The scarred-face man was the youngest, the others were all his shixiong. Hence, he could neither hold one down nor hold back the other; he could only stand helplessly by and be the sole recipient of the young hero Liu Zhongqi's fire-spewing gaze.
"Stop hitting him!" His spirit crumbling, the scarred-face man pointed at Liu Zhongqi and asked, "What should we do with him?"
The disabled er-shixiong finally remembered that there was still this piece of disastrous debt. This worry was enough to take his life and he didn't have the mood to beat up his shidi anymore. "First, untie him!"
"No, if we untie him, he'll start yelling." The bald man didn't dare fight back, so he had taken his shixiong's elbow right in the face and his words were rather slurred. He squatted on the ground, a pair of small triangular-shaped eyes peeking out woefully. When he saw Er-shixiong lift an arm, he quickly shrank back and covered his head, curling into a lump.
Er-shixiong did things his own way. With a grave face, he walked over and tugged out the socks that were stuffed into Liu Zhongqi's mouth.
Before Liu Zhongqi's mouth closed, he was already drawing in a deep breath, preparing to shout. The young hero's wide open mouth shocked Er-shixiong into trembling, and he instinctively shoved the socks back in.
Liu Zhongqi's shout was stuffed back in and had no choice but to detour through his nasal cavity. It came out in a loud "moo" like an old cow's bellow, reverberating until his temples were aching.
With a crestfallen face, the bald man said, "If someone finds out, we can't stay even in a place like this, can we?"
Er-shixiong said, "This is all because of you!"
Even at death's door, these members of the law-breaking and criminal class were still worried about renting! Hearing the key point of these brothers' worries, Liu Zhongqi was close to exploding in rage. Consequently, his stomach steadily let out a sound like muffled thunder—it was nearly twenty-four hours from yesterday noon until now, and he had only eaten a small piece of cake.
Following that, perhaps it was to coordinate with Liu Zhongqi, the bald man's stomach also rumbled like it was joining the excitement.
The scarred-face man looked at one, then looked at the other, and said in a soft, careful tone. "Shixiong, it's almost noon. We haven't had breakfast yet."
Er-shixiong ran out of anger. He went out without a word and bought back a few pounds of dumplings.
Then, these three big ruffians sat in a circle around Liu Zhongqi and the dumplings. Er-shixiong negotiated with him, "We can let you eat, but you're not allowed to shout."
The young hero's mouth was gagged, so he used a huge eye roll to convey his words: Dream on!
The scarred-face man pinched a small dumpling and put it under his nose.
Steam was still rising from the snowy white surface of the little dumpling, making it look like there was a soft focus filter on it. There was a patch on the surface that was translucent due to the grease from the filling, making the inside faintly visible. A strong delicious scent wafted out—the filling was pork and green onion.
Liu Zhongqi, "..."
Owing to the huge disparity in strength between his enemy and himself, the young hero could endure no longer and suffered a complete defeat. Under the assault of the xiaolongbao, he laid down his arms and surrendered.
Er-shixiong skillfully changed the way he was tied up. This way, even though both his hands were still tied together, he could hold the dumplings himself and eat.
It was easy for a half-grown kid to become hungry in the first place. Once Liu Zhongqi took the first bite, he couldn't stop at all. He buried his head and gulped down more than ten little dumplings without pause, and choked until his neck was stretched out.
Er-shixiong asked, "Water?"
Angry and embarrassed, Liu Zhongqi let out a sound like a mosquito buzzing. "...Yes."
Er-shixiong studied him for a while, then asked in suspicion. "Have we met before?"
"My. Student. Card. Is still with you guys!" Liu Zhongqi blew up in anger. This shameless gang—school hadn't even reopened after summer vacation but they had already clean forgotten about their victim!
The three big ruffians exchanged looks for a while, and unexpectedly looked a little apologetic, as though they were also aware that they shouldn't scrape fleece from just one sheep!
The scarred-face man cleared his throat. "My shixiong… drank too much yesterday. He didn't do it on purpose. Look, you can see that he has already been beaten up so badly."
The bald man was reluctant to let the kid see how terrible he looked. Hearing this, he turned his head and covered his face with a hand as wide as a palm leaf fan.
"It's all a misunderstanding." The scarred-face man smiled as he said, "We even treated you to a meal."
If the education levels of these three brothers were added up, it would probably just reach the level of a junior high dropout. They were basically ignorant of the law but they still at least had some common knowledge. For example, for typical petty theft and minor swindling, the police wouldn't waste a lot of effort to pursue them all over the place as long as they took some care. If they were arrested every now and then due to bad luck, at most they would just need to spend a few days in the detention center.
But kidnapping was different. In the past, this was something only bandits would dare to do. When bandits met with law officers, what usually happened to them?
"We can untie you right now and let you go," Er-shixiong said to Liu Zhongqi. "You were also running away from home anyway, right?"
Liu Zhongqi nearly blurted out a 'How did you know?' but fortunately, the more than ten dumplings he had just gulped down had increased his capabilities. His brain that had stopped working for a night revived, and he stopped himself from speaking.
"It's obvious. Little kids like you have never suffered before in your lives. You don't have to worry about food and water, and you're so bored that you're throwing tantrums for no reason." Er-shixiong waved his hand. "We'll let you go, so hurry home. Study hard. You were born in a good family but you don't even appreciate it, ai!"
Never in his wildest dreams did Liu Zhongqi thought he would one day be lectured by a band of kidnappers. Even his own biological brother had never lectured him! Hence, the urge to rebel rose. "What do you know?"
Er-shixiong smiled and didn't argue with him. Then, his face suddenly sank. "But if we let you go back, you need to be careful with what you say. If you dare speak carelessly, hmph!"
This disabled er-shixiong had a square face with large eyes and thick lips. It was the appearance of a simple and unsophisticated man but once he sneered, the violence in his features emerged and he immediately looked vicious. "The police can't catch us so easily but it's not hard for us to find you. One can be a thief for a thousand days but no one can guard against a thief for a thousand days. Think carefully."
Liu Zhongqi had eaten his fill and all the blood in his body was rushing to his guts instead of wandering around his brain. Hearing that, he was indeed a little frightened. Furthermore, he couldn't anger the kidnappers when they intended to let him go, so he pressed his lips together and didn't say anything.
The disabled er-shixiong signalled the scarred-face man with his eyes. "Untie him."
Liu Zhongqi had been tied up for a long time. His arms and legs were numb, and for a moment, he couldn't stand up.
Er-shixiong came over and grabbed his leg. Frightened, Liu Zhongqi scooted back in a fluster but that man's hand was like an iron pincer. Try as he might, he could not break free.
The disabled er-shixiong extended three fingers and swiftly pressed a few times on his leg. The teenager immediately felt like there was a row of needles piercing the flesh of his numbed leg. He leaped up like a live fish, nearly biting off his tongue.
Er-shixiong rolled his eyes at him. "Bear it."
His words were still hanging in the air when he performed the same "torture" on Liu Zhongqi's other leg.
Liu Zhongqi was sweating, his mouth opened, unable to make a sound. He sprawled on the ground, tears in his eyes and panting.
But strangely, the pain faded very quickly. His cramped muscles relaxed and unexpectedly, did not hurt and was not numb.
Er-shixiong kicked his ankle lightly. "All right, get up and move around."
Liu Zhongqi wiped the tears that had leaked out due to the pain and tried to move his legs, and found that his entire body had lightened. He climbed to his feet hesitantly and walked a couple of circles where he was. He realised that both his legs were very nimble, like he could go out and run a 1,500-meter race. He looked at the disabled man in shock.
The disabled er-shixiong said, "You baby schoolkids are too delicate and can't take a bit of suffering. I'm not going to massage your arms. When you get home, do some stretches against the wall so that you don't ache tomorrow."
Liu Zhongqi rubbed his own wrists. "Are you… one of those people who practise qigong?"
Er-shixiong laughed. "No. Those are all lies."
"But you definitely know martial arts, right? That day, I saw you guys jump over the wall…" The chuuni teenager's mind started to come up with some fantasies, the way most people would. Liu Zhongqi asked cautiously, "It's like… something like qinggong?"
"It's an easy trick. Train for a year or two and you can jump over the wall too."
Liu Zhongqi belonged to his school's broadcasting station and had written many scripts filled with an upright and honest spirit. The moment he opened his mouth, it was all "Let's Be Civilised, Start a New Trend." "Actually… you can try opening a martial arts gym or go into the performing arts or become a trainer or something like that… If those really won't work, you can still become a masseur. If you're really good, you can also take part in professional competitions. Why must you guys-"
Before he could finish speaking, the bald man seemed to be triggered the moment he heard the words "professional competitions." He stood up with a roar, glaring with eyes so wide they looked like copper bells.
Frightened by him, Liu Zhongqi retreated a few steps.
The disabled er-shixiong raised his hand and stopped the bald man. In a rather kindly tone, he said to Liu Zhongqi, "You know nothing, hurry up and get lost!"
After setting free the victim of the mistaken kidnapping, the bald man was pushed into a chair by Er-shixiong.
The meat dumplings had gone cold by now. The disabled man picked one up, cupped it in his hand and ate slowly. "Lao-San, don't cause anymore trouble. It's time for us to leave."
The bald man and the scarred-face man were both stunned.
"Shiniang told me yesterday night." Er-shixiong didn't look up. "It's been tough for the two of you. Shifu is no longer here, Da-shixiong is ill, I didn't teach you well and also didn't take good care of you two… I'm ashamed."
The scarred-face man asked blankly, "What about Da-shixiong?"
"We'll go back home."
"What about his illness? Is he not going to see the doctor anymore?"
"The surgery will cost at least 500,000. We have to pay first and can only make a claim when we go back. I've asked around—we won't be able to claim the full amount, there's a huge shortfall." Er-shixiong sighed. "On top of that, the doctor said that the surgery is risky. If he doesn't do it, he might be able to live a few more years. If he does it and it fails, then he's gone. Shiniang said that if that's the case, then we might as well go home. Isn't there a doctor who practises traditional medicine at the health center? We'll slowly treat his illness, leave it to fate."
The scarred-face man was discontent. "No… It wasn't easy for us to come here and we're going back just like this? Shifu and Shiniang only have this one son…"
"Then what do you think we should do? Sell off all three of us, do you think we're even worth 500,000? Would anyone buy?" Er-shixiong paused and lowered his head to look at his lame leg. "Yesterday, Shiniang told me that we shouldn't have come here. Yanning doesn't tolerate people like us."
The bald man let out a roar like he was venting his emotions and ran out.
The scarred-face man chased a few steps but didn't catch up to him. He turned back to look at his er-shixiong helplessly.
The disabled er-shixiong didn't say anything. One hand holding the dumpling, the other hand rubbing his own lame leg, he spaced out.
The bald man ran all the way out. He wandered a few circles in the rundown urban village, not knowing where he could go and not knowing what he could do. He felt like looking for a place where he could get dead drunk. Digging into his pockets, he realised that he only had a couple of coins left.
That was right, he used up his money yesterday.
Shiniang and the rest of them could only bear to order a packet of fries at the fast food restaurant. Afraid that they would be shooed out once it was eaten, no one had dared touch it. And now he couldn't even control himself and had gone out and spent all the money he had on drink.
The bald man looked around him at a loss. The water puddled on the ground was dissipating in fine wisps under the sunlight at high noon. The power lines that had been set up haphazardly and illegally knotted like a spider web above his head. Small posters advertising "Painless Abortion" and "Credentials for Loans" were stuck all over a slanted telephone pole. A few houses where the residents refused to vacate were still occupied and the residents were gathered at the little commercial area in the village, playing mahjong. The ground below them was covered in a layer of melon seed shells. At the side was an old-fashioned small radio and the radio station was currently playing a traditional crosstalk.
The people were filthy and yet, content.
The bald man stood at the side and listened for a while. The jokes were all old. He couldn't laugh, so he lowered his head like a stray dog and turned back.
Right then, the radio that hadn't been repaired for years suddenly jumped frequencies. Amidst the static, the calm and steady voice of the newscaster could be heard. "Following this, we interrupt this program with a piece of urgent local news. According to reports, a young man was kidnapped from the district of Little Pool. The victim is male, sixteen years old, 1.77 meters tall. At the time of his disappearance, he was wearing blue sneakers and a denim shirt. His shirt is missing a button…"
Upon hearing that, the bald man was stunned. Then, he twitched and turned on his heels and ran.
"Shixiong, Shixiong!" He ran back to the small house they rented, nearly pissing his pants in fright. Before he could speak to Er-shixiong, the disabled er-shixiong's phone rang.
Er-shixiong's eyelid twitched for no reason. He picked up the call. "Shiniang… Yes… What!"
The bald man panted harsh breaths. He stood at the front door, unsure of what to do. From the noise leaking out of the phone, the old lady who had told them not to be ignorant frogs in a well could be heard crying. Her sobbing echoed in the cramped and dim little single-storey house.
"I'll go over right now," Er-shixiong said quickly, then hung up. While rushing out the door, he said to his two shidi, "Shixiong's condition suddenly worsened critically and he was sent to the emergency treatment room. Hurry!"
The scarred-face man and the bald man had yet to regain their wits, and ran out after him in a daze.
The bald man's beaten-up face was swollen and gleaming. When the wind blew, it hurt like it was burning. All of a sudden, he realised that when Shiniang said they were bringing Shixiong home, it wasn't to "leave it to fate."
It was to wait for death.
It was like there was thunder booming and lightning flashing in his chest, striking fit to split the earth and collapse mountains, sparing not even a single blade of grass. Yet, he had nowhere to vent his emotions.
Right at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, the bald man saw a sorry figure. The urban village covered a wide area, its topography messy and complicated. Liu Zhongqi didn't have his phone with him so he didn't have a navigation app and he also couldn't find anyone to ask for directions. After losing his way in there for a long while, he still hadn't left the place.
The bald man stared at him and came to an abrupt stop. His eyes turned red.
500,000 can save a life. All these rich people, which one of them doesn't have 500,000? He thought. The police are already coming after us anyway.
Gan Qing let two Rapid buses go by. Finally, an Ordinary bus came. She opened the navigation app and searched for the urban village that was awaiting demolishment.
It wasn't far, just five stops away.
She didn't use Beggars' Sect but she had her own ways.
It was hard to find news of Liu Zhongqi but it wasn't hard to find news of the bald man. The bald man was tall and burly, and had fierce, menacing features. When people like him entered the shadowy Mudpool Backlane, people would definitely notice him. She asked a few of those who frequently drank at Mudpool Backlane and found out that the bald man was also addicted to drink. He was even a terrible drunk, and stirred up trouble whenever he had too much to drink.
There was a jianghu veteran who had quietly found out about his background. The bald man was tight-lipped but he had once drank too much and revealed where they were staying in Yanning. It seemed to be this nearby urban village.
Whether or not that was the place, she decided to go and try her luck.
 Scrape fleece from sheep 薅羊毛 - Originally referring to people who watched the sheeps for rich owners secretly scraping a bit of fleece from each sheep for their own use. Later on, this phrase was used to refer to the practice of taking advantage of many different promotions and discounts to earn monetary or non-monetary benefits.
 Qigong 气功 is a way of coordinating body posture, movement and breathing to regulate the flow of qi (life energy) in the body. It has a long history and has many forms, and there are many unsubstantiated claims of what qigong can do. It (or a simplified and standardised version I guess) is commonly practiced to maintain health, especially among the older generation.
 Qinggong 轻功 is a martial arts technique that enables a person to move really quickly, jump great heights, or even seem to fly, depending on how fantastical the wuxia setting is. Qigong and qinggong are both terms that will appear repeatedly in the story and are listed in the Glossary too.
 "Let's Be Civilised, Start a New Trend" 讲文明、树新风 is an official slogan to promote good, "civilised" behaviour.
In his heart, Liu Zhongqi knew that this group of people who could run a porcelain scam on a kid in the middle of the street weren't good people but a person's line of thought tended to follow the same path. It was just like when a stock market player saw the stock price going up today, they would always feel that it would continue to go up tomorrow. When the young man who had never been bullied before in his life saw a little bit of goodness in the villain, he would also always feel that the other party could one day become a better person.
Hence, when he saw the bald man, his two legs were rooted to the ground. He had no thoughts of running, nor did he have his guard up. After all, this band of people had just let him go and had even treated him to breakfast.
The bald man moved too fast. He was like a fierce eagle swooping down from the sky and plucking away a baby wild rabbit, catching everyone off-guard.
Before Liu Zhongqi realised what was happening, his throat was grabbed by a large hand. Then, his legs dangled in the air; the bald man was holding him up in the air by this throat. He could not breath and he could feel his heartbeat thumping madly in his ears. Black spots appeared in his vision.
"Shixiong, what are you doing?"
Even the disabled er-shixiong and the scarred-face man were shocked, much less Liu Zhongqi. Their eyes bulged and their mouths fell open as they stared at the bald man.
The bald man's face gleamed from not being washed over the night. The red lines in his eyes were as fine as spiderweb and veins were bulging on his forehead. He looked like he had walked out from one of those stories about people accidentally stepping into the territory of evil spirits and ended up possessed by demons.
"500,000," he said, low and unclear. "Tell this kid's family to give us 500,000."
Er-shixiong burst out, "You're going to choke him to death!"
The bald man shouted, "Or else I will choke him to death!"
Liu Zhongqi started to run out of air. His hands scrabbled futilely at the bald man's arms.
The newly sixteen years old teenager's bones had gone through their growth spurt but the other parts of his body had yet to catch up. In the bald man's hands, he was like a limp noodle.
The scarred-face man blurted out, "B-But you can't choke him to death before you get the money!"
Er-shixiong said, "Shut up! You're making it worse! Get lost!"
But it was this rather "to the point" comment from the scarred-face man that the bald man actually listened to. He loosened his grip a little. A sudden, rushed breath of air swept into Liu Zhongqi's lungs, and he choked until he wanted to vomit.
"Lao-San… Zhiyong." The disabled er-shixiong moved a step forward. The laugh lines on either side of his mouth drooped low, and he looked old and weary. "Don't be muddled. At this point in time… I beg you, don't make Shixiong worry so much!"
The bald man's hands were shaking, his lips were shaking, his entire body seemed to be shaking.
"Let go now!"
"I won't. Shixiong, you two don't interfere with this. This matter today has nothing to do with the both of you. If anything happens, I'll go to prison myself." The bald man shook his head. Suddenly, his mad yet calm words had a hint of tears. "Anyway, among us four brothers, I'm the most useless one. I'm the most annoying and Shiniang likes me the least since young. Shifu also disliked me for being stupid. There's no loss if I'm jailed! I'll exchange my life for Da-shixiong's!"
"What the hell are you saying!" The disabled er-shixiong was so angry his face and ears were red. "Do you want me to die of anger before you're happy!"
The scarred-face man meekly offered, "A-About this matter… Even if you choke that kid to death, his family might not necessarily give us the money. Even if they do… Da-shixiong might not necessarily be cured… You said that it's a life for a life, b-but, this exchange might not necessarily happen…"
The disabled man raised his arm and pushed him until he stumbled. The scarred-face man shrank back and didn't dare say anymore.
Right then, a voice sounded from behind them. "I think his words make sense."
In unison, the three kidnappers and the one victim present at the scene were all stunned.
At the same time this was happening, Beggars' Sect announced a secret order. A large net that was buried deep in the very foundations of the city was dragged out to capture every breath of wind and rustling of the grass from all directions.
Old Master Yang's water came to a boil. He asked Yu Lanchuan to sit for a while. Extending a pair of hands that were covered in age spots, he slowly brewed a round of gongfu tea. Warming up the cup, drying the teapot—his movements were like flowing water. "Here you go."
Yu Lanchuan accepted the teacup absent-mindedly. He was just about to speak when Old Yang raised a hand to stop him. "Don't rush, wait."
Steam rose from the tea. In the midst of the vapour, Old Yang said lightly, "When I was young, I drank alcohol and refused tea, and even looked down on those who drank tea. Then, I got old and was forced by my descendants to give up alcohol. Slowly, I finally realised that I was wrong. Drinking alcohol is cultivation, drinking tea is also cultivation. Walking, sitting, laying down are all cultivation; joy and anger, sorrow and cheer, are also all cultivation. You must steady your heart. Today, Grandpa Yang can help you; tomorrow, he may step into his grave. All matters in the martial arts world, big or small, will have to be handed over to all of you, the younger generation. Xiao-Chuan ah, all of you must learn to cultivate your minds."
Yu Lanchuan tasted the tea but did not accept this string of mystical and fanciful words from the elder. "Grandpa Yang, it is my opinion that you are not attributing the issue to the right cause. Hence, your suggestion does not appear to be feasible."
At once, Old Yang was dragged from an ancient temple on a cold, lonely mountain all the way to a meeting room in an office building. For a moment, he was completely lost.
Yu Lanchuan said, "There is a high chance that the disappearance of my younger brother is due to kidnapping. There is a high chance that he will be physically harmed and hence, it could result in injuries, disabilities or death. I cannot accept any of these terrible outcomes and I would not be able to explain it to my parents either. That is why I am very, very anxious right now. The reason why you are calm when facing this matter is because you have power and control over your esteemed sect, and control has always been a very effective tool for dealing with anxiety. Hence, when you look back on the past and realise that you have become someone as placid as a fine day with light wind and light clouds, it is very likely that it is actually not because of that so-called 'mind' that you have cultivated, but because you have achieved a wider scope of control along with the increase in your age and abilities."
Old Yang, "..."
The lesson on arcane arts had turned into a lesson on social science theory.
Yu Lanchuan said, "I beg your pardon. The reason why I am talking so much nonsense right now is because I am dealing with anxiety."
At that moment, Old Yang's old-people phone rang. Yu Lanchuan immediately sat up straight. Yu Yan who had been smoking outside all the while also rushed in.
Old Yang gave them a look that told them to be patient and picked up the call. A short while later, he hung up and stated a few locations. "My brothers from these locations reported that they saw suspicious people but they're not certain if they are the people we are looking for. The police will have to confirm."
Yu Yan leaped up. "Understood. We'll split up and check the nearby CCTV!"
"A place like Yanning has lots of CCTVs. It's true, I'm not lying. It's only small, out-of-the-way corners like Mudpool Backlane that don't have them so you guys could luckily escape. Yesterday night, this person here carried this large human here and swaggered all the way from Mudpool Backlane to this place. Who knows how many cameras have captured his image? As long as the police shrink their scope of investigation, they have the tech to find you." Gan Qing came to a stop around two meters away from the group of three hoodlums. From her bag, she dug out the wooden sign that was split apart by the bald man and asked him very politely. "That aside, if I may ask, did you leave this for me?"
The disabled er-shixiong had just wanted to tear the bald man apart with his bare hands but once he saw an outsider, he stepped forward and shielded the bald man behind him. "From where is this master from?"
"From nowhere and also not a master." Gan Qing spread her hands helplessly, revealing a section of her scrawny wrists. Her right hand was even trembling slightly. "That day, this bald dage kept following me. I was a little scared, so I played some tricks. Actually it's not much, it's just that I'm familiar with that area while you aren't. There are a few spots that look like dead ends but actually have small openings that you can slip into as long as you're thin. It's just a matter of running a bit faster. Oh, that's right, I also used a plastic toy gun to shoot at you. I didn't expect that I would actually hit you, maybe you had a bit too much to drink that day."
The bald man, "..."
"That's roughly what happened. If you have nowhere to vent your anger and have no qualms about hitting a woman, then you can beat me up. In any case, I'm already here and I can't fight back either. As long as you don't beat me to death, no one will come after you in the future." Gan Qing said in a low and calming tone. "Let go of that kid. If you wait until the police are here, this will become a different matter."
After hearing that, Liu Zhongqi gathered a hero's courage from who knew where and started struggling fiercely. "Run… ugh… quick, run!"
Gan Qing sighed. This kid never learned from his mistakes and that was probably because he had not been hit until it really hurt. But that was good too, it seemed like he didn't suffer much in their hands.
"Fuck your venting anger!" The bald man's voice sounded a little like he was crying and his voice broke as he spoke. "Tell this kid's family to hand over 500,000 and cut the crap!"
"I don't know why you need 500,000." Gan Qing took a few steps towards them again and met the bald man's eyes calmly. "But the police have already turned this into a case. If you've watched TV, you know that the police will definitely not let you exchange a person for money. When that happens, what will you do? You actually don't know, am I right?"
The scarred-face man subconsciously gave her a push. "Don't come near!"
Gan Qing was like a kite, light as a feather. The scarred-face man's push made her take a few steps back. The ground in the urban village was uneven. She tripped and fell, and the worn out cloth bag on her shoulder also fell to the ground, rolling in the dust.
Flustered, she straightened her elbow to break her fall and her palms were immediately cut open.
Gan Qing hissed in pain. She cut a sorry figure as she smiled bitterly. "Dage, you are really getting physical with me."
The disabled er-shixiong raised his shoulders a little, straightening up as he stood in thought. When people who had gone through training fell backward, they would not straighten their elbows to meet the ground. It was very easy to be injured this way. This was the first lesson shifu had taught when he was young.
Perhaps she was afraid of falling again, Gan Qing directly sat on the ground and did not get up. She dusted off her hands and smiled. "I keep feeling that someone who wants money would have better plans. What you are doing is just venting anger. You are raging at those who want money, raging at those spending money, raging at yourself for not being capable enough and for not being able to earn money… You drown your worries in alcohol and once you sober up, you rage at yourself again for not keeping your mouth shut-"
"Shut up!" The bald man started spewing obscenities.
Gan Qing's countenance remained unchanged, as though all that was going into her ears was a round of dog barks. Right then, the disabled er-shixiong suddenly stretched out a hand, not to do something to Gan Qing, but to give an oblique chop to the bald man's elbow. This blow landed directly on his ulnar nerve. The hand that was holding Liu Zhongqi's neck abruptly lost strength and Er-shixiong pulled Liu Zhongqi away in one movement.
Almost simultaneously, the bald man realised what was happening. He let out a roar and grabbed Liu Zhongqi's shoulder in an unforgiving grip. The shixiong and the shidi pulled at the unlucky hostage from both sides, like they were demonstrating how to tear a kidnap victim apart with bare hands.
The disabled er-shixiong said, "Let! Go!"
The bald man stiffened his neck and panted harsh breaths.
The corners of Gan Qing's mouth quirked up. She was enjoying watching this internal conflict unfold.
When she felt that the moment was right, she brought out the "mystic accent" she used to hoodwink foolish big spenders at the shop and interjected faintly from the side. "Dage, when you drown your worries in alcohol, you regret when you sober up. If you vent your anger on a person, you will regret it even more when the matter is over. There is essentially no difference between these two things. If you hate your alcohol addiction that much, why do you still continue doing the same thing? How many times can the same pitfall trip you up?"
The bald man suddenly paused.
Gan Qing said, "Before the police get here, there is still time. If you let go of him now, it would not be considered a kidnapping and extortion case. Sometimes, when you take one wrong step, what awaits you for the rest of your life are small paths filled with thorns. You can see the wide and open roads that other people have but you can't turn around anymore. Is it worth it?"
Who knew how much the bald man was actually listening to. On the other hand, the disabled er-shixiong stared blankly for a while, like he was dazed.
The scarred-face man was so flustered he was almost crying. "San-shixiong, stop it already!"
Er-shixiong came back to himself. There was a glimmer in his eyes and he softened his voice. "About the money and Da-shixiong's illness, we three brothers will think of a way together. Listen to me."
The muscles on both sides of the bald man's face were taut. A few seconds later, the fingers that were almost digging into Liu Zhongqi's flesh gradually weakened.
Everyone on the scene left out a relieved breath.
The disabled er-shixiong pulled the teenager who was frightened to near tears to his side. "Zhiyong, you-"
And then, right at that moment, something unexpected happened.
The police who had locked on to the kidnappers' location chose this moment to arrive.
If they were a few minutes earlier, what they would have seen were evil and vicious kidnappers. Whether they arrested or killed them, it would be an expected ending. If they were a few minutes later, the disabled er-shixiong would have returned Liu Zhongqi to Gan Qing. This matter could turn from a major issue to a minor one, and from a minor one to nothing.
Perhaps fate bullied the weak and feared the strong. The gods picked on the unlucky ones to play with.
Gan Qing was momentarily stunned. Instead of being elated, she was shocked. Not good!
Shocked witless, the disabled er-shixiong and the bald man unconsciously did the same thing—they both pulled Liu Zhongqi towards themselves with all the strength they had. The disabled er-shixiong grabbed the teenager's neck. The bald man reached out and grabbed, and because he was tall, his hand landed right over Liu Zhongqi's nose and mouth.
What the disabled man was thinking: Lao-San is still young. Let this cripple bear the crime for him.
What the bald man was thinking: I cannot drag Shixiong into this.
They had spent many years wandering on the fringes of society. The moment they saw someone in uniform, they unconsciously felt that they had done something wrong. At the moment, other than "stubbornly resist with backs to the wall" or "plead guilty and surrender," it didn't seem like there was a third option.
Only those who lived with confidence and ease would have lines of thought that were wide and open; those who were at the end of their rope did not know how to be flexible.
But what these two people were fighting over in their hands was a large, living person. If they pulled hard to the right and to the left, Liu Zhongqi's slender neck would definitely snap on the spot!
Right at that moment, a ghostly figure flitted past. Out of nowhere, a thin, withered hand cut in...
According to tradition, before a spar began, the fighters first had to "declare" their weapons. Regardless of whether the weapon was an "open blade" or a "hidden arrow," once it was declared, a meter-long blade and an embroidery needle could both be used.
But if everyone had come to a silent agreement to use bare fists and feet, and you suddenly pulled out a hidden blade and stabbed the other person halfway through the fight, then you were despicable and shameless. Rules no longer applied, and you were just one of those petty hoodlums.
...Gan Qing, the path she walked was probably that of the petty hoodlums.
No one saw how she leaped up from the ground. A blurred second and she was already between the bald man and the disabled man. Her elbow collided with the disabled er-shixiong's wrist; at the same time, there was a flash of light between her fingers, like there was something like a small blade between them. Together with a cutting wind, it sliced towards the bald man's pinky.
Her movements were exceedingly cunning and extremely swift.
A person's wrist had a meridian point and it was even more impossible for the bald man to catch the edged weapon with his bare hands. Both men trembled in unison and both stepped back to dodge. Gan Qing's elbow bumped lightly against the disabled man's fingertips; the "blade" between her fingers also slashed empty air.
At that moment, two men finally realised that something was not right. It turned out that it was only her movements that were frightening. Her elbow was limp and didn't have any strength at all. A clinking sound came from between her fingers—her fingers didn't have a brass knuckle or a blade, it was a key!
Right then, like she was doing magic, the key in Gan Qing's hand disappeared. She took out a small spray from somewhere and before the kidnappers realised what was going on, she sprayed them all over their faces.
The disabled man and the bald man were in a state of high alert. Their fists were already spaced out and their eyes were opened wider than usual, and they ended up being completely soaked by the pepper spray.
In that moment, the anguished screams from the two kidnappers seemed to want to bring down the sky.
Gan Qing deftly pressed down on Liu Zhongqi's neck and bent down, slipping away from under the bald man's randomly waving arms… Her posture was rather like the legendary "Eighteen Rolls on the Ground"; it didn't have the dignity of a master at all.
Following that, the police who had rushed here took the chance to swarm up and took the band of kidnappers under their control.
Liu Zhongqi hadn't yet regained his wits from that frightening life-or-death experience. He stood there in a daze. Gan Qing waved a hand in front of him. "Hey, you okay?"
She hadn't yet kept the pepper spray in her hand. A little of its might still remained. Liu Zhongqi sneezed. "A-Achoo!"
He sneezed five of six times in succession, tears and snot dripping to the ground, his eye nearly popping out of their sockets from the force. His dignity was entirely gone. Hence—if the pot was broken it might as well be smashed to bits—he hiccuped twice and, right before everyone's eyes, opened his mouth and wailed.
No one celebrated his birthday with him, tomorrow was the start of school, he was kidnapped twice in a day, and he was nearly strangled to death by a scary bald man… Of all these shitty incidents, was any of them not worth a good cry?
There were too many reasons that were worthy of crying, and too little opportunities to cry. There was never enough to go around.
Luckily, these incidents gathered together and all happened today.
Yu Lanchuan strode over to him. At first, he was vacillating between "give him a good smacking" and "Gege was wrong, muah," and his face darkened and brightened in turns. In the end, Liu Zhongqi's bawling shocked him into stumbling. Standing a meter away, he didn't dare go near. He exchanged looks with Gan Qing who was beside him.
There were a lot of questions he wanted to ask Gan Qing. How did you know that Grandpa Yang is from Beggars' Sect?
How did you find this group of people faster than Beggars' Sect and the police?
Did you know from the start that it was done by these people?
Why is it that a girl who looks like a bamboo pole dares to come face this band of kidnappers on her own?
Who on earth are you?
But right next to them was a foolish younger brother whose mouth was wide open, wailing like a toad. It was really not the time for questions. All Yu Lanchuan could do was nod at Gan Qing and, together with her, look at Liu Zhongqi at a loss.
The police cars brought the entire group back, the crowd watching on the sidelines also went back to their mahjong tables. This event started with a shocking bang but the ending that was a bit of a comical farce settled into the dust just like that.
When Yu Yan came to Yu Lanchuan's home, the sky was already nearly dark.
"Where's your brother?"
"Asleep." Yu Lanchuan poured him a glass of Coke and pointed at the tightly closed bedroom door. "He didn't sleep for an entire night yesterday."
"This unlucky kid. Forget it, let me tell you roughly what the situation is." Yu Yan sat down. Starting from the bald man tailing Gan Qing and being dealt with by her, to the whole story of him kidnapping Liu Zhongqi in a fit of anger, Yu Yan explained everything from head to tail. "Actually, it was a mistake at the start. Later on, evil intentions developed at the hint of riches and they wanted 500,000 from you… Ai, I think this year is just not their lucky year. The way they picked their victim—do you look like you have 500,000?"
Yu Lanchuan could not even produce 50,000 and his heart felt very bleak.
Yu Yan said, "But this time, you have to thank that lady from the accessories shop. At that time, if she wasn't quick-witted and hadn't brought along her homemade pepper spray, your younger brother would be lying in the hospital right now."
If pepper sprays were really so effective, would there be so many crimes where the strong bullied the weak?
Yu Lanchuan rolled his eyes at Yu Yan and thought, Why don't you try spraying some yourself?
To defeat two experts with half a bottle of pepper spray, one must have very good eyesight and their movement extremely quick. It was definitely not something that could be achieved by "just trying one's luck."
Gan Qing… That Gan Qing must be keeping a secret. But since she didn't want to reveal it herself and had also just helped him, Yu Lanchuan didn't feel right to say too much in front of others. Hence, he diverted the conversation and asked, "What do they want the money for?"
"They said it's to pay their shifu's son's medical fees." Yu Yan sighed. "These three brothers were brought up by their shifu. Their shifu got into a car accident a few years ago and died, leaving behind his child and his wife… The way they address each other really has a jianghu style, things like 'Da-shixiong' and 'Shiniang.' They originally opened a boxing gym in their hometown but a small town like theirs didn't have many students. In their spare time, these people would just muddle along and collect some filial payments or protection fee, stuff like that. They were originally doing pretty well. Later on, Da-shixiong fell seriously ill and couldn't be treated over there. They had no choice but to gather about 200,000 to come to Yanning. It sounds like a big amount but, you know how it is—at the hospital, money is just paper."
Yu Lanchuan's brows knitted together, his face cold. "They don't have money and yet they don't look for proper jobs. Did they continue to collect protection fees in Yanning?"
"You can say that." Yu Yan ran a hand through his hair. "Zheng Lin, the disabled one, had fought in those very hyped-up cage fighting matches when he was young to get money. Ai, basically, they were underground matches. Other people deceived him, saying that it could increase his reputation very quickly and bolster his status. In the future, he could enter a good club and fight in professional matches. Zheng Lin isn't very educated. He listened to other people exaggerate about how wonderful it is, and believed them."
Yu Lanchuan crossed his legs and tsk-ed impatiently.
"He can be considered to be rather skillful. At the start, he kept winning. Tiger this and dragon that, he had plenty of nicknames flying around, hyping him up until he got carried away. In the end, there was one time when he got sabotaged. That time, they had him fight with someone twice his weight. They had agreed beforehand that to make the match more exciting, he must first purposely take some hits and pretend to fall to the ground. Then, he was to strike back at the moment of crisis. They had spoken to the opponent too and the opponent was to just pretend to hit him, and wouldn't use serious force."
"When it was time for the actual match, the opponent gave him a signal and Zheng Lin prepared to pretend to fall. Who would have guessed that the opponent didn't follow the agreement. He gave him a direct high kick, kicking him senseless. Then, it was a round of violent hits, nearly killing him in the ring. When he was brought down, he was covered in blood and from then on, one of his legs couldn't really be used. Later on, the three brothers went to take revenge. The other party called the police and all three of them were left with a criminal record."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
"You've seen what the three of them look like. Their entire bodies give off an air of the underworld. Especially that scarred-face one, just his looks is enough to scare people." Yu Yan sighed. "When going through safety checks, other people can pass right through but these three would be pulled aside and examined for five minutes. When going for job interviews, they would always be asked to show proof that they have no criminal record… Most likely, they have already kind of given up on things getting better."
The two of them didn't say anything for a long while.
In the glass cup, tiny bubbles emerged in the carbonated drink, floating up and down.
Yu Lanchuan felt that the main point of this story was "There are imbeciles every year, and especially more of them this year." The story didn't invite sympathy at all but for some unknown reason, listening to the end very easily evoked his own worries.
The packaging for Liu Zhongqi's new phone hadn't yet been thrown out. On this matter, the two brothers had a tacit agreement not to breathe a single word to their parents. For Liu Zhongqi, it was shameful; for Yu Lanchuan, he had no way to explain his deficiency as a guardian. Hence, there was naturally no way for him to claim the expense of buying a new phone.
Getting a new pair of glasses was also not much cheaper than getting the phone. Fortunately, his degree was not high and he could make do for a couple of days first. He would count the days and wait for his salary and quarterly bonus…
That's right, rumour had it that the quarterly bonus this time didn't look good.
Yu Yan drank the iced drink. "Be honest, Master Lan. Have you ever had a time when you came close to taking the wrong step?"
Yu Lanchuan lifted his eyes to glance at him. He was not wearing his glasses now and the "clothing" part of his "wolf in sheep's clothing" manner was gone. In the eyes of the police officer, he looked like someone currently taking the wrong step.
Just when Yu Yan thought that he was going to be the recipient of a "Get lost," Yu Lanchuan said, "I have."
Yu Yan nearly slid off the sofa.
"I… A few days ago, I asked my dad for a statement of voluntary renunciation of inheritance." Yu Lanchuan finally spoke after remaining silent for a while. "The will my granduncle left behind has never been notarised and there are no other copies. The envelope the will is contained in has my name written on it. My dad gave me full power to handle things and didn't even look at it."
As for what was written in the will, only Heaven, Earth and the dead knew. The remaining matters depended entirely on Yu Lanchuan's conscience.
Yu Yan's mouth fell open.
"His renunciation statement just arrived." Yu Lanchuan looked down at his own fingers resting on his knees. "My grandparents' death certificates have also been officially stamped."
Yu Yan said, "Which is to say…"
Yu Lanchuan smiled at him, his meaning unclear. "Which is to say, only a paper shredder lies between me and 8.5 million."
Yu Yan swallowed. He realised that his police instinct was not wrong—this young man was taking a wrong step right now!
But there was no way he could be an armchair critic because if they swapped places… Forget it, they didn't have to swap places. A neighbourhood police officer who earned a few thousand yuan a month could not imagine it.
To Yu Lanchuan, without this sum of money, he was a debtor with a thirty-year loan, a house loan slave whose days were dark and hopeless, someone who wouldn't dare resign recklessly even if the sky were to fall down.
With this sum of money, he could immediately repay his house loan in full. With his income, as long as he didn't fall into vice, gambling or drugs, he could indulge himself all day in the future. He could resign anytime he wanted to; he could change careers anytime he wanted to; he could go on an impulse vacation any time he wanted to.
Everyone despised those who betrayed their conscience and lived a life of luxury. But this was not "luxury"; this was freedom.
How many "thirty years old" would a person have in their entire life?
Yu Yan grew up with him and knew that Yu Lanchuan's motto during his chuuni period was "Without freedom, I would rather have death."
Before he could speak, Yu Lanchuan's phone rang. Old Master Yang was calling.
Yu Lanchuan circled around Rongxian Street eight times and still failed to find a spot to park his car. In the end, he had no choice but to stop at a shopping center 800 meters away and walk over. He felt like he might as well not drive.
Right out of No. 110 Courtyard's east gate was a very narrow one-way lane. On the other side of the lane was a row of small shops, their edges following the curve of the lane.
He had just confessed his errant intentions to Yu Yan and the next moment, he was called here. Yu Lanchuan felt that he needed to calm down. He ordered a cup of cooling herbal tea at a beverage shop and stood at the intersection while drinking slowly.
At that moment, he saw a familiar figure out of the corner of his eye. Gan Qing was at the fruit shop next door, picking up and putting down the fruits one after another, picking and choosing. Every now and then, she glanced towards the opposite No. 110.
Yu Lanchuan followed her line of sight and realised that there were two people dressed in beggars garb at the gate to No. 110 Courtyard, squatting in a corner while they talked.
The two beggars chatted for a long while. The whole time, Gan Qing dawdled at the fruit shop, touching every single orange in an entire box one-by-one. Finally, the two beggars left one after another and only then did she straighten up and miserly took out three coins. Bearing the brunt of the lady boss's eyes that looked fit to bite her to death, she bought two oranges.
Was she avoiding the Beggars' Sect people?
Yu Lanchuan's feet shifted lightly and he followed after her without a sound.
As for what he would say when he caught up to her, Yu Lanchuan hadn't thought it out.
He was the perfect example of a detached city person, a diehard member of the "None of My Business, None of Your Business" society. He hated meddling in other people's business the most. Regardless of whether Gan Qing was avoiding the Beggars' Sect people or avoiding the local law enforcement, what did it have to do with him?
Once he thought that, Yu Lanchuan again felt like there was something wrong with him today.
Gan Qing slouched a lot when she walked. She seemed too lazy to lift her feet and her relaxed shoulders swayed side to side. But on closer look, the area around her waist and stomach was tense. That little bit of tightness made her entire body seem like a tied bundle of sticks—no matter how much it swayed, it would not fall apart.
Yu Lanchuan stared at her back and spaced out. He remembered that when he was young, Granduncle had taught him that it was possible for a person to not wield the blade or fire the gun. In the current-day society, even if a person's hands did not have the strength to even truss up a chicken, it didn't affect anything. But the way one walked, sat or lay down must be proper. These were minor matters that didn't take much effort, but even dripping water could penetrate stone. If one's posture was not correct, if the areas that should be relaxed were tense and the areas that should be tense were relaxed, then it was one year, 365 days of that. If one persistently destroyed their own bones and flesh, then they did not have to wait for old age, illness would come first.
For example, walking. One's essence, qi and spirit resided in one's waist. If they ruined their waist, their spine would lose its shape and their body would be unstable—either the top half would tilt backward or their shoulders and neck would hunch forward.
The more one tilted backward, the bigger their stomach grew. Their legs would become increasingly unable to bear the burden. The lower back, knees, ankles, heels—they could forget about any one of these staying in good condition. The more one hunched forward, the more their back curved. All the hidden excess flesh on their body would move to their back and their chest would become increasingly thin, their breaths increasingly short. Meanwhile, their back would become increasingly thick, and slowly, it would look like they were carrying a sandbag on their shoulders and behind their neck.
Today, they wore away their spine a little and nothing happened. Tomorrow, they would wear away their spine a little and nothing would happen. But eventually—a few years if on the shorter end, perhaps thirty or fifty years if on the longer end—no matter how good a body one was born with, their spine would eventually be worn down until it was damaged.
When one's spine was damaged, their body was also done for.
Granduncle had brought him for walks around the little garden in No. 110 and had talked about many topics similar to that. When he was young, he didn't understand and put it out of his mind after listening. When he was a little older, due to the burdens of studies and work, he finally started practising the old man's way of maintaining health. By the time he joined society and had gone through ups and downs for a few years, he sometimes recalled those words and felt that the way of maintaining health that Granduncle had spoken of were also very meaningful.
In martial arts, a person first fortified their own body and connected with their bones and flesh. From there, they observed themselves, became self-aware, and found answers to their confusions. And with that, they observed the thousands of inhabitants and hundreds of changes that made up the living world.
By the time he came back to himself, he had followed the other person all the way into No. 110 and they were nearly at the elevator lobby. Yu Lanchuan realised that it was awkward, and was just planning to walk past her and pretend that they were just coincidentally going the same way when Gan Qing suddenly turned her head around. From the plastic bag, she dug out an orange and gave it to him.
Stunned, Yu Lanchuan looked at her in confusion.
"Seeing that your younger brother is totally unharmed from head to toe," Gan Qing lowered her voice, "don't tell anyone what you saw today at the urban village."
Yu Lanchuan didn't plan to tell anyone anyway. "Don't wo-"
He hadn't yet finished saying the word "worry" when Gan Qing stuffed the orange into his hand.
"Giving you a small bribe." She winked and gave him a half smile. Her gaze shifted fluidly and for a second, a simple and unsophisticated village girl transformed into a swindling and cheating modern-day witch. "If a single word leaks out, I will have enemies coming after me for revenge. If that happens, neither your conscience nor my spirit will forgive you. Shhh."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
What nonsense was this!
When they got into the elevator, Yu Lanchuan finally regained his wits. "Your bribe is just one orange?"
Gan Qing no longer put on an act. She said lazily, "I'll only get paid tomorrow and only have three yuan left. The oranges are 1.5 yuan each, what I gave you is half of my entire fortune. Is it still not enough? Fine, I'll give you this one too. Let me be ruined and bankrupt."
Yu Lanchuan, "...No thanks. I am not that evil."
At that moment, they reached the sixth floor that Yu Lanchuan had pressed the button for. He walked off the elevator and Gan Qing was just about to close the door when he suddenly turned around. "Wait!"
Gan Qing tilted her head.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Where are you from?"
Gan Qing said, "Guess."
"Forget it." Yu Lanchuan asked directly, "Fifteen years ago, did you come to Yanning?"
Without even thinking, Gan Qing answered without any hesitation. "I don't remember. After all, I'm only sixteen years old this year."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
After teasing him, Gan Qing pressed the button to close the door, smiled and took a step back, disappearing behind the closing doors. This scene and the one that was etched in his mind fifteen years ago at a city suburb matched extremely closely and Yu Lanchuan nearly chased after her. Right then, someone suddenly said from behind him, "You're here. Go in, the old man is waiting for you."
Yu Lanchuan turned around and saw Old Master Yang's granddaughter, Yang Yifan, walk out with a cigarette dangling from her lips. "He's at that age already but the most busy one is him. From day to night there are all sorts of weird people coming to look for him, who knows what for."
After saying that, she rolled her eyes at the ceiling, threw her bag over her shoulder, and strode away on her lambskin heels.
Yu Lanchuan was very confused, unsure what he had done to offend her. He entered the apartment to see and sensed that the one Miss Yang was targeting was not himself—an old lady had come to Old Master Yang's home.
The old lady looked like she was around Old Master Yang's age. She had a headful of white hair, and a shriveled and thin body. The flesh on either side of her face drooped down. Together with her mouth, they formed a triangle, showing some signs of ferocity and cruelty, and also a trace of the woe of old age.
Before Yu Lanchuan could carefully think of who she was, the old lady stood up, holding on to the sofa for support, and then knelt before him with a thump.
Despite having a facade of "Kneel before us, peasants" to the outside world, this was the first time someone actually gave Yu Lanchuan such a formal bow. Shocked, he held onto the door frame and was stunned for a full two seconds before rushing over in a fluster to help her up.
"I-I-If there's anything, we can talk properly. What are you doing this for?"
The old lady looked like she weighed forty kilograms at most but when Yu Lanchuan reached out to help her up, he realised that she seemed to be rooted to the ground. Even with both hands, he couldn't pull her up.
"Madam Qian." Old Master Yang sighed and spoke, "He's from the younger generation. Aren't you making it hard for him this way? If there's anything, why don't you get up and talk about it?"
Only then did Yu Lanchuan feel the weight in his hands lighten. He quickly and nervously helped the old lady up and settled her down on the sofa.
At this moment, he had already guessed who this old lady was.
As expected, Old Master Yang said, "This is Madam Qian. In the past, she and her husband were known as the Two Qians. They were renowned warriors of justice in the south. Her leg skills are exceptional—the coal-powered trains in the past were not as fast as her. In the early years, there was a band of local bandits in the southwest who plundered along the rail lines. They entered the carriages directly through the windows, snatched the goods then jumped off the train. Back then, the passengers all didn't dare open the windows. It was this pair of virtuous man and wife who took the lead to guard the routes, and helped to catch not a small number of evildoers. But sadly-"
"Don't say anymore, Sect Leader Yang. I am too ashamed to show my face," Old Madam Qian cut him off. "My husband's reputation has been completely ruined by this old hag here and our few unworthy disciples. In the future, when I die and go over, I will have to avoid him. Little Master Yu, I'm sorry. I really didn't know that the child at Mudpool Backlane that day was your brother. Those disciples of mine even… even…"
Yu Lanchuan thought in his heart, Is this something a person should be saying?
So, children from other families can be scammed and kidnapped as you wish?
But his upbringing took over; given that the old lady was an elderly, he didn't feel that it was right for him to open his mouth and talk back, so he said placidly, "It's not a big deal. The police said that you were indeed unaware of what happened after. If it was an ordinary civil dispute, we would definitely just let it go. But once it has developed into a criminal case, it's no longer something we can just say 'Let it go' and the police will stop investigating. There is nothing I can do either, I hope you can understand."
Madam Qian's tears started falling at once. She said "I know" three times in a row, then added, "I dare not thicken my skin and ask for your favour."
"The country has its laws. Xiao-Chuan, sit," Old Master Yang said. "The main reason why Madam Qian is here today is because she feels very apologetic, and wanted to meet you and say a few words to you. She doesn't have any other intentions."
Madam Qian wiped her tears and at the same time, continued to speak brokenly.
Her deceased husband and her had once been heroes in their early years. At that time, they were in the prime of their lives, their spirits high and bold. Later on, her husband lost his life in a car accident and left her with only a sickly son and three little disciples they had fostered. A single woman supporting four mouths was already an extremely difficult thing to do but following closely was the rapid change in eras. Storms and wild winds rose in unison, sending some people up to the clear skies and some down to deep earth. Some people made their fortune overnight, while some lost their livelihoods.
Madam Qian was unfortunately among the latter.
Even later on, just like how bad posture wore down a person's spine, this joke of a thing called "spirit" was worn down day after day by all the petty troubles of daily life. It wore down and down, and eventually she was no longer the person she once was and could not even live her later years in peace.
It was only when her old friend brought up the Two Qians to someone from the younger generation that she dimly recalled those years. The glory of her past shone softly on the shameless deeds accumulated over the decades and unexpectedly, outshone them completely.
As Madam Qian continued to speak, her tears fell until she eventually could not speak anymore.
For a moment, she was confused. She couldn't understand how she had ended up like this.
Perhaps heroes shouldn't live so long.
Yu Lanchuan pulled some tissues and passed them to her. He didn't say anything.
Old Master Yang waited until Madam Qian's sobbing gradually calmed down. Then, he extended his hand, pointed upstairs, and said to Yu Lanchuan, "Xiao-Chuan may not know this but back in that year when your granduncle bought his apartment, Madam Qian got word of it. From thousands of miles away, she entrusted someone to bring 200 yuan here. How could she have money to spare? It was all dug out from between the gaps of her teeth."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Fuck. He cursed in his heart. A creditor!
It was only because her son was in the ICU at the moment that Madam Qian could find time to leave the hospital and she had to rush back soon. The patient's condition was not stable, something might happen during the night.
She was too old now. Taking care of an invalid on the verge of death, she didn't have any energy to spare to think of ways to find out how her three disciples were doing. She could only take care of things on this end first.
The ICU entrance was just like the train station during New Year's in the old days. The floor was full of people lying on sleeping mats. The spot in the corner with a small quilt was Madam Qian's. The quilt was patterned in alternating reds and pinks; she had made it herself the year she got married.
A few family members of a patient were talking softly at the side. Perhaps they were discussing the matter of hospital fees—halfway through, they became a little agitated. A passing nurse warned them and they dispersed to seethe on their own. They broke into a few groups, as clearly separated as the clear waters of the Jing River and the muddy waters of the Wei River were, and went out to smoke.
There was also someone on the phone. They sat on the floor, their back to the wall, speaking in a whisper. Listening to them, it seemed like it was also about a terminal patient.
A bigger number of people had decided to stay the night and were already lying down. They were just lying down—other than wandering vagrants, few people could sleep soundly in a place like this. There were some who tossed and turned, some who faced the wall unmoving, some who curled under their coats and tapped on their phones non-stop. When they were tired of lying down, they would sit up for a while.
In this place, there was no one crying, and there was also nothing about the sanctity or the meaning of life.
Everyone looked very tired.
When she lay down, Madam Qian thought. Again, his life was saved.
As she listened, she felt that the voice in her heart was neither rejoicing nor thankful. She didn't dare think too much so she turned over and hugged the cloth bag she carried everywhere with her close to her chest. Inside was 20,000 in cash that Sect Leader Yang had just withdrawn for her.
After sending off Madam Qian, Sect Leader Yang gripped his walking stick and slowly walked back from the ATM at the intersection. Yu Lanchuan accompanied him at his side. His eyes lowered, he spoke calmly. "Grandpa, I still need to work tomorrow. After sending you home, I will be leaving."
Old Master Yang looked at him.
Yu Lanchuan's elegant side profile seemed to have been put together by an assembly line. It was stamped with the expression of a high level white collar worker—the left side of his face said "I'm in a rush," the right side said "I'm not interested," and his forehead said "Oh."
"They need the victim's statement of forgiveness. I can give that, it's not a problem," Yu Lanchuan said. "If they need my help, I can provide the contact details of a few friends who work for fundraising platforms. They can help to start a fundraising project. When the project is live, I can also help to spread the word and verify that the fundraiser is legitimate."
Old Master Yang had never heard of these new-fangled things. At New Year's this year, this old man had just learned how to send red packets. His family taught him three times while he forgot four times, nearly making his granddaughter want to hang herself in frustration. Hence, he asked quickly, "Such a thing is possible? How much can it raise?"
Yu Lanchuan avoided the main question. "As long as they are people who donate, we can gather the money."
As for whether or not there would be people donating, Yu Lanchuan was not optimistic. Everyone had seen this a hundred times. Nowadays, if one went online and searched the names of welfare organisations, the related questions below would always have something like "Is XX reliable? Are they scammers?"
"Dream on, no one will donate." Someone suddenly interjected from the side. Both of them looked up and saw Yang Yifan climb out of her car. She was waving to the substitute driver and it was immediately obvious that she had been drinking at a social event. She tottered over and slung an arm over Old Master Yang's shoulders with no regards for manners. "This story is as boring as it can be. A middle-aged man has no money for medical treatment and his life is in danger—where's the twist? Middle-aged men whose lives are in danger are everywhere in the world, Grandpa! What does he have to attract attention?"
Old Master Yang was so assaulted by the smell of her perfume he was sneezing. He shrugged his shoulders, shaking her off. "Stand properly. You're like a useless bum, is that any way to behave!"
"Grandpa, the present is not like the past." Yang Yifan didn't care for his words. Right before the old man, she dangled a cigarette from her mouth. "Have you never heard of this line? 'If you're poor, keep to yourself; if you're rich, buy bags and watches.' Let the government's public welfare services handle other people's problems. Since I've paid my taxes, I've already fulfilled my obligations to the public. It means that I have already indirectly helped them! If they still have difficulties, there's nothing I can do. I can only say that there's not enough social welfare to go around and there are people who need it even more ahead of them in the line. I ask you, isn't that how it works?"
Old Master Yang said, "G-G-Get lost… Get lost! You don't care at all and you're even being sarcastic. Go back and sober up!"
Yang Yifan laughed. She stuck her hands in her pockets, blew out a puff of smoke and walked away.
Since Yu Lanchuan was not that close to Old Master Yang, he couldn't be as frank as his granddaughter and could only use his facial expression and body language to express his agreement with Miss Yang's words. He politely took his leave from Old Master Yang. "I will be going to the tenth floor to see if there are any utility bills that I need to pay. I will be leaving now."
For the young people of the current generation, "Take care of your own matters and don't cause trouble for other people" was the highest benchmark for a person's self-discipline and morals. In comparison, the older generation's "Uphold justice and honour, what is mine is yours" worldview was simply the poisonous remnants of feudalism.
Old Yang held on to his walking stick and stood in the garden. He looked up and saw the waxing moon, and knew that it was nearly the fifteenth of the month. This month, the fifteenth was the day of the Ghost Festival. Half a month earlier, the neighbourhood committee had put up notices with the reminder, "Make offerings in a civilised manner; burning paper money is prohibited." Even the dead had to be "civilised" now!
He felt that he had grown old. The jianghu also had one foot in the grave, its spirit giving out.
Yu Lanchuan tidied up Granduncle's home. The last time he left the place, he had forgotten to close the windows and there was a layer of dust in the house. He planned to wait until the next weekend and get an hourly worker to come, and to have the place cleaned once a month in the future. His mind elsewhere, he closed and locked the door. Yu Lanchuan still hadn't decided what he wanted to do with this apartment.
As he passed the neighbouring apartment, his footsteps paused. He thought of the mysterious Gan Qing.
He looked at the door plate for 1003 with a rather complicated expression and thought, Is she that person?
Suddenly, the door to 1003 opened from the inside. Before Yu Lanchuan could regain his wits, Gan Qing poked her head out. "What's the matter?"
Yu Lanchuan's eyes flickered. "...Just passing by."
With that, he raised his legs to walk away but Gan Qing suddenly called out to him. "Hey, wait a minute."
Yu Lanchuan's heart skipped a beat for no reason. He turned his head around and saw Gan Qing fumbling in her pocket for a long while before fishing out a roll of crumpled bills. She picked out the ones worth 20 yuan and above, smoothed them out and passed them to him. "Please help me pass it to those people's shiniang. It's not convenient for me to show my face. I don't have much money either, just take it as buying a meal for the old madam."
Yu Lanchuan raised an eyebrow.
"If it wasn't because I wanted to save a few yuan and insisted on taking the Ordinary bus, I might have reached earlier. Five minutes earlier and the matter might not have ended in this way." With an open and calm miserly air, Gan Qing rubbed the remaining notes rather apologetically. "The main point is… when I see a bus with the word 'Rapid' in front, I can't lift my legs. It's a conditioned reflex. I didn't do it on purpose."
Yu Lanchuan accepted the small stack of spare change. "Didn't you say that three yuan was your entire fortune?"
"Yeah," Gan Qing said frankly. "But didn't you already know that I was lying?"
How could he be so naive and cute, and actually believe her?
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
She definitely was not!
After he returned home, Yu Lanchuan did as he said he would. First, he discussed with Liu Zhongqi and came up with a statement of forgiveness. Then, he contacted his acquaintance and started a "Major Illness Fundraiser" online for the Madam Qian. Thus, he was done with the matter.
After such a scary experience, the troublemaking younger brother finally became well-behaved. Once school started, he was tied down. Every day, when Yu Lanchuan was done with overtime, he still had not finished his homework, so he finally no longer had the time to go out and cause trouble. As for Yu Lanchuan's work, the few items that were previously hanging undecided all had a rough outcome and the source of his stress reduced by quite a bit, letting him relax a little. Before he got off work on Friday, he announced to his department "You don't need to come to the office during the weekend if there isn't anything" and the office rejoiced like it was New Year's.
As for Madam Qian's fundraising project, as expected, no one paid it any heed.
The wealthy granddaughter only knew to "buy bags and watches," and didn't contribute a cent. Old Master Yang had no choice but to look for a few of his old friends. All of them counted their retirement money and gathered more than 10,000. What was surprising was that Liu Zhongqi actually took his allowance and the daily rewards from his red packet dispenser brother, and gathered more than 2,000 yuan, planning to give it to Madam Qian. Yu Lanchuan's quarterly bonus had just been paid out and he had the money to buy glasses now. Hence, he added some money to his younger brother's and gathered a round sum of 10,000 to send over as a token of his sentiments.
Other than that, Gan Qing had given a stack of small notes. There were also a few subordinates in Yu Lanchuan's department who saw the link he reposted in his WeChat Moments. Each person who clicked on it donated three to five hundred, using money from their fund dedicated to bootlicking.
After that, no one showed any interest.
This amount of money seemed like a lot, but it was nothing but a cup of water on a cartful of burning firewood. Putting aside the medical fees and the surgery fees, it wasn't even enough for the cost of the ICU room.
But everyone had really done their best already.
That weekend, Yu Lanchuan made an appointment with an hourly worker and went to clean up Granduncle's home. While the hourly worker was working, he moved a chair to sit at the front door, enjoying the wind from the corridor as he went through a bunch of data related to investment. He was not working very efficiently; his eyes kept drifting to the next door apartment. When a sound came from the neighbouring apartment's door, Yu Lanchuan unconsciously sat up straighter. He put on a cold and aloof face, and stared at his laptop screen without lifting his head.
The neighbour spoke, "Oh, what a rare visitor. Xiao-Chuan is here?"
"...Good morning, Grandma Zhang."
What a waste of his feelings.
Just as he was about to look away again, uninterested, the elevator sounded with a ding. Someone had come up.
The person who came was a man in his thirties. He was covered in the dust of his travels and he carried a large checkered plastic nylon bag on his back. He studied the narrow corridor at a loss for a while. When he saw Yu Lanchuan, he asked in a heavy non-local accent, "Can I ask if Alliance Leader Yu lives on this floor?"
Yu Lanchuan stood up, "My grandfather has passed away."
"Ai, I know. I even lit joss sticks for the old Alliance Leader back home. Then you must be Little Master Yu? I'm looking for you!" As the man spoke, he strode over energetically and swung the large nylon bag down into Yu Lanchuan's hands. That thing weighed at least a few hundred pounds. Perplexed, Yu Lanchuan accepted it and his wrists abruptly sank under the weight. He drew a sharp breath to steel himself and caught it before it could crash onto his feet.
The man wiped his sweat. "I've been on the train for two days. Ai, this journey is really long!"
Yu Lanchuan finally recalled that 1004 was the "management office." "Oh, please come in and have a seat."
"There's no need." The man waved his hand. "I still need to take the afternoon train back. There's only one train a day. Little Master Yu, I don't know anyone in Yanning and I don't know this place well. You're the old Alliance Leader's descendant. After handing the things over to you, I don't have to worry anymore!"
The man did not give him the chance to talk at all. He took half a step back then fell to his knees with a thump. He knocked his head a couple of times against the floor, with enough force that the tiles rang with two loud thuds.
Yu Lanchuan, "...."
What the hell! I'm going to call the police!
The man said, "More than thirty years ago, when my mum was still pregnant with me, she took the train to go back to her parents' home. During the journey, she felt nauseous and wanted to puke. She opened the window and met with window-robbers. They reached in from outside, grabbed her bag and wanted to run. My mum was young and hot-blooded, and took pride in the little bit of skills she had. Unwilling to give up her things, she took action to fight them for it and the window-robbers were forced to use their lethal weapons. If Master Qian and the others didn't happen to be lying in wait there, my mum would be gone from this world and I would not be here either! All these years, we didn't know that Master Qian was already gone and Madam Qian was going through such a life. We have let down our benefactors and are too ashamed to meet her. I kowtow twice to Little Master Yu and trouble him to convey my regards to her."
Yu Lanchuan had to admit defeat. "No, how am I to convey this? Wait, don't go! You haven't said who you are!"
The man didn't reply. He leaped up, clasped his fist to salute Yu Lanchuan, then turned on his heels and fled via the stairs like there were wolves chasing him.
The bulging checked nylon bag could not bear the weight. With a tearing sound, it split open and the things inside spilled onto the ground.
Contained inside were dried mountain ginseng, local specialities, bedding, handmade snacks, as well as twenty plus large apples that were now rolling all over the floor and a jar of homemade pickles!
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
And, under this pile of unimaginable curiosities, there were a few neat stacks of renminbi, bound together with a small paper slip. On the paper slip was written: Tying grass into rings, kindness can't be repaid.
After nearly forty years, the sprout that was accidentally planted back then unexpectedly bore fruit.
 Tying grass into rings 结草衔环 is a Chinese proverb that means "repaying a person's kindness." There are two stories behind the proverb.
At this hour, Gan Qing should be at Star Dreams. However, today happened to be the day for replenishing the stock. Madam Zhang Meizhen was very interested in those little accessories and had asked her to bring them home for her to pick. And hence, Gan Qing was just bringing a few pounds of little accessories up to the apartment when a row of apples came from far to block her path.
She looked ahead, following the trail of apples. She saw Mr. Yu dressed in a neatly ironed dress shirt with mother-of-pearl cufflinks, a bluish-green light reflecting off his new glasses, looking like he was ready to attend the Boao Forum for Asia… But his left hand was holding a wrapped smoked chicken, his right hand was carrying a bag of snacks that were nearly smashed to pieces, and at his feet was a flowery quilt wrapped around a tightly sealed jar of pickles.
"..." Gan Qing was dealt a heavy shock by this incredibly incongruous scene. "Lifestyle change?"
Yu Lanchuan wondered if he still had the time to pretend he was helping Grandma Zhang pick up those things.
Grandma Zhang was obviously unwilling to bear this blame. While the two young people were bending over and picking up the apples all over the corridor, the old lady faced the full-length mirror at her front door and put on her shoes and applied her lipstick. "Earlier, I heard that an old single lady came to look for Yang Qing. So it was her."
Yang Qing was Old Master Yang's name. Yu Lanchuan had seen it before on the poem couplet he had given to Granduncle.
Yu Lanchuan keenly sensed something from the phrase "old single lady." He looked up, incredulous.
Her back to Grandma Zhang, Gan Qing extended a hand and pointed downstairs, then glanced sideways at the enchanting Madam Zhang Meizhen and mouthed, "Fallback guy."
Yu Lanchuan was just about to stand up while carrying the apples and now, his legs weakened momentarily and he nearly knelt back down.
Gan Qing turned her head around and asked, "Meizhen-jie, who is she?"
Yu Lanchuan's incredulous look shifted to her. People nowadays could be so shameless for the sake of sucking up to their landlord?
Zhang Meizhen cheerfully bound her hair up with an elastic band and said patiently, "She's called Qian Xiaoying. When she was young, her temper was fierce and explosive and there were some who called her 'Flying Kick Little Chili.' Later on, she grew up and got married. The nickname of 'Little Chili' didn't sound very respectful, so everyone changed it to 'Red Rhododendron.' She was a beauty too. Back then, there were a few bored men who made a list of top beauties. I remember she was fifth or sixth."
Gan Qing said mildly, "Oh."
Zhang Meizhen asked curiously, "What would a little girl like you know?"
Gan Qing found a very thick needle, threaded it with yarn, then deftly sewed up the torn checkered nylon bag. After a couple of stitches, she said without looking up, "I guess that must be the list where you're number one."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Had she no shame?
Zhang Meizhen stared blankly, then began laughing uncontrollably. She didn't deny it and just poked her head out to ask Yu Lanchuan, "What happened to her?"
Yu Lanchuan briefly explained the matter.
"'Tsk, how pitiful." Zhang Meizhen took a couple of steps back and studied her full reflection. She said carelessly, "Doesn't that mean she's going to become a lonely old widow?"
Yu Lanchuan was not willing to use someone else's troubles to gossip behind their back, and did not reply.
"It's not a big deal." Zhang Meizhen breathed out a light, delicate sigh. "Who isn't a lonely old widow?"
Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan both stared blankly. Meanwhile, Zhang Meizhen had already picked up a small handbag and walked away leisurely.
By the time the hourly worker was done, Yu Lanchuan had found a few people to move the sewn up checkered nylon bag to the rented place Madam Qian and the rest were temporarily staying. Then, he retrieved only the money from the bag and brought it to the hospital himself. He even took a close look, but didn't find even a hint of the "Red Rhododendron" from all those years ago in that face.
Yu Lanchuan didn't intend to say much and left right after putting down what he brought there. The packet of money he left behind was too large and Madam Qian initially thought that it was food. When she tore open the seal and looked inside, she went mad and chased after him, but Yu Lanchuan's car was already out of sight.
The modern-day car was a lot more advanced than the rundown coal trains from decades ago. Even Flying Kick Little Chili could not keep up.
Madam Qian stood for a while on the road, then realised that there was a row of words on the paper package.
The words said: A round sum of 200,000. From your friend Kowtow Twice, via Yu Lanchuan.
After sending the money, Yu Lanchuan went home, tidied up the materials for the weekly meeting on Monday, and then had nothing else to do. The sun was high in the bright afternoon sky, and it was a rare day of good weather. Typically, on a rest day like this, he would ask a few friends in his group for a round of golf. It was like clearing checkpoints in a game, a very utilitarian way of conducting social interaction.
Today, Yu Lanchuan suddenly couldn't muster up the enthusiasm. Thinking about it, he had never been interested in any ball sports and was too lazy to even watch matches. Whenever he got into the court to play, it was purely to accompany other people playing. When he chatted with those friends on topics such as Trends in Policies and Underlying Currents of the Era, at a glance it seemed like something very high level but in actual fact, it was fundamentally no different from high school girls chatting about celebrity gossip—they were all just blindly talking nonsense, like chasing the wind and catching shadows. As for depending on golf and dinner parties to expand one's "social network," who knew whether or not it could really be depended on when he needed it. Even when he reposted a fundraiser for someone with a terminal illness in his WeChat Moments, barely anyone clicked on it to check it out and drop some coffee money. It was evidently also just as illusionary.
Yu Lanchuan went online for a while, browsing without an aim. His two hands suddenly moved on their own and searched for "train-robbing gang." He didn't find any results so he searched according to Master Yang's introduction of The Two Qians and looked up old news from that locality. He found a few clues, saved them, then posted at the local comment boards and forums.
At first, no one paid any attention and Yu Lanchuan also put this matter aside. A few days later, he suddenly remembered it and went back to check. He found that one of the posts had been pushed up. Someone wrote a long comment of a few thousand characters, talking about the experiences of their train attendant grandfather.
Following that, there were more and more such comments. Some were real, some were probably made up from the stories by people who just wanted to join the hype.
The few of them sat separately in different carriages. When the train was about to reach the destination, they stood up and walked around the train, signalling to each other with their eyes. Red Rhododendron purposely sat in a corner with a shawl over her head. She put a small cloth bag on the little table and opened the window slightly. Those robbers had very sharp eyes. Seeing that she was a woman on her own who didn't know to be cautious, they immediately targeted her. Once the train slowed down, one rushed up and opened the train window, slipped in and grabbed her things. Red Rhododendron did not go easy on him; once she saw the robber take the bait, she grabbed the robber's wrist that was reaching in and slammed the window down. The robber saw that he had fallen into a trap and desperately tried to flee. He took a dagger from his chest to stab her; she kicked out and the dagger went flying. Her comrades who were lying in wait in the train jumped off and caught the robber's accomplices.
A sting operation to enforce the law. Unexpectedly, the method wasn't very different from her porcelain scams later on.
My grandfather said that Red Rhododendron grabbed the robber that was dragged into the train and pushed him down to the floor, pressed her knee on the robber's back, then smiled at the train marshals that had hurried there. Her head covering had fallen off, revealing a thick and long braid. Her lips were red and her teeth white…
She sat for a few stops. Then, seeing that everything was peaceful on the train, she got off. Her husband would definitely already be waiting for her on the platform. Apparently, Mr. Qian always let his other comrades take the train-robbers away while he took the shortcuts through the mountains and, using his two legs, reached the station ahead of the train to welcome her. Who knows if the rumour is true...
Yu Lanchuan thought a bit, then contacted the intern from his company's summer program. The intern was his university junior and had already gone back to school for classes. Yu Lanchuan asked his junior to look for a few students who wrote for the university newspaper. He collected all these comments that sounded like local folklore and sent them over, and had them write a biography of Red Rhododendron for a fee.
Then, he took this biography and contacted a few cultural media companies and small news agencies that his company had invested in before. They gave it a bit of a makeover, then, at a predetermined time, published it on the online forums at the localities where the train-robbing gang had operated back in those years.
Apparently, later on, President "buy bag and watches" Yang saw and poked a finger in too, paying for a round of publicity.
This was what Yu Lanchuan heard other people say. President Yang herself never admitted it to him.
In the end, by the time the 200,000 from "Kowtow Twice" was nearly all used up, from a stale article about crowdfunding the cost of medical treatment, the story of Red Rhododendron rose to prominence. Even though the readership never broke 100,000, as long as those who still remembered her knew about it, it was enough.
The feel of autumn in the air started to sharpen into harshness. The scarred-face man from the three brothers—because he had not participated in the kidnapping from start to end, and had even tried to stop his senior brother—was set free after the investigation cleared him. The story of Red Rhododendron was overshadowed by yet another society hot topic, but the money needed for Madam Qian's son's medical fees was nearly all collected.
Birth, old age, illness and death all depended on fate. It was beyond a person's ability to control them.
The money had just reached her account. Before it could be paid to the hospital, Madam Qian's son's condition suddenly worsened. She signed the umpteenth notice of critical illness and, as usual, sat outside the emergency treatment room to wait.
There was a sudden gust of wind outside the windows. Along the corridor, the tightly shut windows were all violently shaken by the brutal wind. The large parasol tree in the garden rustled loudly. Madam Qian's heart thumped erratically; the light over the emergency treatment room door turned off.
After struggling on death's door for a few months, Madam Qian became an old lonely widow.
When Yu Lanchuan received the phone call, it happened to be storming. The entire city was gridlocked and the car wipers couldn't sweep the water away in time. The cars in front of him were unmoving. In the car next to his, the driver wasn't afraid of getting wet and had wound the window down and his sleeve up, and flicked cigarette ash out the window.
Madam Qian waited for him at No. 110 Courtyard until late at night. When the rain stopped, Yu Lanchuan finally reached. Madam Qian had the scarred-face man kowtow to him. After they were stopped by Yu Lanchuan who was, by now, afraid of this gesture of theirs, she held on to her cane for support and gave him a tottering bow.
Due to the bad weather, Madam Zhang Meizhen could not go out to party. She leaned against the door frame and suddenly spoke, "Little Chili."
Madam Qian, who was turning to leave, stared blankly for a long time before finally coming back to herself. She looked at Zhang Meizhen with an expression that was hard to put into words.
Zhang Meizhen opened her mouth. She suddenly thought of something and smiled. "It's nothing. Actually, I wanted to tell you that everything will be okay. But after thinking about it, I decided not to. It's not true anyway. The weather is bad, be careful on your way back."
Would everything be okay?
No, it wouldn't. Whether or not things would be okay all depended on Heaven and fate.
But regardless of what happened, one still had to live, hadn't they?
Madam Qian led the scarred-face man down and disappeared into the shadows of the trees in the eastern side of the courtyard.
Zhang Meizhen turned her head around and called out to Yu Lanchuan. "Little Master Yu, we old fools all want you to move back here. Your Old Master Yang asked me to ask you. Would that be all right with you?"
— END OF BOOK 1 —
Book 2: Loss of Voice
"Didn't you complain that the place was old, rundown and small, and didn't even have a carpark?" Yu Yan lowered his head and used his chopsticks to poke at a piece of sweet and sour pork rib. He took a tentative bite; the bone was made from lotus root, the meat from soy product, and it had been marinated in preserved plum juice. The texture was firm and crunchy, the sweetness and sourness at just the right level… But when savoured carefully, he still felt that something was missing.
In the first monthly test since school started, Liu Zhongqi made it to the top five in his year, breaking his personal best record. Having learned from his past mistakes, Yu Lanchuan didn't dare use red packets to take care of the gremlin child this time. Hence, he freed up a weekend and brought him out to celebrate—even though Yu Lanchuan didn't know what there was to celebrate. When he was at school, he had never dropped below second place.
He didn't have much to talk about with a chuuni teenager. He didn't want it to be awkward, so he invited Yu Yan along to accompany them, and let the police officer strengthen the kid's personal safety awareness.
Yu Lanchuan had his assistant select the restaurant and make a reservation. He had not been to the place before and when he entered, he saw that the decor and the atmosphere at the place were very high class. There was even a creek winding around the small tables. There was dry ice hidden below the water and as the water circled around continuously, white mist rose from all directions. A person sitting inside would feel that they were there to attend the Feast of Peaches with the deities.
When he opened the menu, he finally realised that this was a vegetarian restaurant.
Yu Yan could not imagine what kind of pretense Director Yu usually put on in front of his colleagues for his assistant to think that he survived on eating flowers and drinking dew, and that even his poop had the flavour of Darjeeling. Only a restaurant with such a faintly deity-like air was worthy of the faintly deity-like Director Yu.
"It's okay." Yu Lanchuan poked at the lushly green dishes absent-mindedly. "That place is near, I can just walk to work. It's also convenient for Xiao-Qi to go to school. He doesn't even have to take the subway."
"Then go! Don't talk about other things, just that 7,000 plus a month rental of yours, who's gonna give that much to you? I don't even earn that much in a month!" Yu Yan was someone who wouldn't look like a crown prince even if he wore the dragon robes. In the midst of the zenlike clouds and mist, he spewed out crass and unsophisticated words. "If you don't have to drive, wouldn't you save on parking and petrol? If you rent out your car together with the number plate, it's extra income. Master Lan, becoming rich depends on being economical!"
Yu Lanchuan regretted bringing this person out to eat. He was a little embarrassing.
He picked up a piece of king oyster mushroom masquerading as abalone, his mouth not tasting anything. "It's not a question of moving. That apartment is a symbol, you don't understand. Moving in means-"
"I understand," Yu Yan cut him off. "The rules of your world. Doesn't it just say that whoever's name is on the property deed, that person's the alliance leader? Since ancient times, the jianghu has been a place of danger and evil. There are those who took that position by seizing power, those who depended on their virtue and morals, those who depended on their martial arts skills, those who depended on evil and sinister plots, those who depended on castrating themselves... Today, you, Master Lan, depend on an apartment to take that position. No one has done that before. It feels so modern."
Yu Lanchuan couldn't be bothered to pay him any attention.
"The public security in that area is also under our jurisdiction. In the future, if there's anything, I can hug the alliance leader's thigh." Yu Yan glanced at Liu Zhongqi who was studiously drinking soup, then drew close to Yu Lanchuan and whispered in his ear. "There's even a beautiful lady who has quite the fate with you staying next door."
Yu Lanchuan said, "Get lost!"
Yu Yan reached out and patted his shoulder. "Go, don't disappoint the great trust the older generation has put on you, Master Lan."
"I'm already busy enough, where would I find the energy to interfere with their affairs." Yu Lanchuan avoided his hands in distaste. As though he wanted to show that he was not at all related to the next door apartment, he sat up straight and proper for a while and said coldly, "I don't think I will after all. I'll save myself the trouble-"
Before he could finish speaking, his phone suddenly rang. Yu Lanchuan looked at the screen and his face didn't look good—his landlord was calling.
His landlord wasn't a straightforward person. One phone call lasted a full five minutes, the words going around in circles in a sticky voice. Yu Yan finished a bowl of fake red braised meat and only then was the other side done talking.
"What's the matter?" Yu Yan watched his expression and his intuition struck. "Don't tell me your rent is going up?"
The deity-like Yu Lanchuan put down his phone. Since there was a minor, he swallowed his curses back down.
Yu Yan rubbed his fingers. He vaguely remembered that Yu Lanchuan's tenancy agreement was for a year and the term seemed to be nearly up. "Pah, this cursed mouth of mine. A child's words are harmless… Is your rent really going up?"
The two of them were speaking very softly. All around them was the continuous susurration of the water and there was even someone playing the pipa in the hall. Hence, Liu Zhongqi didn't hear clearly his geges' discussions about "national economy and the people's livelihoods." The young hero had already endured an entire meal and finally could not bear it any more. He put down a vegetable leaf and said to Yu Lanchuan, "Ge, I'm not full. I want to eat fried chicken cutlet. Real chicken."
Yu Yan said, "I want to eat that too, ge. I also want to eat lamb skewers. Real lamb."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
A landlord's mood was ever-changing like a day in June.
The viciously spiking rental was like a tornado, its arrival more unexpected than romance. It surged over majestically, pushing the trendy Director Yu to No. 110 Courtyard.
Granduncle's apartment was well-maintained and had just been cleaned. He also didn't need to renovate it.
At the end of the month, Yu Lanchuan gave up the fight, packed his bags and moved in. His bags included the baggage named Liu Zhongqi.
Gan Qing had heard from Zhang Meizhen about the two young masters moving in next door. However, she was just an idle shop worker and only slowly started working at ten in the morning. She did not cross paths with those white collar workers and high school students who seemed to be tightly wound springs. The people next door had moved in for a few days and she had only ever heard the sound of the door from next door when she was having breakfast; she had not met the people themselves.
Before she got off work that night, she gnawed on the corn on the cob that Boss Meng had grilled for her while looking at the calendar on her phone and worrying. There were still four days until her wages for this month were paid. She hadn't planned her expenses well. She was out of money.
Gan Qing tossed the corncob that she had gnawed clean into the trash bin. "Uncle Meng, lend me twenty yuan. I'll pay you back when I get paid."
Meng Tianyi heard her and came out, grumbling. He wiped his hands on his apron and dug out fifty yuan which he stuffed into her hands, and scolded, "Why are you out of money again? You only need to feed yourself and out of three meals in a day, two are at my place here. Your rent is only 600. You only have those two old and worn outfits and you don't even pretty yourself up. Where did your money go? What did you spend it on?"
Gan Qing put away the fifty yuan. She stretched her body and answered jokingly. "I'm also wondering the same thing. Help me take a look at my back and see if a God of Poverty is haunting me."
Angered by her apathy, Boss Meng gave her a smack. Gan Qing was too lazy to even dodge and took it directly. Using the edge of the table, she opened a bottle of soft drink and drank from it.
Other than eating and drinking, she was very stingy with her energy. Through all four seasons of the year, she had the vigour of someone in winter hibernation. If she could make one less movement, she would save the effort of that one movement. If she could move her eyes, she wouldn't turn her neck. Even when nodding, she took less effort than other people. When other people nodded, they tucked in their chin, then returned to the same position; when she nodded, she lowered her head and only lifted it again when she needed to.
Meng Tianyi sighed. "You're still young, how can you continue to muddle along like this? You should think about your future. A person has to integrate with society and live their days!"
Gan Qing let out a mhm. "I'm thinking about it right now."
"The hell you are! Why don't you go study something, I heard that there's this… university entrance exams for mature students or self-taught students? Go register for one of them. At least, it's an academic qualification. If you don't want to study, then be like your Uncle Meng and learn a trade, you can get by with that too. I'll pay for your tuition fees, you can slowly pay me back in the future."
Gan Qing said, "My skills are decent. I can cook and can help out in the kitchen."
Meng Tianyi said, "The hell you can! You only know how to eat!"
Hearing that, Gan Qing smiled. She drank a gulp of the chilled soft drink, like a dead pig that was not afraid of boiling water. As the saying went, "Man must live life so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, and to never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past[note]."
Her eyes were slightly deep set and her brows a little heavy, pushing down on her eyes. But when she smiled, her features swiftly smoothed out. The corners of her eyes curved into crescents and there was a special kind of sweetness.
Meng Tianyi advised her patiently, "If you don't want to do anything, then you should clean yourself up properly, marry someone and start a family, and live your days properly. That should be okay, right?"
"Yeah, that sounds good." Gan Qing gave him a thumbs up. "Just take a look, does someone who acts the way I do have a chance at snagging a rich husband? In the future, I can just lie down at home, take two bottles whenever I want a soft drink, and drink them together."
Meng Tianyi was rather exasperated. "If your shifu was still alive-"
"Uncle Meng," The mischievous smile on Gan Qing's face disappeared all of a sudden. "What are you saying? What shifu?"
After saying that, she threw the empty bottle behind her. The glass bottle dropped accurately into the plastic crate more than a meter away, neatly entering an empty slot, as impressive as any acrobatic stunt. After throwing the bottle, she turned and left.
"Gan'er, before your shifu closed his eyes forever, he was always worrying about you," Meng Tianyi said behind her. "He was afraid because of your temper! He was afraid that when he was gone, no one would take care of you, and no one would clean up after you if you cause trouble."
"I've long since stopped causing trouble." Gan Qing stuck her hands into her pockets and turned around to glance at Meng Tianyi. The streetlight threw her shadow long behind her. She waved at Meng Tianyi. "I've long since been unable to cause trouble."
With the fifty yuan that Boss Meng had lent her, she could afford jianbing for breakfast now. Having gnawed on mantou and salted vegetables for three days in a row, that was what Gan Qing was planning as she left Mudpool Backlane. She had just eaten but she was having cravings already.
Right then, her phone vibrated. Gan Qing picked up and a feeble female voice came from the other side. "Hello… I-It's me."
Gan Qing was someone who smiled at everyone but now, her face suddenly turned cold. She let out an indifferent mhm.
"I've received the money I claimed for treating my appendicitis. I… Should I go to the bank and transfer it to you or…"
"No need," Gan Qing said. "Keep it to pay your heating bills."
Gan Qing cut her off. "Anything else?"
"No, that's all-"
"All right. Call me if there's anything." When she finished speaking, Gan Qing hung up ruthlessly, not the least bit concerned for the other person's dignity… because she knew that the other person had none.
She had spent the whole day at the shop today talking to the customers about Mercury retrograde. Maybe it was coming back to bite her now; in one night, two people in a row had made her unhappy. Near October, the night wind in Yanning no longer brought contentment and was starting to reveal a hint of the coming freeze. Gan Qing wrapped her workout jacket tighter around herself, trying her best to put all her thoughts on jianbing. This way, she could be full of anticipation for tomorrow.
Holding on to this "jianbing" mental support, Gan Qing returned to No. 110 Courtyard. Once she went up, she saw a few familiar figures blocking her front door.
Gan Qing rubbed her eyes, thinking that she must be seeing delusions from thinking too much about jianbing. Those few people were in two groups, as clearly separated as the Jing and Wei rivers were. One group belonged to the north side of the road's Shandong Jianbing while the other group belonged to the south side of the road's Jianbing Guozi. Both groups were arguing noisily, cornering the alliance leader who had just come back from work at his front door.
"Little Master Yu, you be the judge. It was their Shandong group that beat up our people first!"
"Who was the one who provoked us first?"
"Who was the one who crossed the boundary first?"
"Fuck your boundary! My net profit in one month is more than 10,000, do I need to fight your penniless group for territory? You and your shitty jianbiang, open shop if you can handle the heat, fuck off if you can't!"
Yu Lanchuan clutched his laptop under his arm and, with a wooden expression, watched the two large group leaders with income of over 10,000 a month tear into each other.
"You still dare to fight at this place? Fine, I'll join you!"
"No one's doing any business tomorrow. Not before we settle this once and for all!"
"Who's scared of you?"
"Who's scared of you!"
Gan Qing, "..."
The author has something to say:
[note] he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past — How the Steel Was Tempered.
 The person who took power by castrating themselves is likely a reference to Dongfang Bubai, a fictional character from Jin Yong's wuxia novels. It was a prerequisite for mastering the skills in a martial arts manual known as Sunflower Manual.
 Jianbing is a popular breakfast food in China, commonly sold by street vendors. It consists of a crepe-like wrapping made of wheat and grain, wrapped around different kinds of fillings such as egg, youtiao, preserved meat, and sauces, and there are many regional varieties. It originated in Shandong; one of the two jianbing groups in this chapter is Shandong Jianbing. The other group, Jianbing Guozi, is a regional variety popular in Tianjin.
For the sake of her mental support, despite being the type to never draw attention to herself, Gan Qing couldn't help cutting in. "Don't do that, you guys still have to open for business."
She frequently went to buy jianbing. The leader of the Shandong Jianbing group took one look and recognised her as a regular. Immediately, his confidence increased and his voice rang out crisp and clear. "A person has got to sell the good stuff, only then can they open their stall without shame. Miss, am I right? What I make is food, what he makes is shit. People like you who eat breakfast naturally know whose stall to go to."
The leader of the Jianbing Guozi group also recognised Gan Qing. He scoffed. "The person making shit knows very well who they are. The customers, too, know who they are."
"Um…" Gan Qing felt very awkward. In actual fact, she went to the north side on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and to the south side on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, she sometimes ate dumplings for a change of flavour. She ate both the crispy and the soft versions without rejecting either, and she really didn't know whose side she should stand on. She could only nervously try to smooth things over. "Both are good. Two different flavours."
"Who's two different flavours with him?"
"Theirs are totally not even jianbing!"
The fence-sitter Gan Qing's inappropriate dissuasion had the opposite effect of escalating the conflict. The leaders of the two jianbing groups went from a verbal spar to a physical one.
The state of the martial arts world deteriorated day by day. Especially ever since the usage of social media became widespread, the younger generation followed the trends blindly and there was now something about if a fight was not taken to No. 110, then the fight had no class.
Yu Lanchuan had moved in for barely a week. Despite his current circumstances where he left early and came back late every day, this was already the second dispute that had been brought to his doorstep. The last time was at five in the morning—the old master from the laundry shop at the entrance and the old master who repaired leather goods came together to knock on his door. They stated that the two of them wanted to have a deathmatch and even wanted to sign some sort of "life and death declaration."
He finally understood why, in his twilight years, Granduncle had traveled all over without a fixed home like the floating duckweed.
The two large jianbing groups gathered in a circle, heckling and jabbing. Maybe they had come here in a haste, they hadn't taken off their sleeve covers. The two pairs of sleeve covers that were fighting danced up and down, and the chopped green onion and smell of the sauces also wafted through the air, ruthlessly inciting the alliance leader whose stomach only had coffee.
Because his blood sugar level was low, Yu Lanchuan's anger rose from inside him. He tore off his glasses and pushed them into the hands of the person beside him along with his laptop.
At that moment, Shandong Jianbing-xiong's elbow collided fiercely against the other person while Jiangbing Guozi-xiong's leg swept low across the floor. Yu Lanchuan directly barged in between the two. He raised one hand and jabbed Shandong Jianbing's ulnar nerve while his other hand pushed Jianbing Guozi's shoulder down, then he tripped the foot that was planted on the floor for support. Shandong Jianbing howled and leaped away, holding his numbed elbow. Jianbing Guozi fell backwards onto the floor, feet facing the sky, dazed and senseless.
Only then did Yu Lanchuan take half a step back and buttoned up his cuffs again. His eyes swept coldly over the two large jianbing groups that had quieted down.
If the old man Yu Huaide was still here, they wouldn't dare bring this sort of bullshit and petty annoyances up here.
It was just that they had recently heard that a Little Master Yu had come to stay at the tenth floor. Since he was "little," then he was naturally a lot easier to bully. Rumour also had it that he was someone who had studied abroad. The moment everyone heard that, they suspected that he was a blockhead who had learned boxing from the foreigners for a few years and had come back to put on a show. Hence, the evildoers from various groups popped up one after another to stir up trouble and pick fights.
The conflict between the two jianbing groups being a matter with a long history was one thing; the other thing was that they were also causing trouble to test whether this Little Master Yu was soft or hard.
They never thought that this Little Master Yu, descendant of Han Jiang Xue, really had some skills. They had just come face-to-face and the two bosses were lying on the floor already.
The bosses had lost face, so their juniors who had been heckling each other just now also laid down their war flags and stilled the drums one by one. Together, they looked at Yu Lanchuan guiltily and nervously, waiting for him to unleash his moves.
"The corridor is. A. Public. Area." Yu Lanchuan paused between each word. "All of you rich sirs who earn more than 10,000 a month, may I request that you be a little more civilised?"
Shandong Jianbing's boss hadn't revived. He rubbed his elbow and took a step forward, trying to ameliorate the situation. "Little Master Yu-"
"There is a dispute, correct?" Yu Lanchuan didn't give him a chance to talk. He took out his phone. "Wait a minute, I will settle it for all of you."
The two large jianbing groups stretched out their necks, curious about the new alliance leader's methods.
What they saw was Yu Lanchuan tapping on his phone for a while, then saying into the phone. "Hello, yes, this is a complaint from a member of the public. I would like to make a complaint about the breakfast street vendors here. These people are extremely immoral; they throw rubbish everywhere and even come to the residential area to fight over territory-"
The "extremely immoral" jianbing heroes nearly kneeled down before him. Pale with fright, they rushed over to pull Yu Lanchuan's mouth away from his phone in a fluster, begging him to restrain his prowess.
Shandong Jianbing's boss said, "L-L-Little Master Yu, l-l-let's talk nicely!"
Jianbing Guozi's boss said, "That's not necessary, not necessary!"
"Let's talk nicely?" Yu Lanchuan extended one finger and pointed at the Shandong Jianbing group, then turned to ask the Jianbing Guozi group. "Not necessary?"
The jianbing heroes were scared of him. Their faces twisted into bitter frowns but at the same time, they smiled along with him.
"Anyone injured from the fight? If injured, then go to the hospital and get it checked. After checking, I will help you make a police report. Whoever should pay compensation will pay compensation," Yu Lanchuan said.
"No, no, no one's injured. We're just learning from each other, it's just daily practice. It's not a big deal."
Yu Lanchuan said, "In that case, that's good. As for the territory, weren't there rules in the past? If there are rules, then follow the rules. Don't bring up other things to me. If it worked in the past, it will work in the future. Even if it doesn't, it will have to."
The jianbing heroes looked at one another in dismay.
Yu Lanchuan said with a cold smile, "What was the number for the Ministry of Commerce again?"
This was the first time the jianbing heroes had met this kind of mad complainant. They didn't dare say that it wouldn't work. In the end, right in front of Yu Lanchuan, they held their noses and hugged each other for a while, feeling like their purity was being sullied. Then, all together, they walked away dejectedly.
Gan Qian bounced up on tiny steps like a little follower. She returned the laptop and the glasses to Yu Lanchuan. "Little Master Yu is so mighty."
She had been holding one of the arms of the glasses. The frame was made of metal. One of the arms was cold while the other side had a bit of warmth from her body. The large difference in temperature flowed from one side of his temples to the other.
Yu Lanchuan glanced at her and was struck again by the sense of déjà vu her features gave him. He tightened his face and nodded at her, and made some small talk. "Back so late from work?"
"It's not late." Faced with the benefactor who had saved her breakfast, Gan Qing was full of friendly words. "I was just in time. Otherwise, I wouldn't have the chance to help you carry your things."
Yu Lanchuan didn't know why but he recalled her face when she was flattering Zhang Meizhen and became unhappy again for no reason. Cold as frost, he walked away.
He had just entered the house when his younger brother who did not know how to read other people's moods ran over with a worshipful face, helping him take his slippers. With a few grunts, he made some moves with his arms and legs. "Ge, I saw just now through the peephole. Have you also trained before? When did you train? I've never heard you talk about it. Can you teach me? A while back, I even went to Star Dreams to look for that jiejie but after spending a long time wearing her down, she only gave me a personal alarm and taught me how to groin kick. I feel that it's a bit vulgar…"
The veins at Yu Lanchuan's temples began to pulse. He stretched his hand out and pointed to Liu Zhongqi's room. "Go do your homework!"
Liu Zhongqi seemed to have accidentally eaten catnip. He "flew" back to his room, leaping and skipping, and even jumped up to touch the top of the door frame.
Right then, Yu Lanchuan's work colleagues called him in a panic, saying that there was a change in the policy in some investment program that they were about to sign the agreement for. The big boss was suddenly having regrets and had summoned the risk department for an online discussion. Yu Lanchuan only had the time to heat up a sandwich in the microwave before he started to be bombarded by calls from various departments.
Right when he was busy and frazzled, suddenly, there were a couple of knocks on the balcony window. Startled, Yu Lanchuan accidentally pulled the entire piece of bacon out and it dangled like a long tongue as he turned his head. He saw a "Spiderman" sprawled on the outside of his tenth floor enclosed balcony, wearing a skintight outfit and holding metal claws and suction pads in his hands.
"Spiderman" fumbled at his chest and fished out a crumpled piece of paper which he slapped onto the window. On it was written, in crooked writing: I am the descendant of Tang Qian Yan. I wish to challenge you. During the Martial Arts General Assembly, let us fight it out.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
At the very least, at this moment, he missed his cold rented apartment and the heartless landlord terribly.
That was right, speaking of this pestilential Martial Arts General Assembly, Old Master Yang had already come to rush him a few times, saying that the location and the notices were already prepared and were ready for his review at any time.
The Martial Arts General Assembly was held once every three years. In the past, Granduncle was the one in charge.
Old Master Yang had said, "We are all old now and can't keep up with the times. It's also time for the younger generation to make their name. Everyone also wants to meet Little Master Yu. Xiao-Chuan ah, why don't you take charge this time?"
Yu Lanchuan had said, "Grandpa Yang, I really have no more leave days for the year. Can we change the timing of the assembly? How about during the long Spring Festival holiday?"
"That won't do," Old Master Yang had said. "They can't afford the train tickets during the Spring Festival rush!"
Alliance Leader Yu could say nothing to that. Angry, he procrastinated on it in passive resentment and even started searching online for a new place to stay. He would rather pay rent than be the alliance leader.
Right at that moment, a faint crashing sound of glass shattering suddenly came from downstairs. Right on its heels was the sound of a woman's anguished screaming. The "Spiderman" sprawled outside his window disappeared in a flash.
Admittedly, an old building had poor soundproofing but it was currently late in the night. Every apartment closed their windows at night but this sound could actually slip in between the cracks of the windows to pierce their ears, making them shiver. It sounded like the blood-curdling scream of someone near death.
Not only Yu Lanchuan, a few other nearby apartments also opened their windows at the same time, the residents poking their heads out to look for the source of the noise.
Gan Qing had just finished washing her hair and was taking in the clothes drying at the balcony. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow heading towards next door. Who knew what kind of cow demons and snake spirits it was again; she shook her head, and spared some thoughts of sympathy for the next door's Little Master Yu. She was just preparing to blow dry her hair when the blood curdling scream startled her too.
This blood curdling scream seemed to make her recall something. Gan Qing frowned. She went near the window and pushed it open a sliver.
The sound from outside became clearer. Gan Qing heard the neighbours calling out to each other noisily. "Was it the eighth or the ninth floor?"
"Eighth floor, I think it's 804. The window is broken."
"Luckily it's nighttime, so there's no one down below. What happened?"
"Did a burglar get in? I thought I saw a shadow flash pass just now."
"Surely that's not possible… it's the eighth floor."
Right then, someone from 804 finally said something. It was a very feeble female voice, slipping out shakily from the broken window. "There… There was a thief."
"What? Even the eighth floor can be entered!"
"It's not even the end of the year yet. This is too terrible!"
"I stay at 805," a rather plump middle-aged man said. "I'll go have a look."
The neighbours hastily called out to him. "Hold on, what if the thief hasn't run away? Call the police first, wait for everyone and go together."
Most of the people staying at No. 110 Courtyard were ordinary people who had moved in later. Everyone was starting to be nervous.
Yu Lanchuan took in the paper on his window. His eyes swept around the surroundings. He instructed Liu Zhongqi to keep the windows shut, then put on a coat and went out.
When Yu Lanchuan went downstairs, by coincidence, he bumped into Gan Qing. Gan Qing had wrapped herself in a long hooded padded jacket that seemed to date from the Republican era. The jacket covered her from her head to her calves and the hood was up over her head. A few locks of hair that had fallen out were dripping wet and the ends of her pyjamas peeked out at her feet. She had probably been getting ready for bed.
Yu Lanchuan felt that it was a little strange. She didn't seem like the type who, upon hearing the neighbours shout "thief," would clamber up to join the excitement.
The entire building only had one elevator. Everyone wanted to use it, so it was very slow. Hence, the two of them walked down using the stairs.
Walking in front, Gan Qing suddenly said in a low voice, "The person who knocked on your window climbed upwards after that."
"You saw it clearly?" Yu Lanchuan was briefly stunned. Then, for reasons that he himself did not know, a question slipped out of his mouth. "Have you heard of Tang Qian Yan?"
Gan Qing remained silent from the tenth floor all the way to the eighth floor. Just as Yu Lanchuan thought that she didn't want to answer him, she unexpectedly uttered a "Yeah" in a soft voice. "'The flying sparrow skims the water, it leaves no trace on the snow'… But they have become just a lizard now."
By the time the two of them came down, there was already a group of neighbours crowding around the door to 804. Speaking of which, it was strange; it was just past 10 p.m. and even the "hair-intact nun" Gan Qing hadn't gone to bed yet. For the modern day city folk, it was still too early. Why would a burglar pick this time to break in?
"What I think is, the thief was probably targeting 803." A neighbour was expounding on his theory. "They saw that the old lady was home alone today. She sleeps early and is hard of hearing, so they had the guts to act! They didn't expect to get the wrong balcony."
The old lady from the next door 803 had come out to join the crowd. She happened to hear this line and turned pale with fright.
"Don't make wild guesses, don't scare the old lady." The man at 804's door waved his hand. "The light in our house was spoiled today so the house was dark. Maybe the burglar thought there was no one at home."
The man looked to be around the age of 37 or 38. He was tall, with a decent appearance. When he spoke, it was with a slow and low voice. Yu Lanchuan thought he seemed familiar and was just pondering if they had met before when the man accidentally glanced towards him. "Hey, you are… Director Yu?"
His reflexes kicked in and Yu Lanchuan put on a professional smile.
"I'm Nicholas from IMI! Everyone calls me Nick. I've done a report with you for the project on exhibition centers! Do you remember me?"
In Yu Lanchuan's brain that had been curdled into a pot of congee by the last-minute meeting and the Martial Arts General Assembly, a string of letters popped up. His temples began pounding and he had a sudden realisation. He recalled who this person was—after all, in their "white collar demon" circle, this way of mixing languages when speaking had gone out of fashion a few years ago. When he occasionally met someone who used this "traditional" style, the impression they left would be rather deep.
Yu Lanchuan nodded reservedly. "Hello, Director Nie."
This man's name was Nie Ke. He was from another investment company. In the past, they wanted to involve Yu Lanchuan's company when they invested in a project and hence, the two companies had worked together before. Yu Lanchuan didn't remember Nie Ke's rank but when it came to those who were out and about to do business, one could never go wrong by addressing them as Director.
"Our house is in the suburbs. It's too far. Going through the morning rush hour adds more than two hours to my commute. Sadly, I can't afford a house in the urban area. This year, it was only for the sake of letting our child attend the kindergarten here that we finally made the resolve to rent a place here. Luckily the kindergarten is on vacation today and we have sent the child to his grandma's place." Nie Ke politely invited the neighbours into his house. The light in the living room was indeed not working and his house was pitch-black inside. He lowered his voice by an octave. "Xiaoman, are you okay?"
Only then did everyone realise that there was also a woman in the house. She appeared to have blended in with the darkness.
Even though Nie Ke had already lowered his voice a lot, he seemed to have frightened her. The woman jumped up stiffly from the sofa, like a dehydrated zombie.
"This is my wife." Nie Ke sighed. "At that time, I was boiling water in the kitchen. She was in the bedroom alone and happened to run into the burglar. But she didn't run away immediately and even wanted to catch them—What were you thinking? The way you are, could you catch anyone? What if they had a knife? I just look away for a moment and something could have happened to you. What am I to do, ai—Luckily, that burglar didn't think there would be someone inside and was frightened off. They just jostled her for a bit and then ran off, and even broke one of our windows."
Gan Qing switched on the lights in the corridor and the entrance hall. With the help of the illumination, everyone saw that Mrs. Nie was holding a piece of muslin cloth and pressing it against her forehead. There were some bloodstains on her forehead and the corner of her eye that hadn't yet been wiped away. There was a very dark streak of dirt on her cheekbone. Maybe because she was tired from holding up her arm, the hand that was holding the cloth trembled non-stop.
"She knocked her head." Nie Ke wrapped an arm around her shoulders and said to the neighbours. "Her forehead knocked against the corner of the table. I said I would bring her to the hospital but she doesn't want to go."
Mrs. Nie didn't say anything. She curled into his shoulder, hiding herself.
The neighbours didn't notice anything amiss. No matter who it was, if a burglar suddenly broke in while they were sitting at home, they would be frightened too and wouldn't be able to sleep peacefully for the next few days. Hence, they all urged Nie Ke to make a police report.
Gan Qing remained at the door and didn't enter the apartment. She looked past the crowd towards the balcony. One opened window on the balcony was shattered to pieces and the wind was blowing in from there. A few stray glass pieces had fallen onto the balcony. If they had broken out from inside the room, most of the glass pieces would have fallen outside.
At this hour, the roads were no longer congested. The police arrived very quickly. The warm-hearted neighbours surrounded the police and without waiting for them to start their inquiries, they began to noisily pour all their guesses and theories into the police's ears.
Drowning in the crowd, the police tried their best to swim out. "Make way, everyone, please make way. We want to look for the victim of the break-in to ask questions!"
Nie Ke caressed Mrs. Nie's hair. "My wife is a housewife. She can't really speak well and has also received a great fright today. Let her rest, I will talk to you."
The police asked the woman a few questions. All she did was nod or shake her head, and the man next to her supplemented all her answers. She indeed had the bearing of someone who stayed home most of the time and rarely met other people. Hence, after confirming that she didn't need an ambulance, they didn't ask her any more questions.
Mrs. Nie walked around the crowd, her head lowered, planning to go to another room.
Right then, a hand pulled her to a stop. Mrs. Nie quivered and turned around, startled. She saw that the person stopping her was a thin young woman.
Gan Qing lightly pinched her chin and turned her face to the side. "You knocked your head on the corner of the table but how did you get this on your face?"
Her eyes that rarely opened wide reflected the light in the entrance hall. Along with the movement of her eyeballs, the reflected light seemed to flicker, like sparks leaping from a cold flint stone.
The woman stepped back stiffly and evaded her hand.
Unconcerned, Gan Qing moved her hand back into the sleeve of her cotton pyjamas. Her eyelids dropped, covering the light in her eyes. "Was it when you grabbed him, he pushed you hard against the wall, and you lost your balance and hit against the corner of the table?"
The woman nodded in a fluster, evading her gaze.
"Next time something like this happens, you need to shout immediately," Gan Qing said. "I live right upstairs, 1003. I'm usually very free anyway. If you have time, come hang out with me."
The woman's face was wooden and she didn't say anything. She quickly slipped into her bedroom.
Gan Qing's gaze lingered on the opened balcony window in the Nie home for a few seconds. Then, she glanced at Nie Ke who was answering the police's questions. Quietly, she avoided the crowd and left the Nie home.
Yu Lanchuan looked at Yu Yan whose police cap had been knocked askew by the crowd. "Why is it you again?"
"How the hell would I know? When other people are on shift, it's a quiet and peaceful night; the moment I'm on shift, the police are dispatched to the crime scene. Don't you think it's weird?" Yu Yan's brows knitted, his face in a frown. He said, "Master Lan, do you have any more martial arts techniques for maintaining good health? Teach me a few moves, I feel like I'm not far from sudden death due to overwork."
Coincidentally, Gan Qing was passing by. She heard those words and pushed her hood up. "It's Mercury retrograde. Officer, I have a protection charm, do you want one? I'll give you an insider discount, only fifty-two yuan. Anytime you need one, just come to Mudpool Backlane and look for me."
The cost was two yuan. With fifty yuan profit, she could pay Boss Meng back.
Yu Yan said in shock, "You're spreading your feudalistic nonsense to the police?"
Gan Qing smiled mysteriously and turned to go. "It's more effective than reblogging pictures of lucky carps on Weibo. But it's fine if you don't believe it."
Yu Yan had just used his side account to reblog a lucky carp and felt his knees itching to kneel down to her. He decided that after his shift was over, he would take off his uniform and secretly go over.
"Just now, someone said they saw the burglar who broke in." Yu Yan became serious and asked Yu Lanchuan, "Someone also said that the burglar was dressed up like Spiderman and that he was even holding a large metal claw? Did you see him? To be honest, recently, we've received quite a few reports of burglaries at high-rise buildings."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Was the amount stolen large?"
"Speaking of that, it's strange. Out of the few cases of break-ins, most of them were unsuccessful. Only one case reported the loss of a card wallet. I ask you, what's the point of this little thief stealing cards? Up to now, today's case is the most serious one, with physical injury," Yu Yan said. "All the homes that were broken into were above the sixth floor, and all were broken into via the windows. Is there such a qinggong in the world? Surely it's not really Spiderman?"
Yu Lanchuan thought for a while. "Come with me."
He led Yu Yan to squeeze out of the crowd and went down to the sixth floor. Old Master Yang lived in 608. His granddaughter was there on the orders of her parents to take care of her grandfather. She didn't like that the old man had lots of scoundrel friends and was unwilling to stay with him, hence she rented the next door apartment. Even then, the grandfather and granddaughter fought everyday.
Old Master Yang seemed to know in advance that they would come and had long since prepared tea while waiting.
Yu Lanchuan flattened the piece of paper. "The Spiderman they are speaking of climbed to the outside of my balcony window and stuck this paper there. Grandpa Yang, do you know who this descendant of Tang Qian Yan is?"
Yu Yan jumped up in a fluster. "This is evidence! How can you just touch it like that!"
"How would I know it was evidence? When I tore it down, I didn't know there were high-rise burglaries." Yu Lanchuan paused. "But the window on the eight floor was broken after he stuck the paper on my window, and the window was also broken by someone escaping from the inside. The person who ran away after injuring someone is probably not the same person who stuck this paper."
"But that doesn't prove that the previous burglaries are not related to him," Yu Yan said. "This building of yours, the side with the enclosed balconies is very flat. At that time, he was sprawled on the outside of a tenth floor window. If someone entered from the eighth floor, he would definitely have seen them, so they might be in the same gang. Those who break-in and steal usually belong to gangs."
"Breaking and entering is one thing… but to even join a gang." At that moment, Old Master Yang picked up that piece of paper. After a while, he heaved a long sigh and laughed bitterly. "This is really, really… Ai!"
"Back then, our friends in the jianghu flattered us and crowned us old things with the title of Five Supremes," Old Master Yang said slowly. "Xiao-Chuan, all those years, there was nothing anyone could criticize about your granduncle's conduct. He had the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang, sword shining like snow, and so he was called Han Jiang Xue. Fuliang Yue referred to a respected brother back then. His surname was Han and he practised a Taoist style of martial arts. Their ancestor was a disciple of Wudang Mountain. The later descendants amalgamated with the now extinct Qi sect that studied the eight trigrams. They were very righteous and had saved your granduncle's life during the war with the Japanese. But, the old brother was quite a bit older than the rest of us. He passed away more than twenty years ago. One of his grandchildren stayed here and works as a civil servant. I saw that his body shape is not far from the three highs, he must have abandoned his ancestor's teachings long ago.
"Chuan Lin Feng refers to my family. I don't have much capabilities; in the first place, I'm not worthy of being talked about in the same breath as the rest of them. It was just that I had managed Beggars' Sect for a few years before liberation, so everyone was very courteous with me. As for Tang Qian Yan… I remember his surname was Yan, full name Yan Ruofei. He was originally from the south. He had lived in seclusion for a long time and was persuaded to leave the mountain during the years of chaos. I've met him a few times. He was a very shy person and blushed the moment he laughed. He was like a scholar but his skills were truly excellent, leaving no trace in a thousand miles. On his own, he could burst undetected through layers of bodyguards, killing three traitors with a blade in his hand. The wanted posters were hung everywhere from the main roads to the little alleys. Countless evildoers could not sleep peacefully at night because of him."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "And later on?"
"Later on, he sacrificed his life," Old Master Yang said. "The Japanese and the traitors were looking everywhere for him. Someone sold out the place he and a few friends were staying. He thought that he would be able to escape since he knew qinggong, so he covered their backs and let them run first… but even though the sparrow could outfly the shadowless wind, he was still not as fast as the fired gun."
"This grandpa is old now. There are some things where my view may not be very correct," Old Master Yang said very frankly to Yu Yan. "Back then, Ruofei-xiong came to Yanning alone. We have never met his family but in my opinion, someone like him, no matter how unfilial his descendants are they wouldn't go so far as to do something like that."
"Yeah." Hearing that the person seemed to be the descendant of a war martyr, Yu Yan didn't feel it was right to make blind guesses and assign a crime without evidence. He asked, "Then, in your opinion, is there a possibility that this 'Tang Qian Yan descendant' is a fake?"
Old Master Yang said, "This…"
Yu Lanchuan suddenly jabbed Yu Yan with his elbow. "At what times did the high-rise burglaries happen?"
Yu Yan took out his phone and checked his work log. "Between one a.m. and four a.m."
"It's not even eleven p.m. now." Yu Lanchuan tapped his own watch. "The crime happened at around ten p.m. There are more than a hundred residents in his building and everyone's balconies face the same direction. At ten p.m., at least half the residents have yet to turn off their lights and go to bed. If it was a burglary ring, don't you think they are being too conspicuous?"
Yu Yan frowned. Right then, his colleague called for him. A female police officer was looking for him. "Yu-ge, where did you go?"
Yu Yan said, "Downstairs. I was asking a witness some questions. What's the matter?"
The police officer lowered her voice a little, like there was something that wasn't convenient to be talked about. "There's a situation. Can you come up for a while?"
Yu Yan waved his phone at Yu Lanchuan. The two of them stood up one after another, and took their leave from Old Master Yang.
Before they went out the door, Yu Lanchuan suddenly remembered something. He waved at Yu Yan to indicate that he should go ahead, then turned around to ask Old Master Yang. "Grandpa Yang, you've always been saying 'Five Supremes' but no matter how I count, there's only four. What about that one more person?"
Old Master Yang was momentarily stunned, falling into a silence.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Did I say something wrong? Is it something that can't be talked about?"
"It's not that, it's just that it's a long story." Old Master Yang thought for a while. "The last one among the Five Supremes… Haih, how should I say it? Back then, the circumstances were special so all the brave fighters from different paths got along without caring about one another's background or sect. If it was during peaceful times… he actually could not really be considered to be one of us righteous path practitioners."
Yu Lanchuan listened to the terms used and felt his head aching. He never thought that in the twenty-first century, as an "alliance leader," not only did he have to mediate neighbourhood conflicts, he even had the additional duty of fighting "demonic path practitioners"!
"Of course, all these were before the country's liberation." Old Master Yang saw that his expression was not right and quickly explained. "This friend never revealed his name back then. Since the title people gave him was 'Wan Mu Chun,' all of us called him Wan-xiong. He was very handsome. How delicate and graceful was he? Well, he had acted in operas and could play female roles. Once he put on the costume of that trade, the whole theatre would applaud. He was also a soft and gentle person. If you made him carry a 100 or 200-pound sack of grains, his back would curve under the weight, and he would need to rest after walking for a bit. His face would be pale, his breathing weak, his hands without the strength to even truss up a chicken. But do you know what his work was?"
Yu Lanchuan thought. ...A lousy strategist?
Old Master Yang sighed. "Of the three words 'Wan Mu Chun,' the emphasis is on 'spring.' The name was given in reference to 'scattering to the four winds' and 'the silent rain.' What it meant was—he passes by you and politely nods at you with a smile; before you can react, your throat is already slit open. Their sect has a unique skill which cuts a person up into eight pieces, just like the legendary story of the butcher skillfully dismembering an ox—Paoding Jieniu. Their hand holding a small blade, after dismembering the target, they would not even be panting for breath, and could still smile and make idle talk. Their blade could not be the least bit bent, which meant that they must not exert strength. If they exerted strength, it meant that their skills and their judgement were not good enough."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Are they hitmen?"
"Yes. Back then, if you bring up the three words 'Wan Mu Chun,' anyone hearing them would shiver," Old Master Yang said. "Even though he was also a patriot, ultimately, he did not walk the same path as us. Later on, Wan Mu Chun washed his hands of their dark ways and had better relations with everyone. But even then, he would just come here for a chat during the Martial Arts General Assembly. When he came, he would just have some tea and never fought with anyone, and no one dared challenge him either. Later on, Wan Mu Chun grew old. He took in one last disciple and had the disciple attend in his place. That child also had an evil air about him. When he came, he greeted all the elders and then, just like his shifu, sat down to have tea. Someone couldn't stand the sight of him and privately gathered a group of people to corner him. In the end, he beat up this group one by one and broke their arms. That sect of theirs never had training matches with others. What they practised were techniques for killing. Snapping their arms instead of their throats could already be considered giving them a brief taste. Even though that issue could be said to be the fault of the thoughtless younger generation who challenged him, the seeds of discord were sowed and he stopped having contact with us. In view of the older generation's past affections, twenty years ago, he came once to visit your granduncle and I. He brought a small child with him, a disciple he had taken in. I don't know how things turned out later on."
After hearing that, Yu Lanchuan had absolutely no opinions on the bizarre stories from the pre-liberation days. He only felt his head aching even more. He had hoped that the Martial Arts General Assembly would be a peaceful and harmonious assembly, and it would be best if everyone just sat together and ate fruits and melon seeds, caught up with one another, talked about the stock market, then exchanged local specialities from their homes, and happily returned to their homes. As for this type of people who were like representatives of the troublemakers, he fervently wished that they would not attend.
Rubbing his temples, he hurried upstairs.
Yu Yan was summoned by his colleague to the eighth floor. The female police officer who had called him pulled him aside and whispered, "Yu-ge, I think something's not right. I suspect that Nie Ke is an An Jiahe."
Yu Yan frowned.
"Xiang Xiaoman—that's Mrs. Nie—basically stays at home twenty-four hours a day. Nie Ke finishes work at quite a regular time. Once he comes home, he parks his car downstairs. If you see his car there, you'll know that the man of the house is home. Logically, burglars who break into high-rises should definitely be old hands, didn't he make any prior preparations before committing the crime? Furthermore, that Xiang Xiaoman is very evasive and basically doesn't look anyone in the eye. The moment someone asks her a question, she shrinks back. Apparently they've moved in for a year already but she has never talked to their neighbours. A person like that, when a burglar suddenly breaks in, would her first reaction be to catch them? I don't believe that," the officer spoke quickly. "Her head was knocked so badly and the skin was broken on her face, yet she doesn't want to go to the hospital… I suspect that she has other injuries on her body."
Yu Yan said, "So you're saying that their house was not broken into at all. It was Nie Ke who hit his wife and broke the window, startling the neighbours, so he covered up with an excuse?"
"Yes," the officer said, full of indignation. "All men are bad!"
Yu Yan, "..."
"I mean… Yu-ge, I don't mean you. You don't count."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Having been entered into the Sunflower Manual clan by his colleague, Yu Yan faked a smile, then asked, "Have you asked the neighbours?"
"I have, they all said that they don't know." The officer spread her hands. "Everyone closes their doors and lives their own lives. Even if they heard some noise, they can't say for sure if it's a quarrel between husband and wife or if it's domestic violence. They wouldn't just say anything to the police. Furthermore, this Nie Ke knows how to act like a decent person most of the time. When he goes on trips, he frequently buys back things for the neighbours. Everyone in this building has pretty good relations with each other, we can't get any dirt on him. The only way is if the woman makes a report herself and goes with us to the hospital to have her injuries checked, but she isn't talking to us at all! Yu-ge, think of an idea, quick!"
Yu Yan glanced at her helplessly. What idea would I have?
Putting aside the fact that the victim didn't want other people to know, even for those who took action to make reports, how many of them regretted halfway and didn't follow through? A person's family was part of their soul. More often than not, domestic violence cases were entangled with many complicated psychological issues. On top of that, due to reasons such as the issue having dragged on for a long time, public opinion and material reasons, the issue was already tied into a dead knot. It wasn't something that could be simply explained as "a man beating a woman."
These young people who had just started working not long ago always felt that once they put on their uniform, they could save the world. They looked upon their work as though it was something supremely meaningful.
But what was the purpose of work? Wasn't it just to support one's family?
"Do what you can and don't shirk your duty" was already the highest standard one could uphold in their working life.
Yu Yan had been young once too, and didn't want to throw the harsh hypocritical reality of the world onto that passionate spirit, so he said, "We can't push their heads down and force people to make police reports. But there is a possibility that today's case has eyewitnesses."
The officer's eyes gleamed. "That Spiderman?"
"Yeap," Yu Yan said, fooling her. "At that time, this Spiderman was sprawled outside a window not far away. The noise at 804 was so loud, he must have seen something. If you're still worried, you can try leaving a private contact number with Mrs. Nie. Sometimes, people might not be willing to make a police report but if they have someone they can turn to for help, they might try when they are at the end of the rope."
The young officer believed his words and went away enthusiastically. Yu Yan looked at her retreating back and sighed. He walked to the end of the corridor and lit a cigarette, his heart vaguely feeling that all their efforts that night was for nothing.
Nothing was missing from Nie Ke's house. Furthermore, other than the injury on Mrs. Nie—Xiang Xiaoman's face, the "thief" didn't leave any traces. The police examined the whole place and questioned everyone, but as expected, they found nothing. They could only record their statements, and then leave the place.
And then wait to see if this "Spiderman" who left a letter of challenge with Yu Lanchuan would appear.
The residents of No. 110 Courtyard were all abuzzed for a few days. After that, other than the noticeboard downstairs gaining a notice reminding everyone to lock their windows, there were no more ripples.
"Mrs. Nie, good morning."
"Xiao-Xiang, going out?"
"The weather is so pleasant, it's good that you came out for a walk. Don't just stay at home the whole time."
Xiang Xiaoman kept her head down, her steps hurried as she passed through the east garden. She didn't converse with anyone either, and only hastily and perfunctorily gave them a quick smile.
A light breeze carried the voices of the aunties in the east garden over, trickling them into her ear.
"...Her life is good. Her family has a house and a car, her husband earns well, she can laze around at home the whole day and doesn't have to go to work."
"That isn't what you call 'housewife,' that's what you call 'rich wife.' Don't housewives have to look after the family? Their child attends the kindergarten right by the entrance but I've never seen her send the child there even once. There's not a single day where she gets up before noon. They get food delivery for their meals and hire an hourly worker once a week… And now she's going to the laundry shop by the entrance to collect their clothes. Aiyo, spending money to wash clothes, tsk!"
"Other people have good husbands. If you are capable of it, you can marry one too."
"I'll marry your father and become your mother, how about that…"
The jokes blew past Xiang Xiaoman's face like a slap. Yet, like she was already used to this treatment, she was not bothered and her face was wooden as she arrived at the laundry shop at the corner.
The laundry shop was opened by an old man. He hired a twenty-something years old young man to do the miscellaneous tasks. At this hour, the old man would have gone out for lunch and it was usually the shop employee who received her.
Speaking of this employee, everyone suspected that he was either mute or a stutterer. If someone asked him a question, he either nodded or shook his head. If flustered, he would let out a mm. He wore a face mask through all four seasons of the year and had earphones in his ears, as though he felt insecure if his face was not covered. He wore an old T-shirt with a cartoon character print, and never met anyone's eyes directly.
Xiang Xiaoman dug out the receipt and put it on the counter. The laundry shop employee took it up and looked for the clothes she had sent for cleaning. Neither of them said a word, neither looked at the other. It was like they were in a silent film. The only sound that could be heard in the shop was the sound of the dryers tumbling.
Xiang Xiaoman checked the clothes. Without even lifting her head, she gave a slight nod, then turned to go.
Right then, the shop employee suddenly called out to her.
"Hold on." He was 1.8 meters tall, a tall and broad young man, yet his voice when he spoke was weak and faint like a cat's cry. "You… Please wait a minute."
Xiang Xiaoman turned her head around and saw the shop employee took a small paper bag from under the counter. In the paper bag was a small blade.
His hand was trembling, his voice was also trembling. "This.. was taken from your pocket. Is it yours?"
 There are a few references in the paragraph about Wan Mu Chun.
i. The name Wan Mu Chun (万木春) itself is likely a reference to a Tang dynasty poem. The line where the phrase appears generally means "the emergence of new, fresh forces, while the old ones are dying." More info in the Glossary.
ii. Old Master Yang says that the "spring" in the names carries the meaning of "scattering to the four winds" and "the silent rain."
"Scattering to the four winds" comes from the Tang dynasty poem A Poem for the Swallows (燕诗示刘叟) by Bai Juyi. The poem is about filial piety, and draws comparison between baby swallows growing up and flying off to the four winds with children growing up and leaving their parents.
"The silent rain" is from the Tang dynasty poem Spring Rain (春夜喜雨) by Du Fu. It is a simple and elegant poem that vividly describes the soft and quiet spring rain, and alludes to people who quietly make great contributions.
iii. "Paoding Jieniu" literally means "the cook / butcher dismembers an ox." It refers to the story about a butcher who so skillfully dismembers an ox that he impressed a lord who asks him how he was able to do it. The butcher's answer was basically something along the lines of 'my blade is me, I am the blade, all I see is the ox and the Way' (please go to the link above to read the proper translation). If you're familiar with Kurapika from HXH, yeah, this story reminds me of Kurapika learning to use his chain.
 An Jiahe 安嘉和 is the antagonist of the 2001 TV series Don't Respond to Strangers and is a surgeon who beats his wife. The character's name has become synonymous with domestic violence.
 Sunflower Manual 葵花宝典 - as mentioned in an earlier chapter, this is a reference to Dongfang Bubai, a fictional character from the wuxia novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Jin Yong, who castrated himself to obtain the skills in the Sunflower Manual.