Fang Zhao's move caught the both by surprise. This wasn't part of the plan.
The man blocking the apartment door secretly cursed their employer. Didn't you say this kid was an artist type?
An assassin, no question. A composer? Hell no!
His temple pressed against the barrel of a gun, he swallowed the comment he was about to make and lowered his hand carrying the electric rod.
The two of them had been working black streets for some time. They had completed quite a few jobs, so they knew who was faking it, who was a paper tiger. They could deduce from a single move or look.
The way Fang Zhao handled his gun and the look in his eyes scared the man blocking the door shitless. He could tell Fang Zhao's composure and proficiency weren't faked. He knew that if they made the wrong move, Fang Zhao would pull the trigger.
So the man trailing Fang Zhao also halted. He couldn't risk making a move before gauging the situation. Otherwise, he'd be returning with a body bag.
But the good thing about professionals like themselves was that they were flexible.
"Big brother, this is all a misunderstanding. No need to get worked up." The man blocking the entrance to the apartment mustered a smile and turned off his electric rod. The sound of the current disappeared. He raised his hands up high. He had no qualms about addressing a man younger than him as older brother.
"I'm not worked up. Let's go inside and have a proper chat," Fang Zhao said.
"No, no, no. We better not intrude. We'll leave right away. Right away." As soon as he lifted one leg, he noticed Fang Zhao's finger on the trigger tighten. He stayed put, wearing a pained expression on his face. The snarling beast tattoo looked like a joke.
"It's OK. Head on in. I just want to ask you a few questions. Unlock door." On Fang Zhao's command, the apartment door opened automatically.
Fang Zhao had upgraded the security settings on his door to a dual ID check—detection of his bracelet and voice recognition.
Staring down the barrel of the gun, the first man walked into the apartment with a gloomy look on his face.
The other man was about 2 meters tall. His neck was exposed, despite the cold weather, revealing a blanket of tattoos. His muscles were firm and chiseled. Fang Zhao could also tell from the sound of his approaching footsteps that he wasn't as slow as he looked.
"Stand over there." Fang Zhao gestured to the big guy.
"Make yourself at home. Find a place to sit down. I'll let you go after asking you a few questions." Fang Zhao pulled up the only intact chair in the room and sat down.
The two men scanned the tiny room top to bottom with one quick look. The only places to sit were two stools.
Even though the stools were a bit low, they were better than sitting on the floor.
The two 20-centimeter tall stools were used to reach higher shelves. Curly Hair also liked to sunbathe on them. Now they looked completely undersized as they held two grown men, one of them a big fellow.
"Forget about the knife behind you," Fang Zhao interjected.
The man with the red crown hairdo had felt the knife behind him when he sat down. Fang Zhao's comment caught him by surprise, almost prompting him to jump up.
Damn, we've met our match.
Crown Head lowered his head and cursed quietly as he withdrew his hand.
"Fire away. It's our own fault that we got caught red-handed. We took the job without doing our research," Crown Head said. "But we're not sure who our employer is."
"You're not clear but you have a good idea." Fang Zhao was in no mood for fudging. "Tell me, what has Fang Sheng asked you to do?"
Crown Head raised his eyebrows when Fang Zhao uttered the words "Fang Sheng." Now that all the cards were on the table, there was no point in bullshitting.
"You should know we are hired guns. We do what we're paid to do. Someone offered us 30,000 to steal your bracelet. The client only sent us a text message, and the number he left is a burner number. But I'm guessing he is probably the Fang Sheng you speak of. He hired a friend of mine to monitor your movements." Crowd Head stared at Fang Zhao and tried to glean a response. Nothing.
Crown Head had revealed what he knew of Fang Sheng's recent moves, but the two of them didn't know that Fang Sheng had stolen three songs from Fang Zhao. Fang Sheng was very cautious. He didn't tell a soul.
"Anything else besides the bracelet?" Fang Zhao asked.
Crown Head was going to say no, but he cast a glance at Fang Zhao and decided to tell the truth. "He said if we taught you a lesson he would pay us an additional 10,000."
"He didn't ask you to kill me?"
"No, no, no. We don't do murder." Crowd Head was quick to explain. He raised his now-silent electric rod slightly. "This is just for show. Really, we never take kill assignments. There are only a handful of assassins working the black streets. And they are extremely selective. You can't contact them directly. Their pricing is also through the roof. They earn on one job what takes us dozens of years to make." Electric rods were strictly regulated, but these types of things were easier to come by on a black street.
The big fellow sitting next to Crown Head kept nodding. They most definitely stayed away from kill jobs. They didn't want to die. All they wanted to do was make a living. Why risk their lives?
As long as they stayed within bounds, no one would waste time hunting them down. But taking a human life was different. That wasn't something you could hide from.
Fang Zhao watched as the two thugs justified their actions profusely and shifted all the blame to Fang Sheng. But he wasn't fooled by their cowering act. If he lost focus for one second or showed any sign of weakness, they would take advantage and turn the tables on him. These two weren't greenhorns. They were too experienced to intimidate with mere violence. That's why Fang Zhao went straight for his gun. It was easier to talk once he seized control of the situation. And it would dash any ideas of a comeback.
"Our typical job is collecting debt. We've done no wrong!" Crown Head wailed.
"Then what are you doing here?" Fang Zhao asked.
Crown Head noticed Fang Zhao glaring at him, so he stopped wailing and rubbed his hands. "The new year... the new year is around the corner. We just wanted to earn a few extra bucks." Thirty thousand was indeed decent pay for black street thugs. They were tempted. Plus, Fang Sheng had hired someone to watch Fang Zhao. They'd thought it would be a straightforward gig. Once they had gotten word that Fang Zhao was back, they had scrambled to set up in front of his apartment. Little had they known they would end up in this predicament.
As Crown Head spoke, the doorbell rang.
It was Yue Qing.
A customer had told Yue Qing that he saw a man with a beast tattoo on his cheek head up to the second floor, so he had rushed upstairs to make sure Fang Zhao was OK.
"I heard a man with a beast tattoo on his cheek showed up..." Yue Qing hadn't finished his sentence when he noticed the two men with beasts inked onto their faces kneeling—or sitting, rather—inside Fang Zhao's apartment."
"These two are?" Yue Qing pointed to the two men with a look of surprise.
"Guests, here for a cup of coffee," Fang Zhao said.
The two men sitting on the stools played along, lifting their plastic cups filled with room-temperature tap water.
The two thugs grew up on the black street, so of course they knew of Yue Qing. They had bypassed Yue Qing's shop on purpose, but here he was anyway.
Were Fang Zhao and Yue Qing close friends?
Crown Head closed his eyes to conceal his sense of doom. Fang Zhao alone was enough trouble. Even if they snatched Fang Zhao's bracelet, would Yue Qing seek revenge for his friend?
They hadn't researched their target properly. If they had known, they would have turned down the job. Fang Sheng screwed them over.
But when he lifted his head, Crowd Head was already flashing what he thought was an honest smile and his rows of neon-green–tinted teeth.
Yue Qing gave both men a careful look-over. They sat obediently on the two stools like primary school students listening to a lecture. If you ignored their build and beast tattoos, Yue Qing would have thought they were victims.
He was baffled.
Did Fang Zhao really know them?
These two were familiar faces on the black street. They weren't from this building but the one two blocks away. They had shopped at Yue Qing's store before. Yue Qing remembered them.
He took another glance at Fang Zhao, who did not seem threatened. Someone had to mind his shop—his wife hadn't left work yet—so he couldn't be gone for too long. His customers would start getting antsy after a five-minute absence or so.
"Then... just holler if something goes wrong. I can hear you downstairs," Yue Qing said.
"Got it. Thanks."
"Great. Then... enjoy your coffee." Yue Qing was still confused when he headed downstairs and shook his head. He could no longer read youngsters these days.
Crown Head kept defending himself after Yue Qing left, all but calling Fang Zhao their daddy. Anything so that Fang Zhao would let them leave.
Fang Zhao listened quietly as Crown Head wrapped up his spiel. He responded, "There's a saying from the black streets, 'Live in the present. Let bygones be bygones.'"
In a black street context, that didn't mean you left grievances unanswered. What it meant was that you had to exact revenge right away.
Crown Head understood right away, saying, "We'd love to look up Fang Sheng for a chat, but we don't have his address."
"I do," Fang Zhao responded.