Squeak— The worn-out wooden door of the earthy house creaked open, and a small boy, frail in stature, with dry and yellow hair, no more than five or six years old, crossed the threshold unsteadily, his hands carrying a plastic basin of water that seemed disproportionate to his height.

In the scorching midday of summer, the people in the village were all out working in the fields, and the quiet dirt road was filled only with the noisy chirping of cicadas. The sun shone through the dense red cedars, casting colorful light in the front yard, while the water in the basin splashed and shimmered with the boy’s faltering steps, reflecting flickering golden rays.

Finally, he stopped his footsteps and laboriously bent down to place the basin on the ground, picking up a rough and withered towel. Looking up timidly, he called out, “Father.”

A figure resembling a human lay on a dilapidated chair.

Well, it could only be said to resemble a human. His whole body was so emaciated that it seemed deformed, oozing yellow pus, with ulcers spreading across his limbs caused by injections, emitting an indescribable odor. If not for a face that still barely retained the contours of facial features, no one would be able to connect the creature in front of them with a human.

“Father,” the little boy raised his voice and called again.

The man showed no response.

After hesitating for a moment, the little boy wrung the towel dry with effort.

He had become quite proficient at it, starting from wiping the man’s neck and carefully dabbing the most severe ulcers near his arm veins, dipping the soiled towel in the basin, washing it clean, and wringing it dry. He diligently repeated these steps, gradually wiping every part of his father’s body that could be wiped, until the water in the basin became murky. The man remained strangely quiet and docile, no longer making the usual painful groans, not even a slight one.

The little boy didn’t understand. He was still too young.

He was simply delighted that he hadn’t been beaten today, then he struggled to pick up the water basin and hurried back into the house.

In the evening, as the people returned to the village one by one, smoke rose from the roofs of every household. The wooden door opened once again, and the little boy carried a chipped bowl, filled with watery porridge and dirty, unidentifiable pickles that had been preserved for an unknown duration. He approached the motionless man who hadn’t moved all afternoon, speaking cautiously, “Father.”

His father showed no response.

“…Father!”

The man remained motionless, his stiff face turning grayish-blue.

Sudden fear seized the childish heart of the little boy. “Father, it’s time to eat!…Father! Father, please, Father!”

The bowl toppled with a clatter, and the watery porridge spilled onto the ground, submerging the ants beneath the tree.

“Wake up, Father!” The little boy shook the man frantically, even though this body was already emitting a different, repugnant odor than usual. Neighbors opened their doors, poking their heads out, and murmurs filled the air. The little boy screamed in desperation, “Father! Wake up and look at me! Father, please, Father!”

“Please! Please, Father!”

The cries tore through the village, gradually transforming into wailing, lingering under the grayish-blue sky.

Memories turned into dust, rushing towards the distant twilight.

“…Why hasn’t this boy been taken away in the past three or four years?”

“Forget it, half the village has fallen to famine. One family loses one member, another family loses one. His family lost all of them…”

“Who knows if he’s sick! No one dares to go near him!”

The little boy sat on the low earthen wall, with the setting sun casting a golden light on his hair and earlobes from behind.

“Hey!”

He turned his head towards the voice, and a few stones were thrown at him, nearly causing him to fall off. Those sniffly-nosed kids shouted, “Orphan! Orphan!” and then ran away, laughing.

The little boy remained silent, rubbing his sore thin arms.

The setting sun elongated his lonely figure, casting it into the desolate fields with the blowing wind and sand.

“Jiang Ting!” A caregiver from the orphanage shouted impatiently in the distance, “Come here! Someone is looking for you!”

For some reason, a faint glimmer lit up in the dim depths of the little boy’s eyes, and the clearly defined black and white irises suddenly sparkled with a glimmer of hope. He swiftly jumped off the wall and ran as if he were crazy, his little feet pounding the ground, passing through the tilted shacks and the bumpy playground. In that short stretch of road, which seemed endless in his dreams, finally, after more than a thousand days and nights, the familiar gate of the orphanage drew closer. The little boy’s dark pupils gradually widened, bursting with a gleam of joy.

He saw it.

Just like countless times he had imagined in his dreams, there was a small car parked outside the gate, a type of car he had never seen in his life before, shining brightly. And his little friends were being led by adults, their arms outstretched with smiles on their faces.

“I’ve come to pick you up, Jiang Ting.”

“If you promise to never betray me, I’ll take you away.”

…Betray you, Jiang Ting vaguely thought.

The accumulated pain turned into a bittersweet warm water, immersing his body within. Meanwhile, his soul seemed to hang in the clouds, with dim white light flickering at a high altitude, making it difficult for him to open his eyes.

Someone was crying, someone was calling, and more people were shouting his name. Footsteps echoed on the ground, accompanied by the rolling sound of iron bed wheels, but everything seemed distant and hazy, as if moving farther away from him beyond an invisible barrier.

The deep sea of memories surged forth, covering the last remnants of dreams.

“Are you happy?” a young Black Ace of Spades asked with a smile.

Wen Shao rarely smiled like this. He had always been reserved, carrying an air of sophistication that could make others feel inferior, even when he was having the most fun, his lips only slightly curved, his eyes focusing with a hint of amusement on Jiang Ting.

“Jiang Ting?” He asked again with the same unrestrained smile, “Are you happy?”

It might have been a dock, or perhaps a factory; the background environment had become blurred in the depths of memory. Jiang Ting’s memory was late to develop, and many fragments from his childhood had faded into broken pieces, but a few unforgettable details remained etched in his mind: he only remembered staring with wide eyes, fixated on the crowd of indistinguishable faces gathered on the edge of the open space.

In the center of the open space, several bound men were rolling on the ground, biting and tearing at each other, emitting wild and crazed screams.

A few syringes fell to the ground, the needles still stained with blood.

“You’re not happy enough,” the Black Ace of Spades said with a smile, then turned to his subordinates and naturally gave the order, “Give these bandits a couple more shots.”

Someone brought another tray, and on it were empty syringes and white powder. Jiang Ting’s gaze fell upon it, and he involuntarily recognized what it was. The pungent stench and the swarming flies from many years ago reappeared before his eyes, along with the sight of his father’s decaying and festering body on the recliner, eyes closed.

He recognized what it was.

“Are you happy?” the Black Ace of Spades asked joyfully, “Jiang Ting?”

The white powder dissolved in the syringe, and the needle pierced the vein, as the devilish liquid was gradually injected into the bloodstream. This scene overlapped with a certain image deep in his memory. The decreasing liquid level in the syringe reflected entirely in the anxious depths of the young boy who used to carry a large basin.

“Jiang Ting?”

“Happy,” little Jiang Ting trembled, his voice faintly said, “Happy.”

The Black Ace of Spades hugged him tightly, his face exuding an excitement and satisfaction deeply rooted in his soul.

“I’m happy too. The mastermind finally received punishment, and no one will dare to lay a hand on us anymore… Look, whether it’s controlling or destroying a person, it’s so simple, truly fascinating.”

Jiang Ting struggled to catch his breath but couldn’t suppress the strange tremors.

“Will you miss me?” his little companion whispered in his ear, “I’m going to the United States.”

…The United States?

“The formulas there are better, the technology more advanced. You have to wait for me here. When I come back, I’ll bring back a powerful new drug that will astonish everyone, even those old men who dare to interfere with me won’t be able to imagine.”

He laughed again, kissing Jiang Ting’s soft hair, his eyes sparkling with the light of a child longing for a new toy.

“By then, everyone will be under my command, obeying my orders. I’ll be their king.”

“Only you, my brother on equal footing–”

–Only you are my brother.

Wen Shao’s endearing nickname gradually matured, becoming deep and resonant. Time passed in the blink of an eye, and Jiang Ting’s shoulders broadened, his height increased. Once again, he found himself at a noisy celebration, as he looked up through the floor-to-ceiling window and saw his own pale face as an adult.

Familiar whispers from hell came through the phone, mixed with the crackling sound of electricity, like a demon whispering with a smile:

“Do you remember the new drug I told you about? I’ve brought it back.”

“Traditional alkaloids will eventually be replaced by synthesized products, burying those old men together with the times. Jiang Ting, abandon Wu Tun, he won’t live much longer. The future belongs to you and me.”

Colleagues around him were joking, laughing, toasting, and cheering. All the familiar liveliness was separated by an invisible glass. The whole world suddenly became just him alone, standing lonely by the floor-to-ceiling window, staring at his trembling dark pupils.

Footsteps came from behind.

The young and somewhat uneasy detective raised his glass, stuttering, “Um, Captain Jiang…”

Jiang Ting saw his own reflection in the glass move.

He perfectly controlled himself, holding his phone without turning back, and just raised his hand in a gesture of refusal, with his five fingers slightly spread and his palm facing outward, a clear sign of rejection:

“I understand. Go.”

The young man hesitated to speak.

Jiang Ting emphasized, “Go.”

The young man hesitated in mid-air, his face turning pale and green, looking somewhat comical. Fortunately, he didn’t linger any longer, turned around, and awkwardly walked away, heading towards the bustling crowd, towards the jubilant celebration, soon being pulled away by more enthusiastic young policemen.

Jiang Ting hung up the phone and turned around to look.

No one saw the expression flickering in his eyes. He stood straight, watching as Yan Yin returned to the normal world–

Backlit, his profile outlined a sharp silhouette, like a sword from the shoulders to the lower back, casting a slender reflection behind the floor-to-ceiling window. It extended along the hall floor, winding into the distance, but no matter how hard it tried to move forward, it couldn’t reach the lively crowd.

Can’t go over there, he thought.

He couldn’t let people discover that behind Captain Jiang’s open and calm figure, there was a small, clumsy, and somewhat ridiculous boy who was too weak. Carrying a plastic basin taller than himself, he stumbled across the threshold, struggling to move toward the bright, pale, and noisy afternoon of summer, gradually blending into a nightmare from which he would never awaken.

“…Hematoma compressing the nerves. The situation is very dangerous now…”

“The risk of craniotomy is extremely high. The family needs to be mentally prepared…”

“Jiang Ting! Jiang Ting, wake up!”

“Jiang Ge, I beg you!”

“Captain Jiang! Captain Jiang!!”

Who is calling me? Jiang Ting wondered.

He floated up from the iron-framed bed, drifting through the air, flying toward the vast and distant night sky.

“Captain Jiang! We made plans to go to Lao Niu’s place after work to watch the game. Are you coming?”

“I have something tonight, so I won’t go.”

“Captain Jiang, how about hot pot this weekend?”

“Oh, you guys go ahead.”

“Captain Jiang, Captain Jiang, there’s a badminton tournament held in the city, and our team has registered…”

“I have something else to do.”

Familiar figures shoulder to shoulder, one by one dispersed, and the sounds of laughter gradually faded into the distance.

Layers of dark clouds gathered, and the damp moisture was like a spider’s web, covering every corner of the Municipal Bureau building. Jiang Ting walked through the dim and empty corridor, his silhouette bending and stretching in the stairwell, the sound of footsteps echoing for a long time.

He locked the office door, closed the curtains, and stood alone behind the desk. Several stacks of thick files were pulled out from the locked filing cabinet, notebooks filled with various intelligence charts were spread open, and the map of China and Myanmar was marked with red and blue pen strokes, indicating numerous hidden pathways. The computer screen emitted a faint glow, reflecting on Jiang Ting’s icy profile, outlining a dim light and shadow.

“What are you doing?” Black Ace of Spades asked with a smile on the other end of the phone.

“Working overtime.”

“It’s so late. What are you working overtime for?”

Jiang Ting didn’t answer.

The big drug lord on the other end of the line didn’t mind either and said in a gentle tone, “We had a batch of demolitions seized by the sub-bureau, similar to what happened with Hu Wei Sheng last time. Find a way to smooth things over, don’t let the police notice the ‘Blue Gold’ affair.”

Jiang Ting’s tone remained calm, “Okay.”

He hung up the phone, but just before he ended the call, Black Ace of Spades’s voice came through again, “Wait.”

“…?”

“You’ve been working too many overtime hours lately. You need to take care of your health. There’s an apartment near the Municipal Bureau, in Block B, Room 701 of Yazhi Garden. It’s specially prepared for you. You can go there to take a nap when you’re too busy with overtime or when it’s inconvenient to meet people. You can also go there to handle things.”

Jiang Ting’s expression remained unchanged between his brows and eyes as he said, “I understand.”

He put down the receiver.

The spacious office returned to silence, and the furniture was covered in a faint gray. Jiang Ting looked up at the whiteboard on the wall, which had more than ten names written on it. The crisscrossing arrows of interests formed a spiderweb, with a square in the center and a playing card stuck to it–

Black Ace of Spades.

He slowly and forcefully drew an “X” on the card’s face with his hand, and the pen nib deformed and snapped with a crack.

Red ink sprayed onto the spiderweb, winding down like tears of blood, silently hitting the office floor.

“Someday,” he thought, “someday–”

The calendar flipped through time, making a rustling sound.

The page stopped at October 8th.

[When the transaction is made tomorrow, all the goods and firepower will be transported to the Ecological Park Base - Red Heart Q] [Recipient: Rivet]

A window popped up on the screen, displaying a successful message sent, and Jiang Ting finally raised his hand to shut down the computer. Then, he got up and brought out gloves, shoe covers, a cloth, and cleaning agents that had already been prepared in the restroom. He began to clean the entire apartment methodically, erasing all traces of his presence, not even leaving a single fingerprint, hair, or trace of DNA.

After tomorrow, the Black Ace of Spades will vanish from the underworld, and no one will ever know about the existence of a Red Heart Q in this world. Captain Jiang Ting of the Gongzhou Anti-Drug Brigade will have no connection whatsoever with the drug trafficking organization. Apartment 701 in Block B of Yazhi Garden will become a “black room” with an unknown owner, forever forgotten in a corner of this vast city, until years or even decades later, when it is reduced to ruins during demolition.

All the sins will come to an end, just like a nightmare that has extended from a scorching summer many years ago to the present, finally disappearing completely with the passage of time.

Jiang Ting stepped out of the apartment, closed the door, and stood in the empty hallway. He looked back one last time at the number 701 hanging on the door, as if a heavy chain had been severed and left behind. For the first time in so many years, he took a deep, hot breath and walked briskly towards the staircase.

Ding dong!

Jiang Ting took out his phone. It was a new message from his team.

[Captain Jiang, after working hard for half a month, everyone wants to go out for a drink after tomorrow’s operation. Will you come?]

A hint of a smile appeared in his eyes, and Jiang Ting typed the word “okay,” but just as he was about to click send, he hesitated.

They would be surprised, right? The usually distant and rejecting team captain suddenly requesting to join them for a gathering, would it seem strange?

Would it be awkward? Would it make everyone feel uncomfortable?

Or maybe it was just a casual invitation. Should he wait until tomorrow to see them in person and test the waters?

“… " Jiang Ting’s thumb hovered in the air for a while. In the end, he deleted the word “okay” and carefully typed, letter by letter, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” Then he clicked send and put the phone back in his pocket.

The fresh wind outside the hallway carried a salty, moist mist and brushed against his face. Jiang Ting’s hands were in his pockets, and an expectant smile unconsciously appeared on his face as he walked forward with big strides.

The clouds hung low, leaves twirled, and the lights of Gongzhou City began to shine as night fell. He kept walking and walking, passing through the bustling crowd, the smoke-filled scenes, the collapsing flames, and the disintegrating future. He walked through three years of lonely slumber, his scarred soul awakening from the depths of hell, and he pulled the trigger against the demons.

The long-delayed bullet whizzed out of the barrel, lifting a spray of blood mist into the sky, splattering over the vast southwestern territory.

This time, I finally did it, he thought.

He leaned back, closed his already heavy eyelids, and the desperate cries of Yan Yin gradually faded from his ears. With a strong sense of reluctance, his soul floated away into the distance. In a daze, he felt happy and light, and the pain receded like the tide. He stood on the steps in front of the Gongzhou Municipal Bureau building, looking down.

“Captain Jiang!” Those familiar figures were still shoulder to shoulder, smiling and waving at him. “The operation is over! Come drink with us!”

“Don’t work all the time. Come with us!”

“Yeah, it’s finally over!”

“Come quickly!”

Jiang Ting smiled. He didn’t remember ever being this happy. He rushed down the steps.

The wind whistled past his ears, and although there were only a few steps left to reach the bottom, the staircase suddenly seemed unusually long. Soon, Jiang Ting became anxious and reached out desperately, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t touch his former teammates. He could only watch them wave goodbye, laughing heartily as they turned and left.

Wait for me, didn’t you promise to take me with you?

Please wait for me!

Jiang Ting couldn’t make a sound, as if something bitter was blocking his throat. He ran forward with all his might, but the distance didn’t shorten by even a bit. He felt intense pain, as if his internal organs were burning. Finally, he mustered all his strength and squeezed out a voice:

“… Hey! Wait for me!”

“Let me go with you!”

In the instant his words landed, as if a spell had been broken, Jiang Ting suddenly stopped in his tracks.

He realized he was still standing on the steps, and his teammates were waiting silently below. Through the short distance, the earthly wind came from the sky, mixed with piercing cries, rushing toward the distant horizon.

Jiang Ting reached out his hand, palm facing up, and he heard his own choked voice pleading:

“Don’t leave me behind…”

“I’ve always… always wanted to go with you…”

But his teammates laughed, shaking their heads one after another, and answered with regret, “No, Captain Jiang, we really have to go this time.”

“We’ll meet again someday!”

“You’ve already avenged us! Go back quickly!”

Stubbornly, Jiang Ting stood still, hot tears streaming down his cheeks.

Do I have to be left behind alone in the end? he thought.

“No,” his teammates teased, winking at him. They seemed even happier. “You haven’t been alone for a long time. Haven’t you noticed?”

Jiang Ting widened his eyes and turned around.

From an unknown point in time, the young and unruly detective who used to be so sharp and rebellious stood behind him. His face had matured, his figure had become more solid, and his tear-filled eyes were fixed on him with pleading and hope.

It was Yan Yin.

Jiang Ting was stunned, and then Yan Yin reached out and held his hand tightly, waving to their teammates in the distance as a grateful farewell.

But…

Jiang Ting struggled to turn his head back, but in an instant, those once within reach figures had become increasingly distant. Only the familiar laughter echoed in his ears, mingling with the wind, flying towards the horizon:

“This is truly goodbye, Captain Jiang!”

“We will meet again someday!”

We will meet again someday–

Time quickly reversed, the river flowed upstream, and the devastated aftermath of the explosion returned to its former appearance. The numerous wounds disappeared, and the heroic spirits carried the glory to heaven.

In the hospital ward, the person on the hospital bed slowly opened their eyes.

“Jiang Ting!”

“Captain Jiang!”

“Doctor! Get the doctor quickly!!”

Cheers rang out, accompanied by tears of joy. In the corridor, Ma Xiang cried and beat his head, while Yang Mei sobbed and collapsed onto Han Xiaomei’s shoulder, who kept wiping her tears.

Jiang Ting’s scattered gaze gradually focused and fell on a pair of deep and bright eyes across from him. In each other’s pupils, they could only see each other’s reflections.

“… " Jiang Ting moved his lips, but the oxygen mask he was wearing after the surgery prevented him from making a sound. However, Yan Yin smiled with reddened eyes and said, “I understand.”

A smile also appeared in Jiang Ting’s eyes.

Even with countless wounds and the passing of time, I still have you, whom I have searched through mountains and rivers, breaking through the threshold of life and death–

Before we meet again, thank you for bringing me back to this world.