Every year, Yan Yin would return home for his birthday. On that day, his uncles, aunts, cousins, and various relatives who he might not even see twice in a year would gather for a meal. There were around thirty or forty relatives in total, and they had to set up three long dining tables in the garden, which was quite a spectacular sight.

As Yan Yin drove in, a woman named Zeng Cuicui, who looked ten years younger than before, hurriedly approached him, clutching a Kelly handbag made of crocodile skin. Her first words were, “Where’s Xiao Lu?”

Yan Yin got out of the car without much expression and casually replied, “Oh, he’s not feeling well and won’t be coming.”

Yan Yin’s mother was taken aback and cautiously asked, “Did you have a fight?”

“No, where would that come from?” Yan Yin finally smiled and casually handed his mother a bottle of red wine he brought from home. “Your son is so charming that his wife loves him so much. How could she dare to argue with me after tasting the bile and gallbladder of a bear?”

Zeng Cuicui rolled her eyes with restraint. Yan Yin swiftly entered the house, not even stopping, shouting phrases like “Hello, Uncle!” and “Good cousin!” while rushing through the crowd and heading to the storage room on the second floor like a whirlwind. Zeng Cuicui thought he was looking for something, but after a while, she saw him once again zooming down the stairs like a whirlwind, holding a mahogany box in his hand, and walking outside without stopping.

“You prodigal child!” Zeng Cuicui chased after him, shouting, “Did you take your father’s precious collection again?”

Without turning his head, Yan Yin replied, “My father said everything he has will eventually be mine!”

Zeng Cuicui put her hands on her waist, about to scold her son, but then she heard Yan Yin add from a distance, “Except for his most beloved wife!”

Zeng Cuicui’s pretty face turned red, and all her anger and scolding vanished in an instant. After a while, she muttered in annoyance, “Neither the old nor the young are serious.” Then she secretly rejoiced and went back to find her husband.

Yan Yin put the mahogany box containing four tea cakes into the glove compartment, clapped his hands, closed the car door, and thought to himself that it would at least keep Jiang Ting yearning for it for a whole year. But knowing Jiang Ting’s style, he probably wouldn’t open the second cake right away. He would likely drink cheaper tea leaves for a few weeks, then secretly open the Lao Tongxing tea one night when it was quiet, lick his lips with satisfaction, and pretend that nothing had happened.

Yan Yin was still young, and the thought of Jiang Ting made his heart warm. He hadn’t even noticed that his lips had curled up.

“Hello, Third Uncle and Third Aunt!”

“Oh, thank you, Auntie!”

“Mmm, Little Cousin has grown taller. How did you do on your final exams?”

It was the same routine every year, and Yan Yin had become quite adept at handling it.

In the Yan family, the ones in charge were Yan Yin’s parents. He himself had no involvement in the family business and was destined to be a hands-off shopkeeper who would hire professional managers. Various conflicts of interest and business dealings hardly concerned him. His main purpose for appearing at the family banquet each year was to announce that he was still alive, not retired, and temporarily not kicked out by his parents for being an old, unmarried man. That was enough.

Aunt Three leaned over from the other end of the dining table and said with a serious tone, “Yan Yin, you’ve grown another year older. You’re not young anymore, so you should focus on settling down and establishing a career!”

Yan Yin smiled and agreed.

“Look, your second cousin has already found a girlfriend, and your eldest cousin is already showing signs of pregnancy. Why are you still single? Especially in a dangerous job, you should settle down early. A man needs a stable rear base to concentrate on his career. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes, yes…” Yan Yin replied.

In previous years, at this point, Yan Yin would be scolded by the elders. But this year, his father had argued with his father-in-law twice, and suddenly, he put down his bowl with his head held high and boldly interjected, “Who said my son can’t settle down? My son already has a girlfriend!”

This statement created quite a stir, and Aunt Three was almost startled.

“She’s also from the city’s public security bureau. She has a great job and is of the same age. She’s also very handsome! She cooked for us at home yesterday!” Yan Yin’s father boasted confidently amidst the gazes of their relatives. “Don’t believe me? Ask Cuicui, right, Cuicui?”

Yan Yin: “…”

His mother never undermined his father’s face in front of others. Immediately, she took out her phone, opened the photo album, and showed the heavily filtered pictures of oil-fried prawns, braised beef with potatoes, tomato scrambled eggs, pork rib soup, and more that they had taken at Yan Yin’s home yesterday. The relatives at the table passed the phone around, praising and admiring the pictures one after another.

“No worries, no worries. Maybe there’s a little difficulty in terms of childbirth,” Yan Yin’s mother humbly said to her aunts. “But we’ve already agreed to have three children through surrogacy in the United States. It’s best to have a boy and a girl! I agreed that one of their children can carry the Zeng surname…”

Various complex emotions surged from Yan Yin’s heart. He couldn’t tell if it was amusement or nostalgia. In that instant, the chaotic running and screaming of his young cousins, the wailing of his niece in the neighboring table’s cradle, and the distant future brother-in-law and sister-in-law who he couldn’t even recognize all evoked a strange longing and melancholy within him. He couldn’t quite explain where this sense of confusion came from.

Quietly, Yan Yin stood up, exited the hall, and stood by the back porch, lighting a cigarette. He held his phone and stared at it for a long time before finally opening WeChat. Countless unread messages with red notification dots appeared, birthday wishes from his colleagues at the Municipal Bureau: Vice Director Wei, Gou Li, Qin Chuan, Technical Investigator Huang Xing, Ma Xiang, Gao Panqing…

Yan Yin clicked on “Surname Lu” and hesitated for a while. After several attempts at typing and deleting, he finally pressed the send button:

Jiang Ting didn’t immediately reply.

Sounds of toasting, shouts, loud laughter, and bantering voices came from the hall. Despite the various conflicts and unpleasantness behind the scenes, when they gathered together, it was still lively, like one big family.

Yan Yin held his phone and aimlessly walked along the porch. The sky had already darkened, and lights illuminated the porch. The fragrance of sleeping lotus flowers drifted from the garden, and the night insects chirped in the grass. Yan Yin didn’t know when he arrived at the back kitchen door. Through the glass window, he saw a round table with a meticulously prepared three-layered cake. The beautiful decorations looked like artwork, and the fresh cream shimmered with a faint orange hue under the light.

Yan Yin’s heart stirred, and he took a photo with his phone and sent it to Jiang Ting.

Little did he know that at that moment, Jiang Ting’s reply came:

[At home.]

After successfully sending the picture of the three-layered cake in the light, just three seconds later, Yan Yin’s phone vibrated again—

Surname Lu: [Happy birthday.]

[May you have peace and joy on every birthday in the future.]

Yan Yin’s heart felt a wave of warmth. In that instant, all his internal organs were smoothed out, and an indescribable sense of comfort surged from every pore of his body. A tingling sensation traveled from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, igniting countless fireworks of joy in his mind.

He couldn’t wait to see that person. The thought suddenly erupted like a storm. In Yan Yin’s more than thirty years of life, he had never felt such an intense and urgent impulse, shaking every nerve and even his eardrums.

He couldn’t even wait for a moment. Hastily, he tucked his phone into his chest, turned around, and rushed back to the lively hall. His mother was searching for him to offer a toast. As he approached, Yan Yin strode in with a handsome smile on his face, illuminated by the dazzling lights in the room. It seemed to stun his mother for a moment. Without delay, he grabbed his mother’s hand and, amidst the noisy background, shouted, “Mom, you all enjoy the meal. I’m going back!”

His mother asked in astonishment, “The cake hasn’t been cut yet. Where are you going? Cut the cake for me!”

Yan Yin came up with a random excuse, “Something urgent came up at the Municipal Bureau…”

“If there’s something urgent, you better cut the damn cake for your mother. Do you think that thing is cheap?!” His mother called for his cousins’ help to bring the cake from the kitchen, while grabbing Yan Yin’s hand and pressing his head, cut the cake piece by piece amid the birthday song. As the children scattered with their cake slices, Yan Yin immediately put down the knife and handed his mother the cake decorated with cherries, saying, “I’m leaving!”

His mother sneered. Yan Yin rushed forward and hugged his father, then dashed out of the door without looking back. His father was bewildered by his son’s sudden enthusiasm, and before he could ask anything, Yan Yin had already rushed out of the gate.

“You rascal!” His mother chased after him, crying and laughing. “Where are you going so late? Drive safely!”

“I know!” Yan Yin started the car, performed a neat U-turn, and stuck his head out of the window, smiling. “Mom, I love you! See you later!”

The luxury car roared and drove away, leaving his mother standing on the steps in bewilderment. The front yard was filled with a trail of smoke, slowly dissipating under the streetlights.

It was 10 p.m., and the traffic in the city center had eased slightly. The commercial district was ablaze with lights, and the half-open car window carried the unique fragrance of the city’s night.

The luxury car came to a slow stop at a red light. Yan Yin casually glanced at the rearview mirror, reached for his phone from the side of the car door, and sent a voice message to “Surname Lu”: “Guess where I am?”

The screen showed “typing” and stopped after a while. Jiang Ting’s reply was also a voice message:

“On your way home?”

Yan Yin’s smile deepened. Before he could say anything, he caught a glimpse, out of the corner of his eye, of a brightly lit cake shop at the opposite corner of the intersection. He swiftly changed the words that were about to come out of his mouth: “Hmm, I also brought a birthday cake for you.”

He could almost imagine the slightly amused expression on Jiang Ting’s face. Shortly after, he heard that person’s response with a hint of laughter, “Okay, take your time. No rush.”

The red light turned green, and the car in front started moving. Yan Yin put away his phone, quickly glanced left and right, and took advantage of a few seconds of empty space in the right-turn lane to change lanes swiftly. The luxury car made a beautiful maneuver, roared onto the cross street, and then made a U-turn back to the intersection, smoothly stopping in front of the cake shop.

A few minutes later, he walked out of the shop carrying a piece of cake carefully wrapped in a white paper bag. He placed the paper tray on the passenger seat and was about to start the car when he suddenly caught a glimpse of something through the side window, causing him to pause.

At the red light intersection where he had just changed lanes, an ordinary silver Hyundai was parked by the roadside, neither moving forward nor flashing its hazard lights, as if waiting for someone.

Yan Yin suddenly felt a strange sensation in his heart. Did he see this car in the rearview mirror just now?

This thought was somewhat ridiculous. Cars like this were extremely common on the streets of Jianning City, and they all looked almost identical. Without carefully examining the license plate, it was impossible to tell one from another. But Yan Yin had been a criminal detective for so many years, and he had a sense of sensitivity towards certain things that he couldn’t quite explain. It was as if a shadow had swiftly passed through the depths of his heart.

Honk honk—

A horn sounded from behind, and Yan Yin furrowed his brow, stepping on the accelerator and making a right turn.

His momentary hesitation was only a matter of seconds, and no one could tell that anything was amiss. Yan Yin also deliberately didn’t show any abnormal behavior. Once back on the road, he kept a constant eye on the rearview mirror and side mirrors. Before long, he saw the shadow of a silver car on the left lane, several tens of meters away.

Yan Yin’s eyebrows twitched.

It was that Hyundai.

What a coincidence?

Yan Yin, as a person who had lived for over thirty years, believed in coincidences the least. He slightly pressed the accelerator, and the modified engine of the S450 emitted a dull roar as he suddenly accelerated and changed lanes, speeding past the traffic lights. At the next intersection, where he should have continued straight, he instead signaled right and glanced at the side mirror.

Not far away, the silver car indeed flashed its right turn signal, clearly intending to follow!

—Someone was deliberately tailing him!

Who dared to track the Vice Captain of the Criminal Police?

“Idiot…” Yan Yin muttered under his breath, deliberately slowing down, holding the steering wheel with one hand, and casually retrieving his phone to make a call. “Hello, Ma Xiang? Is anyone still at the bureau?”

“Happy birthday, Brother Yan!” Ma Xiang’s enthusiastic voice came from the other end. “I’m here at the bureau, about to join Gou Ge, Qin Ge, and the others for some gaming. Ah, we’ve missed you so much these past few days…”

“I’m being followed.” Yan Yin interrupted him, his face becoming as calm as water. “I’m currently on the eastern section of Gongren Avenue, near the Jindao Road exit. The tail is a silver Hyundai Elantra sedan, but I can’t see the license plate clearly for now. I’ll send you my location immediately. I need you to inform the traffic police to intercept and trace the target vehicle. Hurry!”

On the other end of the phone, Ma Xiang’s initially excited expression gradually turned serious. By the time Yan Yin finished speaking, he had already hurriedly left the office, leaving behind a brief but resolute statement: “Understood!”

Gongren Avenue quickly reached its end, and the further away from the city center’s commercial district, the sparser the vehicles on the road. The streetlights and trees outside the S450’s windows swiftly and smoothly receded. Yan Yin raised his eyes and stared closely at the rearview mirror, only to see the headlights of the silver car flashing again. It had caught up once more.

Who was it?

What did they want?

Yan Yin was the least inclined to believe in coincidences. He had been mentally prepared, deep in his subconscious, long before this situation unfolded. He led the Hyundai on a continuous rush through three green lights until Ma Xiang’s voice came through the phone again: “Hello?”

“Brother Yan, I’ve just contacted the traffic police, and they’re mobilizing nearby officers and special patrol police to intercept. Don’t leave the jurisdiction of the sub-bureau now, and don’t increase or decrease your speed. We’ll be there soon!”

Yan Yin exhaled a single word: “Okay.” Then he hung up the phone, switched to WeChat, opened the top chat window, and whispered near his mouth, “I suddenly remembered that I left some documents in the office. I’ll have to stop by the municipal bureau on the way home. I might be late.”

At the same time, on the sofa in an apartment, the fluorescent glow of the phone screen reflected Jiang Ting’s slightly furrowed brow. “What exactly are you…”

But immediately, he swallowed back his words, sending another voice message instead, just four concise and decisive words:

“Drive safely.”

—Drive safely.

Although there was no fluctuation in tone, these four short words caused a tremor in Yan Yin’s heart.

Just now, when he discovered he was being followed, even in more dangerous and thrilling situations in the past, Yan Yin had never experienced this weightless palpitation, as if Jiang Ting had already sensed something. He didn’t explain any further, closed WeChat, returned to the contacts, and dialed Ma Xiang’s number again. At the same time, he looked up at the rearview mirror. Several seconds later, his pupils suddenly contracted.

The pursuer had disappeared.

He happened to be in the middle of a straight road with two lanes, with a clear and bright view both ahead and behind. The rearview mirror could see at least two hundred meters behind him without obstruction, but there was no trace of the silver Hyundai car, except for a few taxis and small trucks.

“Yan Ge!” At this moment, the call was connected, and Ma Xiang asked eagerly, “Are you still on Jindao Road? I’ve already set off from the municipal bureau!”

“… He’s gone.”

Ma Xiang didn’t react. “What?”

The S450 slowed down and smoothly passed through the long street, coming to a gentle stop under the illuminated red light. Not far away, trucks and taxis on the other lane gradually stopped, leaving an empty and open space behind. The elusive pursuer had quietly vanished without a trace.

Yan Yin’s voice contained a hint of coldness as he said in a low voice, “He suddenly gave up.”

In the distance, red and blue police lights lit up, and nearby police motorcycles quickly approached Gongren Avenue. Meanwhile, the background on Ma Xiang’s end was noisy, with the sound of turn signals. He must be rushing to the scene.

Corresponding to this commotion was the heavy silence between the two of them, lasting for a long time.

—The pursuer’s methods were crude, their technology unskilled, and they couldn’t even conceal their tracks well. Yet, the person managed to decisively give up at the same time the police mobilized. The sharpness of their senses and the accuracy of their timing were chilling upon deeper reflection.

“… Don’t worry, Yan Ge,” after an unknown amount of time, Ma Xiang’s voice finally came through the Bluetooth, deliberately lowered and containing a hint of concern. “I will notify the Traffic Police Brigade to retrieve the surveillance footage on Gongren Avenue. No matter who the other party is, we will be able to identify their license plate.”

Yan Yin took a deep breath. The dazzling neon lights of the city night sky pierced through the car window, illuminating one side of his strong cheek while casting a shadow on the corner of his lips. The other side was enveloped in the deep darkness inside the car.

“Don’t let too many people know about this, especially Director Lu and Deputy Director Wei.” Yan Yin paused and added, “Be careful.”

Then he hung up the phone.

· Forty minutes later, in the apartment complex.

The S450 entered through the main gate of the community. Even before reaching the garage, Yan Yin could see a familiar figure standing under a street lamp from a distance. He immediately parked the car and rolled down the window. “Why are you waiting here?”

Jiang Ting’s right hand was in his pocket, while his left hand held the phone. It was unclear how long he had been standing there. His expression remained calm without much change, but for some reason, when Yan Yin saw him, he felt that Jiang Ting had slightly, almost imperceptibly, breathed a sigh of relief.

“Let’s take a walk.” Jiang Ting habitually shrugged his shoulder, and his joints made a cracking sound as they relaxed after being tensed for a long time, although he seemed unaware of it. “Are you okay? Why were you delayed until this late?”

Indeed, for several seconds, Yan Yin looked at him and an impulse surged within him, urging him to reveal everything.

But just as the five words “I was being followed” were about to be spoken, another scene suddenly appeared in his mind, as clear as if it were happening at that moment. It was actually yesterday in the bathroom, with Jiang Ting gripping his arm tightly, his lips seemingly trembling. After a long pause, he spoke softly, “You will regret it…”

—Will I?

Or have you already decided that I will?

That brief impulse was abruptly suppressed by a stronger force, dissipating in an instant. Yan Yin looked at Jiang Ting from inside the car and slowly smiled. Then, with that smile, he reached out his hand through the window and firmly held his slightly cold fingertips.

“I’m fine,” he said gently. “I couldn’t find some documents in the office, so I was delayed for a while.”

A slight crease appeared between Jiang Ting’s eyebrows.

“Get in the car. I brought you a cake.” Yan Yin leaned out and opened the passenger door, gesturing for him to get in. “Come on, let’s go home together.”