Nan District. Longcheng Street, Road 3. Shrimp Baobao.
It was already the start of autumn, and crayfish production was slowing down for the year. Perhaps that was why Shrimp Baobao wasn't as packed as when Ming Shu last visited. Business was booming at the neighboring Jianghu cuisine restaurant, though.
Ming Shu figured they may as well stop since they were already there. He took a few laps around the block before finally finding a parking spot outside Jiangnan Theater. He and Xiao Yu'an then made their way over to Shrimp Baobao on foot.
"This shop is famous for their crayfish. In July and August, there's a line out the door and around the block. You can't even find parking. You would have to park several kilometers away," Ming Shu said. He was extremely meticulous when it came to investigating cases, but when it came to bragging, he was the type to totally wing it.
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "You want to try parking a few kilometers away?"
"I'm exaggerating, okay?" Ming Shu said. "It's just talk, don't take it too seriously."
The two of them chatted and joked as they made their way to the shop. It was just past eight when they arrived. Peak dining hours. But, surprisingly, they managed to get a table right away.
After taking a seat, Ming Shu casually glanced around. He didn't see the owner they'd spoken to when they came to investigate the case.
A waitress came over and dropped a greasy menu onto the table.
Ming Shu didn't bother asking what Xiao Yu'an wanted to eat. He immediately ordered a serving of spicy crayfish, a serving of garlic crayfish, a plate of fried eel, a carp and pepper salad, and a bowl of edamame.
Before their food arrived, a woman wandered in with a large thermos, going table to table to ask if anyone wanted iced mung bean soup or iced soy milk.
Lots of food stalls and small restaurants in Dongye City were like this. Although the restaurants served drinks, some vendors would inevitably wander in to sell their own beverages. They used to sell for three yuan a cup, and now five yuan a cup. The owners of the restaurants didn't shoo them out either. Everyone coexisted peacefully, making money together.
Xiao Yu'an hailed down the woman who came in and asked for two cups of mung bean soup and two cups of soy milk.
"Ah!" the woman exclaimed while pouring the soy milk. The money had already been paid at that point. "Sorry, this bottle is all empty. You guys just wait a minute, I'll go back and get some more right now."
Ming Shu smiled. "You'll go home and get more?"
"No, no. It's just outside in my car!" the woman said. "Three minutes, just give me three minutes!"
Ming Shu was in no rush. He picked up a cup of mung bean soup and had a sip. "Not cold enough."
"What month is it already?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "You still want it colder?"
The shop was noisy, and their table was in a corner. No one was looking their way. Ming Shu pressed his cup to Xiao Yu'an's hand and said, "Then, how about you warm it up for me?"
Xiao Yu'an took Ming Shu's hand and tightly clasped it in his own, squeezing hard.
He squeezed hard enough that Ming Shu felt a jolt of pain and quickly withdrew his own hand. "I told you to warm it up," Ming Shu complained. "What are you squeezing for?"
At just that moment, their edamame was served to their table. The woman with the drinks returned from outside too, with a fresh bottle. "Here we are! Sweetened soy milk!"
Ming Shu uttered a 'thank you'.
The woman was extremely chatty. As she poured the soy milk, she babbled on about how she'd filled up her pedicab with drinks and how she'd sold almost everything already. She said business was booming at the Jianghu restaurant next door, and their dishes were all extremely hot and numbing. The customers who couldn't handle the spiciness all waved her over to buy her drinks.
"You guys go try it out next time," she coaxed, dropping her voice to a whisper. "They're a new shop, and the boss is extremely good to their guests. Not like the owner here. This place has been open for too long, they've become 'stale'. The food tastes good, but…"
When she suddenly noticed a server approaching with a few dishes, the woman hastily cut herself off and scampered away to another table.
The crayfish dishes were prepared fresh and would need more time, so the fried eel was the first to be delivered.
Ming Shu had a bite. "It's average."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "You were just saying there would be a line around the block."
"We'll see how the crayfish are. This place is famous for the crayfish," Ming Shu said. He put down his chopsticks and started to shell the edamame.
Ming Shu had loved edamame when he was little. As soon as summer came around, he would run over to the Xiao family's house to wait for edamame to be served.
Boiled edamame and salt-boiled peanuts were more delicious after they had time to cool off, but Xiao Yu'an's cousin Xiao Jincheng always liked fighting over snacks with Ming Shu. As soon as some freshly boiled edamame came out of the pot, the two boys would instantly reach out for them. Xiao Jincheng would cry out for his gege when his hand was burned; it was only at times like that that he would remember he has his own big brother.
And Ming Shu would go to Xiao Yu'an with his own reddened fingers.
How many years ago had that been? It was so amusing to think back on it now.
Before long, two servings of crayfish were delivered to their table. Xiao Yu'an grabbed a pair of plastic gloves offered by the shop and passed them to Ming Shu. "Put these on."
"I'll shell them," Ming Shu said. "You keep your hands clean. This stuff is too oily. The gloves won't help at all."
"Am I that delicate?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "I can't even shell my own crayfish?"
"I'm trying to serve you, aren't I?" Ming Shu grinned. His brows arched, and he crinkled the corners of his eyes. "This is such an important moment for me to show my boyfriend powers. How could I waste this chance?"
Xiao Yu'an let him do as he pleased. "Then I'll wait for your service."
Ming Shu quickly peeled a crayfish and placed the meat in Xiao Yu'an's bowl. "Go on, try it. Your man shelled that for you."
Xiao Yu'an slowly picked up the crayfish meat with his chopsticks. Before he even lifted it to his lips, he heard Ming Shu urge, "Hurry up!"
"You personally shelled this crayfish so carefully," Xiao Yu'an said. "If I don't take the time to savor it, wouldn't that be an insult to your boyfriend powers?"
Ming Shu graciously answered, "Just eat. Your man will shell more for you!"
Xiao Yu'an took a bite, then said, "Ten out of five."
"High praise!" Ming Shu exclaimed. He'd already started to peel a second crayfish, which he'd originally said was for Xiao Yu'an. But now he popped it into his own mouth.
Xiao Yu'an looked at him and smiled.
"It's just alright, isn't it?" Ming Shu mused. "Aren't all spicy crayfish more or less like this? What makes it a ten out of five?"
"The crayfish itself is a three out of five," Xiao Yu'an said. "The remaining seven points are for your boyfriend powers."
Ming Shu laughed, overjoyed. "That's what I like to hear."
The two chatted while they ate. By the time they asked for the check, it was already past ten at night.
By then, even fewer customers remained in the shop. The neighboring Jianghu restaurant, on the other hand, was even busier now than it had been at eight in the evening. All the plastic benches in front of the restaurant were filled up with people holding numbers, waiting to be seated.
"That shop is doing well. Their dishes must taste pretty good," Xiao Yu'an said. "Shall we try it out in a while?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "No way, no way. Shrimp Baobao had a huge line out the door before too, didn't it? I thought the food here would be extra delicious, but turns out it's just regular delicious."
"Most restaurants are just an 'average' sort of good or an 'average' sort of bad," Xiao Yu'an said. "A restaurant that markets itself well, that people rave about, will gain a reputation for serving more and more delicious food. On the other hand, a restaurant with worse dishes will be known for serving worse and worse food once bad reviews come out. It's hive mind at work."
"Most people do just go with the flow and check out what's popular," Ming Shu said. "See? We went with the flow today."
When they reached a red light, Xiao Yu'an stopped and lifted an arm, stopping Ming Shu at his side. "There's nothing wrong with going with the flow once in a while, as long as the food is good."
Ming Shu took advantage of the opportunity to take Xiao Yu'an's hand. When the light turned green, they crossed the street together.
Neither of their hands could be called delicate. Xiao Yu'an's hands were rough with gun calluses, developed over his many years in special ops. Ming Shu's hands were more or less the same. Their calluses rubbed together, creating a subtle itch.
"Where are we going tonight?" Ming Shu asked.
"Wherever," Xiao Yu'an said. "You decide. We'll go wherever you want."
"Did Jinlan-jie send over another care package?" Ming Shu asked. "I want to go to your place."
Xiao Yu'an lightly scratched Ming Shu's palm. "We can do 'homework' anywhere, can't we?"
Ming Shu suddenly choked on air. "Director Xiao, we are in public…"
"Someone's homework has been piling up for ages already," Xiao Yu'an continued.
Ming Shu coughed uncontrollably.
Xiao Yu'an lightly patted his shoulder. "If he doesn't make up for it soon, Student Ming will fail his final exams."
Road 3 of Longcheng Street was packed with traffic and pedestrians. It wasn't long until their two figures disappeared into the crowd.
Shortly after Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an left Shrimp Baobao, a customer dining on the second floor got into a fight with a server. The reason was that their order of crayfish hadn't arrived for more than an hour, and when their food did arrive, two of the crayfish hadn't been properly split open and cleaned.
"I'm so sorry, I'm truly so sorry," the server apologized profusely. "We'll replace two of them right away."
"Do I care about two stupid crayfish?" the customer bellowed. He slapped the table and got to his feet, growing angrier by the second. "When you put it like that, you make it sound like I'm trying to con you out of extra crayfish! I've been to this shop of yours plenty of times, I come every year. You used to be so busy. If I had to wait an hour for some crayfish then, sure, I would wait.
"But are you busy today? Why did I still have to wait an hour? If it was because you were busy carefully cleaning the crayfish, fine, I could accept the wait for that reason too. But look at this, you haven't even split open the backs of some of these! I have no choice but to question your integrity!"
The server was starting to grow impatient as well. "I said we would compensate you…"
"What kind of attitude is that?" the customer snapped, enraged. "No wonder your business is floundering now. You're no competition for your neighbor! You've made enough money these past few years, is that it? You don't value your customers anymore? Alright, then I'll see how you feel when your neighbors put you out of business!"
"What is it, what's going on?" A woman in her forties rushed over, pulling the server aside. She glared at the customer and coldly stated, "If you have a complaint, state it calmly. What's all this ruckus for?"
"I'm causing a ruckus?" the customer demanded. "Your shop is the one taking advantage of its customers!"
This woman in her forties just so happened to be the boss's wife, Huang Hui. She was an extremely spirited woman who never tolerated being spoken down to. She instantly snapped back, "You think you have the right to blab any nonsense you want just because you have a mouth? What have we done to take advantage of you?
"You received a dish with two crayfish that weren't cleaned. We've offered to replace them. Two isn't good enough? Fine, you want four? You're kicking up such a fuss. What do you want, you want your whole meal to be free?"
The customer's face had gone red with anger. He suddenly yanked on the tablecloth, and the whole table of barely-touched dishes were sent flying to the floor.
The mess was everywhere.
Customers at neighboring tables started to stand up. Several of them had gotten their cell phones out to take pictures and videos.
Huang Hui hadn't imagined this customer would be this angry. For a moment, she froze. When she came back to her senses, she hastily shouted, "Call the police! Call the police right now!"
"Call them, then! Call them!" the customer roared. "You think I'm scared of you? I'm telling you right now, you people were raised up by us! You really think your food is that good? Without us regulars, you think you could have survived until now?"
The police arrived shortly afterwards and took the customer, Huang Hui, and a few servers down to the local police post.
Huang Hui sobbed and threw a tantrum at the police post, demanding that the police pass judgment on this incident.
When the police got the full story, it was determined that the customer had lashed out first, and thus the blame fell upon the customer.
But when it came to running a restaurant, just having the other party declared the 'wrong' one didn't matter.
At most, the customer would have to pay a hundred yuan or so in damages to Shrimp Baobao.
But the actual loss suffered by Shrimp Baobao wouldn't nearly be covered by one hundred yuan.
Future customers would be able to find accounts of this incident online, and they could tell their friends all about it. They could say that Shrimp Baobao was the type of business that bullied its customers and even reported them to the police.
One person would tell ten, ten would tell a hundred. Soon enough, Shrimp Baobao's reputation would be ruined.
There had been several other customers on the second floor at the time of the incident, and they had all taken pictures of the dispute.
And customers would almost always side with other customers. Very few of them would take the restaurant's side. They would be the ones to decide who to blame in the end.
The police tried to mediate between the two parties, but the customer refused to apologize. Huang Hui's attitude gradually softened, though.
She had no choice but to relent. Business at Shrimp Baobao hadn't been good lately, due to the popular new Jianghu cuisine restaurant next door. Shrimp Baobao had been seeing fewer and fewer customers each day. Shrimp Baobao and the Jianghu restaurant had a lot of overlap on their menus, so those who had gotten tired of Shrimp Baobao all went next door to experience some new tastes at the Jianghu place. In the past, most people who came to eat on Road 3 of Longcheng Street were coming specifically for Shrimp Baobao. Now, most people were bound for the Jianghu restaurant.
Huang Hui had been worrying about this for quite a while already. Her outburst that night was partly precipitated by that concern.
At around eleven that night, Huang Hui's husband—the owner of Shrimp Baobao, Qin Xiong—rushed to the police post. He fiercely scolded Huang Hui right in front of the customer. That placated the customer quite a lot. Combined with the police officers' attempts to mediate, the two sides reached a compromise at nearly midnight and left the police post separately.
After that bout of commotion, Shrimp Baobao just about cleared out. Most of the customers left before two in the morning. Once the last table of diners departed, Huang Hui started cleaning up in silence with the servers on the closing shift. Qin Xiong sat outside, smoking a cigarette.
Next door, the Jianghu restaurant was still bustling. Judging by the noise level, they would remain packed until four or five that morning.
At that moment, a group of customers came out from the Jianghu restaurant. A man in his thirties came to the door to see them off, waving as he called out, "See you next time."
Qin Xiong's eyes instantly turned cold and hateful. He spat a curse. "Fucker!"
That man was none other than the owner of the Jianghu restaurant, surname Cheng. He wasn't a native to Dongye City, and he was all pale and delicate. Not at all like someone who knew how to cook. With the way he smiled at everyone, it was like he wasn't selling food, but his face.
"Pale little bastard," Qin Xiong seethed through gritted teeth.
After seeing off his customers, the man turned and met Qin Xiong's gaze.
Qin Xiong couldn't reel in his furious expression in time. The younger man froze for a moment, then curved his lips into a friendly smile and nodded his head to greet Qin Xiong.
Qin Xiong had no choice but to squeeze out a stiff smile in return.
Once that man returned to his own shop, Qin Xiong's smile vanished instantly.
In the world of business, customers were money. The Jianghu restaurant had stolen Shrimp Baobao's customers. That meant they'd stolen Shrimp Baobao's money.
There was a common saying—cutting off a person's livelihood was like killing off their parents. Qin Xiong was now finding out firsthand how true that statement was.
That Jianghu restaurant had actually existed for a long time already, but it had been operated by someone else until recently. Two months ago, the restaurant changed hands and came under this Cheng fellow's management. Back then, Qin Xiong hadn't thought it was any big deal. He'd figured the new guy, no matter how impressive he was, wouldn't be able to make waves in Shrimp Baobao's territory.
Due to word of mouth and glowing praise from the media, Shrimp Baobao had become a wildly popular restaurant in Dongye City a long time ago. Qin Xiong was a local, too. Born and raised in Nan District. He had come to think of Longcheng Street as his personal territory.
He couldn't have anticipated that Cheng guy becoming a threat to his business just two months after taking over the shop next door.
These developments left Qin Xiong angry and anxious. He could only watch as his business slipped through his fingers and drifted next door. He had no good ideas for reversing that flow, so he could only let out his rage on his wife Huang Hui.
Huang Hui wasn't the sort of woman to allow herself to be attacked. If Qin Xiong wanted to fight, she would always fight back. Their shop hadn't even properly closed for the night yet, and the two of them got into it right there on the first floor of the restaurant, hollering at each other.
All the servers at Shrimp Baobao were relatives to the owners. So far, the decline in business hadn't affected their salaries, but Qin Xiong usually gave each server a huge red envelope at the end of the year. With the way things were now, it seemed likely that there wouldn't be any red envelopes at the end of that year.
That left all the servers feeling dissatisfied and resentful. None of them rushed to intervene as the owners started fighting that night. They went about their own business, letting Qin Xiong and Huang Hui throw bowls and chairs around in their dispute.
"Do you guys enjoy behaving this way?" A thin boy, around sixteen or seventeen, appeared at the front door. He wore a sullen expression and continued, "You're putting on a funny play for people?"
"Little Xu, what are you doing here?" Huang Hui wiped at the tears in her eyes. "What time is it? It's so late already."
Qin Xu was the son of Qin Xiong and Huang Hui. The couple also had a daughter, Qin Ke, who was older by two years. Thanks to the popularity of their restaurant, the Qin family was very well-off. Qin Xu was just a high school student, but he was dressed in name brands from head to toe.
"If I didn't come, would you guys have fought until dawn? Until everyone heard you?" Qin Xu spat out his words coldly, with disdain. "Shameful."
Qin Xiong instantly charged up to him with a hand raised, balled into a fist. "You dare speak poorly of me?"
Qin Xu didn't bother dodging. "If you think you can hit me, go ahead."
Huang Hui hurriedly rushed up and shielded her son behind herself. She glared at Qin Xiong like a fierce mother tiger. "Get out!"
In the end, Qin Xiong didn't throw a punch. He just swore, "Fuck this, everything is fucked!"
While the Qin family raised hell on earth at their restaurant, Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an caught up on their long-awaited 'homework'.
Near dawn, a sudden autumn downpour began to spill from the skies. Wind whipped in from an open window, blowing the heavy curtains inwards.
Ming Shu was sleeping very soundly. He was completely nude, with his face half-buried in the covers.
He didn't actually have a habit of sleeping in the buff. When he was home alone, even if he didn't completely cover up, he would at least wear underpants to bed. But every time he got intimate with Xiao Yu'an, he fell asleep without wanting to put anything on. He liked falling asleep next to Xiao Yu'an, completely bare, and he loved nothing more than waking up in Xiao Yu'an's arms.
Xiao Yu'an carefully peeled himself away from the person in his arms. He didn't turn on the lights, using only the faint light spilling in from outside to find his way. He quietly slipped out of bed and padded over to the window to close it.
When he returned to bed, Xiao Yu'an was just about to slip back under the covers when Ming Shu, as though sensing a new heart source, rolled over and scooted closer.
Xiao Yu'an lifted the blankets and pulled Ming Shu into his arms.
Ming Shu didn't even open his eyes. "Is it morning?"
"Not yet," Xiao Yu'an said. "Sleep some more."
"Oh." Ming Shu hummed blearily and really drifted off again, just like that.
In the moments before dawn, the night was especially dark. A tall figure cast long shadow across the ground. A pair of eyes opened and took in the sights of the world, before the lips on that same face curved into what could have been called a merciful smile.
Xiao Yu'an woke very early in the morning. Just as he was about to get out of bed to fry a few eggs, he felt Ming Shu wrap his arms around him from behind.
"What is it?" Xiao Yu'an asked warmly.
Ming Shu had already fully climbed onto Xiao Yu'an, wrapping his legs around him as well. "Don't go."
"I'm just going to make breakfast for you," Xiao Yu'an reassured.
Ming Shu puffed out his cheeks. "Don't want breakfast. Want you."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Are you sure?"
Ming Shu had already been pressed back against the bedding. He sweetly murmured, "I'm sure."
Half an hour later, Xiao Yu'an went to the bathroom to take a shower. When he returned, he leaned over the bed and kissed Ming Shu's forehead. "No time to make breakfast now."
Ming Shu burrowed under the covers and hid his head, acting like the diligent student who'd wanted to do 'homework' first thing in the morning hadn't been him.
Xiao Yu'an patted Ming Shu's waist through the blankets, then set out for the Bureau.
The constant drizzle of autumn rain made it the perfect day for lazing around. As he listened to the soft sounds of rain falling outside, Ming Shu rolled around in bed several times, but still didn't want to get up.
At around ten in the morning, the doorbell rang.
Ming Shu sat up and checked his cell phone. Xiao Yu'an hadn't sent a message saying he'd ordered takeout.
This apartment was Xiao Yu'an's private residence. Very few people knew about it. Just who could be at the door?
The doorbell rang again. Ming Shu put on his clothes and went to check the video feed from the door. As he watched a person unlock the gate, he muttered, "Tsk. The enemy is here."