"Useless! You're all good-for-nothings!
There were so many of you and only two of them. How could you let them escape? Not only were two officers wounded, a gun is also missing!
One gun, four bullets! Do you have any idea what that means?"
Inside the office of a county leader, an official was yelling and banging on the table with a scarlet face, completely ignoring proper manners. Sitting across the table were chiefs of relevant county departments.
They could not utter a single word at the reprimand. It was indeed a frustrating incident. Had the people of Poplar Village not found them in time, both police officers would have died at the scene. Even so, they were still lying in the ICU, with their lives hanging in balance.
It was terrible! Losing both of them would make this a major case and there would be disciplinary actions taken against a lot of people.
The chiefs lowered their heads and listened in silence, which irritated the official even further. He bellowed again. "Say something; make suggestions! Aren't you all so good at playing with words?"
They made a faint attempt to smile while exchanging knowing looks, all too smart to set themselves up as a ready target.
Anger brought grim laughter out of the official. He was about to lash out at them again when someone tapped at the door and his secretary entered, announcing with a slightly flurried look, "They, they've sent someone from the city!"
The official's face darkened abruptly. He had only reported to the municipal authorities this morning and they had already dispatched people here at noontime. Exactly how serious was the situation?
He was pretty fed up by the whole thing himself as well. With his level of clearance, he had no access to the classified information and could only follow orders. He not only had almost lost two men, but was also given a tongue-lashing by his superior with no clear reason whatsoever.
Such thoughts crossed his mind as he stood up, ready to welcome the visitor in person. The door opened again and a group of four or five people poured into the room.
"I, I didn't know you were coming."
Seeing the man leading the team, the official shuddered with terror. The other people also rose to their feet right away, almost too frightened to breathe.
The man darted a look at him and made no comment. Instead, he gave a direct order, "From now on, I'm the one calling shots here."
The sun shone brightly. White clouds lingered in the sky.
On a long-distance bus from Shu Zhou to Luobi, two fellows were looking out of the window in boredom. They had had enough sightseeing during their journey so far—the view outside did not interest them all that much.
The only things that stood out were the red steel pipes on either side of the road, all as thick as water buckets. They had no idea what they were used for. Gu Yu had been eyeing them for quite some time, but could not come up with an explanation. He mumbled, "What on earth are those?"
"Is this your first time here?"
An auntie sitting nearby interjected and explained to them enthusiastically. "They were used for transporting salty water. Luobi used to be a salt production county. The pipes would carry the salt to Wuqiao (TL/N: meaning "five bridges") Town. The water was processed there and made into well salt, then sold to other places."
"Do they still use them for that now?"
"Not anymore. You can buy salt anywhere nowadays!" The auntie chuckled.
"Yeah, you're right."
Politely, Gu Yu laughed with her.
The bus drove for another while before reaching the intersection towards Luobi County, where two police cars parked by the road. A police officer beckoned at the driver.
"Stop for inspection!"
Bewildered, the driver opened the door as ordered and a police officer got on board. "Sorry for the hold up. It won't take long. Please take out your ID cards for inspection."
"They weren't here when I came yesterday."
"What's going on?"
Rumblings of complaint broke out among the passengers, which the police ignored. One by one, he checked their ID cards.
Everyone else checked out, when it was Gu Yu and Xiaozhai's turn, the police noticed their registered permanent residence. Shengtian? The city was in northeast China, several thousand kilometers away.
"What are you doing here in Luobi? The police officer asked.
"Travelling," replied Gu Yu.
Scanning them with his eyes, the police was convinced by their backpacker outfits. He handed them back their ID cards and instructed, "Take care of yourselves out there. Come to us if you need any help."
"We're done here. Thank you for your cooperation. You may go now."
"Cooperation my ass!"
Cursing under his breath, the driver started up the bus and drove on.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were here because on the Ship-shaped Street in the ancient town of Luobi County, there was a Temple of Spiritual Official.
According to "Treasured Admonition of Patriarch Sa", "Sa Shoujian used to travel to the west land and Longxing to preach. He gave out money and made medicine to help the people, accumulating merits and virtues to achieve the Great Dao. He passed doctrines to an iron figure and obtained the thunder books of the Jade-centered Thunder Mansion. He promoted the teachings and educated others on behalf of the gods. With the Jujube Incantation and talismans, he helped a lot of people."
The west land mentioned above was referring to Shu Zhou. As for the iron figure, that was a pupil of his, named Wang Shan.
The Jujube Incantation was a Taoist skill the specific practice of which was lost. Basically, he blessed jujubes with their seeds removed. The patients would be cured after eating the jujubes.
For every jujube, he charged seven copper coins only. Of all the income he earned each day from blessing over a hundred jujubes, he would keep seventy coins and give the rest to the poor, so as to achieve the utmost virtue by doing good deeds.
Wang Shan, his pupil, later inherited Xihe Sect and became an accomplished cultivator himself. He was listed among the five hundred Spiritual Officials and was claimed to be the number one protector of Taoism.
The Temple of Spiritual Official in Luobi County was devoted to Wang Shan. The county also claimed itself to be the birthplace of Xihe Sect.
Sa Shoujian had traveled a fair amount, leaving his legacy along the way. Many claimed to be his pupils, but one could not tell the real ones from the impostors. Since Luobi County also made such claim, Gu Yu and Xiaozhai decided to take a look.
Getting off the bus, they found a random hotel and checked into, well, two separate rooms.
After a brief rest and reorganization, they went strolling on the streets. They sensed an unusual atmosphere; looking around, they could see the locals walking around sharing an air of tacit understanding. The gossipy look of "have you heard" was written all over their faces.
A few others dressed ordinarily were lingering at various crossings and intersections, keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings at all times. Having nothing better to do, Xiaozhai counted these people. On their way from the hotel to the Ship-shaped Street, they had passed at least six of them, whom they suspected to be plainclothes.
There was no fair in the ancient town today, but the streets were still full of hustle and bustle. Peddlers took up their respective spots along the streets, advertising their wares.
"Ironed rice cakes!"
"Cooked glutinous rice, rice cakes wrapped in leaves, very good price!"
"Cheap mutton soup, ten yuan per bowl!"
Shops flanking the streets were equally boisterous, if not more so. Loudspeakers were blasting "agricultural heavy metal" from every single window. There were shops selling everything from garments and snacks to general merchandise, as well as hotels, teahouses, shoemakers, etc. Among those, teahouses were the most numerous; there was over a dozen of them.
They walked into one. The waiter came up to them immediately with a grinning face. "Please have a seat. We have dried fruit, preserves, tea, and confectioneries. What would you like?"
"A pot of green tea and two plates of dried fruit, please," said Xiaozhai.
Gu Yu, on the other hand, looked out to the street at a stall, where mutton soup was being stewed in a large pot and big pancakes sizzled on a flat pan.
"May I eat the mutton soup here?" He asked.
"Of course!" The waiter replied without hesitation.
Thus, Xiaozhai drank her tea while he enjoyed his mutton soup. Both were content.
A few others were also in the teahouse, all elders chatting with an accent they could not understand. Being familiar with the hospitable and talkative characteristics of Shu Zhou locals, they started a conversation on purpose.
"Public order is very well maintained here in Luobi. I've seen several police officers along the way."
"Exactly. Of all the places we've been to, this is the only time our ID got checked. Such a fuss!"
"That's not fair. Surely no one likes the trouble, but it was to ensure our safety."
As they played out their script, the elders were indeed hooked. One of the old men couldn't hold back his comment and interjected, "Are you two tourists? To tell you the truth, it wasn't like this before. It just so happens that it all started today."
"From what I heard, something happened last night and several policemen were dead," another one chimed in.
"You got it wrong! My nephew went home after the drama last night and was woken up in the middle of the night. He heard them saying someone fired a gun and didn't dare to go out. Someone else went, and came back talking about two people on the ground covered in blood…" yet another third elder provided his accurate version.
While the grandpas got themselves excited, our two unabashed fellows listened quietly. However, the story was becoming weirder as they listened on, with mentions of scratch marks and mangled bodies, reminding them of the homicide case.
Fascinating. These two had apparently turned into the perpetual schoolchildren, running into accidents wherever they went. 
 TL/N: "the perpetual schoolboy" is a nickname given to the anime character Edogawa Conan.