Lu Yanzhou cast a sidelong glance at Ming Shu. "You guys have already met?"
"I haven't been to the Bureau in over a year," Ming Shu said. He shifted in the passenger seat and sank a little lower. "I only heard his name."
Li Shanli, the current director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, was due to retire soon. The most likely candidate to become his deputy director, in preparation of taking over his position, had been Liang Zhao—an extremely competent officer who Li Shanli had personally trained.
But three months ago, the news came from the top brass: the new deputy director would be a mysterious agent transferred in from the north. His name was Xiao Yu'an, but little else was known about him.
Officially, Xiao Yu'an would only take on the role of a deputy director, but Director Li had already assumed a hands-off approach to managing the Bureau. He had started to repeat, like a mantra: "It's time to leave business in the hands of the younger generation."
At only thirty-four years of age, Xiao Yu'an was naturally a member of the 'younger generation' to which Director Li referred. Shortly after his transfer, Xiao Yu'an was given command over the Serious Crimes Division, Criminal Investigation Task Force One, the forensics department, the trace detection unit, the technical investigation division, and several other important departments within the Bureau. There was no mistaking the fact that Deputy Director Xiao was the one who held the reins of the Bureau now.
For the whole drive from the Bei City precinct back to the Bureau, Lu Yanzhou gossiped incessantly about Xiao Yu'an. He yammered on and on about Xiao Yu'an's mysterious past, and about how no one knew anything about his background or track record. He spoke of how Xiao Yu'an wasn't attached to Dongye City at all, and how he would definitely only use his new post as a stepping stone to advance his career.
The more he chattered, the more worked up he seemed to get, ultimately concluding, "You're going to have to be on guard around him, man. This new guy definitely won't be easy to deal with. I know what kind of person you are. You jump into action without thinking. Where there's injustice, you're there in a flash. But, seriously, listen to my advice. Don't jump into anything crazy with this guy around. Get a feel for him first. Really get to know where you stand. I'm just worried…"
Ming Shu had only been sort of listening in the passenger seat, letting Lu Yanzhou blabber to his heart's content without really absorbing all that idle gossip. Disinterestedly, he asked, "You're just worried about what?"
Lu Yanzhou slapped his thigh. The loud crack resounded through the car like a clap of thunder. "I'm fucking worried he'll harass you! You know, the bird that sticks its neck out gets shot first, and you're always sticking your neck out. You love to jump into crazy situations headfirst, and you're handsome—just not as handsome as me, of course. If Xiao Yu'an wants to harass someone, wouldn't he harass you?"
Ming Shu arched one fine eyebrow and fixed his unblinking gaze on Lu Yanzhou for several seconds. Then, as though suddenly waking up from his lethargic state, he snorted and said, "Right, sure. I'm fucked."
"Right?!" Lu Yanzhou exclaimed, clearly missing Ming Shu's sarcasm. "If some mystery man transferred into my division as my boss, and he obviously wanted to steal his boss's position, I'd be cussing up a storm. I'm telling you, Old Ming, with Liang Zhao out of the way, you're the one who's gonna suffer if this guy wants to impress the top brass."
Ming Shu was caught between laughing and crying. "Oh, quit talking about harassment this and harassment that. It makes you sound like you've got your head up your ass. And don't call me 'Old' Ming. I only turned the big two-eight this year."
"You weren't happy about it when I called you 'Little' Ming, either." Lu Yanzhou glanced over at him again. "I'm curious about something."
"Were your language lessons taught by your gym teacher?"
Ming Shu straightened a little and furrowed his brows with a look of confusion. How had their conversation suddenly drifted onto the subject of his old teachers?
Last year, the few female members of Lu Yanzhou's special forces team had declared Lu Yanzhou the team's most eligible bachelor. But it was a title they took away from him just a week later, for one reason and one reason only: Lu Yanzhou talked too damn much. He had a handsome face, but that came with his unfortunate habit of rambling nonstop about this and that. He also had the tendency to make nonsensical jumps from one subject to another. It left all the women in his division sighing and saying what a shame it was that such a chatty mouth just so happened to be attached to such a handsome face.
Ming Shu had always felt those women were right. It was a shame that Lu Yanzhou's handsome, prince-like face simply couldn't shut up.
"Two-eight could be taken to mean two times eight!" Lu Yanzhou crowed, showing off his supposedly superior language skills. "That would make you sixteen years old, not twenty-eight years old. Silly Little Ming!"
Ming Shu sighed deeply and clapped Lu Yanzhou on the shoulder, as though to congratulate him for his astute observation. "Weren't we just talking about my new deputy director? I don't know why you, from the Special Police Force, would be so interested in him, anyway. You seem to know a lot about him, for someone who knows nothing about him."
"Obviously, I asked around for your sake!" They had finally arrived in front of the Bureau. Lu Yanzhou parked the car and continued, "Liang Zhao was the last head of the Serious Crimes Division before you, and he was always Director Li's right-hand man. Even after he was promoted, he took good care of you guys in Serious Crimes. He always gave you the best resources and the most capable men. If Liang Zhao took over Director Li's position, you'd be sitting pretty. But now, with this new guy holding all the power, who knows what'll happen to you and your men?"
Ming Shu slanted an only slightly curious look in his direction.
"Everyone knows how well Liang Zhao treated the Serious Crimes Division," Lu Yanzhou said. "If this Xiao Yu'an wants to assert his dominance, he might try to shuffle the cards and shake things up. Just to show you all who's boss. You guys over in Serious Crimes might be in for a rough ride."
When he finished, he looked over at Ming Shu and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "What's with that look on your face? This is good information I'm bringing you!"
"First of all," Ming Shu started, lifting his index finger. "The Serious Crimes Division is afforded the best resources because it's a critically important department. Not because of Liang Zhao. We have a unique, irreplaceable function within the Bureau because we're able to investigate independently and get the job done. It has nothing to do with 'connections', and if you must talk about 'connections', then Serious Crimes will always be directly connected to the director of the Bureau, regardless of who that is."
Ming Shu swung his raised finger out and pointedly jabbed Lu Yanzhou in the chest. "Secondly, do you really think this new boss will shake up the Serious Crimes Division for no reason? Unless the higher-ups sent us a complete and utter idiot, that isn't going to happen."
Lu Yanzhou studied him for a moment before he asked, "You're really not worried?"
"Director Li is getting on in years. There's no way he can continue to manage the Bureau. Even before I went up to the capital for my training program, I could see he was starting to delegate tasks and relinquish power to others.
"As for Liang Zhao, he's an exceptional detective and he has more than enough experience to take over Director Li's position. But he's old-fashioned, and he has a narrow way of looking at things. He's incapable of thinking outside the box. He's a strong ally to anyone, but he's not quite fit to lead. Even I can tell that much about Liang Zhao. You think Director Li can't see it too?"
Ming Shu opened the car door and started to climb out. "It doesn't matter who leads the Bureau. The Serious Crimes Division will always be the Serious Crimes Division."
Lu Yanzhou was silent for a moment before he laughed. "Looks like you didn't spend a year training with special ops for nothing."
Ming Shu looked back at him. "Huh?"
"You've matured," Lu Yanzhou said.
"So you think I used to be immature?"
"You weren't too bad. Just a bit more immature than me."
After climbing out, the two of them chatted by the car for a while longer until Lu Yanzhou suddenly straightened and looked behind Ming Shu.
"Captain Liang," he greeted.
Ming Shu turned around at that point as well, just in time to spot Liang Zhao coming their way.
Liang Zhao was a tanned, heavy-set man with a square face that gave the impression that he was a good, honest man—albeit one who didn't know how to kiss up to his superiors.
"Captain Liang," Ming Shu echoed.
Liang Zhao nodded towards him, and with a voice like a great big gong, he rumbled, "You're back?"
"Yeah." Ming Shu glanced at the building Liang Zhao had emerged from. He instantly noticed that one familiar window, belonging to one familiar office, was still letting out a flood of light. "Director Li is still at the office?"
"He's waiting for you to make your report, of course." Liang Zhao furrowed his brow with consternation, and the huge scar on his forehead—which he'd obtained ten years ago while chasing down a gang of drug traffickers—shifted with the motion. It was a scar that Liang Zhao could have had surgically removed, but he had insisted on wearing it proudly as a 'medal' of sorts.
That night, Liang Zhao didn't seem to be in the best of moods. His face carried a sullen expression, making the scar look all the more gruesome. Lu Yanzhou privately thought it looked like the face of a man whose very spirit had been poisoned.
Ming Shu, on the other hand, didn't pay the menacing expression much mind. After exchanging a few more words of small talk, he made his way into the Bureau.
Director Li's office was on the sixth floor. The offices of the Serious Crimes Division, Criminal Investigation Task Force One, and Criminal Investigation Task Force Two were all located just one floor down. But Ming Shu didn't stop by the fifth floor on his way, instead heading straight for the sixth floor. He paused in front of Director Li's office for just a moment to smooth out his clothes, then lifted a hand to knock.
Just before his knuckles could make contact, however, the door suddenly opened from inside.
A man with a tall, lean figure filled up the doorway, blocking the light spilling out from within the office.
Ming Shu lifted his gaze, meeting the man's deep, dark eyes.
The man was exceptionally tall, close to 1.9 meters in height. But he wasn't a heavy-set sort of man like Liang Zhao, who sometimes resembled a mountain more than a man. This man held himself with obvious grace and dignity, like the personification of a wickedly sharp and powerful longsword. An impressive, almost awe-inspiring energy seemed to radiate from him.
But the man's eyes weren't as intimidating as his frame and his posture. Rather, he had gorgeous features and a face which seemed well-suited for softer expressions. His eyes were warm and gentle, carrying the hint of a smile and an air of both kindness and superiority.
In that instant, with just one shared glance, it was as though that exquisite longsword had deftly slid into the beautiful scabbard destined to be its home.
This, Ming Shu thought, was the type of man that could drive anyone to distraction.
"Ming Shu, you're here?" Director Li called out from inside the office.
It was only then that Ming Shu snapped back to his senses and answered, "Director Li."
The man in the doorway politely stepped to the side, making way for Ming Shu to enter.
"Good timing," Director Li said as he approached, meeting Ming Shu halfway. He waved the other man over as well, gesturing to him as he made the appropriate introductions. "This is Xiao Yu'an, our new deputy director."
Ming Shu turned to the man once more and extended his right hand. "Serious Crimes Division, Ming Shu."
A small smile graced Xiao Yu'an's lips as he took Ming Shu's hand and clasped it warmly in his own. When he spoke, his voice was deep and low. It possessed an almost magnetic quality, rumbling up from his chest, and it was every bit as warm and soothing as the aura he emitted.
"I've known of you," he said, "for a very long time."
"Director Xiao is currently working closely with Serious Crimes," Director Li said. After serving as a police officer for half his life, he had developed a calm and steady way of speaking—unlike Liang Zhao, who wore his heart on his sleeve.
The director then turned to Xiao Yu'an and continued, "Ming Shu has just returned to us from the Ministry of Public Security. If he needs help settling back in, Director Xiao, I'll have to trouble you to help him out."
Xiao Yu'an bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Of course," he agreed with that small, warm smile still in place. "It's the least I could do."
At that point, Xiao Yu'an excused himself and took his leave while Ming Shu stayed back to make his report to Director Li. The director personally brewed them a pot of tea and asked about Ming Shu's year of training. Ming Shu gathered up his scattered concentration and made a full report, which ultimately could be summed up in just four little words:
"I learned a lot."
Director Li laughed and nodded his approval. "It's as I always thought. You're the cream of the crop."
Ming Shu had always been good at humbly receiving compliments and praise, but he had no intention of pretending to be modest in front of his immediate superior. Cheekily, he answered, "Good judgment, sir."
The meaning of their exchange was clear: Director Li had high hopes for him.
After reporting to the director, Ming Shu knew he would have to consider his vacation well and truly over. He started to make his way to the stairwell to visit the Serious Crimes Division on the fifth floor, but when he passed by Xiao Yu'an's office, he found himself slowing down and hesitating.
But in the end, he didn't walk over to the door and knock.
The future was long. There was no need to rush.
Seeing as it was the middle of the night, not every member of the Serious Crimes Division was still at the office. Some were on duty, some were reviewing old case files. When Ming Shu arrived, an order of take-out had just been delivered.
Yi Fei looked up from unpacking the take-out containers and exclaimed, "Thank! Fucking! God! Poor ol' me can finally be free of this burden!"
"Who said you could free yourself of anything?" Ming Shu joked as he strode into the office. He glanced around with a mixture of fondness and nostalgia in his eyes.
The entire division became raucous as news of Ming Shu's return spread in the blink of an eye. Yi Fei deserted the take-out and flung his arms out for a hug. "Man, it's so good to have you back. If you'd stayed out with special ops any longer, I would've cracked."
Ming Shu clasped Yi Fei's hand and hugged him, clapping him hard on the back two times. "Good work, good work. I can tell you've been giving it your all. You lost weight?"
Yi Fei, twenty-nine years old, was the vice captain of the Serious Crimes Division. He was dedicated to his job and not the sort of man to seek fame or fortune. He genuinely loved his work, and he had been Ming Shu's reliable partner for many years.
When it came to important cases, it was often Ming Shu who charged on ahead, doing everything he could to move heaven and earth for the sake of catching the bad guys. Yi Fei always supported him from the background, like a sturdy pillar that would never break.
In the year that Ming Shu was away, Yi Fei had had no choice but to take up the captain's duties. He was suddenly thrust into a position of having to liaise with the higher-ups while also providing guidance and support to his teammates. The pressure was, in a word, immense.
"Chief!" Fang Yuanhang hollered as he charged forward to greet Ming Shu. His face was flushed red with a glow of excitement, and he threw a proper salute when he stopped in front of Ming Shu with a huge grin. "I made it through the year. Did I make ya proud?"
Ming Shu smiled with his eyes. "My dear rookie, it would be far too humiliating if you didn't make it through the year."
Fang Yuanhang's red face turned even redder. He scratched his head sheepishly and shot Yi Fei a panicked look.
"Little Fang is all grown up," Yi Fei said. "He can handle some cases on his own now."
Ming Shu glanced between the two of them, then dipped his head with a nod of approval. "Not bad."
Fang Yuanhang was the rookie Ming Shu had been in charge of before his year with special ops. At the time, Fang Yuanhang had yet to graduate from the University of Public Security. He had been young and impressionable, like a newborn foal who had yet to learn how to fear anything. But he was too energetic and too ambitious, always biting off more than he could chew.
At first, Fang Yuanhang had been Yi Fei's rookie, but Yi Fei was more of a lone wolf. He wasn't very good at looking after rookies, especially overly enthusiastic ones like Fang Yuanhang. After Ming Shu observed the two of them for a few days, he immediately put in a request to have Fang Yuanhang transferred under his direct supervision so he could personally train him up.
It didn't take long for Ming Shu to win Fang Yuanhang over. Soon enough, Fang Yuanhang was following Ming Shu around like a loyal puppy. He vowed that, after graduation, he would come to Serious Crimes and refuse to take on any other post. He swore he wouldn't accept any other assignment, even if he got an offer to work in the capital itself.
Ming Shu was already perfectly aware of Fang Yuanhang's capabilities, but rather than inflating his ego, he had only hummed cryptically and said, "We'll see. You'll have to be good enough for us here at Serious Crimes."
Hearing that, Fang Yuanhang had started working harder than ever.
Presently, the Serious Crimes Division didn't have any major cases on their plate. So, that night, Ming Shu naturally became the center of attention with his long-awaited return. The conversation revolved around him, and even the hot topic of the new Director Xiao was forgotten for a while. Until the take-out had been devoured, at least.
After a while, the conversation did inevitably drift back onto the subject of Xiao Yu'an.
"While you were gone, Liang Zhao did a lot to help us out," Yi Fei reminisced. He was only a young man, but at times had a way of speaking like an old geezer. He didn't express any grievous discontent with their new deputy director, but it was clear he felt bad for Liang Zhao for not securing the position. "Director Xiao was personally chosen by the top brass, so I'm sure he isn't incompetent. But he hasn't spent any time here in Dongye City before. I just don't know if he can do this job better than Captain Liang could have."
"Director Xiao really doesn't look like a police officer," Fang Yuanhang mused. "Especially not one who fights on the front lines. He kinda looks more like a college professor. Maybe he's all theory, no practical experience."
"Then, do I look like a police officer who fights on the front lines?" Ming Shu asked.
Fang Yuanhang blinked and stared at him for a moment. "Chief… honestly, you don't really look like one either. With your face, your figure… if you formed a group with Yanzhou-ge, the two of you would be popular for sure!"
Ming Shu thought, What kind of combination would that be? The annoying chatterbox and his cool big bro?
The people around him continued to chatter on. Ming Shu didn't feel much like talking more about Xiao Yu'an that night, so he checked the time and said, "I'm going to go visit the guys at the trace detection unit."
The evening passed quickly, the dark night growing darker. Every department Ming Shu visited was abuzz with gossip about Xiao Yu'an. Many offered him advice while others dithered about their prospects for the future with this new boss around.
By far, the most common piece of advice Ming Shu received was this:
Be careful of the new deputy director.
It was naturally a big deal at any office when a new leader was suddenly installed and given so much power, especially when it came to places like the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Previously, the Serious Crimes Division reported almost exclusively to Captain Liang. He was the one Ming Shu reported to on all matters relating to their cases, though Ming Shu would occasionally ask Deputy Li for advice on important cases as well.
If Xiao Yu'an was to take over management of Serious Crimes, it would certainly leave Captain Liang in a somewhat awkward position. There were even rumors floating around that Director Li was being pressured by the higher-ups to accept Xiao Yu'an, making it hard for him to promote Liang Zhao.
But, in truth, it wasn't actually all that complicated. Although Liang Zhao was Director Li's right-hand man, he had his strengths and his weaknesses. Liang Zhao simply wasn't suited for the role of director, and Director Li was aware of that. Liang Zhao was good at taking orders and executing them perfectly, but he wasn't cut out for positions of management. Director Li had never intended to leave the Bureau in his hands.
Many of the captains and vice captains at the Bureau had their eye on Director Li's position. Regardless of who took over the seat after Director Li's retirement, it would surely have caused ripples and unrest within the Bureau. At worst, with one department's leader promoted above the others, it could even cause internal discord.
Although Xiao Yu'an's appearance came as a shock and may have even seemed unreasonable, it was the best way to keep the balance. No one division would rise above the others if an outsider was brought in to fill Director Li's shoes.
Other people couldn't see that, but to Ming Shu it was obvious.
Out of all the officers at the Bureau, the one whose outer appearance and inner nature differed the most was Ming Shu. He had a flashy appearance, but a deeply serious, meticulous, and analytical mindset. He really didn't look like a serious police detective at all, but he had served well as the captain of the Serious Crimes Division for three years already.
Lu Yanzhou, Yi Fei, and the others were all fretting over something that was absolutely nothing to worry about in Ming Shu's eyes. For one thing, Ming Shu was confident in his ability to lead the Serious Crimes Division regardless of who his boss was. Whether it was Liang Zhao or Xiao Yu'an, Ming Shu would get the job done.
For another thing, speaking from a personal standpoint…
To others, Xiao Yu'an was a mysterious new leader transferred in without warning. But to Ming Shu, he was an old, familiar companion.
They had known each other for many, many years. It was just that, until now, they had spent less time together than apart.
In the pitch black night, a man looked upon a figure wearing a pitch black raincoat. The imposing form cast a grim, intimidating shadow in the dark, looking every bit like a grim reaper wielding a long blade in its hands.
The man's consciousness was already slipping away from him. His eyeballs spun uncontrollably in their sockets. His brain felt like it had been deep fried, all his neurons firing out of sync and failing to transmit instructions to move his limbs.
He stumbled and crashed onto the uneven ground, all but paralyzed. He could only twitch and struggle like a half-crushed insect, watching the fearsome figure draw closer and closer.
"You… you…" The man choked on his words, unable to produce a decent sound as tears and snot dribbled down his face.
The figure crouched down in front of him. One latex-gloved hand rose and slowly, slowly lifted the man's sweat-drenched shirt, revealing his fat belly.
The man shook and trembled even harder. Through the daze of fear and panic muddling his mind, he heard the sound of a low, menacing laugh.
It was difficult to tell, from just that laugh, whether the voice belonged to a man or a woman.
The fallen man was scared out of his wits, fearing for his life. He could only see the figure looming over him as a sexless demon, an inhuman entity from hell.
He could only think, This is how a demon laughs before they eat you!
"Don't… don't kill… me! Don't!" the man wheezed. He mustered up all his strength to force the words out. His tongue felt thick and clumsy in his mouth, and his voice was hoarse and raspy, like an invisible hand was crushing his throat. "Who… are you?"
The dark figure continued to chuckle. The laugh surged up from deep within the monster's chest, carrying such strong bloodlust that the sound itself almost seemed tinged with the scent of fresh blood.
As the reaper lifted the man's shirt higher and higher, the man found his blurry vision suddenly obscured by the fabric. The man could only quiver in shock as his shirt was lifted over his face.
In that moment, he was sure the reaper, the monster, intended to suffocate him with his own shirt.
The spot between his legs suddenly grew wet with the acrid scent of urine. With his vision obscured, the man could only hear the monster making a series of tsk tsk noises as he pissed himself.
"You're filthy," the reaper said.
The man froze with terror. His mind raced, struggling to remember where he had heard that voice before.
While he was paralyzed, his belt was unbuckled. His trousers were pushed down slowly, unhurriedly. Followed by his underpants.
The man's heart slammed against his ribcage. He wanted to scream out for help, but he could only let out a weak whimper.
Although his vision was blacked out by his shirt, he knew what kind of sorry state he was in. His pants and underwear had been pulled down to his knees, his shirt had been lifted over his head. He was utterly exposed before the monster's eyes.
The man had never, ever imagined he would stumble into such a terrifying situation.
At the familiar sound of a shutter, his whole body tensed.
Once again, that same sound!
When he finally shook free of his petrified stupor, he managed to ask, shakily, "What… what are you… doing?"
But the shutter didn't stop clicking. Through the fabric of his shirt, the man could see the light of a camera's flashbulb bursting again and again.
The monster let out another sickening laugh. "You love taking pictures, don't you? You love to watch, don't you?"
As his assailant continued to cackle, the man gasped and gurgled like a dying fish.
"I'll satisfy your desires," the voice proclaimed. "I'll make sure you're satisfied before you die!"