Ming Shu's eyes instantly flew wide open.
There was nothing wrong with the first part of that WeChat message, but the last part—when the time comes, you lead the charge—was some bona fide bullshit. Yi Fei was clearly conspiring against him!
"Fuck!" Ming Shu swore. "That heartless old geezer!"
"What's wrong?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Do you want to go see a traditional instruments concert?" Ming Shu asked. He passed his phone over to Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an read the text on WeChat before he said, "This is a reward for your hard work. There's no harm in attending."
The concert wasn't news to Xiao Yu'an. He knew it was being put on by a band of instrumentalists from Dongye City's Performing Arts Association.
"I would've preferred just getting an extra day off," Ming Shu grumbled, pointedly arching one brow. "You know why Yi Fei stressed that I'll be the one to take everyone there? It's because he has no intention of going! He's definitely already thought of an excuse to weasel his way out of this."
Xiao Yu'an laughed. "You're that unwilling to attend a traditional instruments concert?"
"Ge, you just got here," Ming Shu said. "You don't understand our fake rewards system yet."
"There are fake rewards?"
"Of course. Whenever we want something as a reward, upper management never gives us what we want," Ming Shu said. His words came faster and faster as he explained. "Last year, or the year before that, there was a pretty famous singer who was putting on a concert here. Lu Yanzhou and some other guys really wanted to see her perform.
"It just so happened that the Special Police Force had wrapped up an important mission back then, so Lu Yanzhou asked if he and his men could go see that performance. They promised not to take any seats away from fans, and the top brass agreed right away. They were like, 'Sure, sure, sure. Go see a performance. You got it.' And do you know what happened after that?"
Even Ming Shu had started laughing as he reminisced on that incident.
"What happened after that?" Xiao Yu'an prompted indulgently.
"Lu Yanzhou and those guys were dragged off to some theater! Oh, that's right. It was also the Jiangnan Theater that time," Ming Shu said. "Forget about that popular singer's concert. They were shipped off to see some children's play! Lu Yanzhou practically lost his mind. He told me, if the bosses ever offered me tickets to some performance, I should refuse whenever possible. The Performing Arts Association is stingy as hell. They would never offer up free tickets to any hot events. They only give out tickets to events that no one wants to attend anyway."
Xiao Yu'an smiled.
"That's why I said it's a fake reward. Yi Fei bailed out real fast." Ming Shu tsked twice. "Ge, how about you go on my behalf?"
"I can't do that." Xiao Yu'an pampered and spoiled Ming Shu, but official business was still official business. "This is the sort of reward you're obligated to accept. You and Yi Fei are the leaders of the Serious Crimes Division. If he doesn't go, you definitely have to go. I'm not a member of the Serious Crimes Division, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to take your teammates there.
"Traditional instrumental music isn't the same as a children's play, anyway. Music is another form of language. Occasionally listening to some traditional music can bring you some peace of mind."
"I just can't get into it, and I don't need music to bring me any peace of mind," Ming Shu argued. He was pretty sure he would never become a 'cultured' person. For one thing, he didn't like to read. For another, he didn't care for music. He could get into some pop songs and rock and roll, but traditional music was a big nope in his book.
"I can't even tell the difference between a guzheng and a guqin," he said.
Xiao Yu'an actually laughed out loud at that.
"Ai, forget it. If I have to go, I'll just go," Ming Shu muttered to himself. "The captain will always act like a captain."
Upon learning they would be going to see a traditional instruments concert, most members of the Serious Crimes Division reacted with about as much enthusiasm as Ming Shu. Fang Yuanhang was practically the only one who was genuinely excited. He waved the concert brochure and said, "This band is great! They don't just perform in Dongye City. They get tons of invitations to perform in other cities and provinces too."
"You know that much about this?" Ming Shu asked.
"Of course!" Fang Yuanhang boasted. "I'm a guzheng fanatic!"
Ming Shu couldn't say he'd seen that coming.
Fang Yuanhang launched into a long and rambling explanation of why he loved the guzheng, and why he enjoyed traditional music in general. He used a lot of jargon that Ming Shu couldn't even begin to parse.
Of course, his vice captain Yi Fei had never heard all those technical terms before either.
After shooing Fang Yuanhang away, Yi Fei said, "I never thought Yuanhang would be so interested in this sort of old-fashioned cultural stuff. I took him for the sort of kid who just played video games in his free time."
"It's good for him to enjoy traditional music," Ming Shu remarked mildly. "Young people are so impassioned. It'll benefit him to listen to the guqin."
"Right," Yi Fei agreed. Then, lowering his voice, he whispered to Ming Shu, "Little Ming, do you know the difference between a guzheng and a guqin?"
Ming Shu raised his eyebrows and gave Yi Fei a look of surprise. "You don't?"
Yi Fei froze for a few seconds. "Fuck, I thought we were like two peas in a pod. I thought if I didn't know, then you wouldn't know. But you actually know?"
"This is just common knowledge, Little Yi," Ming Shu said, showing no traces of deception. His cheeks didn't redden, and his pulse didn't quicken. He calmly repeated what Xiao Yu'an had told him, not very long ago, about the differences between the guzheng and the guqin. He even pulled up a picture illustrating the differences on his phone. "You get it now?"
Yi Fei was skeptical of Ming Shu's supposed expertise. "…this isn't right."
"What isn't right?" Ming Shu asked calmly.
"You know all about instruments?" Yi Fei asked. "Even traditional instruments?"
"I know a lot of things," Ming Shu said. "You're only discovering that about me now?"
"I suspect Director Xiao just educated you," Yi Fei accused.
Ming Shu froze with a cup lifted halfway to his lips, but only for a split second. He gracefully set the cup back down, for fear of choking on his own half-lies.
Yi Fei lifted an eyebrow. "He really did educate you?"
"I said this is common knowledge. Who would need to be taught?" Ming Shu countered. "I think, the day after tomorrow, you should be the one to take the team to the concert. It'll be a good chance for you to experience traditional music for yourself. Why give up on this opportunity? This is a gift from our bosses, Comrade Yi Fei. The Special Police Force couldn't go even if they wanted to."
Yi Fei warily took two steps back.
Ming Shu continued, "You take the team, and I won't go. I'll give this opportunity to you. Fang Yuanhang can sit next to you during the concert. On stage, the professionals will perform for you. And from the audience, Fang Yuanhang will explain all the nuances of their performance to you. It'll definitely be a soothing treat for your… hey! Yi Fei, what are you running for? Get back here!"
After failing to shove his responsibilities back onto Yi Fei, Ming Shu spent that evening holed up in the study, reviewing a basic introduction of Dongye City's Performing Arts Association and the traditional instruments they played.
Xiao Yu'an found the whole ordeal quite entertaining.
Ming Shu used to put on airs like he was some sort of male idol. When he pursued Xiao Yu'an, he had woven himself the persona of the perfect boyfriend. Of course, that disguise had long since been shed. Now, Ming Shu was brave enough to fall asleep in the bathtub with his limbs sticking out every which way. And he was brave enough to shovel raw garlic and onion into his mouth on a date.
Ming Shu acted every bit like a captain of the Serious Crimes Division now. Since he had to take his team to the concert, he felt he had to prepare himself. If he had to discuss some details of the performance with his teammates, he didn't want to come off as a total ignoramus. He had to do some studying in advance.
When Xiao Yu'an took out a guzheng that he hadn't touched in a very long time, Ming Shu was sitting in a reclining office chair with one hand on the computer mouse and one hand rubbing absently at his own foot.
The sound of music suddenly drifted through the apartment. Ming Shu came back to his senses with a start, swirling around and looking into the living room, where he found Xiao Yu'an sitting serenely with his head bowed, playing the guzheng.
And the tune Xiao Yu'an was plucking out was the same as what Ming Shu had just been listening to on the computer.
"Ge, how come I didn't know you played the guzheng?" Ming Shu asked as he made his way over to Xiao Yu'an. "How come I didn't even know we had a guzheng at home?"
"I brought it back a few years ago. You weren't here at the time," Xiao Yu'an said. "I never got a chance to take it out after that."
"Why did you learn how to play?" Ming Shu asked.
"It was during a mission," Xiao Yu'an said, smiling. "I went undercover in a human trafficking organization which masqueraded as a training school for traditional instrumentalists. I happened to pick up some new skills along the way."
Ming Shu sat down cross-legged in front of the guzheng. After listening for a while, he said, "I'm a little interested in traditional music now."
Xiao Yu'an didn't answer, because he had already guessed what Ming Shu would say next.
And just as expected, Ming Shu added, "I can't do everything you can do. But I can at least appreciate everything you do."
Because of their positions, Xiao Yu'an had to lower his gaze to look at Ming Shu. Meanwhile, Ming Shu had to tip his head back to look up at him.
After a brief moment of silence, Xiao Yu'an patted the space next to him. "Come here. I'll teach you."
The concert was scheduled for a Saturday evening. It would run for two hours in total, starting at seven and ending at nine.
Since it was a preview—well, to put it bluntly, it was simply a public rehearsal—none of the spectators had had to purchase tickets. They were all there by special invitation.
The members of the Serious Crimes Division had all whined about not wanting to come and not wanting to listen. But once they arrived, they all seemed to be in a pretty good mood. They thumbed through the concert brochure, studying it quite diligently.
After receiving a few days of education from Xiao Yu'an, Ming Shu was already capable of holding a decent conversation with guzheng enthusiast Fang Yuanhang.
Fang Yuanhang had complete faith in his case-solving maestro of a captain. Internally, he sighed happily and thought, Chief is just awesome. He's impressive when it comes to solving cases, and he's just as impressive when it comes to everything else!
Finally, the concert began. There were solos for each instrument, as well as group arrangements for the whole band to perform together.
At first, Ming Shu listened with a faint smile. Although he didn't have any real appreciation for this sort of music, he could put on a damn good act of listening like he was totally enthralled. But before long, he just couldn't sit still anymore.
He could sit at home and listen to Xiao Yu'an play the guzheng for him all night. But here, in a different place, listening to different people, his ability to appreciate music dissipated quickly.
Ming Shu gave it some thought and, in a show of self-awareness, had to admit he still couldn't get into this sort of niche cultural interest. He hadn't started developing an appreciation for the guzheng; he only harbored a deep appreciation for the person who'd played the guzheng for him.
When the performance reached its second half, Ming Shu really didn't have it in him to pay attention anymore. But he didn't want to leave early, doze off, or check his phone; due to his strict upbringing, he felt it was important to show respect to people of any profession.
Time dragged on. In order to stay alert, with no interest in the music, Ming Shu focused his attention on studying each of the performers.
The stage was brightly light, clearly illuminating each performer's features and expression.
Ming Shu's gaze swept over their faces and lingered on the expression of a woman who played a guzheng.
She wore a white muslin outfit with intricate patterns embroidered around the collar, sleeves, and chest. Her long hair cascaded over her shoulders, framing her delicate facial features. Her makeup was light, giving her a classical look. She wasn't exceptionally beautiful, but she exuded a mystifying aura.
But there was one detail that contradicted this classical, mystifying look she presented. In her right ear, she wore a very modern-looking red stud earring.
Ming Shu was incapable of feeling attraction towards women, but that gave him the ability to be a more objective judge when it came to a woman's looks.
This performer gave him a distinct sensation of comfort.
Her expression clearly showed she was deeply immersed in the music she played. She had the focus and passion of someone who truly cared for her work.
But at the same time, Ming Shu got the feeling that she was quite sad.
Compared to the other performers around her, she wore a distinctly more sorrowful expression.
But why was she sad? What was she mourning?
Due to a small delay during the program, the concert ran until 9:15. The performers and backstage crew all gathered on stage to thank the audience, and everyone in the crowd—whether they understood the music or not, whether they'd dozed off or not—all rose to their feet and gave the band a rousing round of applause.
Ming Shu scanned the stage for a long while and observed that the guzheng player he'd noticed earlier was nowhere to be found.
He couldn't know for sure whether or not that was considered strange. He'd never attended many plays or concerts in the past, so he didn't know if it was mandatory for every performer to attend the curtain call.
He had just been overly conscious of that woman during the performance, so her absence was especially notable to him.
Maybe there were other performers who didn't participate in this closing ceremony either.
"Chief." Fang Yuanhang shook Ming Shu's arm as they started to file out of the auditorium. "What are you looking at?"
Ming Shu refocused his attention on his companion and asked, "Have you attended a lot of concerts like this before?"
"Not many," Fang Yuanhang said. "Just a few per year."
That wasn't what Ming Shu would have called 'not many'. After thinking about it for a moment, he asked, "Do all the performers usually come out for curtain calls?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Fang Yuanhang answered. "Especially the important ones."
Ming Shu thought back and recalled that that guzheng player had appeared for many pieces and often occupied a space near the center of the stage. She was most likely considered an important performer.
"What's up, Chief? Did someone catch your eye?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Were you waiting to see her again during the curtain call?"
"Your powers of observation won't cut it at the Serious Crimes Division," Ming Shu remarked dryly.
When the light and cheerful chatter from the stage drifted backstage, it was enveloped by a heavy silence, almost as though those sounds of merriment were suddenly trapped and smothered underwater. The atmosphere back there was quieter and far more stifling.
Sha Chun took off her white performance outfit and changed into a pair of wide-legged pants and a linen shirt.
Currently, she was the only person backstage. She bent down and gathered up her personal belongings, then quickly removed her makeup before her colleagues could return.
She'd worn a face of stage makeup, which looked rather pale and simple on stage. But once she stepped off stage, the makeup looked almost comically exaggerated.
Sha Chun held a cotton ball in one hand and a bottle of makeup remover in the other. When she glanced at herself in the mirror, her wrist froze for a moment. After a few seconds, she let out a soft sigh.
She used to love participating in curtain calls. The applause of a happy audience was the best reward she could hope for. During performances, she was too focused to pay close attention to the faces of the audience members. It was only during curtain calls that she could see how they appreciated her music.
But her colleagues, whether intentionally or not, always made her feel like an outcast during curtain calls. She always stood alone on that stage; no one was willing to stand near her.
Things had gotten even more serious that year.
And her experience backstage was even worse.
She had gradually stopped participating in curtain calls. Instead, she always hurried backstage to get out of her costume and makeup. By the time her colleagues filtered in, she would usually be all packed up and ready to leave.
That was the best thing about performing in the city. Public transportation was everywhere. She didn't have to depart with everyone else on the bus sent by the association.
"Sha Chun is ready to go again?" someone asked as the other performers started coming backstage. "I haven't even changed yet. How'd she get packed up so fast?"
"She doesn't attend curtain calls. You didn't know?" someone else asked, wearing a malicious sneer. "She isn't like us. She's in a rush to get somewhere else. Who knows? Maybe she has another performance to get to."
"What time is it already? Won't she tire herself out like this?"
"A 'model employee' like her doesn't suffer the same constraints as us normal people. Come on, hurry up! Let's get changed and go have some crayfish."
"Is that really alright? The 'model employee' will keep working, and we'll go eat crayfish?"
"Oi! What are you still acting like you care for?"
The other speaker started to laugh, finally dropping the concerned act.
Sha Chun slipped out and quietly closed the door behind herself, shutting out the sounds of laughter as well. She lingered outside the door for a moment before heaving another sigh and making her way out of the theater.
The Performing Arts Association's new building had been constructed quickly, and all their personnel had also moved in very quickly. That was partly because the new owners of the old building were in a rush to get them out, and partly because most of the association's employees were keen to get into their new office.
But the haste of the move created some problems. Some security, sanitation, and transportation amenities had yet to be fully put in place.
The association's old building had been located in the old city center. Traffic was awful at all hours; traveling into that district by car was always a nightmare. But the building was in a good location. Regardless of where a person was in the city, they would never have to travel too far to get there.
But the new building was different. It occupied a large plot of land in a quieter neighborhood, but it was located at the very south of Nan District. It was terribly far from the heart of the city, and there was no easy way to get out there via public transportation. The buses and trains that did run in that direction were few and far between.
For the convenience of their employees, the association arranged a bus to shuttle their members out from the center of the city every day. The workers who preferred driving were even reimbursed for gas.
But that didn't solve all the problems presented by the new building.
Employees often complained about the inconveniences of getting to work, but rarely did they bring up the problems with the building's lackluster security forces.
The southernmost region of Nan District sat on the outer fringes of the city limits. The officials of Nan District had designated an area there as land for a technology and cultural center, where they encouraged developers to build new offices and attractions.
But even now, a few years later, most of the plots that had been sold were still undeveloped. Near the new offices of the Performing Arts Association, there was a commercial center that was still being built. Besides that, the association was surrounded by several plots of completely barren land. In ten years or so, that area would definitely become the new heart of Nan District. But for the time being, it was a rather desolate and deserted place.
Even the Performing Arts Association had only used half of the land they'd purchased for their new offices.
Some of the heads of the association wanted to use their remaining land to construct another office building that they could rent out. Others wanted to build a theater on that land, saying that the performing arts industry in Dongye City would only continue to expand and that the association members deserved a theater to call their own.
The two factions quarreled endlessly, and so that land remained undeveloped. No construction began, and no paths were paved. No one bothered going out there. Not even the security guards who patrolled the area on their bicycles.
After the preview concert, the band took two days off. When they returned to work, the 'model employee' Sha Chun didn't show up.
This was something that had never happened before. Sha Chun wouldn't even take a day off when she was feeling sick or unwell. She definitely wouldn't skip work without warning.
But no one wanted to call Sha Chun.
It wasn't until much later that afternoon, when work hours were almost over, that the deputy director of the department, Han Mingming, came to give the musicians some feedback before their first official concert. When she arrived, she asked, "Where's Sha Chun?"
"She didn't come in today," someone answered.
"Did she call in sick?" Han Mingming asked.
A murmur went through the crowd of musicians, and only a few eventually answered, "No."
Han Mingming took out her phone. Before dialing, she asked, "Did anyone give her a call?"
Everyone laughed, and many of those laughs were full of contempt and scorn.
"Who would want to call her? None of us deserve to bother a 'model employee' like her about coming in to work."
Han Mingming finally made the call. She hugged an arm around herself as she paced back and forth through the rehearsal space.
Finally, a cold and mechanical female voice came through her phone: "The number you have dialed is currently switched off."
"How could her phone be off?" Han Mingming asked, furrowing her brows.
The summer weather was unpredictable and prone to changing without notice. A muffled clap of thunder rolled across the sky, and rain began to smash against the windows like hail.
"Ah, damn it," someone muttered. "With rain this bad, traffic is going to be hell later on."
"Our 'model employee' really has some good foresight. If I'd known this rain was coming, I would've taken the day off too."
The torrential downpour grew heavier and heavier. The neighboring river became muddy, and the water level in a pond on the premises of the association's building began to rise.
Soon enough, work hours came to a close. But the heavy rain was unrelenting, and the association's logistics team decided it was unwise to send everyone home on the usual bus. Accidents were too common in weather this bad.
The people who had driven their own cars to work didn't want to drive home in that rain either. So, for the time being, everyone remained at the office.
At nearly seven in the evening, the rain started coming down even harder. The river began to overflow. Worse yet, the pond on the premises flooded over as well, releasing a surge of water that crept towards the parking garage.
The few security guards and sanitation workers on the premises were all called out to set up a perimeter of sandbags. But they simply couldn't work fast enough to stave off the flood. The logistics team reported the problem to upper management, and upper management instantly demanded that all remaining personnel at the office were to get downstairs and help move the sandbags.
"What kind of bad fucking luck is this!" someone complained.
"Why do we have to move sandbags?!"
"Sha Chun is way too lucky! The one and only time she skips work, she gets out of this sort of disaster!"
Everyone was upset, but they couldn't sit back and do nothing in the middle of the downpour. They had to help.
Suddenly, a relatively new employee of the marketing department, Liu Jia, slipped on the wet ground and tumbled into a deep pit of muddy water. She let out a piercing shriek as she fell.
Everyone rushed to help her up. She was trembling all over, and her voice was shaky and panicky as she said, "I think… I think I just touched something."
"That's just a dirt pit. The rainwater probably made it collapse. What could possibly be in there?"
"No, I really felt something! Something strange, something wrong!"
Liu Jia wasn't the sort of person to play tricks on people. She'd been a dedicated worker ever since she joined the association. She wouldn't crack a joke at a time like this. A few of her colleagues called over the security guards, and they all worked together to bail out the muddy water that had filled the pit.
As the water level gradually lowered, the pit revealed a secret. Buried under the muck and soil was a muddied, half-visible leg.