If he hesitated for one more second, the fact that he had been exposed would be discovered by the person following him. The outcome of whether it would escalate into a desperate situation was unpredictable.

In this moment that relied solely on instinctive reactions, Yan Yin bent down, seemingly unconsciously rolled up his trousers, and then stood up and continued walking as if nothing had happened.

When he rolled up his trousers, he glanced back for an instant. The trees behind him were neatly arranged, appearing as quiet shadows under the streetlights.

It was impossible for there to be many people lurking downstairs. First of all, if there were, he wouldn’t have gone unnoticed all the way here. Secondly, the management of the residential area was not so negligent as to allow unauthorized entry. It was possible for one or two outsiders to slip in, but the absence of registered vehicles coming in and out would be too suspicious.

Assuming that the pursuer was among one or two individuals, the distance was about fifteen to twenty meters. Under these visual conditions, it was difficult to guarantee shooting accuracy. In other words, even if the other party had a gun, they wouldn’t rashly shoot for the time being. If they suddenly approached from the shrubs, it would take at least two to three seconds from making noise to launching an attack.

And now—Yan Yin calmly estimated the distance between himself and the main gate ahead. Approximately eighty meters.

Just one more minute, and he would enter the surveillance area.

Clack, clack, Yan Yin’s slippers tapped on the cement ground. No one noticed the veins bulging on the back of the hand that held the garbage bag.

What did the person following him want to do?

How many days had they been lurking in this residential area?

Why were they taking pictures of him like paparazzi?

If it weren’t for the wrong timing, Yan Yin would almost find it absurd and ridiculous. But now, what he was most concerned about was not having a gun, not having a knife, and not even finding a wooden stick to defend himself in the neatly trimmed greenery of the residential area. Instead, it was—Jiang Ting remaining in the apartment.

If he made any mistakes, would the next target for the other party be Jiang Ting, who was vulnerable and defenseless?

The main gate was getting closer, and the bright lights of the guardhouse gradually became clear. The rustling sounds behind him seemed to have stopped. Yan Yin’s heart gradually calmed down step by step as he moved forward. He knocked on the glass of the guardhouse and the security guard, who was dozing off with his head tilted, immediately woke up and opened the door. “Hey, Brother Yan!”

This security guard had been working in the residential area for a long time and knew that Yan Yin was a police officer, although he didn’t know what kind of police officer he was. Yan Yin stood at the entrance of the guardhouse without going in and handed him a cigarette. “Excuse me, can I borrow a light?”

The security guard quickly thanked him and took out a lighter. The two of them smoked face to face for a while, and Yan Yin asked, “Have you been on duty here all night?”

The security guard replied, “Of course not.”

“Did you see any strangers come in?”

“No, I’ve been keeping an eye out!”

Yan Yin thought to himself, you were keeping an eye out? Then who was the one sleeping and drooling when I knocked on the window just now?

The security guard smiled apologetically and asked, “Brother Yan, what are you going to do tonight, shopping?”

Yan Yin vaguely responded and stubbed out the cigarette. Judging from the time, the person who had been following him should have left by now. He said, “Let me borrow your baton.”

If it was someone else asking to borrow it, the security guard definitely wouldn’t agree, but Yan Yin was a genuine police officer, so the security guard reluctantly handed it over with some doubts. Yan Yin held the baton in his hand and weighed it for a moment, seemingly accustomed to its weight and feel. Then he said, “Go back to the guardhouse and lock the door.”

The security guard exclaimed, “Huh?”

The security guard didn’t realize what was happening and was pushed into the guardhouse by Yan Yin in one swift motion. He then suddenly turned around and, at an extremely rapid speed, walked straight towards the bushes. The next moment, the previously calm shrubs suddenly shook violently, and immediately after, a figure pounced in the opposite direction!

The security guard muttered, “…There’s someone over there?!”

The pursuer hadn’t left yet!

Yan Yin’s mind settled the moment the newcomer chose to escape. With a burst of power, he leaped over the bushes and shouted loudly, “Stop!”

The wind whistled past his ears as the pursuer dashed away, with Yan Yin in close pursuit. Both of them were extremely fast, running hundreds of meters before the security guard could react. The pursuer seemed to be very familiar with the terrain of the residential area, only choosing dark and rugged paths, swiftly bypassing the garden pond and several apartment buildings, and rushing deep into the residential area.

Yan Yin, wearing flip-flops, was affected by his running speed, and his attention was momentarily diverted. He caught sight of three or five people walking out from the parking lot. At a glance, they were all women. Whom should he ask to stop? What if the pursuer, in desperation, leaped over the wall?

In this momentary distraction, the pursuer had already sprinted straight towards the back wall!

“Move aside!” Without any hesitation, Yan Yin roared and frightened the several girls into screaming and retreating. Then, he spontaneously raised his hand and threw the baton!

The baton spun accurately and with a resounding “bang!” it struck heavily against the railing of the back wall, right next to the pursuer’s hand!

“Ah–”

The pursuer let out a deep and painful cry. It seemed that his arm had been hit. Yan Yin chased after him, but the pursuer, spurred on by the intense pain, took a few steps and leaped with force, displaying even greater agility than Yan Yin had imagined. He effortlessly jumped onto a wall that was over one person tall!

In the next second, the target disappeared.

“Damn it!” Yan Yin cursed, leaping onto the wall. He looked around amidst the startled cries of the girls behind him. However, behind the residential area was a large urban garden, with car lights flickering in the distance. The figure of the pursuer had long vanished into the vast darkness of the night.

“Yan Yin!”

Jiang Ting?

Yan Yin turned around and saw that Jiang Ting had actually arrived, followed by several security guards. The brother who had lent him the baton in the guardhouse was holding a walkie-talkie, asking urgently, “Are you okay, Brother Yan? Was it a thief? Is it a thief?”

In front of outsiders, Yan Yin couldn’t say much. He vaguely replied and jumped down from the fence. The security guards called for several colleagues, surrounding him and bombarding him with questions, “Did someone steal something from you, Officer Yan?” “Do you need to call the police?”

“No need, it was just a petty thief. I’ll have my colleagues from the bureau come and take a look tomorrow.” Yan Yin quickly dismissed the grateful security guards with a few words, instructing them to increase patrols throughout the night. After everyone dispersed, he turned around and asked Jiang Ting in a low voice, “Why did you come?”

Jiang Ting was wearing a light gray thin woolen sweater, dark gray home cotton pants, and soft-soled shoes. He also had the house keys in his hand. Probably because he had rushed over, his voice was slightly hoarse from the wind. “I waited for you for a long time and went downstairs to take a look. I happened to run into a group of security guards rushing this way. What’s going on?”

“There was someone following me,” Yan Yin said briefly.

He briefly recounted the events of being tracked just now, then took out a cigarette from his pocket. His arm muscles still had slight tremors from the tension, and he lit the cigarette, taking two deep drags to calm his emotions before passing it to Jiang Ting.

Jiang Ting took the cigarette, and the flickering flame reflected on his fingertips. The white mist of nicotine slowly dissipated under the streetlight.

Both of them remained silent for a while. After some time, Jiang Ting hoarsely said, “I have a bad feeling.”

“What is it?”

“The person who was following you was alone, and they didn’t have a gun. After being discovered, they immediately ran away?”

“…”

Jiang Ting took a deep drag on the cigarette, raised his head, and seemed to be contemplating something. The golden glow of the streetlamp reflected in his beautifully shaped eyes. Several seconds later, he exhaled the white mist slowly and completely, saying, “Someone indeed wants to kill you. But based on my understanding of Spades K, his tactics wouldn’t be limited to this.”

Yan Yin furrowed his brow skeptically.

“Let’s set off for Gongzhou tomorrow,” Jiang Ting said heavily. “It’s time to have a chat with Si Hao.”

Gongzhou.

The grand theater.

The magnificent lights dimmed slowly in the hall, and the buzzing voices of the audience gradually fell silent. Then, the golden-red curtains opened slowly, and the ballet began with the first note amidst thunderous applause.

A heavy side door behind the audience seats was pushed open slightly, and immediately a middle-aged man with gray hair, around fifty years old, swiftly entered. His eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the dim music hall, and he blinked forcefully. Suddenly, his shoulder was tapped.

“…”

Before the middle-aged man could speak, he heard a cold voice with a thick accent say, “Follow me.”

The young man leading the way was dressed in black, resembling a theater attendant, but his figure and pace were far more agile than ordinary people. His back pocket was bulging with something. The middle-aged man didn’t dare to utter a word and quickly followed, bowing his head. They walked through the audience seats, and taking the east-side spiral staircase, they arrived on the second floor. Amidst the lingering singing voices, they stopped in front of the central box.

“Wait,” the young man said as he left.

He lightly knocked on the door, then entered the box. The middle-aged man anxiously suppressed his unease, waiting outside. After about two to three minutes, the “attendant” came out, still concise and neat. “Big Brother is calling you in.”

The box faced the stage directly. In the spacious darkness, there were three large red sofas arranged against the wall, forming a circular shape facing the wooden railing. In front of the railing, there was a small table, two armchairs, and a man wearing a windbreaker, casually sitting cross-legged on the large chair to the left. Due to the angle, his entire face couldn’t be seen clearly, but from the side, one could only see his eyes fixed on the opera, seemingly full of interest. His slender fingers were rummaging through the peanut plate on the small table, slowly eating one after another.

The middle-aged man was filled with anxiety, quickly scanning the surroundings of the box. However, all he could see were several bodyguards standing against the wall with their hands behind their backs.

“You are…” The middle-aged man couldn’t help but grit his teeth and ask, but the last vestige of reason made him swallow the three words “Spades K.”

Spades K smiled, raised his index finger to his lips, gesturing for him to keep quiet, and said, “Shh, the thirteenth princess is coming out.”

On the stage, a young girl danced gracefully with a golden apple in the music, and the flute gradually became clear under the accompaniment of the clarinet. Finally, the most beautiful and innocent princess appeared, shining brightly as she entered the stage to the cheerful melody of the violin. The prince instantly fell in love with her and vowed to marry her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Spades K raised his chin towards the stage.

The middle-aged man forced out a word, “Beautiful.”

“Do you think the prince loves her?”

“…Love.”

Spades K nodded, seeming to find it amusing. “Yes, everyone thinks so.”

“…,” the middle-aged man didn’t know what to say. He forced himself to stand straight, but cold sweat had already started to form on his back. Perhaps sensing this hidden fear and embarrassment, Spades K smiled, shook his head, and tapped his knuckles on the table twice.

The door to the box opened again, and a nanny with lowered eyes and a swaddled baby in her arms walked in. The baby was sound asleep inside.

The middle-aged man joyfully took the swaddled baby into his arms. “Xi Xi, Xi Xi…”

“It’s said that this girl is well-behaved, doesn’t cry or fuss, and sleeps after eating. She’s a lucky child,” Spades K picked up a peanut, smiled, and said, “But if there’s another time, maybe she won’t be so lucky, you know?”

The middle-aged man’s facial muscles stiffened, and a needle-like fear pierced through his heart. When he opened his mouth, his voice sounded weak even to himself. “I… I understand, but I’m just following procedures. There are so many people watching below, I really can’t do anything…”

“Did the procedure let you accept the bribe from the ‘Blue Gold’?”

The middle-aged man’s breath halted, and his whole body froze.

“Weeds on the wall, double-dealing. When the chopper finally falls, it’s the first to be cut.” Spades K raised his hand in the posture leaning against the chair and tapped his backhand on the middle-aged man’s chest, speaking with great seriousness, “Your 003 badge didn’t come easy. You risked your life for it. Don’t easily waste it.”

The middle-aged man felt his heart and courage shatter. His face changed, and he couldn’t speak a word.

At this moment, the sound of the door opening came from behind him. A respectful bodyguard opened the door and softly called, “Boss Jie!”

Ajie nodded casually, walked to Spades K’s side, and stood still. He looked up and down at the middle-aged man. His gaze had the sharp brilliance characteristic of a sniper, especially when he stood in the darkness, his eyes were like fierce beasts, exuding unabashed coldness and ruthlessness, making the middle-aged man’s heart chill.

“Boss, we’ve investigated the incident of the confiscated ‘Blue Gold’ being sold privately by the police.” Ajie didn’t waste time with the middle-aged man. He took out a small notebook from his pocket with gloved hands and said, “These are the main people involved.”

Each page of the notebook was attached with different passport-sized photos, with the names and official positions of the individuals involved written below. Spades K flipped through it, slightly bored. He casually threw the little notebook to the middle-aged man and said, “Take a look. There’s a problem within your city bureau, and it seems we have to help with the investigation.”

Caught off guard, the middle-aged man took the notebook and looked through it. Among the numerous official titles, he unexpectedly caught sight of the Narcotics Control Brigade, Criminal Investigation Brigade, Provincial Notary Office, Waste Disposal Company… and the highest position was held by a man named Qi Sihao, the captain of the brigade.

His back started to feel cold. “…I understand. I’ll take care of it.”

“Handle it cleanly,” Spades K stared at the opera, speaking slowly, “Keep that captain named Qi for now. He might be useful.”

Useful? What’s the use?

The middle-aged man’s confusion was evident, and even Ajie couldn’t help but ask, “How about it, Boss?”

“A captain at his level has both leadership functions and operational authority in many matters. It’s more advantageous to have him involved, as the saying goes, it’s better to deal with the present manager than to find a county magistrate.” Spades K casually replied, “Haven’t we already proven this?”

Ajie nodded in understanding, while the middle-aged man listened beside them, seeming to grasp something. In his mind, a name emerged—one that later became widely acknowledged as the corrupt officer within the Gongzhou system—the former captain of the Narcotics Control Second Brigade, Jiang Ting.

The sudden enthusiastic applause from the audience interrupted his thoughts. The ballet on stage had progressed to a crucial moment. Ivan, the prince who ventured into the kingdom of the demons to rescue the princess, was captured. The demon king, Kesqi, wanted to turn the prince into stone. In his desperation, the prince sought help from the firebird that had once saved him. The firebird appeared in a blaze of light and cast a spell that trapped the demon king and his minions in an eternal dance, rendering them into slumber.

The firebird led the prince to the egg containing the soul of the demon king, Kesqi. After breaking the egg, Kesqi and his wicked kingdom disappeared. The petrified warriors were revived, the princesses regained their freedom, and Prince Ivan announced his marriage to the most beautiful thirteenth princess. They would celebrate their grand wedding amid the applause and the melodies of the sacred chant.

“What a perfect ending,” sighed Spades K. “Unfortunately, the real story isn’t what people see.”

No one dared to speak. The middle-aged man didn’t dare to move, and even Ajie stood solemnly by his side.

“The demon king kidnapped thirteen princesses, but I believe his true love and longing were always for the firebird. Even though the firebird brought him death, he would only sing when the firebird appeared. Otherwise, the entire kingdom, even eternal life, was nothing more than a collection of cold, stiff statues to him.”

“Perhaps the prince also loved the firebird, but it doesn’t matter. The prince is destined to be with the princess who matches his status.”

No one understood what he was talking about, and the middle-aged man found himself stunned. Spades K stood up, moved his neck amidst the final applause and the harmonious choir, and regretfully said, “There’s nothing interesting left. Let’s go.”