Hekou 1 Town, past noontime.
Moving away from Shengtian to the east, five towns and a city away stood Hekou Town, from where further to the east was the territory of the city of Dongyun. Grass River ran through Bai Town and joined another major river here, hence the town's alternative name, "Mouth of Grass River".
The town was a long and narrow island situated at the junction of two rivers. A dam was built on the north end of the town, linking the town to the mainland. There were bridges downstream of the river, which also connected the island with the mainland.
There were over twenty thousand peach trees on the island. The mountains were covered by blooming peach flowers in springtime. The brilliant purples and reds were in contrast with the green of the river, creating an enchanting picture. The local government was also vigorously promoting the development of tourism, holding "Peach Flower Festival" at the end of April, which attracted an endless string of tourists every year.
This year, however, something had to be out of the ordinary, for it was only late March and the peach flowers were in full bloom already. As a result, the busy outdoor activity groups started pouring in.
"Help yourselves and enjoy the food. We'll have some free time this afternoon and there's a bonfire party tonight. Everybody is invited!"
"Like we actually need an invitation. We've paid for that, of course we're coming!"
"Leader, I heard they had roasted a whole lamb here. Let's try one of those, shall we?"
"Sure. Let me go have a look. We'll order one if the price is reasonable."
It was a group of around thirty people. They were come from Shengtian and arrived at Hekou Town at noon. After an "all-fish banquet" in a country villa, they set off to tour the island.
Individual peach flower trees were glitzy and gaudy, but when tens of thousands of them were stacked together, the blossoming flowers were so bright and shiny that they reminded one of the rosy evening clouds.
Trees upon trees of pink delicate buds swayed in the spring breeze like a bright-eyed maiden stretching out her slim figure. The subtle fragrance filled the air, spreading out from the hills and fields all the way to the fishing boats on the river.
"Move a little to your left. Good, now look at the camera."
A young woman took a photo of her parents, which she was very satisfied with. She smiled and commented, "A good picture is all about the background. Just look at this tree, how pret-"
She suddenly let go of her hand, dropping the camera to the ground and her body swaying a little with it.
"An An, what's wrong?" her mom asked hastily.
"Nothing, just a little dizzy." Pressing her hand against her forehead, she felt her sight was taken up by a turning kaleidoscope. She barely managed to make that reply.
"It must be your low blood sugar. Here, sit down and have a rest."
Supported by her dad, she was led to their picnic cloth, where she sat down. Her dad fumbled out a piece of chocolate and handed to her. Just then, not far from them, there came some other noise.
He turned around and saw a young couple, who were also feeling sick and started vomiting while supporting themselves against a tree. The fish, soup, and other stuff they ate during the lunch were all gushing out of their throats.
The father frowned and was thinking of moving their picnic spot, when he realized a cacophony of worrying voices were starting off all over them. Other team members nearby also began to run fevers, vomit, feel dizzy, or even passed out right away.
The team leader rushed to them in a hurry and was frightened by the scene. "Damn! It must be food poisoning!"
"Let's return to the country villa now. Don't stay here anymore!"
"Please help each other out, especially with those travelling alone."
Following him, the group of people stumbled back to the country villa. One of the quick tempered man yelled right away. "Where's the owner? Get the f**k out here!"
"What's wrong? What's going on?"
The owner showed up, glaring at whoever that was cursing, ready for a squabble. The state of the tourists, however, let him abandon that thought right away. "Oh my god, I have nothing to do with this!"
"Bullshit! We were eating here only just then. Who else's business do you think this is?"
"You're not blaming this on me! My fish are all natural and pollutant-free. So many people have eaten here before!"
"Help these people first. Call an ambulance!" Onlookers persuaded.
"How is an ambulance going to take all these men? We're sending them straight to the hospital. We can use the bus!"
With that, the bunch of people scrambled onto the bus, while the shouting fellow
fellow grabbed the owner, "You're coming with me!"
The owner was by now tame as a baby chicken. He dared not protest, but only pleaded continuously, "Mate, I promise I'll take full responsibility if my food really did this. Just please don't call the cops, or my business is finished!"
Shengtian, the municipal government district.
Sitting in his office, Jiang Chaofan was furtively flipping through a book while looking up every now and then to make sure no one was watching.
Despite the identical surname, he had no connection with Xiaozhai's family. Instead, his work was to some extent set against the interest of hers, for he was a member of the Fourth Investigation Department of the sub-bureau of the BIMAUP.
The Investigation Department generally recruited its members from the police or military, which was exactly where he had come from. Before coming here, he was an expert in criminal investigation.
Of all thirty-six sub-bureaus all over the country, the most important ones where those in the capital city and Shengtian—the former for its capital status and the latter for those two "majesties" residing there, whom the bureau had to take extra precautions against. Being the deputy director of the Fourth Department, Jiang Chaofan was among the middle-level cadres and had his own private office.
Right now, however, the book he was holding was somewhat conspicuous. It was called "The Great Dao Scripture on Truth".
It was a Taoist scripture openly circulated in the market, talking about seemingly profound theories and anecdotes of the immortals, as well as persuading people to pursuit the Great Dao. He bought it three days ago and was halfway through it. The prose was in the ancient style, which he was unfamiliar with. Thus, despite the explanatory notes, it was still a rather difficult read.
"A young girl in azure clothes was riding an azure dragon, who gave the white tiger to the golden old man. The three flowers were blooming brightly in Shenxiao Manor, while two cranes lingered about Taiyi 2 Palace. With everything related to the five elements, so came the five misfortunes…"
Scratching his head, Jiang Chaofan turned the paragraph over in his mind.
The "Young Girl", "Azure Dragon", "White Tiger" and "Golden Old Man" in the paragraph were in fact all Taoist terms. With Neidan practice, the liver was the dragon and the kidney the tiger. While in Waidan practice, dragon denoted lead and tiger was mercury. The "Young Girl" shared the same meaning as "Azure Dragon" and "Golden Old Man" was synonymous to "White Tiger".
"Tsk, this is such a wordy book. Did they write in this way just to make it rhyme?"
It took him a while to break down the meaning of the paragraph, to which he shook his head. There was nothing substantial in it and all the book wrote about were general and vague theories. Ideas that could be explained with one explicit sentence were expressed in the most bizarre way.
Another few pages later, there came a creak from his door, which was then pushed open and someone walked in. "Old Jiang, it's
Jiang, it's time for our meeting!"
"Ah? Ooh… right! I'm coming!"
Jiang Chaofan jumped. He closed the book in a flurry and tucked it behind the bookshelf as if it were nothing worth mentioning. He then stood up and asked, "What meeting? Why wasn't I notified?"
"The group message has not been sent out yet. I only just got told myself."
The colleague was a sharp-eyed man and had actually got a good look at the book, but pretended he did not. The atmosphere between the two felt delicate as they walked to the conference room together; a tacit understanding was in the air.
The recovery of spiritual essence was public information in the BIMAUP. For various reasons, different individuals got curious and started to take interest in Taoist scriptures.
The superiors knew all about the trend, which they showed no intention to intervene with. However, it was not like anyone was bold enough to openly read them.
The two arrived at the conference room. Not many people were there and the participants were all heads and deputies of sub-bureaus and departments—all officials of middle level or above. The director in charge of the Shengtian bureau was called Xie Yuenian, a keen-witted, capable and level-headed man, much more reliable than that Old Tong in Urumqi.
It was a no-nonsense occasion. The projector was snapped into life and a few pictures were displayed.
One of the departmental heads explained, "This is the information we collected during the past two months after Spring Festival. The first one is on lilacs in Wudao River, the second one magnolia in Sidao River, and the third one peach flowers in Grass River Mouth.
They are all supposed to be in full bloom in April, but have decided to move the date forward this year. By the end of March, they were all in the prime of their blooming."
The pictures were turned away, showing a datagram instead: with Bai Town in the center, Yidao River—Wudao River—Shengtian to the east and Grass River Mouth—Dongquan Town—Langtou County to the west.
Each area was marked with a different color to indicate the density of the spiritual essence.
"We've been keeping these places under tight surveillance following the spiritual essence map. Apart from the areas mentioned above, plants in other places are also showing the sign of ripening and maturing in advance, but there were no abnormalities in most places, except for here…"
The pictures were changed again, now showing the panoramic map of Hekou Town.
"A tour group was there the day before yesterday. Of the thirty-or-so members of the group, over twenty exhibited various degrees of symptoms such as dizziness, fever, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.
Our colleagues stationed there have reported that another small tour group showed those symptoms yesterday. But test results from the hospital showed no sign of food-poisoning."
"Then what caused it?" Someone could not hold back the question.
The departmental head shook his head. "I have no idea."
With that answer, all faces in the room darkened. No more explanation was needed. The police could not deal with such incident, which naturally made the work of the bureau. But, to be honest, they were no more capable than the police despite their jurisdiction.
That was what embarrassed the BIMAUP the most—the members were all normal people. How should they proceed with "unscientific" incidents like this? They could not bomb it down with rocket artillery every time.
As a result, the members were all troubled by a paradoxical and shameful feeling: despite the importance the state put on them, they were not all that useful—at least for the time being.
"I think we should go there and investigate," suggested a departmental head.
"I think not. I don't mean to be harsh, but all we can do is lose someone again."
"What about reporting it to the HQ?"
"They certainly can send people down here. But if we keep doing that, what are we here for?"
Everyone was talking at the same time, each with their own opinion. No conclusion was coming out of it.
Xie Yuenian, who had kept his silence the whole time, frowned at the chaos. He knocked on the table to get people's attention. "That's enough! I can see through each one of you. There's no need to pretend.
We have to acknowledge that our capability is very limited at the moment, which is nothing to be ashamed of. I know it's a very stressful job working here in Shengtian. But looking from another angle, it also gives us a convenient access!
Problems need solving and we'll look for help elsewhere if we can't deal it ourselves. It's a legitimate solution. Don't overthink it."
"But they, they have their own…" The deputy director tried to remind him.
"Exchange! I know all about that. We sure can talk about it!"
Xie Yuenian made the decision right then and right there. Scanning the room, he said, "Old Li, Xiao Jiang, I'm assigning the Fourth Department to this job."TL/N: meaning "river mouth" TL/N: meaning "great 2nd Celestial stem"