As soon as the door opened, a handsome young man entered and pulled an exaggeratedly surprised face. "Oh?!"
Ming Shu grabbed a pair of guest slippers from the shoe closet and tossed them at the visitor. "'Oh' what? Come in and close the door."
The man grinned as he ventured into the apartment. "Bro, what's with you? You didn't even wash up before coming to greet a guest? Look at you. Your hair is sticking up, your clothes are a mess. No sense of hospitality at all…"
"What are you on about?" Ming Shu abandoned the guest in the living room and ducked into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth. "You barge into someone's home bright and early in the morning. What kind of person does that? You think you're an honored guest? And judging by how much free time you seem to have on your hands… you haven't been kicked off the narcotics team for some work problem, have you?"
"Oh, screw you." The man sprawled out on the couch like he owned the place, still grinning. He set the takeout bag he'd brought down on the coffee table. "Xiao Yu'an has already been working for hours, and you still think it's bright and early in the morning? Could it be that there's a time zone difference in this house of yours?
"I brought you a 'brotherly' meal full of love, and what do you do? You accuse me of getting kicked off my team. You're just a little brat who wasn't raised with good enough manners, little bro."
Ming Shu stuck his head out from the bathroom, holding an electric toothbrush in one hand. "Did you call my ge?"
"How else would I have known that there would be an ungrateful little brat who hasn't gotten out of bed or eaten here?" The man started unpacking the takeout bag, producing servings of fish congee, shaomai, and steamed cakes. "Hurry up and eat before everything goes cold."
When Ming Shu emerged from the bathroom, his hair was a little damp. He'd obviously used water to slick it back, but a few unruly locks of hair were still sticking up. It made him look pretty funny.
The man on the couch laughed boisterously.
"Do you really find that much to laugh about every day? And I'm not little anymore. I'm a captain already. Can't you learn from your two big bros and conduct yourself a bit more properly?" Ming Shu complained. His stomach was a little queasy from last night's crayfish, so he didn't want any shaomai. He used his chopsticks to pick up one of the less flavorful steamed cakes instead. "Are you all smiles and laughs when you lecture the newbies on your team too?"
"I'm what you call a happy and open-minded person," the man said.
"I think simple-minded is a better word for it," Ming Shu grumbled. "Don't argue with me. That isn't coming from me, anyway. I heard it from your very own brother. If you have a problem, take it up with him."
When the subject of his 'very own brother' came up, the man suddenly sighed.
Ming Shu lifted his gaze. "Oh? Does the simple-minded Captain Xiao have something complicated on his mind?"
Surprisingly enough, the man didn't deny that.
Ming Shu bit into the steamed cake. "Tell me, then. Let me have a good laugh at your expense."
"Family conflict," the man said.
Ming Shu could tell that something was really wrong. "Does it have something to do with Mu'ting-ge? What's going on?"
"What else could it be?" the man asked. "My brother rejoined his special forces team, you know that."
Ming Shu set down his chopsticks.
"Keep eating," the man urged.
"He nearly lost his life last time, but he's been recovering well these past few years," Ming Shu stated solemnly. "So if he's just rejoining special forces to train new recruits, that isn't a big deal."
The other man shook his head. "He's about to go overseas on a mission. Xiao Yu'an and I understand, but the old man can't accept it."
Ming Shu was silent for a while. "I understand how the old man feels."
The look on the other man's face shifted slightly.
"You and Mu'ting-ge are his only sons. You're a narcotics officer, and Mu'ting-ge is in special forces. The two of you have extremely dangerous jobs. And Mu'ting-ge was laid up for such a long time before. Now, he's just gotten better, and he's going on another mission with his special forces team? If I were your old man, I wouldn't be able to accept it either."
The man on the couch was still for a while before he smiled and said, "Ai, the little brat has grown so caring."
Ming Shu glared at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm not joking."
This visitor was the boy Ming Shu had grown up fighting with, ever since he was little—Xiao Yu'an's cousin, Xiao Jincheng.
Out of all the boys in the Xiao family, Xiao Jincheng and Ming Shu were closest in age. Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Yu'an's other cousin, Xiao Mu'ting, were both older than Ming Shu by six years. They were both always lenient and doting towards Ming Shu.
Xiao Jincheng was the only one who would bicker with Ming Shu over little things, the way kids did. They would always snitch on each other. Xiao Jincheng had grown up acting like the lord of the Xiao family. When Ming Shu was just a little sprout, Xiao Jincheng would always be the one to tease him. Once Ming Shu was older and bigger, and capable of fighting back, the two of them would always get into tussles whenever Xiao Yu'an wasn't looking.
The grudges of their youth became muddled as they grew up. Ming Shu became a criminal detective, and Xiao Jincheng became a member of the Special Police Force's narcotics team. They didn't usually see much of each other, but when they did meet, they would always bicker a little. They acted like hostile enemies, but their relationship was actually very good. Ming Shu didn't have any siblings or cousins from the Ming family. Xiao Yu'an's cousins were essentially big brothers to Ming Shu as well.
Halfway through breakfast, Ming Shu suddenly realized why Xiao Jincheng had paid this visit to Xiao Yu'an's place.
"What are you glaring at me for?" Xiao Jincheng rubbed his arms like he was cold. "The little brat is staring at me so fiercely. I'm scared."
"You're going on a mission too?" Ming Shu asked.
Xiao Jincheng laughed. "Don't be so serious, alright?"
"I was wondering why you suddenly came out here," Ming Shu muttered. He picked up a tissue to wipe his hands. "Mu'ting-ge is about to go abroad with his special forces team, and you're going to be carrying out a dangerous mission soon too. You're worried that something will happen to you, so you came over to give me and Xiao Yu'an a heads up. To ask us to take care of your old man if anything happens to the two of you. Is that right?"
"Ah, fuck." Xiao Jincheng helplessly massaged the dip between his brows. "Being too smart isn't a good thing, you know."
Ming Shu put the trash from their half-eaten breakfast back in the takeout bag and got up to throw it out.
Xiao Jincheng finally dropped his carefree attitude. "I'm in narcotics, and my brother is in special forces. We chose these roads for ourselves, so we'll face whatever that entails in the future. These are our lives, and it's the reality of our old man's life as well."
Ming Shu kept his back to Xiao Jincheng. After a moment, he said, "I know. I'm a detective too."
Xiao Jincheng smiled. "As long as you know, that's good. We didn't pamper you all those years for nothing."
Ming Shu turned back and swore, "As fucking if! When did you ever pamper me? You even fought with me over edamame!"
Xiao Jincheng was baffled. "Why are we suddenly talking about edamame?"
Ming Shu couldn't be bothered to explain that he and Xiao Yu'an had just had some edamame last night.
Xiao Jincheng was only in Dongye City for a day. After seeing Xiao Yu'an that evening, he had to take off again. And he took off in an extravagant way. Most people were picked up by a car; he was picked up by a helicopter.
While Xiao Yu'an and Xiao Jincheng chatted that night, Ming Shu purposefully gave them some space. He didn't try to listen in. It was only when he heard the helicopter take off again that he turned around, to find Xiao Yu'an walking towards him.
City nights were bustling and warm. Energetic chatter filled up the streets.
"When you used to be in special ops," Ming Shu started, "there would be times when I couldn't contact you. I would be worried out of my mind. I was always afraid something had happened to you."
Xiao Yu'an took his hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "I'm fine now."
Ming Shu nodded. "Mm."
The two of them began to meander down the street. Ming Shu said, "Ge, give me a present."
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an looked over. "What do you want?"
Ming Shu smiled. "Shouldn't you ask why I'm demanding a present?"
"I don't need to ask," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll give you anything you want."
Ming Shu's ears gradually heated up. His gaze fell upon the lights lining the street.
Truth be told, he hadn't actually thought of some specific present that he wanted. They had everything at home already. Ever since he was little, Ming Shu had never been left wanting for any material goods.
He had simply asked for a present from Xiao Yu'an as a passing whim. The idea had popped into his head and spilled out of his mouth without any thought. What the present would be was unimportant, as long as it came from Xiao Yu'an. Even the dried tofu snacks sold at the side of the road would have been fine.
As they came up on a shopping center, Xiao Yu'an said, "Let's go in and have a look around."
It was a weekday night, so there weren't too many people at the shopping center. Ming Shu ultimately picked out a winter suit that had just hit the shelves, and Xiao Yu'an chose a tie to complete the ensemble for him.
Later that night, that tie wound up wrapped around Ming Shu's bare throat.
The Serious Crimes Division's rotating vacation passed in the blink of an eye, bridging the time before and after National Day in October. No new cases came to the Serious Crimes Division even after everyone returned to work, so things remained relatively leisurely for a while.
Ming Shu planned on devoting himself to the Yisi Road case, but they had very few clues and essentially no leads. To make matters worse, Xu Yin had started playing dumb after identifying Chi Xiaomin. Sometimes, she would insist the person she saw dying on Yisi Road was Chi Xiaomin. Other times, she would act confused and say she couldn't remember what the victim looked like at all.
"Why do I feel like Xu Yin is messing around with us?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"We can't rule out that possibility," Yi Fei said. He had been the first to come into contact with Xu Yin. Every time he spoke of the little girl, he felt a sort of anxiety in his chest, like nails and rocks and all sorts of hard objects were being dragged down a chalkboard. "A little kid who looks for dead bodies for fun is capable of anything."
Ming Shu called Lin Jiao in and asked how Xu Yin had been doing lately.
"Same as always," Lin Jiao said. "She either stays in her room playing with blocks or runs next door to visit the Special Police Force."
"Is there no way to get her to open up?" Ming Shu asked.
Lin Jiao shook his head. "I'm sorry."
Ming Shu was a criminal detective, so naturally he knew a certain amount about criminal psychology. But he was still a traditional detective for the most part. He put more weight in cold, hard evidence than psychological techniques. As a result, he wasn't too disappointed by Lin Jiao's helplessness.
It was like Yi Fei said. Xu Yin really could have been playing games with the police. But she was just a little girl; she had no way of knowing that Chi Xiaomin was a person the police were actively looking for. In that case, why did she single Chi Xiaomin out from all the other missing persons she was shown? Why did she say Chi Xiaomin was the jiejie she saw that night?
The only possibility was that Chi Xiaomin truly was the person she saw that night.
Ming Shu mulled it over on his own for a while until he heard Xing Mu and the others quietly discussing something.
Among the members of the Serious Crimes Divisions, discussions about work were always loud and rowdy. Each officer seemed to compete with the next to see who could be louder. Judging by the way Xing Mu and the others were mumbling quietly, they definitely couldn't have been talking about official business.
Fang Yuanhang was standing in the middle of that cluster. Ming Shu suddenly remembered that his rookie had been acting weird for a long while already. Could he have gotten together a little crowd to blab about whatever was bothering him?
Ming Shu quietly approached. He eavesdropped for a few seconds and quickly learned that these people were talking about taking advantage of their current lack of cases to take an autumn trip to Mount Qiyue.
In the heart of fall, Mount Qiyue—located in Shouquan, a town to the northwest of Dongye City—became a hot spot for tourists on autumn outings.
Ming Shu hadn't heard of Mount Qiyue in all the years he spent in Dongye City. It wasn't until last year, during his training with special ops, that he saw pictures of the place when checking his Moments. Lu Yanzhou had posted pictures from his autumn trip that year.
Mount Qiyue hadn't always been called Mount Qiyue. In the past, locals had given it a name that made it an utterly undesirable tourist destination—Dungheap Mountain. No one knew what 'genius' had come up with that old name.
Dongye City was a very developed city, and people had high expectations for its sightseeing destinations. Many years ago, the surrounding mountains and rivers had all been conquered and advertised as 'city greens' or 'your neighborhood blossom orchard'. As soon as there was a weekend or a short break, these places filled up with people looking for a quick getaway.
Dungheap Mountain, on the other hand, had remained undeveloped for a long time due to its vulgar name. The hills were lush and green, and there was even a rarely-visited temple on the mountain—Haijing Temple. No one had discovered the beauty of that place, so no one had tried to commercialize it.
At least, not until the autumn of the year before last. That was when a big influencer stumbled upon Dungheap Mountain and discovered beautiful hills covered by the golden leaves of ginkgo trees. Countless photos of the idyllic scenery and remote temple were uploaded to Weibo.
Most of the pictures were taken during the day, featuring a gorgeous clear sky with puffy white clouds. Only one photo was taken at night. It showed a breathtakingly clear night sky, with the moon shining brightly overhead, illuminating a sole monk silently meditating underneath the ginkgo trees.
From then on, Dungheap Mountain became known by its new name—Mount Qiyue, meaning 'a prayer to the moon'. Last year, huge amounts of tourists poured in during their autumn trips. That was when Lu Yanzhou made the trip out there with his brand new SLR camera. The guys from the Serious Crimes Division, however, were tied up with a major case at the time, when the ginkgo tree leaves were more golden than ever. They weren't able to join in on the commotion.
No wonder they were so eager to go this year.
"Chief, let's go together," Fang Yuanhang hastily suggested when he spotted Ming Shu. "I already checked. The ginkgo trees at the foot of Mount Qiyue have just started to turn yellow. If we go this week, there probably won't be too many people."
"What's the point in seeing them when they've just yellowed?" Ming Shu countered. "Waiting until late autumn would be better."
Xing Mu's instincts to refute his superior's words surged up again. He couldn't help but argue, "But we might not be able to wait until then."
"Hm?" Ming Shu asked.
Xing Mu shifted and hid behind Fang Yuanhang, using Fang Yuanhang as a human shield before he continued, "If we keep waiting until all the leaves are gold, we'll definitely get tied up by a new case."
Fang Yuanhang and Xiao Man nodded their complete agreement.
"Can you guys not jinx it?" Ming Shu laughed. "You guys have one day without a case, and you just can't stay still, huh?"
"We're just planning ahead for a rainy day," Xing Mu explained while carefully studying Ming Shu.
Ming Shu wasn't the sort of leader who disliked going on outings with his team. Although he really wasn't interested in net-famous destinations like Mount Qiyue, everyone else clearly wanted to go, so he would tag along with them. "This week, then? Will we go and come back on the same day, or will we stay a night?"
"I want to stay a night," Fang Yuanhang said. He was the most enthusiastic one. "The only place that takes lodgers on the mountain is Haijing Temple. If we book ahead now, we might be able to get some beds. If not, it isn't too cold yet. We could bring tents and camp out."
Ming Shu didn't actually want to stay overnight. He had Xiao Yu'an at home. Why on earth would he want to sleep in a tent?
But it seemed everyone else wanted to spend the night on the mountain.
Ming Shu could only relent, "Then we'll stay a night."
The group was just about to scatter when Fang Yuanhang said, "Chief, why don't we invite Director Xiao?"
Xing Mu's expression instantly changed.
Ming Shu could tell right away what that new, horrified expression meant—
Wasn't inviting one superior enough? Why do we have to invite another?
"Director Xiao, huh," Ming Shu mused. "Director Xiao is the boss. Inviting him on this sort of excursion isn't all that convenient."
Xing Mu quietly nodded.
Fang Yuanhang privately thought, Oi! You guys don't get many opportunities to be together, and I'm trying to make those opportunities for you. Is there any rookie who worries as much as me? You're already having a work affair like a rabbit nibbling the grass outside its den, but you still insist on putting on an act?
Ming Shu had interrogated countless people before, and he was good at reading them. But this time, he genuinely didn't see through to his rookie's true intentions.
Fang Yuanhang gave it another shot. "Director Xiao helped guide us on both of our last two major cases. If we all go on an autumn outing without at least telling him, that would be way too rude, right?"
Ming Shu thought, How do you know I'm not going to tell him? You think I would go somewhere and not tell him?
"Then I'll mention it to him," Ming Shu said earnestly. "But he most likely won't come."
Xing Mu let out a breath of relief.
That afternoon, Ming Shu went upstairs to look for Xiao Yu'an. He just so happened to run into Liang Zhao coming out of the deputy director's office.
"Captain Liang," Ming Shu greeted of his own volition.
Compared to the last few times they ran into each other, Liang Zhao seemed to be in a much better mood today. There was actually a smile on that fierce, scarred face of his.
Liang Zhao nodded a greeting. "Looking for Director Xiao?"
"My team has something they'd like to chat with Director Xiao about," Ming Shu said.
"Then go on in," Liang Zhao said, turning to make way. "I have something else to attend to. I'll be taking off first."
Ming Shu watched Liang Zhao go downstairs before turning and knocking on the door to the office.
Xiao Yu'an was in the middle of reading a file. When he saw it was Ming Shu, he casually asked, "What's up?"
Ming Shu shoved the team's plans to visit Mount Qiyue to the back of his mind. Instead, he asked, "Did Captain Liang need something from you?"
"He's going to be transferred to the Bei District precinct for a while," Xiao Yu'an said. He set aside the file in his hands. "He wanted to hand over some of his tasks here to me."
"The precinct?" Ming Shu was a bit surprised. For one thing, he'd never heard any rumors of this move before. For another, how could Liang Zhao possibly be willing to be transferred out to a district precinct?
"Bei District is going to be hosting an international tech expo in December, right?" Xiao Yu'an reminded Ming Shu. "The need for top-notch security at that event is pressing. Captain Liang took the initiative to request a temporary transfer from Director Li. He'll be going out there to take charge of the security team."
Ming Shu was still a bit surprised. "That's not Captain Liang's usual style."
"Captain Liang is trying to figure out how to change and improve himself, I suppose," Xiao Yu'an said. "It seems he still wants to climb higher."
Ming Shu figured he didn't need to worry about the changes that only affected these higher-ups, so he moved on from the subject and brought up the trip to Mount Qiyue.
As expected, Xiao Yu'an said, "You guys go ahead. If I'm there, your men won't be able to relax and have fun."
Ming Shu had already passed the age of wanting to stick to Xiao Yu'an every second of every day. He didn't spiral into despair over Xiao Yu'an's polite refusal. He only smiled and said, "I suddenly feel a bit guilty."
"Because you'll be abandoning me at home, alone?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu gesticulated wildly and corrected, "Because I'm making a fierce, vivacious man in the prime of his life stay home alone, lonely and miserable!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Why didn't you become a comedian?"
"I would have to put on a show for the whole world if I became a comedian," Ming Shu explained, like the answer should have been obvious. "As a police officer, I can perform for you and only you in my free time. How's that?"
"How's what?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Doesn't it make you feel like you've picked up a real treasure?" Ming Shu asked.
"Sure, sure, sure," Xiao Yu'an agreed indulgently. "I've picked up a dazzling treasure that can solve cases and crack jokes."
Fang Yuanhang had followed a Weibo account that posted daily updates on the tourist sites around Dongye City. Each day, he checked in to see how yellow the ginkgo tree leaves on Mount Qiyue had become. Since the weather hadn't cooled down all that much yet, the leaves were slow to turn golden that year.
Mount Qiyue was only really popular in the month when the ginkgo tree leaves were at their most vibrant shade of gold. It was too cold to climb the mountain in the winters, and in the springtime there was nothing all that unique about the place. Plus, it was hard to get out there, so not many people visited in the off season.
At this time—
"I told you we should wait another week or two before coming out here. You just wouldn't listen!" Zhao Siyan complained. She wore a pure white athletic outfit; even her sneakers were completely white. A Nikon SLR camera hung from a strap around her neck. As she huffed and puffed her way up the mountain, she continued to complain, "Look around for yourself. Wasn't this trip a waste?"
"How is it a waste?" Lu Chen asked. She was following along behind Zhao Siyan, wearing a bright red tracksuit and black sneakers. "Don't you get tired of staying at school all day and night? We should have come out for some fresh air ages ago. The air is so good here. Even if the leaves aren't really yellow yet, breathing in this fresh air is good for us.
"Besides, just look at how far we've gotten. Barely anywhere! We're not even halfway up the mountain yet. Of course the leaves down here aren't gold. I just know they'll be gorgeous at the top of the mountain!"
Zhao Siyan suddenly stopped and turned back, fuming. "Good god, you want me to climb to the top of the mountain? Are you even human?"
"Go, go!" Lu Chen laughed and jogged up a few steps, catching up and pushing Zhao Siyan along. "Stop dawdling. You're all dressed up in sporty clothes and sporty shoes already. Aren't you in the mood for a walk? Just listen to me, listen to me. Keep moving, you won't regret it!"
Mount Qiyue wasn't normally supervised. It was only on the busiest days of the year that the local town would send some government officials out to keep the peace.
It was currently still a long, long time away from the busiest days of the year.
In order to get some beautiful pictures, the two women continued to encourage each other on their way up the mountain. When they reached Haijing Temple at the halfway mark, Lu Chen suggested going inside and resting their feet for a while. They could also ask the monks about what the top of the mountain was like.
"It's best not to climb any higher," said a young monk. "The leaves at the peak should all be golden by now, but very few people climb higher from here. There are no roads, and it's already late in the day. By the time you reach the peak, it'll definitely be dark. It isn't safe for you two women."
"It's fine!" Lu Chen insisted. "We're both tough gals!"
The two of them were determined to climb onwards, to the peak. There was nothing the monk could do to stop them. He could only advise them to be careful and stay safe.
At around seven that night, the sun had already set.
The mountains weren't anything like the city. In the city, street lights continued to illuminate the night. But on Mount Qiyue, the sunset beckoned complete darkness.
Zhao Siyan started to feel afraid. "We should go back. I'm about to freeze to death."
Lu Chen wasn't as bold as when they first started to scale the mountain either. She held Zhao Siyan's hand as they started making their way back down.
Scaling the mountain had been much easier than climbing down. Ascending was just a matter of physical effort. Descending in the dark, however, was much more treacherous. The darkness was so absolute that it was difficult to see where to step.
The most frightening thing was that their cell phones were out of range. They had no service.
Zhao Siyan suddenly slipped and fell. Mud and moss stained her snow white tracksuit.
"I'm scared…" She had started to cry. "What do we do?"
"You wait for me here. I'll go down and see where we can walk." Lu Chen held a thick branch in one hand. She'd picked it up along the way. "Don't panic. If we can get up, we can definitely get back down."
Zhao Siyan started to sob even harder. "Don't go!"
"If I don't go find a road for us, neither of us will get down this mountain tonight!" Lu Chen retorted. "I won't go too far. As soon as I find a path, I'll come back for you. Then we'll find the next path together."
Zhao Siyan didn't want to agree, but she had no choice.
Lu Chen turned back and smiled at Zhao Siyan beneath a sliver of moonlight. She feigned a relaxed and carefree tone as she said, "We were tricked by that big influencer. You can't see the ginkgo leaves under the moonlight at all! Who knows how much light they had to add for that picture. We'll never trust those influencers again!"
Zhao Siyan anxiously urged, "Hurry back as soon as you find a road!"
"I got it, I got it."
Zhao Siyan watched Lu Chen walk away. Lu Chen slowly disappeared into the dark. Left alone, Zhao Siyan felt her heart pound harder and harder.
"Chenchen?" Zhao Siyan stood up from the ground and tentatively started to walk through the dark. "Chenchen, are you there?"
Lu Chen didn't answer, and no other sounds of footsteps sounded out anywhere nearby.
Zhao Siyan's heart began to race, and her voice started to tremble and shake—
"Chenchen! Answer me!"