The noonday sun was already shining, dispersing the gloom and cold of the black street.
Store owner Yue Qing also moved a chair to his storefront to catch a tan and doze off. He didn’t get much business during the day. Black streets were the liveliest by night, so he didn’t sleep much at night and caught up during the day. This was also when most store owners on black streets rested.
After downing two compressed cakes in large mouthfuls, Fang Zhao eyed the dog sitting by his feet. He had finished its compressed cake and was licking crumbs off the ground. These veteran strays were experts on what was and was not edible. They couldn’t have lived this long on a black street without some basic survival skills.
His appetite satisfied, Fang Zhao relished every second as he sat on the curb and looked to the sky. The sky resembled a bright blue strip, the bright sun unabashedly overlooking the landscape from above. Not a trace of the murkiness and bloodiness of the near-apocalypse.
"This is great."
The apocalypse hadn't panned out after all.
What they called the apocalypse became what people in the New Era dubbed the Period of Destruction. After an extended period of massacres and extinctions, new life sprouted from all things on earth. It was a rebirth of sorts. Human beings were still in charge of the planet.
The world had finally ushered in prosperous times again.
It hadn’t been this peaceful in a very long time. His creative wheels couldn’t help spinning again.
Fang Zhao started to lightly tap the fingers he casually placed on his lap. Very few people noticed, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know what it was all about.
Yue Qing stared for some time but couldn’t make anything out of it. As a veteran, he had been part of quite a few military operations and learned many types of code, but what Fang Zhao tapped wasn’t among the codes he knew.
After staring cluelessly for a while, Yue Qing gave up and continued to nurture his tan.
Some people tapped their fingers unconsciously when they were thinking, but people who knew Fang Zhao could tell that his finger tapping was his way of composing. When he was inspired, he would start composing, but during the apocalypse, he never had the time or space to compose in peace. Pen and paper were out of the question, so Fang Zhao came up with his own method, creating a system of musical notation that took advantage of his impeccable memory. Come to think of it, it was a code of sorts, a code that only Fang Zhao could decipher.
The sun lingered on the black street only very briefly, for about an hour or so, before gradually fading in retreat.
Without the sunshine, the temperature at street level dropped several degrees. But it was already late May and the weather in Yanzhou was quite mild, so some of the elderly residents didn’t head back after getting their tan, chatting with old friends instead. This was their liveliest time of day.
Fang Zhao didn’t want to stay any longer. He returned his plate, his cup, and his chair to the shop.
At that moment, the street chatter suddenly grew louder. The sound of an approaching aircraft could be heard.
Yue Qing raised his head, let out a sardonic laugh, and pointed to the sky. "Your friend has made it big time."
Fang Zhao could see.
A flying car descended.
Flying cars were a luxury item for people who lived near black streets at the bottom of the mass housing blocks. Not everyone could afford one. The fuel it used was more expensive than regular fuel.
Every time a flying car arrived, it was either a mafia boss or someone who had made it.
The elderly people of black streets were very curious about events like this, so when they heard the hovering, they stopped their conversations and watched the arriving car in unison. They wanted to know who had made it and whether they knew the person. If they did, it would confer bragging rights for another 10 days or so.
The people who were sitting on their stools at the flying car’s landing spot had already scattered, creating a clearing for its arrival.
The flying car was emblazoned with a flashy, gaudy wind graphic with seven colors. It was a symbol widely known in Qi’an and even the entire Yanzhou.
"It’s a Neon Culture official car."
"Was someone signed by Neon Culture?"
"Wow, such great fortune, such great fortune. Neon Culture is loaded."
"Someone else from our street was signed by one of the Big Three and became a big star. What was his name? I can’t remember. Anyway, he is rich now."
The three leading entertainment conglomerates in Qi’an were Silver Wing Media, Neon Culture, and Tongshan True Entertainment. Even though it was clear at first glance that the car was an official company car and not a private vehicle, they were talking about the famed Neon Culture here, one of the Big Three. Who would worry about money after joining Neon Culture?
The entertainment industry was a gold mine. That was what the masses thought.
Signing with Neon Culture equaled a change in fortunes, which equaled rolling in cash. That was what most people living on black streets thought.
The original owner of the body had signed with Silver Wing Media as an intern six months before graduation. As for this childhood friend of his, he wasn’t much of a student and his school wasn’t as prestigious as Qi’an Academy of Music, so he wasn’t signed with graduation right around the corner. But now, things were different. People changed.
As Fang Zhao watched the person who emerged from the flying car, his new memory gave him the lowdown on the passenger. Fang Sheng was a childhood friend of his body’s original owner. They were friends who kept no secrets. The original owner was even contemplating using his connections to get his friend hired at Silver Wing after the new talent competition, if not as an artist then as an assistant. In any case, he wouldn’t be unemployed. Yet he was stabbed in the back by his friend in the end.
Now Fang Sheng had replaced his cheap wardrobe and came and went in a flying car. It wasn’t a high-end flying car, but it was still a flying car, and a Neon Culture company car at that. That was enough to draw attention on a black street.
Fang Sheng stole the fruit of his friend’s hard work and leveraged it into a contract with Neon Culture. It looked like Neon Culture was happy with the songs Fang Sheng submitted; otherwise, they wouldn’t have sent a car. Fang Zhao had seen plenty of folks like that—people who had no talent but who knew how to scheme.
As Fang Sheng emerged from the flying car, he reveled in the jealous gazes thrown his way. Being the center of attention made him feel like a star, so when Fang Sheng got out, he was giddy with delight—until he saw Fang Zhao standing at the store entrance. His mood instantly soured.
When Fang Sheng saw Fang Zhao standing there, he was awfully surprised. Based on his understanding of his friend’s personality, coupled with the gossip he had gleaned from a few punks on the black street, Fang Zhao should have committed suicide today. Even if he hadn't, he’d be holed up in his apartment brainstorming a solution, or mired in an endless bout of bitching and self-pity. Who would have thought he’d be in the mood to get a tan?
Had this dumbass composer lost it?
What was even more surprising was Fang Zhao’s state of mind. There wasn’t any despair, self-pity, or any sign of madness from the pressure. Instead, he looked like nothing had happened, as if his work hadn’t been stolen and he wasn’t dealing with a predicament. That sent Fang Sheng into a panic.
What exactly had happened to Fang Zhao?
Fang Sheng’s probing gaze didn’t linger and he didn’t dare look Fang Zhao in the eye. Fang Zhao’s eyes projected an eerie look of calm. They looked like a bottomless ocean that would sprout a monster at any given moment. It gave him the chills.
But Fang Sheng didn’t think he had done anything wrong. Who didn’t look out for their own interests? Why wouldn’t he capitalize on a golden opportunity? It wasn't that he didn’t have a history with Fang Zhao, but compared to the huge benefits he had reaped, their relationship wasn’t worth a mention. At least, that was what he thought.
"What are you looking at? Hurry up and pack your things so we can head back to the office. Don’t waste your time here," the driver who emerged from the car urged as he scanned the bystanders on the black street in disdain.
"Oh… OK." Fang Sheng stopped procrastinating and rushed to the elevator, his silhouette cutting an awkward figure, as if he were avoiding something.
After Fang Sheng stole the three songs from Fang Zhao, he had applied to Neon Culture. Their recruiters liked what they saw and signed him. Neon Culture was indeed happy with the scores that Fang Sheng had submitted, paying him an advance and even arranging for new living quarters. Fang Sheng was there to move. He lived on the fifth floor. Even though the conditions were slightly better than Fang Zhao’s surroundings on the second floor, the fifth floor was still considered a lower floor at the mass housing block. It was still dirty, messy and crappy. When he found out he could move out, Fang Sheng wasted no time in asking for a chauffeured company car.
His mind preoccupied, Fang Sheng appeared out of sorts. When he emerged from the building after collecting his things, Fang eyed the shop again and didn’t see Fang Zhao, much to his relief. He immediately thought he was too timid and didn’t need to be afraid of Fang Zhao.
He was worried that Fang Zhao would report the theft of his songs, but when he was packing, he pondered the matter again and concluded he had nothing to fear. He had uploaded the three songs first and they were registered under his name. Legally speaking, he was their rightful composer and owner.
Even if Fang Zhao wanted to sue, he still had nothing to fear. When Fang Zhao was busy composing, he had already covered his tracks. How could Fang Zhao sue without evidence?
Moreover, Fang Zhao didn’t have money to sue. He had enough trouble paying for food and clothing—maybe he didn’t even have next month’s rent. How could Fang Zhao sue him? Would he borrow money from Zeng Huang and Wan Yue?
Fang Sheng despised those two indigents—they were no threat. All he had to do was stick to his claim that he wrote those three songs.
Before he got into his car, Fang Sheng glanced at the black street again, his line of sight focusing on the windows of Fang Zhao’s second-floor apartment. The windows were shut tight and darkened. He couldn’t tell if anyone was in.
Fang Sheng took a deep breath and ducked into his car. From now on, he had nothing to do with shitty neighborhoods like this black street. Bye bye poverty and hello riches! Onto the pinnacle of his life!
Be it Fang Zhao or black streets, he didn’t have to deal with them anymore. He had qualified for the new talent competition. His future lay in the glittering song chart of the new talent contest.