Before they realized it, the sun was setting and the last bit of sunlight smeared the pale blue sky, tinting the clouds with a magnificent yet dolorous color. The sky was dimming, the blue watered down by a bit of gray.
Old Man He went to visit a neighbor, leaving He He behind to keep Long Qiu company. The little girl had been weak and weary from the heat, but was now all energetic again after taking the medicine.
She was so fond of the sister she had met only twice that she would not let go of Long Qiu's hand. He He asked eagerly, "Sister Qiu, what exactly do you do?"
"What do you think?" Long Qiu chuckled.
"You're a doctor, right? Your herbal tea worked so well that everyone is praising you!"
"Haha, I guess I could call myself a doctor."
Long Qiu digressed from the subject and said, "I'll check up on you in a few days. Two more rounds of the tea and you won't have to worry about getting sick from the heat anymore."
The little girl abruptly jumped to her feet, apparently exhilarated. "Around here, someone's fainting everyday, and it smells really awful. I don't like here at all. I don't like that bitter medicine either. All I want is for us to move out as soon as possible, but I'm afraid I'll get ill and make grandpa worry… Sister Qiu, you're such a good person!"
The girl was rambling a bit, but Long Qiu chuckled at her words. She gave He He's nose a little pinch and said, "We've only met for a couple of times and you already deemed me a good person?"
Despite her young age, He He was sensible enough to understand a few things. Her tone was serious when she said, "I've known those uncles and aunties for ages, but when my family was in trouble, none of them came to help. We didn't know each other before and you're doing all these things to help us. You must be a good person!"
The words felt like a little paw tickling against Long Qiu's chest, melting her heart.
She was about to reply when someone yelled outside, "Hey, why is the power off?"
"It's the blackout! Didn't you see the notice?"
"Oh right, I totally forgot about it. This goddamn weather, it's killing me!"
"Aiya, I forgot about it as well…"
He He made a face. Rummaging through the chests and cupboards, she found a candle. She said happily, "Luckily we still have one left, or I'd have to go buy it."
"What's wrong with buying a candle?" Long Qiu felt He He's remark a bit strange.
"You have no idea what a bad person that shop owner is. He swears at us all the time, as if he's the only one from the city and we're all peasants."
After the candle was lit, she added, "It's the only shop around here. Anyway… anyway, I don't like going there."
Long Qiu did not know how to reply, nor had she ever had such experience. She stayed for a while longer and seeing that it was getting dark, she bid He He farewell and was ready to go back.
He He went to see her off. They were not yet out of the village when several people ran frantically past them, heading outside the village and towards that convenience store. Moments later, a fracas rang out, which was loud enough to hear from the other end of the street.
Long Qiu and He He were both curious and turned to that direction to check it out.
Hongmei Street was also under blackout and the whole place was pitch-dark save for a few candlelights from several shops. A crowd had gathered outside the convenience store, where a woman was crying and yelling, "Give my Xiao Sheng back, you son of a bi*ch! What have you done to my child?"
"Your kid is missing, how am I supposed to know where he is? Stop f**king howling outside my door! Have some decency, will you?"
The shop owner was scarlet with anger and appeared to be rather agitated himself. He shouted, "I'm just selling my stuff here, how is your child my responsibility now? Go away, go away. The shop's closing!"
"He was here to buy candy and was just gone. How dare you say you know nothing about it?"
"Many people come to buy stuff here. There's not even a light around, how could I know which one was your son? Leave me alone now!"
The shop owner seemed to be having a moment of guilty conscience and was barely putting up the act of an angry man when he waved and tried to chase the woman away. The woman was not his match in physical strength and was shoved out of the door. The crowd stood around watching, their chatter buzzing in the air. It was not like they had anything better to do during a blackout.
While being pushed away, the woman suddenly caught sight of something on the ground out of the corner of her eyes.
She let out a fierce scream, picked it up, and struggled her way back in with all her strength. "Say you have no idea where he is again! If anything happens to Xiao Sheng, I'll come back to haunt you even when I'm in hell!"
The crowd moved near to take a closer look. It was a candy with a red wrapper. The candy was only half eaten and was dropped just outside the convenience store.
The indifferent onlookers were now looking at it with a different attitude. Everyone was talking at the same time. "Just tell her what you know. Can't you see how worried she is?"
"Exactly. Just let her know if the kid was out playing somewhere or doing some other things. What if he's in danger?"
"Call the police! Just call the police! Enough with all the bullshit already. The fellow must be in for it!"
Surrounded by the excited crowd, the shop owner lost his composure right away and explained eagerly, "I, I really did not see it clearly. I think a kid came to buy something and just stood there eating right away. Then he was led away by two people. I thought they were a family…"
'So that was what happened!'
He finally told the truth.
The woman went mad right away. Taking other people's child for no reason, these people had to be human traffickers!
She lanced herself at the shop owner, ready to beat him up. The man dodged and retreated into the shop. Among the onlookers, some went to help the woman, while others tried to stop the fight. In a moment, the street exploded like boiling water; all hell broke loose.
In the end, a voice rose above the others as someone shouted, "That's enough! We are wasting time here! Call the police first and everyone start searching! You, stop making scene here. Go find your child!"
"That's right, let's go search for the boy. The name's Xiao Sheng, right?"
"Hey, aren't there surveillance cameras around? Go get the police to check it!"
"The power's off. The cameras are useless!"
The crowd scattered in a hubbub and the shaken woman walked away into the distance, still crying and shouting.
Long Qiu had stayed at the back the entire time and only moved closer now. Looking around, she picked up the candy and held it in her hand. "Remembered the scent yet?"
The reluctant Golden Silkworm protested. 'Sis, I'm not a dog, ok?'
She ignored the complaint and ordered, "Follow the scent, quickly!"
With her currently capability, the Golden Silkworm had no means to act against her will. It went silent for a moment and obediently pointed in a direction. Long Qiu then ran into the alley.
The area was lined with bungalows and not a single soul was around in this pitch-dark night. She looked around, quickened her steps, and leapt into the air, covering a great distance with each stride. With the blink of an eye, she had disappeared into the dark alley.
East side of the city.
The place was at the edge of Bai Town and there were barely any decent buildings around. Most undeveloped or semi-developed lands were in shambles. Inside a low bungalow, a boy lay unconscious on a shabby bed, his hand tied up and his mouth gagged by a rag.
Next to the bed was a set of old table and chairs, where a man and a woman were seated, flapping their fans loudly.
"I can't stand the weather here. Let's finish this job and go back to the south." The man found the heat unbearable.
"We won't be back to the south. Brother Tao said we're moving further north."
"Further north? You might as well drain my bone marrow. I need a break!"
Turning around and glancing at the kid, who was still unconscious, the man grinned. "Hey, what do you think that dumb mother is doing now?"
"Who cares. It's only a kid, she can have another one!" The woman couldn't care less.
The human traffickers usually worked in two groups, one abducting the victims while the other was in charge of selling them. The abductors were the mere footsoldiers and the sellers were higher up on the food chain. For safety's sake, those above never let the subordinates know the whereabouts of the children.
These two had been doing this long enough that they could score several times each month. They would cajole away the easy kids, grab the cleverer ones, and knock out the unruly ones before taking them away. They usually went for the healthy, good-looking ones, for they would sell better.
These people belonged to a roaming band and had just arrived at Bai Town today. They scored on the first day.
"Tsk, why isn't Brother Tao back yet? I'm starving!" The waiting was making the man impatient.
"It's the blackout, I think. He's probably lost."
"This goddamn sh*thole. I won't for the rest of my life—"
Grunting, the man looked outside the window in passing and his face went pale. He thought he saw a figure flitting past the window, but it was definitely not their boss, for he did not hear a car.
Seeing his expression, the woman was quicker to react and grabbed a wooden stick with nails sticking out from it. The man also picked up a steel pipe. They were alerted and combat-ready.
About two seconds later, there came a loud bang, as if the door had been broken by force.
The two opened their eyes widely. The door might be wooden, but it was a very thick board. Who is this person?
Immediately after that, there was a faint noise, as if a hand had snuck in and unlocked the door. Then, with a creak, the door was slowly pulled open.
The shuffling sound of soft soles against the floor was closing in. The two clutched their weapons tighter, ready to meet the enemy.
The door curtain was lifted up and the dim light inside fell upon the visitor. The two looked up and realized with surprise that it was a girl with delicate features, black hair, and long legs.
The two froze, for it was so unexpected that they were having a hard time understanding it.
Long Qiu, on the other hand, entered the room and glanced at the boy before turning towards the pair. "Why did you take him?"
The question baffled them, but it was not the right time to think it over. Having partnered up long enough, they had long established a tacit understanding. An idea came to the woman right away as she grinned. "My dear girl, I think there's a misunderstanding. Look here…"
She moved closer as she talked, trying to distract Long Qiu. The man took the opportunity and raised his hand. "Whoosh!"
The steel pipe smashed fiercely down, aiming at Xiao Qiu's head.
Long Qiu reached out, met the steel pipe with her hand, and twisted it. A sharp pain ran through his wrist and whining, the man let go of the pipe.
With the steel pipe in hand, she struck out and the tip of the pipe landed right in the middle of his chest. The fellow felt as if he had just received a blow from a big hammer and collapsed to the floor. He remained there, motionless.
The woman became even more agitated. She held up the stick, trying to strike Long Qiu with it, but only watched her wrist being twisted with a cracking sound and almost taking a 360-degree turn. Then, something hit her knee and she knelt down with a thump.
In a matter of minutes, the pair was wailing on the ground.
Long Qiu untied the boy. Seeing that he was still unconscious, she held him up and decided to sneak him back into the village. Looking at the two people, she hesitated, but finally did not finish them off. She was out of the door in no time.
Not a trace of light could be seen outside. She was only a few steps away from the house when a car moved near and drove past her. She turned around to look and saw that the car had driven past that house and was moving away, she then forgot about it.
Little did she know, just a few minutes after she left, the car doubled back.
A bald guy got of the car with a gloomy face. He cautiously went up to the house and was about to pull the door open when he halted—he had noticed the big hole on the door and heard the screams inside.
Various expressions flashed across his face. He stood frozen for a few seconds and turned around promptly for his car.
At that moment, something ripped through the air and struck the man right on his shin. With a broken leg, the man stumbled around shortly before he felt a pain on his head and was unconscious.
Carrying the baldy's fat body in one hand, Gu Yu tossed him right into the room, then patted his hand with detestation. "Sigh, she's still too soft hearted and a bit green."
"I like her soft heart. I'm the cruel and merciless one."
While self-mockering, Xiaozhai found a sharp dagger in the car. She was pleased with the discovery. Then with a snapping motion, "Crack!" the dagger was going to the waste bin.
One couldn't blame them for nosing around.
The girl was on her own and the "parents" were bound to worry. They were secretly following her the whole time and nothing escaped their eyes!