Fang Zhao didn't know what kind of gossip the security guards on the cruise ship were trading about him. He was preoccupied with the prospect of running into Director Roman at the auction later in the day. How many competitors were also in the running? How would he deal with them?
Thanks to habits formed during the Period of Destruction, Fang Zhao was a fast eater, although he had already slowed down significantly to cope with his current life. Still, he was faster than the others. He started noticing curious glances thrown his way, but they bore no ill will, so he didn't mind.
After finishing his meal, Fang Zhao checked the time. There was still a while to go before the auction started, so he called Zuo Yu for an update.
Zuo Yu had no news on Roman's whereabouts but had overheard some folks mentioning the director in conversation. They all knew about the auction, so odds were Fang Zhao would run into quite a few like-minded folks at the auction.
After hanging up, it was about time, but just as he was getting ready to get up and leave, Fang Zhao heard his name called with a soft laugh. "Fang Zhao?"
He lifted his head to see a beautiful blonde girl take a seat across from him. She was holding half a cup of fruit tea whose aroma was wafting through the air.
The blonde girl stared at Fang Zhao. "I know who you are. I saw you at the Fiery Bird annual gala that year in Huangzhou. My friend and I are fans of yours!"
Even though she sounded quite emotional and her facial expressions were exaggerated, her gaze was relatively calm.
Fang Zhao had come across many crazy fans in Yanzhou. He could tell instantly that the blonde girl before him was faking it.
Then again, her indifference was also understandable. Someone who showed up on a luxury cruise ship filled with rich people in Teasandsea had to come from money. list celebrities were regular sightings, so Fang Zhao was nothing to write home about.
Also, judging from her pattern of speech, Fang Zhao guessed she was from Huangzhou. Apart from her snobbish tone and her comment, there was also her syntax and accent.
"What are you doing here? You're not..." The blonde leaned in, her bright blue eyes staring at Fang Zhao flirtatiously. "Are you here for Director Roman too?"
Fang Zhao glanced at the girl, probably still in secondary school, and arched his eyebrows slightly. He was about to answer when he heard the blonde continue.
"It's OK if you don't own up to it. Totally understandable. Eight out of the 10 actors I ran into today are here for Roman. The auction is about to start. I won't keep you. Why don't you sign me an autograph as a keepsake? I have two friends who are also your fans. Pity they are out shopping."
She claimed to want Fang Zhao's autograph, but she had absolutely nothing for him to sign, not a piece of paper or anything, not even a pen.
Fang Zhao stared at her in silence.
Realizing she didn't have anything handy, the blonde took off her jacket and tossed it in front of Fang Zhao, without any hint of embarrassment. "Sign here."
The blonde girl wore a skimpy tank top that revealed a big chunk of her midriff, her look typical of the type of wholesome beauty common during teenage rebellion—part innocent, part sexy.
She rotated her teacup with one hand and twirled her hair with another as she gauged Fang Zhao with a mischievous smile. She wanted to jam Fang Zhao in a moment of embarrassment or awkwardness, or any other type of discomfort.
Fang Zhao glanced at the young woman, raised his arms to shut a nearby window and asked a waiter to bring a pen that would leave a permanent mark on clothing. He signed quickly and returned the jacket.
"The evening breeze is very chilly. The temperature gets quite low outside."
The blonde blanked. It clearly wasn't the response she had been expecting. She picked up her autographed jacket without so much as a glance and said, "Do you have anything else to say to me?"
Fang Zhao pondered, then, with a kind smile, responded, "Have you finished your homework yet?"
That comment came across even chillier than the sea breeze.
The blonde froze, a look of astonishment replacing her mischievous smile. She hadn't expected Fang Zhao to say something like that.
She was a rising year-six secondary student, the equivalent of a rising senior under the education system of the Old Era. The workload at most New Era secondary schools was typically quite heavy in the summer between year five and year six. Summer vacation wasn't over yet in Huangzhou, and the new term was about to start. The summer workload was indeed significant, something even a rich kid had to cope with, not to mention the fact she still hadn't finished her summer homework.
The blonde girl stopped smiling. She frowned, hissed, and stormed out.
Fang Zhao sighed. "I really don't know what's going on in the heads of kids these days."
He was just about to leave when he got another call.
It was a number he didn't recognize, but it was tagged verified. Fang Zhao put it through.
"Fang Zhao? This is Eric, head of security here on Teasandsea Cruise Ship No. 9."
A pale-looking Eric was sitting in his office. After receiving the tip from Fang Zhao, he had dug up footage of the suspicious-looking man, and he had found the man questionable as well. He had sent officers to pick the man up while keeping an eye on the surveillance footage, but lo and behold, the suspect had disappeared and his men couldn't track him down.
Meanwhile, Eric had gotten word after ordering a thorough inspection of the entire vessel that two heavily injured sailors had been found unconscious in a storeroom. They would have been lost causes had they been found any later.
After confirming that something was going down, Eric had ordered his men to locate the suspect while continuing the inspection and keeping up appearances.
But the suspect was slick as a piece of hot butter. Taking advantage of his stature, he had blended into the crowd seamlessly. Before they had known it, he had been gone.
Even though the cruise ship was fitted with many security cameras, the cruise ship's wealthy patrons had their concerns about privacy. The cameras were mainly installed in public places and some of the shopping malls. Not every inch of the ship was under surveillance.
What if they lost the suspect?
What if they couldn't track him down?
Should Eric expand the search?
He had to keep looking and deploy more men, but at the same time, Eric decided to contact Fang Zhao as well.
People had different strengths. Some folks could pick up a scent from miles away, like cemetery guards, for example. No quality of disguise could fool their eyes and their inexplicable instincts.
Given the fact that it was Fang Zhao who had called in the tip, considering he seemed to have instincts that rivaled a cemetery guard's, then why not ask him to assist? Eric looked up Fang Zhao's personnel records. He had to be quite competent to have been promoted to officer grade during one brief year of military service. As much hyperbole as the news reports contained, they had some grounding in facts.
So Eric decided to utilize whatever assets he had at his disposal, lest any go to waste. Otherwise, he might have yet another unsolved crime on his hands.
Because incidents like this were too common.
Not to mention that many of the tycoons aboard had their own bodyguards. They didn't give a d*mn about anything that didn't concern them. Who cared if someone might be missing, if someone's life hung in the balance? As long as they had fun and partied hard, nothing else mattered provided the cruise ship's security detail didn't get in the way.
So even if Eric wanted to expand his investigation, he would meet resistance. That was another reason he wanted to ask Fang Zhao for help. It was a hassle-free, efficient, and low-profile solution.
After briefing Fang Zhao on the situation, Eric made clear his request for help.
Fang Zhao looked at the time. The auction was about to begin.
He responded decisively. "No problem. Did you pick up a trail? Where did you lose him?"
As he listened to Eric's voice through his headset, Fang Zhao headed in the opposite direction of the auction, leaving the restaurant in a hurry.
In another corner of the restaurant, the blonde girl who had just asked Fang Zhao for his autograph was meeting up with her friends and giving them the lowdown on her encounter.
A pair of siblings, fraternal twins, craned their necks and surveyed their surroundings.
"Zhao God is here too?"
"Where, where, where?"
The blonde girl hadn't lied about the fact that her friends were Fang Zhao's fans. The twins were fans indeed, and of the more fanatic variety at that. The got emotional upon hearing that Fang Zhao was also on the cruise ship.
"He left. I just saw him head that way in a hurry." The blonde girl pointed her finger in the direction Fang Zhao had gone.
Then the girl realized something was wrong. "That's not the direction of the auction. So he's not here for Roman after all? Was I wrong?"
"That's right. I heard the director of 'Founding Era' is on board and that he is scheduled to attend the auction," another person said. "Speaking of Fang Zhao, I remember voting for him in an online poll on who should be cast as Fang Zhao. I did it for fun, but to be serious, there's no way he will be cast."
The twins were already disappointed that Fang Zhao had left. That comment was the last straw.
"Why wouldn't my Zhao God be cast?"
"Yeah, of course he might be."
The twins were determined to defend their idol.
They had started out as gaming fans. After a series of events, they had become Fang Zhao's diehard fans. All their friends knew.
Once the topic of their idol came up, any semblance of reason or decorum went out the window. To put it bluntly, they went from normal people to psychos instantly.
Young people were prone to getting emotional, especially teenagers. Once they got started, there was no talking sense into them.
The friends who had just said that Fang Zhao was a long shot raised their hands in surrender. "OK, we're not going to argue with diehard fans like you. The cast will be announced soon. Nothing speaks louder than the facts."
In fact, the twins weren't total idiots. Of course they knew that a blockbuster project like this had strict standards. Fang Zhao had an edge in gaming, but when it came to movies, he really had nothing going for him. The twins just didn't want to concede defeat in front of their friends.
Never mind how boisterous they were in defending their idol, now that they had calmed down and reason had set in, the twins moped and sighed silently.
"Sigh, how come 'Founding Era' can't be postponed for a few decades? Who knows, by then Fang Zhao might be a much bigger star. He might be a contender then, but now is a bit early."
But matters concerning "Founding Era," its casting decisions, and so on, weren't things these kids had a say in.
The twins consoled themselves by saying, "Why don't we save up our allowance and fund a TV series for our idol?"