touched the cremation box containing Granduncle's ashes that it came to a stop just in time.
Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up, looking rather miserable. He finally saw clearly that the madman who had swung a walking stick at him for no reason was an old man.
The old man had a red band around his arm. His hand was holding a green-coloured plastic walking stick and his shirt that had been washed very clean had a few patches on it. He wore a pair of horn-rimmed presbyopic glasses.
The old man lowered his head. From over the top of his glasses, his gaze pierced out from his eyes. He looked at the cremation box, then at Yu Lanchuan, and smiled. "Yu-dage, your precious grandson has brought you home! Xiao-Chuan is already so big now. Grandpa Yang nearly couldn't recognise you just now looking from far."
Yu Lanchuan was momentarily stunned, barely keeping his temper in check. Looking carefully again, he remembered that this Grandpa Yang seemed to live on the sixth floor and was close to his family's old man. In the past, they had often gone fishing together.
Old Yang clutched the walking stick under his arm. Then, without any clearly visible movement—it seemed like he only reached a hand out, light as a feather—he took the cremation box.
Yu Lanchuan said, "Hey-"
"Child, now that he is almost home, let me bring my old brother home for this part of the journey." Old Yang waved him off. Then, his face seemed rather desolate. "Fuliang Yue, Han Jiang Xue, Tang Qian Yan, Chuan Lin Feng… The Five Supremes from back then; in these years, some have left this place and some have left this world. I'm the only old fool left behind now."
Five Supremes? Wasn't there only four?
Yu Lanchuan stared fearfully at the old man's tottering back, afraid that he would drop his granduncle. He had heard that not knowing how to count was a sign of dementia.
"There's no one to carry on the titles either. Only your family's Xiao-Chuan is somewhat useful and can still take a few moves from me. The rest… Ai, all useless things!" Old Yang chattered endlessly at the cremation box. "The once-every-three-years Martial Arts General Assembly—now that you're gone, when everyone comes to Yanning this year, who will they come for?"
"That's right." Old Yang remembered something and turned his head to ask Yu Lanchuan, "Xiao-Chuan, up to which level have you practised the Seven Secret Arts swordplay?"
Yu Lanchuan was completely lost. "...What is the benchmark for the rating?"
Standard and Poor's?
Upon hearing that, Old Yang let out a heavy sigh. As the saying went, "The weasel declines into a rat." Each generation was worse than the last.
Sighing mournfully, Old Yang led the big rat Yu Lanchuan to the elevator lobby. There was already someone there waiting for the elevator. Yu Lanchuan's gaze swept past that person and he jolted. "It's you?"
Gan Qing really could not find a place to stay. With no other choice, she thickened her skin and ate her words, and had come dejectedly to Boss Meng's relative's house to plead for shelter. For the sake of giving the old lady a good impression, she had purposely cleaned herself up today and dug out the only non-work dress she had. She had combed her hair neatly and tucked it behind her ears, revealing a bright, clean forehead and five features. She looked like a proper human now.
Her original intention was to "quietly enter the village without firing a gun" and to be as low-profile as possible. She had never thought that before she even went up the building, she would bump into these two. It was truly bad luck.
Gan Qing's eyes flitted to the plastic walking stick in Old Yang's hand and away again. She didn't dare look too long. She gave Yu Lanchuan an uncomfortable and exceptionally demure smile.
When she smiled, the sharp corners of her mouth were revealed. For unknown reasons, Yu Lanchuan again felt that strange sense of familiarity he had felt that day at Mudpool Backlane. He involuntarily took another look at her and asked doubtfully, "You're staying here too?"
 Shadow on the north, light from the south - 坐北朝南
In Chinese, the phrase literally means "back to the north, front to the south." Some interpret 朝南 strictly as the door of the house facing north, but there are also interpretations that say that 朝南 just means that the light comes from the north, and so could refer to the windows. Based on the description in the text, the latter interpretation is applicable here.
Gan Qing really did not expect him to still remember her because the impression this man had given her was very strong—he obviously belonged to the "Women only know how to make themselves look pretty on the outside; I'll rather look in the mirror and be in a relationship with myself" type.
That was why she stared blankly for a while before finally answering very succinctly, "I just moved in."
"You're working at Boss Meng's place, aren't you?" Yu Lanchuan said. "I remember that he has a relative who stays here. Did he help you find an apartment here?"
He had just finished speaking when Old Master Yang's gaze shifted over to land on Gan Qing. "Meng? Is it that kid Tianyi?"
Gan Qing suspected that Yu Lanchuan had taken the wrong meds. Saying hello was fine but he even condescended to start a conversation with her!
Old Master Yang's eyes taking stock of her made her feel as though she was sitting on pins and needles. As an old man who had immersed himself in martial arts for his entire life, how every muscle and every bone on a person's body should move and exert strength was something he knew like the back of his hand. His glasses might magnify his eyes until they look like alien eyes, but his gaze seemed to harbour the legendary blade of purple lightning and frost. When it swept past, it made a person feel a faint, indistinct pain.
Gan Qing pretended not to notice. Quiet and unmoving, she inhaled, wanting to make herself relax as much as possible. Who would have thought that right at that moment, her right hand dropped the ball—her two slightly crooked fingers spasmed involuntarily.
This tiny movement immediately registered in Old Yang's eyes. He asked amiably, "Young lady, what happened to your hand?"
Gan Qing pressed her lips together and smiled. She moved her luggage to her other hand and said evasively, "My things are a little heavy."
"Go help her," Old Yang exhorted Yu Lanchuan, then continued to ask. "Was your hand injured before?"
Yu Lanchuan made a noise of assent and bent down, taking her large bag from her. At the same time, he noticed her hand. There were calluses on her palm and even in summer, her skin was still very dry. Around her nails that weren't very well maintained, there were a few sparse hangnails, and her nails bore signs of the wear and tear of daily life. She was clutching her right wrist, like she was trying hard to make her stiff right hand relax, but her hand trembled even harder when stretched taut in this way. The long sleeve of her dress quivered along with this movement.
She looked rather pitiful.
"When I was young, I fell down by the roadside and my wrist was run over by a three-wheeled cart," Gan Qing said. "The hospital near my old home wasn't very good and my wrist has never healed properly."
"Ai, didn't it make things difficult for you?" Old Yang let out a slow sigh. "You're so young. Injuries to your muscles and bones are minor things but it would be bad if your meridians are injured."
Gan Qing pretended not to understand him and just agreed nervously.
Old Yang suddenly took half a step towards her. Along with his movement, the walking stick clutched under his arm swayed slightly. The two of them were about a meter apart. To an outsider to the field, it merely looked like the old man was tired from carrying the cremation box and was changing his standing posture.
However, to Gan Qing who was physically right there, more than half her focus was actually on that walking stick. The shifting of the walking stick by that one inch seemed to seal off the space she could move in, from all directions. A stifling sense of being trapped descended on her; instinctively, she wanted to escape.
Yet, Old Yang's eyes were keenly waiting for her to move.
Right at that moment, the elevator door suddenly opened. The air that rushed out carried with it a waft of perfume, directly hitting them in their faces and dispersing that stifling atmosphere. Gan Qing's tense muscles swiftly relaxed and she heard someone say, "Grandpa, what are you holding?"
The three of them looked up in unison. A woman came out of the elevator. Her long hair was bound in a loose ponytail and her age couldn't be told from her artificially plumped up face. The clothes she wore were branded, the bag she carried was branded, and the shoes under her feet were branded ones printed with a large logo. From head to toe, she was like a walking display for luxury goods, and a perfumed breeze assaulted their senses with her every move. Four words seemed to shine brightly above her head: This bitch is rich.
"Don't bring any more trash into the house," the woman said. "I just threw away your pickle jar away this morning."
The moment the cool-as-cucumber Old Master Yang saw her, his blood pressure shot right up and his composure of a skilled master abruptly crumbled until nothing was left. "Who allowed you to throw away my things again!"
"If I don't throw it, it'll just turn into compost." The woman chewed on gum and blew a large bubble at the old man. "You like dressing up like a beggar for no reason, fine, I'll pretend you're cosplaying. But if you're going to beg, then just concentrate on begging. Why are you crossing into another field and collecting scraps too? 'Tch… Handsome, let this jie pass through."
Old Master Yang said, "On a fine weekend like this, where are you going to stir up trouble with that face made up like a demoness?"
"To the gym. I haven't been in a week because of the injections, they really hold things up."
"I told you to learn staff techniques from me but you refuse. You just have to spend so much money to go to that… that whatever place, and lift metal weights with those oafs, you-"
"Grandpa, people want to train their chest and their butt, who wants to learn the staff? I'm not Sun Wukong." The woman flipped her hair. She didn't hold back even with outsiders around, her mouth unstoppable. "Furthermore, please just look at yourself. Are you in any position to persuade other people? What can someone gain by learning from you? Skinny ribs like a washboard?"
For no reason, Gan Qing felt her knees hurting.
Old Master Yang was so angry his face was red and his neck puffed up. He might need a fast-acting heart protection pill.
The woman laughed and sauntered off. When she left, she even gave Yu Lanchuan a flirty look, making Director Yu feel incredibly discomfited. He regretted a little for hurrying too much when he came over today; his outfit was too low-key.
With this interruption, Old Master Yang's attention finally moved away from Gan Qing. He clutched his chest and held shakily to Yu Lanchuan's arm for support. "Our family is unfortunate, so unfortunate!"
Yu Lanchuan entered the elevator, pressed "10," and glanced at Gan Qing. Seeing that she didn't move, he asked, "Tenth floor?"
Gan Qing said, "Yeah."
Such a coincidence? He thought. I guess it's fate.
Old Master Yang hadn't yet calmed down from his fit and was grumbling at the side, "Just look at this disgraceful grandchild, look at what she has become! In the future when I go to the afterlife, I won't be able to face our sect master… Xiao-Chuan ah, it looks like you're the only one left in the younger generation. Old Yu-dage is no longer around, so why don't you move in and stay here in the future? You can get to know more friends too."
Yu Lanchuan brushed him off with a smile, thinking absent-mindedly. I don't want to know them at all. I just want that 8.5 million.
The old-fashioned elevator was small and cramped. Gan Qing was right next to him, not far away. When he lowered his eyes, Yu Lanchuan could see her side profile. Her brow bone was straight and her nose bridge high, with a slight hump that did not detract from her looks. A thin layer of skin covered the bones of her face, without much spare flesh. The lines of her face were very clean.
Maybe it was due to her high nose bridge; this side profile again invoked his memories from long ago. It made Yu Lanchuan feel rather confused because this person and the one in his memories were as different as day and night, complete polar opposites.
He remembered that that person was like a burst of wildfire. Even in the darkest night, that brightly burning spirit could be seen from kilometers away, fiery and incandescent.
Whereas the person before his eyes… 'tch, she was like a lighter that was out of fluid. After flicking for a long time, a tiny, shriveled flame would finally appear, and it would probably fizzle out again before it could even be seen clearly.
Perhaps Old Master Yang was used to being ignored by his granddaughter, he didn't notice that Yu Lanchuan's mind was wandering and was continuing to grumble. "Old Yu's feelings for this apartment are not at an ordinary level. Usually, when his friends from other places come here and can't find a place to stay, they would all come here to look for him. Xiao-Chuan, Grandpa Yang has some busybody things to say—you may not want to come back here to stay and you may not want to bother yourself with this apartment, but can you not sell it to other people?"
Ai, Yu Lanchuan thought in resignation. Please don't test my conscience!
The elevator reached in a flash. The view from the tenth floor was vast. Looking down from the building, the entire serene little courtyard was visible to the eye. Even though the communal corridor was narrow, it was very clean. Someone was stewing meat in one of the apartments and the delicious smell wafted throughout the corridor. It made him remember the time when he was young, when he had come to Granduncle's home during the weekends. Granduncle had always felt that he didn't eat properly at school and would purposely prepare an entire table of dishes for him—sauteed, stir-fried, boiled and fried. If there were any "troublesome" dishes that people typically didn't cook at home, the old man would cook extra portions at the same time. Once it was done, he would get Yu Lanchuan to carry bowls of it to the neighbours.
The neighbours at No. 110 Courtyard seemed to be of a different type from the neighbours elsewhere. Where Yu Lanchuan was staying now, he didn't even know whether his neighbour was a man or a woman.
His heart suddenly jolted. If he really couldn't sell this apartment, it wasn't like he couldn't consider moving in. At least he would save on rental and he also wouldn't need to drive to work. He was just afraid that the old man's scoundrel friends would keep coming to disturb…
"It's here, thank you." Gan Qing tugged lightly on the bag in Yu Lanchuan's hand. "I'm sorry for troubling you."
Yu Lanchuan came back to himself and returned the luggage to her. He looked up at the door plate—1003. The old man lived at 1004, next door.
He remembered that the next door neighbour was...
Before he could recall, the door to 1003 opened from inside. Boss Meng said that his second aunt's surname was Zhang. Gan Qing hurriedly stood up straight. "Gran-"
The word "Grandma" stuck in her throat.
She saw that the supposedly seventy years old lady had a head of large permed curls with pink highlights and makeup on her face, the perky false lashes exceptionally prominent. Her nails were blinged out with enough rhinestones to blind a dog. Even her house slippers had pink butterfly bows.
Beside them, Old Master Yang heaved a heavy sigh. His face looked as though he had no words to describe his feelings.
That's right, Yu Lanchuan thought with an emotionless face. Next door was a Cave of the Silken Web. An old demoness who liked to be overly friendly with little boys stayed there.
The moment Grandma Zhang opened the door and saw Yu Lanchuan, she immediately smiled like a flower blooming. The lashes fluttered like a fan. "Are you the lodger my nephew found? Handsome guy, you look quite familiar. Have we met before?"
"Hello, Grandma. My grandpa had once asked me to bring you some fried lotus roots stuffed with pork." Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up, his face wooden. "I'm from next door. I'll take my leave now."
With that, he strode away on his long legs, blowing past the old demoness like a gust of wind.
Only then did Old Madam Zhang see Gan Qing clearly. After falling silent for a while, she gave Boss Meng an exasperated call and bellowed. "Who asked you to find a female lodger for me!"
Boss Meng's even more exasperated reply could be heard leaking out from the phone. "For heaven's sake, I'm already this old, I don't want to get an uncle who's not even as old as my son!"
...Just give up on it, Yu Lanchuan thought.
Your esteemed martial arts world should have closed shop long ago.
 Different from English, in Chinese, to say someone has a washboard body is to say that they're unattractively skinny and that their ribs can be seen.
Washboards are also used within a family as punishment; whoever's being punished will be made to kneel on a washboard, hence Gan Qing's knees hurting.
 Cave of the Silken Web (盘丝洞 pán sī dòng) is from "Journey to the West" and is a cave where spider demons live.
"There, that room's yours." Even though Old Madam Zhang — full name Zhang Meizhen — was very dissatisfied with Gan Qing's gender, her nephew had already sent this person over. It probably wasn't right for her to directly throw Gan Qing out, so she let Gan Qing into the apartment in the end.
Because the corridor was on the north side of the building, all the bedrooms faced south. Even though it was the second bedroom, the space was not cramped. The window was bright and clean, and the rows of old scholar trees in the southern courtyard were immediately visible when looking down. The curtains should have been newly washed; they still had the gentle, cosy smell of laundry detergent on them. There was even a lush and thriving pot of wax begonia in the corner, its redness bold and unrestrained.
When Gan Qing walked into No. 110 Courtyard, she had already struck once on the drums of retreat.
When she unfortunately bumped into Yu Lanchuan and Old Master Yang at the elevator lobby, she struck again on the drums of retreat.
When she reached 1003 and realised that the Old Madam Zhang didn't like her much, she had actually already made up her mind not to stay there and invite dislike from others. She would sit for a while and then leave.
As for a place to stay, she had already thought it out. She could borrow a few plastic stools from Boss Meng, line them up, and make do with sleeping at the shop for now. She didn't have the legendary ability of "sleeping on a suspended rope," but she probably wouldn't fall to her death from sleeping on plastic stools.
All her mental preparations suffered an utter and complete defeat in the face of this room.
Putting aside the fact that it faced the light, even a room with a window was something she had not seen for a long time.
The small building was hidden deep in the courtyard. The dense cover of greenery in the courtyard blocked off the noise from the road, the honking of the cars sounding so far away they were like needles falling to the ground. Standing by the window, with Gan Qing's hearing ability that could discern even the ticking of the little table clock in the living room, the quietness was almost a luxury.
When she entered the room for a look, Gan Qing decided to throw caution and dignity to the wind.
Zhang Meizhen leaned against the door, curling her long hair around her fingers. She asked, "You don't have any bad habits, do you?"
The no-need-for-dignity Gan Qing immediately answered, "No. I definitely wake up early and go to bed early, I keep regular hours for work and rest. When I come home from work in the evening, I'll go to bed right after washing up and will turn off the lights by half past ten at night. In the morning, I'll definitely wake up before six and I can prepare breakfast for you. I don't watch TV, my phone is on silent, I won't bring guests home and any packages will be delivered to the shop. Even though I am not very fussy with cleanliness, I can take out the trash at all times and wipe the table at all times. I will clean the sink after I wash my face and I definitely won't let my hair clog up the drain. If you have anything else you need me to do, you can let me know."
After hearing all that, Zhang Meizhen was dumbstruck for a while. "You… how long have you been a nun?"
Gan Qing felt that this wasn't a compliment and didn't dare answer rashly. She only smiled.
"I don't eat breakfast, you don't have to bother with me. Don't look for me before ten o' clock." Zhang Meizhen waved her hand. "Sometimes I go out to play at night and will come back late. I'll bring my keys with me, you don't have to stay up and wait for me. But if I happen to drink too much, I might make some noise. Your mental state is not delicate, is it?"
Gan Qing digested the old lady's words for a while, and quickly shook her head respectfully.
"That's good." Zhang Meizhen rolled her eyes at the ceiling. She had nothing else to say to Gan Qing, so she recited a prayer at her. "Amitabha."
In this year and age, the elderly were partying wildly like youngsters while the young ones were trembling fearfully as they looked for medical insurance.
Thickening her skin, Gan Qing settled into her new nest.
This place was just too comfortable. When she showered, there were no housemates needing to pee knocking on the door. On the double bed, not only could she stretch her legs out, she could even roll around. There was no non-stop dripping coming from the toilet the whole night, and also no non-stop slapping of slippers when people went in and out. It was so quiet that she was unused to it and she actually found it a little hard to sleep on the first night. Hence, she got up, draped her clothes over herself, and went over to the window to bask in the moonlight.
Madam Zhang Meizhen was not home yet. She didn't go out to party tonight, she had gone next door.
The apartment next door was still brightly lit. There were a lot of people there — there were those from No. 110 Courtyard and also those who had come from far. The apartment couldn't fit everyone so they crowded the corridor, waiting for their turn to go in and light a joss stick for the old Yu Huaide.
When Gan Qing was young, she had met that old man once. She remembered that he was a very kindly man and had always smiled before speaking. He was respected and his sword skills were excellent. Everyone looked for him to mediate whenever there was a problem. There was once during a gathering when everyone had had too much to drink and started a ruckus, saying that they wanted to kowtow to the old man and venerate him as the alliance leader. Of course, Elder Yu refused to accept it but from then on, he was known as "Alliance Leader Yu."
With the window opened, Gan Qing could hear the people next door speaking in accents from all over. Everyone was talking in hushed and solemn tones, and were not at all noisy. Then, someone played the song Farewell on the harmonica.
The thin yet far-reaching and melodious harmonica sound teased the midsummer night, veering off-key without detracting from the overall beauty.
She turned her ear towards the sound and listened, a little lost in her thoughts.
Asking when you will return after leaving this time,
When you return, do not wander.
The dog plushie gifted by her night owl roommate sat on the windowsill, its tongue hanging out. A small dog tag hung in front of its chest. Earlier on, when Gan Qing was frantically looking for a place to rent, she didn't have the time to take a close look. Now, she finally realised that there was a row of words on the tag, written in the night owl roommate's childish handwriting.
Gan Qing turned the dog tag over and saw that it was written with the words: On what do you build your life?
She didn't know if this could be considered as parting advice or if it was something the night owl roommate had written for herself as a joke. After reading it, Gan Qing smiled and burrowed into her blankets again, closing her eyes to rest.
Boss Meng was right. Even if it was No. 110 Courtyard, it was no longer the same as it was in the past.
Other than many people coming on that night to send Yu Huaide off, this place was no different from any other ordinary residential neighbourhood. Every morning when she left, the people she bumped into were mostly sleepy-faced office workers and primary school children going for revision classes, as well as the bored-out-of-their-minds old uncles and old aunties walking their dogs in the courtyard, exercising their bodies while wagging their tongues.
Even Madam Zhang Meizhen who had been dissatisfied with her on their first meeting got along peacefully with her — the main reason was because the two of them did not bump into each other.
When Gan Qing left for work in the morning, the old lady had yet to wake up. When Gan Qing was already sound asleep at night, the old lady had yet to come home. Both lived in the GMT+08 time zone but it seemed as though their clocks were separated by the Pacific Ocean.
Gan Qing had stayed there for nearly a month. The words that Zhang Meizhen most frequently said to her was "Help me take in my delivery packages."
Other than courier deliveries, Old Master Yang's granddaughter occasionally brought some things over.
Old Master Yang's granddaughter was the person they had bumped into at the elevator lobby. Her name was Yang Yifan. Apparently, she had her own company and was a spirited and energetic female boss. Gan Qing still didn't know what her company did because the old uncles and old aunties' gossip did not talk about business. What they usually said was, "That crazy girl in Old Yang's family is already thirty plus but she still doesn't have a partner. She's always playing around aimlessly outside and is as frivolous as you can expect. Just looking at her makes me worry."
Every time Yang Yifan was sent there by her grandfather, she would have an expression of utmost dislike on her face. If Old Madam Zhang happened to be at home, she would put down the thing she brought and roll her eyes. If Old Madam Zhang was not at home, she would pull Gan Qing over and start a long rant, mocking Madam Zhang Meizhen from head to toe.
Meanwhile, after Elder Yu was sent off, the door on the apartment next door was locked and the refined young man from the Yu family did not come again.
In a blink of the eye, Yanning's brief summer slipped hurriedly past. Two rounds of rain fell and the mornings and evenings turned chilly. Autumn was peeking around the corner.
The students were anxious and miserable, preparing for school to reopen. The cubicle monkeys were also delivered a sudden blow by the upcoming third quarter, and were trembling under the killing aura of their KPIs hanging above their heads.
Yu Lanchuan had taken one week off from work to take care of matters after his granduncle's passing and when he got back, he was spun like a top. As the saying went, "When it rains, it pours." The head of the company's risk management department — in other words, Yu Lanchuan's direct supervisor — suddenly suffered a stroke while walking to the pantry to get sugar. He was only forty plus. The ambulance took him away in a wail of sirens and his condition was still critical even after a few days.
When the rabbit dies, the fox grieves as well; someone else's misfortune could very well be their own tomorrow. The overtime dogs clutched their "three highs" bellies and felt that they were seeing their own downfall. For a moment, the atmosphere was full of anxiety and gloom. More than half the work in the department landed on Yu Lanchuan's shoulders, weighing down on him until his days were bleak and dark. Hence, he switched from practicing the Seven Secret Arts swordplay once a day when he woke up in the morning to practising morning and night, twice a day. He was putting in real effort — he had no choice; if he wanted to live until retirement, he had to work hard to maintain his health.
Under these circumstances, for Yu Lanchuan to forget his younger brother's birthday was something that he could not be criticised too harshly for.
30th August was Liu Zhongqi's sixteenth birthday. A week before the day, he was already waiting in anticipation. Before his parents left, they had exhorted him that his older brother had a lot of life stress and he was not allowed to demand too much from him. Liu Zhongqi didn't want presents anyway, he just hoped that his brother would come home earlier and eat a bowl of noodles with him… even instant noodles were fine.
He had circled the date on the calendar in the living room. Afraid that Yu Lanchuan hadn't seen it, he purposely woke up extra early on that day and struck up a chat at the dining table. "Ge, today's Sunday. Do you still have to work overtime?"
Yu Lanchuan didn't even look up and only let out a mm.
"Then, can you come back earlier? Will you eat dinner at home?"
Yu Lanchuan held his chopsticks in his right hand while his left hand was replying WeChat messages. Both lines were occupied, lost in the "bliss" of overwork. He wasn't listening to what Liu Zhongqi was saying at all and just replied with another "Mm" out of habit. Then, he put this matter miles away from his mind.
Birthdays during the summer or winter vacations were always not as lively as birthdays during school. Especially when it was near the start of school — at this time, everyone was frantically completing their schoolwork and didn't have the mood to think about other things. In the entire day, only the few schoolmates he was closer to texted him. His parents who were far away in another country sent him an e-card. The present they sent would take a few days to reach.
Liu Zhongqi went out to buy a cake himself. He waited until eight p.m. but Yu Lanchuan didn't seem like he would be back anytime soon. He tried calling but the line was busy. He texted but the other party did not reply.
He called again at nine p.m. As before, the line was busy.
At ten p.m… this time, the call finally connected. The other end of the line was very noisy, Yu Lanchuan was talking to someone. "...As far as I understand, this is not the case. Where did your market value come from? I hope everyone can be more serious, okay?"
Then, he seemed to be cupping his hand over his phone and his voice was very soft. He said quickly, "Get food delivery for yourself and go to bed early. Gege is too busy over here. If there's anything, we'll talk when I'm home. Be good."
After he was done speaking, he ended the call. Five seconds later, Liu Zhongqi's phone buzzed. He opened his WeChat in anticipation, looking forward to receiving even a simple "Happy Birthday." In the end, he received a red packet.
The message was the automated response: Gong Xi Fa Cai, wishing you luck and prosperity.
Liu Zhongqi sat alone by the dining table for a long while. Quietly, he cut a piece of the cake and ate it. Then, he shouldered his school bag, took two changes of clothes, and decided to run away from home.
At this hour, Gan Qing was already about to go to bed. She was just about to switch off the light when her phone buzzed. There was a friend request and the attaching note was "Star Dreams's customer."
She felt that these customers who didn't sleep at night and didn't wake up in the morning were rather annoying. However, customers were still the kings. She hesitated for a while, but accepted the request in the end.
The "king's" profile picture was a British rock artist and the name was "Zhong but not Qi." A message came very quickly: You said that the first three consultations are free.
She knew it.
Gan Qing sighed and burrowed into her nest of blankets, deliberating how she could get rid of this annoying customer.
The "king" spoke again. I'm at Star Dreams's entrance. Is the shop closed?
Gan Qing yawned and replied. Business hours are from ten a.m. to eight p.m., dear.
Oh. After a short while of "typing…" the "king" continued to pester and ask. Can you work overtime?
Gan Qing, "..."
The "king" said. Aren't adults always working overtime?
My job is to observe the trajectory of the stars and the subtle aura of the universe. Gan Qing started to spew nonsense. The universe is spinning at every second and time is a very important parameter. Only when the time is right can one experience the secrets of destiny. I beg your understanding, dear.
The "king" was dear-ed until he could not speak.
Gan Qing sighed in relief, then lay down and went to sleep.
The next morning, Gan Qing went to work at Star Dreams as usual. She took a long stretch and was just about to unlock the door when she suddenly paused.
One of her name cards had been dropped at the entrance of Star Dreams, crumpled into a ball. On the white stone steps next to it, there was a print from a person's five fingers...
 "Farewell" (送别) written by Li Shutong, released in 1915.
 Three highs - high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure.
 "Zhong but not Qi" - referring to an old way of numbering the sons in a family, 伯仲叔季 bó zhòng shū jì. The second character is the same "zhong" as the one in Liu Zhongqi's name and refers to the second son. The fourth character, "ji," is a close homonym to Liu Zhongqi's "qi," and means youngest son.
The street in front of Star Dreams had been unmaintained for many years. There was a patch of ground where the tiles were missing, revealing the ground underneath. It had also been raining often recently. If anyone wasn't paying attention and stepped there, the bottom of their shoes would be covered in mud.
Gan Qing saw that other than the dried-up muddy handprint on the stone steps, there was also a footprint in that mud puddle. It wasn't a whole footprint, it was formed by the heel of a foot and the print was very deep.
Whether it was the strength exerted to make the footprint or the angle of the turned-up mud, neither looked like it was due to a random passerby scraping off the mud on their heel. Instead, it looked like a person had been pulled until they fell to the ground and was dragged away by someone, and had dug their heels in while struggling. Gan Qing's gaze moved to the mud handprint on the stone steps—the person who was dragged away might have realised that struggling was futile and had unconsciously reached out to grab something. They had first grabbed at the ground but couldn't get a grip, so they grabbed the steps and left a handprint.
Looking closer, the handprint on the stone steps seemed to have a trace of blood.
Gan Qing lowered her head and searched for a while. In a corner, she found a button. There was still a wisp of thread wound through it, like it had been torn off by force.
"Boss Meng," Gan Qing turned her head and asked Meng Tianyi who was preparing his ingredients next door. "What time did you close shop yesterday?"
"Yesterday? I closed early. It has been colder these two days and there are less customers," Meng Tianyi said. "Should've been before ten p.m."
Gan Qing continued to ask, "Was there anyone fighting around here yesterday?"
"No, it was pretty peaceful the whole day. Why?"
"Oh, it's nothing." Gan Qing walked around the footprint and handprint on the ground, suspecting that she was being overly suspicious. It could have been some drunkard who fell down here and hadn't been able to stand up even after doing the doggy paddle for some time.
She opened the door and reached out to turn over the wooden sign that said Closed. But once she touched it, the sign fell down, breaking into two halves.
Hearing the noise, Meng Tianyi came over. He picked up the broken wooden sign and looked at it, and immediately frowned. "It was split into two by hand—what does this mean? A challenge against the store? Or is someone picking a fight with you?"
Gan Qing was bewildered. "A challenge… against a small accessories shop? Do you think it could be the sundry shop next door?"
"To hell with you, can you be serious?" Meng Tianyi didn't laugh. His face grave, he glared at her. "Did you fight with anyone recently?"
"How is that possible? If I bumped into muggers on the street and didn't have cash with me, I'll voluntarily use my phone to transfer money to them. Grandma Zhang starts praying everything she sees me." Gan Qing spread her hands in resignation. She took both halves of the wooden sign and worried over how to glue them back together. "Which great hero was flailing drunkenly around here? Picking a fight with me—just look at the way I am, what can anyone get by picking a fight with me?"
Meng Tianyi glanced at her and felt that the statement was true.
The two of them pondered over this matter for a while, unable to make heads or tails of it. Without any clues, they could only get back to their own work. Right then, a few police came over in a hurry. The one in front was holding up a photo and asking questions. Yu Lanchuan followed behind them.
Meng Tianyi looked up. "Hey, Little Master Yu, Officer Yu?"
Yu Yan took off his police cap and wiped the sweat on his face. He ran over, panting. "Boss Meng, it's good that you're here."
"Did something happen again?"
"You don't say but it's that unlucky kid from the last time." As Yu Yan spoke, he dug out a photo of Liu Zhongqi. "This kid, he threw a tantrum with his family yesterday and ran away from home. The tracking on his phone was traced to this place. Have you seen him?"
Meng Tianyi went closer and looked carefully. He shook his head. "No, he doesn't look familiar. Wait, let me ask—Gan'er!"
Gan Qing was right in the middle of poking a contact lens into her eye. An eyelash accidentally got into her eye and the feeling of having a foreign object there made her tear up. Hearing Boss Meng call for her, she poked her head out, her gaze hazy from tears. "Yes?"
She hadn't yet had the time to put on that unconventional makeup. The colour of her lips was very light and her face extremely pale. All the redness on her face was concentrated around her eyes, standing out prominently against the plain white background. It made one think of a flower blooming unexpectedly in the snow.
For some reason, Yu Lanchuan's eyes met hers. Subconsciously, he looked away.
"Can I trouble you to take a look at this kid?" Yu Yan quickly passed the photo over. "Do you have any impression of him?"
Gan Qing took a long look. "Isn't this the-"
Yu Yan said, "Yes, yes. He's the one who was caught in the porcelain scam the other time. You even helped to make a police report. His name is Liu Zhongqi! Have you seen him around?"
Gan Qing shook her head.
Yu Yan let out a heavy sigh.
Just as he was turning around to look for the next person to ask, Gan Qing suddenly called out to him hesitantly. "What did you say his name was?"
"Liu Zhongqi, 'zhong' as in the second son in the family, 'qi' as in-"
Gan Qing fished out her phone and opened up the "Zhong but not Qi" account that she had just added. "These two words?"
There were no CCTVs at Mudpool Backlane. They could only determine via the Wechat messages that around ten p.m. yesterday night, Liu Zhongqi had come here. There were a few ominous marks at the shop entrance and also a button. The good-for-who-knows-what brother Yu Lanchuan spent five minutes looking at it and still could not be sure whether the button was his younger brother's.
If it could be said that these were not enough to determine whether or not the child had left willingly, then the phone they found in a rubbish bin one hour later gave the answer to this question.
The phone had been smashed onto the ground forcefully. The screen was cracked into splinters and the body of the phone itself was broken apart.
The police's alert level increased. The case of the teenager running away from home in a fit of pique turned into a kidnapping case.
Due to that, they didn't have to bother opening the shop or making food today. The area in front of Star Dreams was barricaded, with a large group of police going in and out.
Gan Qing turned the chat log over to the police and was also asked some questions. After the questioning, this was no longer any of her business, so she took her leave of Boss Meng and prepared to go home. When she reached the intersection, she saw Yu Lanchuan on the phone.
The first impression Yu Lanchuan had given her was from his conduct that day when his shirt was unbuttoned and his chest on display. His eyelids had been lowered and he carried himself like he was someone important, as though there was a row of cameras behind him waiting to capture the image of him being flirtatious.
He was a radiant young master.
But when this "young master" was on the phone, he was polite and restrained, the polar opposite of the pandemonium around him. Gan Qing heard him say, "...I'm really very sorry. I really have something urgent to take care of at home and can't leave-"
Before he could finish speaking, he was cut off by the person on the other end. From a few steps away, Gan Qing saw Yu Lanchuan tore off his glasses in a rage and tossed it onto the roof of the police car. He pinched the bridge of his nose repeatedly, his face looking like he wanted to slay someone, yet his tone was as courteous and mild as before. It was as though his mouth was separated from his body and was operating on its own. "I know… Yes, I understand. How about this, when I go back to the office, I guarantee that I will immediately-"
The other end of the call started making a yapping sound, going on and on without stopping.
Yu Lanchuan fell silent. He looked up with an expressionless face, squinting at the eye-burningly clear sky.
When he was done listening to every word from the other side, he finally drew a deep breath. "...Okay. I will contact the people in my department to handle this. Please wait a moment."
Following that, he started making calls. He oversaw his department from far, ordering his subordinates to do work. He made someone revise the materials, then made another person attend a meeting in his place. Gan Qing saw him lean against the police car with his eyes closed, explaining in great detail to his colleagues the important points of the meeting, his fingers constantly rubbing the arms of his glasses.
When he was done with his long speech, Yu Lanchuan's mouth was parched. He thought back for a while, confirmed that he had not missed out anything, and finally told his colleague, "All right, that's all. Thank you for your hard work, off you go."
Out of courtesy, his colleague asked, "Director Yu, did something happen to your family? Is everything okay?"
Yu Lanchuan said, "My…"
My younger brother has disappeared and is suspected to have been kidnapped.
There was a snapping sound; Yu Lanchuan had lost control of his hand and snapped one of the arms of his glasses.
"...It's not a big problem." He swallowed those words back in. "When it's settled, I will go back to the office. Keep in touch at all times."
There was nothing to say. This was just losing a chuuni younger brother, even if his own mother died, so what?
His colleagues would only perfunctorily say "My condolences." The sweet-talkers would, at most, add a "Let me know if there's anything I can do." In their hearts, they would certainly be grumbling—Why is it that the busier we are, the more problems his family has? Our superior's mother died, so doesn't that mean we need to give a token of our feelings? Ai, funerals and weddings always happen at the end of the month. Trouble only comes when you're poor.
The whole world was spinning at a high speed; everyone had to run themselves to the ground to survive.
Another person's disasters and calamities, another person's birth and old age and sickness and death—those were all uninvited guests that brought trouble.
Yu Lanchuan put down his phone. He noticed Gan Qing standing a few steps away from him and nodded at her. "I'm sorry to have troubled you."
Gan Qing didn't know why but in a moment of impulse, she blurted out, "You can ask Old Master Yang for help."
Yu Lanchuan looked at her in surprise.
With her reminder, Yu Lanchuan finally remembered. Rumour had it that before the country was liberated, Old Master Yang, who always had a staff in his hand, had once been the leader of Beggars' Sect. Later on, society changed and these sects and clans fell out of fashion. Those who ought to work found work, those who ought to retire retired. Now, most of the Beggars' Sect veterans only kept a few patches on their clothes as a nod to tradition. They typically lived ordinary lives and only occasionally conducted publicity activities such as "Begging in a civilised way; asking for alms while resisting the morning and evening rush hour" or get involved in and mediate territory fights between beggars.
But with this network that reached all corners, they could get information very quickly and effectively.
The question was, how did she know?
The moment the words left her mouth, Gan Qing regretted so much she nearly bit her own tongue. She quickly smiled, then left as swiftly as though the soles of her feet were oiled.
Slipping into the small alleys of Mudpool Backlane, Gan Qing's steps suddenly paused. She remembered the bald man who had tailed her at this spot the other day. She couldn't be blamed for not remembering this earlier, nearly a month had passed since it happened. During this period, she had been busy trying to survive, her mind occupied with finding a place to rent. Petty matters like this had completely slipped her mind.
She dug out the two halves of the wooden sign from her bag and thought. Could it be they were really targeting me?
The bald man she was muttering about was at that moment clutching his hungover head and squatting in a corner, like a large mushroom that had been soaked until it expanded.
His comrade, the scarred-face man, paced in circles like a donkey pulling a millstone, heaving a sigh every time he completed a circle. Right at that moment, the disabled man limped in hurriedly. Before he could even catch his breath, he saw Liu Zhonqi trussed up in the corner and nearly sprained his other foot.
The disabled man was seething with anger. With large strides, he staggered over to the bald man, raised his hand and rained blows on his head. "Are you crazy? What the fuck were you thinking yesterday! Did you piss your brains out when peeing?"
The bald man covered his head and scuttled away. "Er-shixiong, ai, shixiong, don't hit me. I was wrong…"
"Shiniang is already so old and she has to stay at the hospital the whole day to take care of Da-shixiong. She's so tired she can't even stand up straight and you, not only are you fucking useless, you even got drunk and stirred up shit. You troublemaker, I'm gonna beat you to death!"
After this band of people was thrown out of their rental, they came to this urban village to stay.
This place had long since been decided to be demolished, but a few residents refused to budge and demanded higher prices. All these while, they could not come to an agreement on the amount of compensation and were still holding out in a half-dead state. The other residents who had taken the compensation had mostly moved away. Seeing that this place wasn't going to be demolished anytime soon, they secretly collected money and rented these rundown single-story houses to non-locals.
The bald man had a drinking problem. He had been drinking on that very day when he went to corner Gan Qing. For a period of time before this, his shige and his shiniang were watching him so he curbed himself to a certain extent. The night before, neither of them were there. He had a craving for a moment and, unable to restrain himself, had gone out and gotten thoroughly inebriated. Then, the more he had thought, the more he felt vexed about what happened at Mudpool Backlane the last time.
Alcohol could bolster a coward's courage. The bald man threw the old madam's exhortations far behind him and drunkenly went to challenge the shop. In the end, his efforts were futile—the shop had long since closed for the day.
The bald man howled resentfully and split apart the wooden sign on the shop's door with his bare hand. Just as he had decided to break the glass, he heard someone say from beside him, "What are you doing? I'm going to call the police!"
Liu Zhongqi, his entire person brimming with righteousness, had not learned his lesson from the previous encounter. He had not learned to "Meddle not in other people's business, be prudent and cautious." Hence, this time, he ended up becoming an indignant rice dumpling — trussed up, mouth gagged, tossed in a corner — and was trying to use his eyes to shoot these large pieces of trash to death.
 Liberation 解放 refers to the establishment of the PRC in 1949. This term is used a few times in this story.